Thursday, 1 December 2016

Is competition good for the South West Mainline?

Last month Alliance Rail Holdings announced their intention to begin a new 'Open Access' service between London Waterloo and Southampton to compete with the franchised operator on the South West Main Line. The SWML is one of the busiest and most congested routes on the UK and a franchise which currently pays a significant premium to the UK Government.
Alliance says that they are working with the industry to identify paths for seven off-peak journeys per day (with two peak services to follow in 2018 following work to increase capacity on the line) using class 442 'Wessex Elecric' 100mph EMU's.
37884 hauls 2411 from Three Bridges to Eastleigh on 11th November 2016 seen in the Addlestone area. The unit has come off lease with Southern/Gatwick Express, but could these fine trains return to the SWML with an 'open access' operator?
Competition has undoubtedly brought more consumer choice on the East Coast Main Line where both First Hull Trains and Grand Central operate open access services, however it has also meant that the expansion of franchised services has been subdued and detracted revenue which would otherwise be received by the government in premium payments.
Introducing more seating capacity on the SWML is certainly a good thing but whether this should be in the form of a competing operator I am not sure. Certainly I would be more than happy to see the 442's back on the Wessex patch where they belong, but I would first be interested to see what service enhancements are proposed in the two bids for the next franchise by Stagecoach and First/MTR. It is entirely possible that these bids may also have identified extra paths and stock to utilise them and this may give a better return for the taxpayer as well as giving more operational flexibility in not having another operator to deal with on the congested line into Waterloo.
There is definitely a leisure market on this route and South West Trains have increasingly tapped into it with their promotional off-peak fares. Could Alliance Rail offer a better product? We will have to wait for the ORR to give their ruling on the proposal. Alliance hope to be running their off peak services from the December 2017 timetable change- their press release can be read here.

Friday, 25 November 2016

EMD F40PH- Powering America

Metra is the largest operator of the F40PH in the USA with the type working on most of its commuter routes out of Chicago. #115 is seen heading out of town at the CP Morgan crossing shortly after leaving from Chicago Union Station.

Built from 1975 until 1992 the General Motors Electro-Motive Division F40PH was once the mainstay of long distance routes across the USA with Amtrak. While the type was withdrawn from Amtrak service in the 1990's the locomotives are still in use crossing Canada with Via Rail and can be found on many commuter railroads across the USA.

For me personally the F40PH is what an American locomotive *should* look like. The locos have a clean, powerful and stylish look and I have always liked them. It is perhaps therefore not coincidental that on my recent trip to the States many of the cities visited had commuter rail operations with F40PH power. Below are a few of the locations where I was able to catch up with these American railroad icons:

New Jersey Transit/Metro-North-
4914, one of the Metro-North F40PH fleet approaches Secausucs Junction in New Jersey with a train believed to be heading towards Port Jervis.



























NJT's own F40PH's are now confined to the history books having been replaced by more modern diesel and bi-modal locomotives from Alstom and Bombadier. However the locomotives have not disappeared from NJT metals entirely as a limited number are owned by Metro-North Railroad for their West of Hudson operations (sub-contracted to NJT). The small fleet of locomotives have recently been re-painted and look very smart. Most typically they can be found working trains on the Port Jervis line from Hoboken Terminal.


Metra-
A 'squashed' F40PHM at La Salle St waiting to work an off-peak service to Joilette.
The majority of the Metra locomotive fleet is made up of F40PH-2 and the slightly less common looking F40PHM-2 locomotives which differ in appearance with a squashed front missing the characteristic 'nose'. The locomotives can be found on all of Metra's diesel routes originating from Chicago Union, La Salle St and the Ogilvie Transit Centre. Metra operates a very intensive peak service and a large number of locomotives can be seen in a short space of time. Discounted day tickets are available at weekends when a less intensive service operates. All locomotives are currently in Metra's blue livery however over the next 4 years 42 of the fleet are to be overhauled and painted into the newer livery sported by the MP36PH and ex-GO Transit F59PH locos.


