News & Reviews News Wire CN, Amtrak disagree on payments, heat orders for Adirondack route: News and analysis (updated)

CN, Amtrak disagree on payments, heat orders for Adirondack route: News and analysis (updated)

By Bob Johnston | June 29, 2023

| Last updated on February 2, 2024

Whlle CN says Amtrak has not paid for track maintenance, passenger operator says it is up to date, and suspension of service reflects 'inconsistent application' of heat-related speed restriction

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Passenger train viewed from pedestrian overpass
The northbound Adirondack, with two privately owned ex-NP dome cars on the rear, approaches its final stop in Montreal on May 27, 2023. Canadian National says Amtrak has not paid for maintenance necessary for passenger operation between the U.S. border and Montreal. Michael Berry

MONTREAL — Canadian National says the 10-mph restriction it imposed on Adirondack operation between the Canadian border and Montreal during temperature extremes is a direct result of Amtrak’s unwillingness to pay for the level of track maintenance CN says is necessary to maintain passenger train speeds.

That is according to a statement issued in response to a Trains News Wire inquiry regarding responsibility for Amtrak’s decision to cancel its daily New York-Montreal train north of Albany-Rensselaer, N.Y., beginning June 24 [see “Amtrak abruptly suspends ‘Adirondack’ …,” News Wire, June 26, 2023]:

“The safety related speed restrictions are due to weather conditions in Southern Quebec and apply to passenger and freight service. Based on track standards, railroads apply speed restrictions during extreme heat and cold weather episodes as the rail is subject to expansion and contraction due to ambient temperature.

“Amtrak is responsible and has failed to pay for the maintenance required to keep the track at a level that accommodates its service. If Amtrak agrees to make that investment, CN could upgrade the track to a level that would reduce heat restrictions.

“CN cannot comment as to why Amtrak is refusing to invest into this segment of track to reduce the impact of extreme weather conditions or why Amtrak is not placing adequate crew levels on this route to ensure that passengers can get to their destination.”

Track maintained to higher tolerances permitting less deviation isn’t subject to gauge variation during the expansion and contraction. The reference to the lack of “adequate crew levels” apparently notes that as staffed, engineers and conductors can’t complete runs without exceeding maximum on-duty hours-of-service limits.

Amtrak claims CN inconsistently applies heat orders

Asked late Wednesday to respond to CN’s contentions, Amtrak said in a Friday morning statement that it is current on payments with CN, but Adirondack service to Montreal was terminated because uncertainty surrounding the host railroad heat order policy could lead to stranded passengers:

“As part of our agreed-upon contract, Amtrak has been fulfilling all of its financial commitments and obligations, including payments totaling $3.2 million to Canadian National since the border reopened, to help prepare for resumed Adirondack service. We have recently seen an inconsistent application of CN’s historical heat order policy, and are concerned that if we continue to operate trains, there’s potential our customers could be stranded in place or add two and a half to three and a half hours of delays during their trip. We are continuing our conversations with CN and exploring all possible solutions with New York State and look forward to resuming Adirondack service north of Albany.”

Freight needs dictate track conditions

Passengers on a chartered bus from Montreal, substituting for the southbound Adirondack, whose locomotive had become disabled, view the northbound train at Plattsburgh, N.Y. on July 27, 2011. Amtrak has not provided alternate transportation during the Adirondack’s recent or current suspension north of Albany-Rensselaer. Bob Johnston

Although Amtrak says money is not an issue, the Adirondack situation reflects Amtrak’s historic reluctance to pay for a level of track utility greater than what the host railroad’s freight traffic requires.

The Broadway and Capitol Limited reroute away from Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1990, and the Sunset Limited’s exit from Phoenix in 1996, are a direct result of decisions by Conrail and Union Pacific, respectively, to downgrade routes Amtrak had utilized through those cities. Amtrak could have maintained service if it had been willing to fund incremental track investment expenses. The company’s proposal to replace the Southwest Chief with buses over a mid-route segment in 2018 was likewise driven by potential cost savings if a passenger-only segment was abandoned.

In this case, the major Canadian-U.S. freight conduit through Rouses Point and Plattsburgh, N.Y., belongs to Canadian Pacific, whose tracks continue north of the border. Delaware and Hudson’s pre-Amtrak Laurentian and overnight Montreal Limited utilized CP subsidiary Napierville Junction Railway to serve CP’s Windsor Station in Montreal. The Adirondack switched to Canadian National because it could use most of the same route hosting Amtrak’s now-discontinued Montrealer, operating in the U.S. over the CN-controlled Central Vermont, to serve CN’s Central Station in Montreal.

New England Central, CV’s successor, remains CN’s principal U.S. freight partner in the region, and north-south freight traffic using that route can run at slower speeds and at night when heat restrictions aren’t an issue.

Pre-clearance inaction

Track upgrades north of St. Albans, Vt., and past the connection with the Adirondack route at Cantic, Quebec, would be necessary if the state-sponsored Vermonter is extended to Montreal, but that initiative won’t proceed until a customs pre-clearance facility is built at Montreal’s Central Station. This would obviate the need for two-hour border stops that currently plague the Adirondack, but not intercity bus passengers. U.S. Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) questioned Amtrak board chairman Anthony Coscia about efforts to develop the pre-clearance facility during a hearing earlier this month [see “Senators remain concerned about geographic balance …,” News Wire, June 21, 2023].

