News & Reviews News Wire Short consists constrain Capitol Limited while empty Superliners run on Midwest route: Analysis

Short consists constrain Capitol Limited while empty Superliners run on Midwest route: Analysis

By Bob Johnston | January 19, 2023

| Last updated on February 6, 2024

“Loss of shunt” safety concerns on CN track, unsolved since 2004, keeps scarce bilevel cars on Chicago-Carbondale route

Email Newsletter

Get the newest photos, videos, stories, and more from brands. Sign-up for email today!

Passenger train with two locomotives and four cars passes through Amtrak yard
An abbreviated Capitol Limited consist of a baggage car and three Superliners arrives in Chicago on Jan. 15, 2023. Bob Johnston

CHICAGO — It’s no surprise travelers attempting to book Amtrak’s Capitol Limited in January either face sold-out trips or are confronted with record high fares for a coach seat or sleeping accommodation. Inventory is scarce, pushing prices up for what little capacity remains.

Trailing two P42 locomotives on the Capitol into Chicago on Jan. 15 were a Viewliner II baggage car, sleeper, diner-lounge, and one coach. Since early January, a second coach has been dropped; for most of 2022, the Chicago-Washington, D.C., train ran with two sleeping cars. The Capitol previously had lost a third coach, transition sleeper and glass-topped Sightseer Lounge during frequency and capacity cutbacks coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite increasing demand for longer-distance travel beginning in mid-2020, Amtrak management failed to reverse fiscal-year operating plans to forego the expense of Federal Railroad Administration-mandated air brake inspections and rehabilitation. Instead of preparing for a post-COVID surge, sidelined equipment accumulated as each car’s four-year brake expiration date approached.

Some overhaul maintenance capacity has been diverted to restorative brake work on Amfleet and Horizon single-level coaches used in corridor service, but Superliners had yet to get that special treatment when Trains News Wire spoke with Amtrak’s Vice President, Chief Mechanical Officer, George Hull, at the company’s public Board of Directors meeting in December.

“We’re trying to feed the line [at the Beech Grove Heavy Maintenance Facility] with Superliners that were put in storage while keeping up with cars coming up on their air brake dates,” Hull says. The mandated four-year brake work, known as a “Clean Oil Test and Stencil” procedure, has to be handled where a car can either be jacked up or its trucks can be removed utilizing a drop table. The process takes about four days per car. “It will probably take us another two years to get caught up,” he adds.

Exacerbated Superliner shortage

Passenger train with two locomotives and five cars approaches on straight track
The Winter Park Ski Train, which has run with eight cars in the past, operates with four coaches and a lounge car on Jan. 13, 2023. Steve Patterson

Though the reduced consists of the Capitol Limited and other long-distance trains are set to expand somewhat in the coming months, current Superliner availability has been adversely impacted because a set of cars has been diverted to the seasonal Winter Park Express, operating well-patronized round trips for Colorado skiers every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday out of Denver through March. But even that train has been shortened from eight coaches in previous years to four cars in 2023.

However, a long-festering problem directly impacting Amtrak’s systemwide Superliner shortage is a Canadian National requirement that all passenger trains operate with at least seven Superliners between Chicago and Carbondale, Ill. Currently, that means two Saluki-Illini round trips and the City of New Orleans.

Passenger trains failing to reliably trigger, or shunt, track circuits that activate signals or highway crossing warning devices have plagued a number of routes, but problems on this one have remained unsolved since June 21, 2004. That’s when some incidents prompted CN to impose passenger train speed restrictions, or a minimum number of axles if maximum track speeds are not reduced.

Several railroads now require “axle count” cars, including the Union Pacific between St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo., and BNSF Railway in California’s San Joaquin Valley. These are often unoccupied baggage cars added to revenue-producing cars to generally total a train of 30 or 32 axles, including the locomotive, to insure electric impulses triggering signals are conveyed — or shunted — from one rail to the other. But only CN has gone the extra step of requiring that Superliners be utilized unless trains are operated at reduced speed.

That means service which otherwise could run with Amfleet, Horizon, or Venture equipment, such as the two Chicago-Carbondale round-trips, must have Superliners.

The Federal Railroad Administration, Amtrak, CN, and Illinois Department of Transportation have jointly been attempting to rectify the problem through equipment and signal testing, according to regular emails and conversations Trains News Wire has had with each entity during the last decade. The full story of possible solutions awaits CN’s answer to the “why Superliners?” question, which the state, FRA, and Amtrak have also declined to explain.

Bilevel passenger cars on curve
Two Superliner sleeping cars bring up the rear of the Chicago-Carbondale Saluki on Jan. 14, 2023. Bob Johnston

Scott Speegle, Illinois’ Passenger Rail and Transit Communications Manager, said in early October 2022 that the latest round of testing had not been scheduled because “we are waiting on materials needed for the tests.”