Grand Canyon Railway-
237 and 295 rest between duties at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Both locomotives are ex-Amtrak and are working hard in their 'retirement'
A rather different operation to the commuter railroads of North America the Grand Canyon Railway operates up to two trains each way per day between Williams, AZ and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The majority of the railroads fleet is made up of ex-Amtrak F40PH's which provide reliable and efficient power for its tourist trains.


Amtrak- 
NPCU 90229 is seen at the rear of a Pacific Surfliner as it skirts the beach at San Clemente, CA.
Despite dispensing with the F40PH as motive power in the 1990's in favour or the GE Genesis series locos the class has retained a purpose with Amtrak. 22 locomotives were converted to Non-Powered Control Units (NPCU's) to enable push-pull working of Amtrak trains. These vehicles had their engines removed and large roller doors fitted to allow their former engine space to be used for luggage. NPCU's can be seen on various Amtrak routes including the Hiawatha (Chicago to Milwaukee) and some Pacific Surfliner services in California. 


Coaster- 
One of the most scenic sections of the Coaster route is at Del Mar where trains run high above the beach and Pacific ocean below. 2103 is seen heading northbound with a late afternoon service to Oceanside.
One of the most scenic routes one can travel behind the F40PH's is undoubtedly the 'Coaster' which runs much of its route along the Pacific shore from Oceanside to San Diego in California. F40PH's make up the mainstay of the fleet running with Bombadier Bi-Levels.


Altamont Commuter Express-
Unusually 3102 and 3103 double head the final arrival of the morning into San Jose, seen here crossing the salt marshes at Alviso.





















Typical of the North American commuter routes which offer only a limited service the ACE runs just 4 trains each weekday in each direction between Stockton and San Jose. The entire fleet is composed of F40PH locomotives which operate with Bombadier Bi-Level coaches.


CalTrain-
911 approaches South San Francisco with an afternoon service to San Jose Diridon.



























Another large operator of F40PH locomotives is CalTrain which runs the busy route from San Jose to San Francisco. Regular trains run throughout the day seven days a week and there are exciting plans to develop the line with funding secured for full electrification and new trains. F40PH locomotives work most trains along with MP36PH locomotives which additionally working limited stop 'Baby Bullet' services. In July 2016 contracts were signed for the modernisation of the line with Balfour Beatty providing electrification works and Stadler to provide new EMU's which will offer a step change in the service and likely the end of the F40PH's on this route.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Across America with Amtrak - Part 4 - One more night on the Southwest Chief

Our final night on the train begins in the lobby of the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel (for it is the railway which provides the bus). We already know that the Southwest Chief is running late as James tracked its progress on WiFi over dinner. Indeed I have two email alerts on my phone detailing the increasing delay to Amtrak's train #3. We suspect this means that the bus from Willimas will run late also but neither of us are confident enough to order another cherry cola in the route 66 diner where we have eaten.

'Route 66' roughly parallels the Southwest Cheif and is very
much in evidence in the town of Williams. 
We are correct- staff on the desk let us know that we have 'time for at least one drink' in the 'pub' attached to the hotel. To tell the truth we are both stuffed from dinner so instead wait it out on the comfy chairs in the lobby. About an hour later than planned Clay the driver turns up with the peeling minibus and the four passengers (ourselves included) set off into the darkness to Williams Junction. Not even the singular station light is illuminated to greed us and with just the minibus providing light the night sky is perfect for stargazing- it is cold though! Within moments lights appear down the track and I comment to Clay on the precision of his timing, 'Oh no- this is just a freight train' he replies. 'The train has been further delayed.' 'Is it often on time?' I question. 'No' is the simple answer. 100% of our Amtrak trains have been late so far and with our final one 90 minutes down before we have boarded this figure is unlikely to improve. The large black lady sitting opposite me warns her husband not to stand out in the cold 'You will catch flu'- I feel this is slight over-reaction but they are obviously not used to the chilly temperatures being from Southern California. Every time I see lights approaching I walk out hopefully to the platform and several times I am greeted by the roar of a huge freight train thundering past- Up to five locomotives motor up the grade pulling their payload of over 100 wagons stacked with containers two high. After the train passes silence returns to this dark clearing in the forest somewhere in Arizona.