During the train’s COVID-19-triggered three-year hiatus, Trains News Wire repeatedly asked Amtrak and the New York Department of Transportation, the train’s financial sponsor, who was taking the lead on pre-clearance negotiations with Central Station’s current owner, Colmenar REIT. Both declined to respond. Questions why it was taking so long to reinstate the Adirondack were also not answered.  

It is now clear that neither New York’s DOT nor Amtrak chose to address the track maintenance issue or contingency plans to transport passengers before CN imposed the current restrictions.

Renewed political concern

During the Adirondack’s long absence, U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (both D-N.Y.), as well as U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), frequently raised questions about the situation. Similar concern is now being raised by New York Assembly member Angelo Santabarbara (D-Schenectady). Santabarbara has written Amtrak CEO Stephen Gardner urging that service be offered “to Saratoga Springs and potentially Plattsburgh until the dispute with Canadian National is resolved.”

As of Thursday afternoon, Amtrak’s website showed the train is cancelled in both directions through July 10. The temperature in Montreal reached 30 degrees Celcius (86 Fahrenheit) — the point triggering 10-mph operation — on June 26, and is predicted to do so again July 8. But otherwise, temperatures are projected to remain below that threshold.

— Updated June 30 at 11:05 a.m. CDT with Amtrak statement

17 thoughts on “CN, Amtrak disagree on payments, heat orders for Adirondack route: News and analysis (updated)

  1. This year, CN has budgeted less than 70 million dollars in track maintenance for its eastern network, which spans from Winnipeg to Halifax. That’s a 2200 miles distance, plus branch lines, secondary main lines, multiple main tracks yard tracks, industrial spurs.

    Seventy million dollars for this whole distance.

    And Amtrak is supposed to pay for CN’s own negligence at maintaining their own network? Give me a break.

    CN is a total disgrace: it is absolutely failing to maintain its railroad safe and adequate for its own operation. And eventually, a train carrying hazmat will pile somewhere and create havoc. Could be over the East Alburg bridge at the mouth of Lake Champlain. Or in the town center of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu. Even better, over the St.Lawrence river near downtown Montreal.

    Fix your track CN, you can afford it, and stop blackmailing governments for public money you don’t need and don’t desserve.

  2. The rot of Amtrak creeps yet closer to the golden cow. Can you imagine the outcry if the NEC was forced into 10mph due to track conditions?

    Reauthorize Amtrak as agency that certifies and supervises passenger rail safety and operations. Put the routes up for bid to the private sector just like airlines do for gate slots.

    1. Amtrak is not the vilain here. CN is, it is failing to maintain its own track for safe operations

  3. We can all take sides and complain, but there will be a signed contract and the terms are……?

  4. The weak and vestigial obligatons for the railroads to maintain track condition for Amtrak only apply to lines in USA. USA Federal law doesn’t work so well in a foreign land.

  5. So I just got an advertisement in the mail from Amtrak regarding discounted fares to Saratoga Springs. With the truncation of service in Albany, what will happen with the people enjoying the racing season at Saratoga and the surrounding tourist trade?

  6. It’ 67 miles from St. Albans VT to Montreal PQ. A short bus ride, and they can use the existing border crossing.

    I believe the problem in Illinois is the specfic signal system they installed on the ex-IC. How they were allowed to install a signal system that can’t recognize a single car escapes me.

    1. For now, I think that Amtrak should lease extra cars from TTX and others to fill out train length to seven cars when additional coaches are not required for passenger numbers in Illinois, reducing unnecessary wear on the coaches.

    2. Thanks Philip for the possible explanation, I’ve asked a couple of times and never got an answer, I thought it was a technical reason.
      I still can’t understand why all the armchair engineers get so wound up at CN over this, if Amtrak had a real issue with it I’m sure it’s would’ve been to court or the STB long ago.
      You’re right though how on earth did this happen in the first place, I’d hate to be in a MOW pick up truck riding the rail.

    3. There are no facilities to turn and service the train in either Rouses Point or Plattsburg.

  7. I believe the word not needs to be added to the caption for the lead photo, second sentence. ‘Canadian National says Amtrak has —- paid for maintenance necessary.’

  8. While all this is going on, and while hoping that Amtrak and CN to engage in positive dialogue for an immediate and lasting solution, jetliners and buses travel seamlessly between New York and Montreal.

    Dr. Güntürk Üstün

  9. I was under the impression that the Eathan Allen and/or the Vermonter were close to going to be able to go to Montreal. Looks like that’s a dead horse now.

  10. Terminate the train at Rouses Point or Plattsburgh. The US-Canada border security nonsense is worse than TSA. CN is demanding a ransom, not unlike the ridiculous rule of 7 cars on the IC in Illinois.

    1. I agree. CN isn’t even cooperating with Amtrak. They just threw Amtrak under the bus (or in this term, under the train) and said,”no! It’s Amtrak’s fault! It isn’t our fault!” The stupid 7 superliners rule is already making me hate CN (I honestly want to see Amtrak and IDOT take over that section of the line), but this is making me hate CN even more than before.

    2. Except NRPC’s idea of cooperation is “do it our way.” But it’s a Catch 22; if Amtrak does a Brightline and pays to modify a ROW in such a way that accommodates pax AND freight then every railroad will expect the same. This would take money away from the Nothing Else Counts which of course is impossible. So, it’s cheaper to complain.

    3. Mr. Spindler: Amtrak cannot terminate/originate the Adirondack at any station short of Montreal account none have layover facilities or a wye to turn the equipment. If NYState DOT gave a rat’s behind about service to the communities between Schenectady and Rouses Point they would be knocking on the NYState legislators to fund such facilities, give up on Montreal, and put second train on the route.

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