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‘Capitol Limited’ slimmed as Amtrak timekeeping improves NEWSWIRE

By Bob Johnston | October 22, 2014

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Running four hours late, the westbound ‘Capitol Limited’ passes Whiting, Ind., on Oct 2, 2014.
Bob Johnston
CHICAGO – The hours-long delays have begun to disappear not only from Norfolk Southern’s Chicago-Toledo segment of the Capitol Limited, but also on the Empire Builder route. The improvements follow an Oct. 6 letter from Surface Transportation Board Chairman Daniel Elliott III to NS Chairman Wick Moorman asking for a detailed explanation about what the railroad is doing to improve Amtrak on-time performance. In the meantime, Amtrak has implemented short-term strategies to reduce its own delay costs and minimize departure delays.

Because Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited equipment and Toledo-based operating crews normally make a same-day turn at Chicago, chronic westbound tardiness of the two trains arriving on Oct 4 caused the eastbound Capitol to depart at 2:54 a.m., more than 8 hours past its scheduled 6:40 p.m. Chicago departure. Missing all connections was unacceptable, so busing to and from Toledo began the next day and lasted for a week while NS dealt with its congestion.

When both trains resumed service into Chicago on Oct. 11, the westbound Capitol was running more than nine hours late at Toledo, prompting Chicago managers to scrounge for equipment to make up an eastbound Capitol that day which would be staffed with Chicago operating and on-board crews. It departed only nine minutes late, an hour before the westbound Capitol arrived.

Management has also decided that effective immediately, westbound Lake Shore Toledo-based crews will lay over in Chicago and handle the next day’s eastbound Capitol to avoid having that train’s departure delayed waiting for mandatory crew rest. Westbound Capitol crews will then have sufficient rest time to make a same-day turn back to Toledo on the eastbound Lake Shore. Once those moves were made, both eastbound trains have departed Chicago either on-time or less than 10 minutes late every day. This last happened in mid-April.

A contributing factor has been the Empire Builder’s improved eastbound performance after it flipped North Dakota routes with the westbound train on October 5 (News Wire, Oct 3), since the Lake Shore was often held as the Builder’s only guaranteed eastbound connection at Chicago. The train from Seattle actually arrived on-time from Seattle at 3:55 p.m. on Oct. 13 and 20 minutes early the next day.

Alas, Mondays through Thursdays from Oct. 20 through Nov. 13, Canadian Pacific track work dictates that eastbound train No. 8 can’t leave St. Paul, Minn., until 10:30 a.m. On Tuesday, passengers had to wait almost three-and-a-half hours after a 7:06 a.m., 40-minute-early arrival. Westbound train No. 7 is unaffected, because its passage does not conflict with maintenance curfews.

Passengers jam the ‘Capitol Limited’ Sightseer lounge on Aug. 15, 2012.
Bob Johnston
Meanwhile, although fluidity on the Norfolk Southern east of Chicago has recently improved under increased STB scrutiny, Amtrak is creating a fourth set of Capitol Limited equipment by dropping one coach and the transition sleeping car (the second sleeper will be available for crew but not be staffed with an attendant), replacing the Sightseer Lounge and full diner with a 37000-series Superliner café-lounge, and utilizing the lower level of a baggage-coach for checked baggage. The resulting five car consist can be hauled by one locomotive instead of two, thus saving on fuel and the labor cost of several on-board service employees. The changes became effective eastbound last Monday and westbound Wednesday. Reduced Capitol consists are to continue through Nov. 18 eastbound and Nov. 20 westbound.

Shrinking capacity during periods of lighter demand is nothing new and the Capitol Limited traded its lounge and diner for a café-lounge shortly after the cars were converted from full diners in 2006. But the bid to reduce labor costs also significantly diminished the on-board food service and lounge experience and was soon abandoned on the Capitol and City of New Orleans, which got their Sightseer Lounge cars back.

As of late Tuesday through Oct. 30, seven of the 18 Capitol Limited departures have no bedrooms available and eight trips still have Chicago-Washington coach seats available at the lowest $94 price. But one departure in each direction is already sold out of either coach or sleeping car space, and last minute travelers could be out of luck. Though Amtrak can easily quantify the cost savings, the impact of ridership and future revenue losses will be harder to measure when coupled with the fallout of ongoing delays.

7 thoughts on “‘Capitol Limited’ slimmed as Amtrak timekeeping improves NEWSWIRE

  1. Was this move done because of the NS delays or as a cost reduction move by Amtrak? Or has demand dropped so much because of the delays over the past 3 months? Why do they need 4 trainsets if reliability has improved on the NS? Also, is Amtrak selling space in the 2nd sleeper or just using it for crew? Hopefully if reliability continues to improve, maybe the holiday travel period will boost demand and the Capitol will revert back to its original consist. It will be interesting to see what happens after November 20th, and also in the normally slow travel periods of January and February.

  2. If this continues during the holidays, Amtrak will lose considerable revenue. Yes, the costs are lower, but they still have the cost of running a train and less revenue to pay for it. Amtrak desperately needs more cars (new or rebuilt) in service to improve reliability without shortening the trains. In addition to the Lake Shore Limited and Capital Limited, the Empire Builder and Southwest Chief could benefit from having the equipment lay over a night on the west coast.

  3. I was watching the Chesterton, IN webcam tonight. Unlike #29 this morning (1 engine and 5 cars), tonight's #30 had 1 P42 and 7 cars and two or three nights ago, there was 1 engine and 6 cars. Apparently then, there is some flexibility under the new policy to accommodate varying ridership. Come to think about it, there would have to be because of existing reservations, some of which were made weeks or months ago. There was still no baggage car or SSL. Considering that the regular 8 – 9 car train rates 2 P42s, you have to wonder if one will be able to keep the schedule (schedule?, what schedule?), especially on the mountain grades. I know that the TE regularly runs with 1 P42 and maybe 7 cars (I've seen that many), but don't know how the grades on its route compare to #29/30's.

  4. I rode #29 today from WAS to WTI (Waterloo). The train was close to 4 hours late at WTI and got later subsequently. As of about 12:40 PM it was 4 1/2 hours late, just out of Elkhart, so there has been some backsliding today. The train was not what I would call "jammed", but it was well-populated. Interestingly, the dining section of the diner-lounge was not all that well patronized at dinner last night or at breakfast this morning. They were mostly sleeping car passengers, coming for the included meal, I presume (my seat mates were all from the sleepers). Fortunately, the steak dinner is still offered (and good). Maybe most coach passengers brought their own food or bought carry-out from the counter in the lounge. The absence of the SSL was not really a big deal, since it got dark fairly soon after departure and it certainly was dark in the most scenic parts after Cumberland, but clearly the "lounge" section of the diner-lounge is no substitute for the SSL (very limited seating). Still, not a bad trip and, yes, late, but more time on the train, which is good.

  5. Buy more real estate, build more track, if traffic is THAT much, well hello OR STB start fining!!! Talk is cheap!! Slap on the hand? Fine!!! People only act when it cost $ not to.

  6. When you are forced to operate on a "bare bones" budget (politics again) you do what you CAN do with whatever you can scrape together to do it with, given the conditions you are forced to operate under (freight road congestion).

    Once again the wisdom of tearing out "redundant" capacity in years past has come back to bite the host railroads in their corporate butts.

  7. Remember the good old days when passengers could have just taken the Broadway Limited or Three Rivers east of Chicago and delays on one section of track would not have been catastrophic?

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