Eventually a different pattern of lights appears on the horizon, the station light is switched on and the Southwest Chief pulls into view. I half expect to see Philip waiting for us at the door but it is of course a new attendant. He shows us to our roomette and informs us that breakfast is served from 0500. That is terribly early given that it is now almost midnight but he doesn't know when the last sitting will be because of the delay. We set the alarm for 06:30 and I give up on the idea of a shower tonight. I enquire about the delay and the attendant informs me that it was due to police attending the train to remove a passenger at Albuquerque and then getting stuck behind a freight which had 'killed it'.
Breakfast is enjoyed as we traverse the Cajun Pass. BNSF's GE ES44C4 #7063 is seen climbing one of the tracks through the mountains with a long intermodal train. This section would have been in darkness were it not for our 90 minute delay.


I could have slept worse but am already semi-awake when my alarm sounds. Looking out of the window I can already tell it is warm. I elect to pop down to the diner to find out what the deal is with breakfast and return with the good news that we can snooze for another hour. When we do go go down to breakfast the train is traversing the Cajun Pass, a busy stretch of railway through the mountains which surround LA. The landscape here is very dry and has been tarnished by the devastating Blue Cut Forest Fire which had ravaged the area just months earlier. Several passengers we had spoken to talked of drought in California and the fact that there had not been significant rainfall for 5 years. I elect to have the omelette which is one of just a couple of options still available. There is much discussion about yesterday's delay. It turns out that it was our rather camp waiter who called the police to the train as there was a drunk making threatening remarks towards staff and passengers. The story goes that when he was refused travel he clung on to the train and they had to call the police- who evidently were in no hurry. This was the third person the dining attendant had had to remove from the train this week! Other passengers who had seen the unruly man expressed their thanks that he was not permitted on board, 'anything could have happened'.

Journeys end for the Southwest Chief- LA Union Station a mere
2265 miles from Chicago.
With the diner closing and the observation lounge also shut 'to prepare for our arrival in LA' -(what do you have to do to prepare some seats for arrival that takes over an hour?) we have no option but to return to our room. With a little while still to go and the scenery of the mountains now behind us I elect to have that shower that I abandoned the night before- for the novelty as much as anything. I had never taken a shower on a train before! It was pleasant actually- warm and quite frankly better than the fairly poor facilities at the cheap hotels we had stayed in so far. Feeling refreshed I headed back to the roomette for the view of the low relief cityscape as we made our final approach to LA Union station. Los Angeles had been described to us as a group of suburbs looking for a city, and I can't disagree as we passed towns of San Bernadino and Fullerton. Somehow we had made up 45 minutes of time in the last 45 minutes of the schedule, quite how I do not know, but being just 45 minutes late seemed pretty good going.

So that was it. Coast to coast with Amtrak completing and as I often find on these long journeys I had surprised myself with how little of my magazines I had read and how my i-pod had remained largely untouched.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Tragedy in Croydon- Fatal Tramlink derailment

It was a dark, cold and wet morning on November 9th when a tram from New Addington to Wimbledon derailed killing at least 7 passengers and injuring more than 50 more near Sandilands. The vehicle involved was one of the original Bombadier built CR 4000 fleet number 2551.


A Croydon tram on the streets in the town centre.
When you get up in the morning and begin your journey to work, school, or wherever you are heading the last thing on your mind is probably whether or not you will make it (Especially with the result of the controversial US election having recently been announced)- unfortunately for passengers on the 05:55 tram this morning (9th November 2016) from New Addington to Wimbledon, their journey came to an abrupt end shortly before Sandilands station when the tram derailed killing at least 7 passengers and injuring many more.
This is the first fatal accident on London Tramlink in its 16 year history and the first fatal tram accident involving a passenger since 1959. Furthermore today's accident brings to an end almost 10 years in which no passengers have been killed on board a rail vehicle in the UK- the last fatal incident being the derailment of a Virgin Trains service near Greyrigg which killed one in 2007.
Today's derailment is the worst loss of live since a Great Western HST struck a car on a level crossing at Ufton Nervet in Berkshire in 2004.
A google map showing the derailment site on a sharp curve.
Britain should still be proud of it's almost unrivaled rail safety record but today's derailment is a reminder that safety must continue to be at the forefront of all that we do. Two independent investigations have already begun into the cause of today's derailment, by both the Police and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch. Initial suggestions have centered around the suggestion that the tram may have been travelling too fast around a bend between Sandilands tunnel and Sandilands station. At this point the track negotiates a sharp 90 degree turn with a maximum speed of 12mph. There has been some suggestion that the tram may have been greatly exceeding this speed (the top speed on Tramlink is 50mph). Rail conditions may also have been a factor in the accident- almost half of the typical rainfall for the whole month of November had fallen overnight, and the line at this point has heavy tree cover. The problem of leaves on the line is common at this time of the year, with leaves squashed into a slippery paste which can cause trains to slip and make their brakes ineffective.