Meanwhile, the seven-Superliner southbound Saluki leaving Chicago for Carbondale on Jan. 14 had two coaches, two coach-baggage cars, a coach-snack (with a lower-level cafe), sleeping car 32070, and transition sleeper 39012 bringing up the rear for the daytime round trip.

Given the equipment shortage made worse by the delayed deployment of state-owned Venture coaches, it isn’t clear whether Amtrak has an alternative to Superliners on the route it gets paid by Illinois to run. In the meantime, travelers attempting to ride long-distance trains are paying the price.

17 thoughts on “Short consists constrain Capitol Limited while empty Superliners run on Midwest route: Analysis

  1. Amtrak has steadily gone down hill since the first airline guy took the helm.
    I think this airline guy will finish it off….

  2. Why does it take four days to do the COT&S on Amtrak’s cars? I used to do that on freight cars in a few hours. Passenger cars are more complicated, but not that much more.

  3. Lack of COT&S procedures? That should be able to be fixed in 30 days. Every RR outfit has to do it. Surely there are enough passenger car facilities to do one in short order. Anyone know what the requirement is for moving expired inspection cars to be examined?

  4. Once again, a prime example of Amtrak shooting itself in the foot. The business is there, people are willing and ready to travel by train once again but poor or lack of service, repeated delays, equipment shortages and bungling by inept management is only going to drive prospective customers away. The equipment shortage stems from a lack of trained and skilled workers of which many were either furloughed or laid off and never brought back to fix the backlog of passenger cars and locomotives sitting on storage tracks or in shops needing and awaiting repairs. Get that equipment repaired and out on the tracks Short trains or lack of equipment is not going to male money or bring customers back to the trains. Finally get real railroaders to run Amtrak and not political hacks or bunglers who don;t know what a train is but only know what a dollar sign looks like.
    Joseph C. Markfelder

  5. AutoTrain is strictly a leisure/vacation train serving a very narrow region & clientele western LD trains serve regions with little other transportation options, yes some people use them to reach a vacation spots but many also use them to reach locales that otherwise have no direct route. AutoTrain is one route that should be returned to private enterprise perhaps Brightline as Amtrak should not be part of this type of leisure/vacation market. That route has three trains each way every day AT doesn’t even serve the on line communities while other routes namely the Cardinal & Sunset are only tri-weekly.

  6. Amtrak mgmt again trying undermine growth potential on LD trains for fear it will show how weak the feeble NEC recovery has been. Why not reassign a dozen or so cars from the AutoTrain to the LD routes which serve regions that are more dependent on their service for basic transportation than a non stop route that serves a limited clientele & that already has three choices on a mostly parallel route? In fact why not eliminate one of the FL trains during this equipment “crisis” & reassign the equipment to routes that would free up more Superliner equipment for use where it is more functional?

    1. Why reassign cars from a train that is regularly sold out, aka Auto Train, that’s even dumber than the stuff they’re pulling now.

  7. Since freight cars apparently work fine on freight trains on CN, perhaps a few empties could simply be stuck onto the rear of the Amtrak trains to get the axel count up?

    1. Had the same thought about freight cars, but then quickly saw the likely problem. Adding freight cars would most likely force the train to keep to freight car speeds and I am not sure of the issues related to in train dynamics if there were a derailment. But if only the first issue, then it does seem like Amtrak leadership is leaving money on the table when there is an easy solution.

      Running a sleeper when they are in short supply however seems unconciounable (sic)

  8. Ah, but let’s not forget AMTRAK not keeping up with service requirements, such that it had to cut consists and now claims it will take 2 years just to catch up. Hold responsible the responsible (or rather irresponsible) leadership.

  9. Management at CN, Amtrak, the state and FRA should be fired. Noone apparently is responsible for doing their job since 2004!

  10. Why can’t the axle count on CN routes be increased by hauling a bunch of old baggage or express cars, rather than expensive Superliners needed elsewhere. The train would look terrible. But then again, many Amtrak trains are a mixture of different profiles. Until the Venture cars come on line, the Hiawatha is a mix of Amfleet II and Horizon. Not at all pretty.

    Karl Zimmerman’s book about the California Zephyr, supposedly America’s most beautiful train, revealed that when away from the camera it sometimes hauled boxcars of mail and express. Let’s face it, ugly trains happen.

    1. What’s with the axle count anyway Charles? Poor or outdated signal system?
      Very frequently we have two or three coaches and a single engine on our side of the border, 12 to 16 axles.

  11. Spanning three centuries of railway grade crossing, now minimum axle count becomes a technical issue on passenger trains. This is purely American contrivance.

You must login to submit a comment