Whether these factors played a part we do not yet know and must wait for the full RAIB report.

Thoughts go out to all those who set out this morning and did not complete their journey.


Monday, 7 November 2016

Across America with Amtrak - Part 3 - The Southwest Chief

Not our train, but a similar long distance Amtrak Superliner service departs from Union Station beneath the Chicago skyline.
James had made a rookie error at the hostel breakfast in choosing a table which was far bigger than the two of us needed. I returned from collecting my second croissant to find him sitting bolt upright surrounded by no fewer than five teenage German girls who had taken up residence at our table. We had until 3pm to board the Southwest Chief for the next leg of our journey to Williams (for the Grand Canyon) so headed out in to the gloomy day to get a better feeling for Chicago. A racing walk along the shore of lake Michigan followed by a cruise of the cities rivers filled the time nicely, and following a final walk through the city via a bit of clothes shopping and a Seven Eleven hot dog it was time to pick up our bags and head for the station.

Some hours before departure train #3
The Southwest Chief is on the boards.
No taxi ride this time but somehow events still construed to make time very tight whenever I have a long distance connection. This time it was a long queue at the hostel reception to pick up our bags followed by a slight worry at the 'L' station- a train in the platform with its door shut, a green signal, but going nowhere. People on the platform looked confused and while we were only going 3 stops we did not need this delay now! The train did get moving quite quickly and we arrived at Chicago Union in time for our train. We had almost 15 minutes in fact before departure (you are supposed to leave 30) and having found Amtrak staff at our platform announced that we were intending to pop upstairs to grab some food. 'The door will shut at 14:55 Sir!' the steward said somewhat taken aback by our proposition. We knew we could visit 'Dunkin Dognuts' in less than the 11 minutes we had and fortunately we were right. 'That was quick' the steward responded as we joined the other passengers making their way onto the train from the Amtrak lounge.

As the train begins its journey west there is one final view of the Chicago skyline from the right hand side of the train before we brace our selves for 'Prairie Day'. Before entering the prairies there is time for our first delay of the trip- only 13 minutes, caused by a Metra commuter train performing 'station work' in our path.

Philip welcomes passengers aboard.
We are settled into our Superliner Roomette by our attendant Phillip, when he can get a word in between Jean in the cafe car who is making a loud and seemingly endless announcement about how she will be running the cafe and train policies. Philip shows us the features of the room- light switches, power points, AC and the PA volume switch to 'shut her up'. We meet our nearest roomette neighbour, a well dressed lady who is approaching elderly but is clearly still very active. She has the look of a lady who was clearly very glamorous in her day but whom age appears to have fixed a permanent frown upon her face. She informs us that she is LA bound and after welcoming us aboard the 'slow train' reminds us that the best feature of the train is that you can shut the door- and she promptly does 'Goodbye'. Was it something we said or were we simply being too noisy?


After booking our slot in the dining car for dinner it is time to explore my favourite part of the train, the lounge car. The coach features comfortable seats around tables at one end with the remainder of the car formed of seating in on es and twos which face out of large floor to ceiling windows. Freight trains and ranches pass by as we continue our journey at a good speed across the prairies of Illinois.

Why fly when you can enjoy a comfortable seat and amazing views from the Superliner Sightseeing Lounge?

Dinner in the diner- one of the pleasures of an Amtrak trip.
Shortly after we are called to the diner by our host Kimberley we cross the mighty Mississippi River into Missouri. We meet our dinner companions for the night (Smaller groups will be put together around tables of 4). This couple are travelling through to Albuquerque as the husband won't fly- the trip is to see a relative and they make it several times a year on Amtrak rather than spending close to two days on the road. I order the seafood special- crab fishcakes as I've yet to have anything fishy since landing in the US. The fishcakes are very tasty and are washed down nicely with an exuberant glass of wine (non-alcoholic drinks and meals are included in the fare for sleeper passengers). My only criticism of the Amtrak diner is the insistence on using plastic tableware- much of it is clearly re-used, so, Amtrak, could we please have some china? A glass glass would be nice also as there is always a dissatisfied feeling at being served a 1/2 bottle of wine in a plastic cup- particularly when you are paying $16 for it!

Having studied the schedule for the train we decided that the long layover in an hour of two at Kansas City is worth staying up for. The train is on time when we arrive here and there is amble time to walk to the front of the train for a look at the engines. Quite a lot of passengers change here and once we depart after 22:00 it is time to ask Philip to lower the bunks to convert our seats into beds. This time I have drawn the short straw and have the far less comfortable upper bunk- my sleep will suffer as a result.

A pause in Kansas City- 120 and 837 prepare to head train #3 through the night.
It is an earlier wake up call than I would like from Kimberley in the diner who informs passengers that the breakfast service (open from 05:30) is now full and anyone else wanting breakfast should give their names to be called when space is available. Kimberley couldn't advise how long the wait would be but did agree that getting up properly would be a good plan.

It isn't long before 'James, party of two' is broadcast by Kimberly across the train. Our breakfast companions are Stephen and Rebecca- who has just returned to the US from a vacation to London to see her son in Islington (small world). Stephen comments on how they had picked up our English accents passing through the train and had hoped to be paired with us for a meal, and 'here we are'. I am again thwarted in my efforts to order French Toast for breakfast as it appears the train is part way through a menu change and it has been replaced by pancakes. 'French Toast that is really Pancakes' however is very good, as is the breakfast conversation. Stephen and Rebecca are well travelled themselves and as it happens met in London as students. Like us they see the train as part of their holiday and like to take a long Amtrak trip once a year. We discuss journeys we would like to make when Kimberley kindly reminds us that the table is required by more guests waiting for their breakfast. We retire to the lounge car to continue the conversation.

A pause for a leg stretch at La Junta, CO
Our first opportunity to step off the train since Kansas City last night is a brief smoking/leg stretching stop at La Junta, Colorado. The brief relief from the train is welcome though there isn't time to stray from the platform. Back on board the scenery becomes more varied and interesting and there is precious little time to be bored as we cross the Santa Fe Railroad's Raton Pass, including the only tunnel on the route and the highest elevation of our journey as we cross into New Mexico. The sightseeing lounge has now become busier and although seats are now at a premium there is room for everyone who wants one. Passengers from all classes and parts of the train are welcome here and this morning we have gained an interesting character- a tall black Afro-American man who must be in at least his 60's. He wears a cap, carries a stick and despite his mouth full of gold fillings is clearly high on life, singing to the coach 'You know 'ts going to be, a lovely day!' He seems blissfully unaware, or blind, to the fact that the seats near to him quickly vacate. He claims to be a comedian heading to LA, but I and others seem unconvinced. More likely from his loud and unprovoked proclamations 'I've had my Snap , Crackle & Pop', and 'Tony the Tiger ain't got nothing on me!' is that he is perhaps some sort of ambassador for Kellogs?
Watching the Colorado scenery from the lounge car.

The Santa Fe Raton Pass provides stunning morning scenery.
Still full from breakfast (you are kept well fed on Amtrak) we opt for one of the later lunch sittings at 1:30pm. One of our companions is the lady from across the corridor who had initially seemed somewhat cold to us. She sees pleased to be sharing a table with her neighbours so perhaps we hadn't made such a bad first impression after all? While the lunch options are slightly limited (my first choice of both main and desert has run out) the conversation is flowing well. The usual topics are discussed; 'Why are you taking the train?', 'Why wouldn't I want to see this view' is the response. The UK's Brexit and the currently looming US Presidential election are also discussed. Everyone we have so far spoken to has been open minded and fearful of what a Trump vote could mean- even Kimberley in the diner hints that she feels problems could be around the corner if a certain candidate gets the vote- she can't say it loudly thought as the group on the table behind us have been proudly wearing their 'Pumped for Trump' badges for the whole trip. Just an observation, but they didn't seem to be making as many friends on the train as some of the other groups. Frances, as she has now introduced herself bids us farewell and thanks us for the great company- I think we have established ourselves as friends now.

Albuquerque is our major stop for the afternoon and although the train is running some 40 minutes behind schedule due to 'Signalling Problems', how familiar that sounds, we still need a good 35 minutes here for a crew stop and for the train to be serviced - This includes a fuel top up for the locomotives from a road tanker as well as trash collection and a chance to clean the windows. For the passengers it is also a chance to re-fuel from the somewhat underwhelming station cafe, or to peruse through the offerings of several stalls on the platforms which are selling local crafts. Of course I don't need any of this tat and a Mexican hat is unlikely to travel well in my bursting suitcase anyway. Despite this I am relieved of $27 which I have spent on soap. I seem to have a weakness for buying soap as this isn't the first time this has happened. Maybe I should get a t-shirt; 'If you're selling soap, I'm your man.' I chat to Frances on the platform who is thriving among the craft stalls, though I see she hasn't brought soap-  or anything else for that matter. I also manage to pick up a postcard for home at the station and just before re-boarding I am cornered by the 'Pumped for Trump' ladies who have thus far forgotten to have their picture taken with the train.


New Mexico scenery from the sightseeing lounge.
Back on board the Southwest Chief it is a simple case of whiling away what remains of the afternoon in the sightseeing lounge until we are called by Kimberley into the diner for our final meal sometime after sunset. We arrive to see a somewhat disgruntled student at the far table who seems less than satisfied that this 7:45pm sitting has been delayed- we are left feeling slightly uneasy as we are sat across from him, making no attempt at conversation. Luckily we are soon joined by Bill to make up the full compliment of the table. Bill is chatty and inquisitive and after a while we do get Joshua to relax and join in the conversation. he is studying education at university in New Mexico and doesn't appear to be enjoying this- or the train ride. 'I'm not travelling with Amtrak again- this is terrible customer service.' I feel that possibly he has missed how hard the dining cars staff of two have been working all day to get everyone who wants a meal in up to five sittings per meal. As we order my mind is set more at ease as the beef steak I had been looking forward to is not sold out unlike some other options. I order it medium-rare and must say that it is delicious. Consider that a recommendation if you are on Amtrak any time soon. Joshua even enjoys his steak and concedes that he is glad to have ordered it 'medium-well' rather than 'well done', or 'burnt' as Kimberley described it. Conversation moves on to the state of rail travel in America and in particular the current plans for high speed trains in California. It isn't going to come cheap but all agree it would be a great step forward for the state which is one of the top 5 most populated areas of the world, yet has gridlocked roads and precious little public transport infrastructure.

Our train has been alone for much of the day, but by late afternoon the
landscape is littered with lengthy freight trains of the BNSF.
Our final destination on this leg of the train is Williams Junction, a short throughway bus connection from Williams and the Grand Canyon Railway. We should be approaching by now but with our delay there is a good hour and a half to spend in our room after dinner. It is a good opportunity for me to catch up on my notes as it is now dark outside. The train continues to loose yet more time at Flagstaff for no more apparent reason than people taking their time and checked luggage being removed from the train.

Eventually the train slows for Williams Junction from where we will be getting off for our pre-booked bus to Williams itself. I seek reassurance from Philip our car steward that the bus will wait for the delayed train - I already know it will be but it I still feel reassured to know for certain. Frances bids us farewell and best wishes for our trip ahead as we pass in the corridor to collect our bags. Williams Junction turns out to be somewhat of a 'nothing' location from what I can see in the darkness. I'm not even sure if it is a junction- I must check that on Google maps sometime. [edit: I did, and it is.] Indeed the halt here is so diminutive that the train must follow a rather arduous procedure to set down and pick up its passengers; the platform (if you can call the piece of concrete and solitary lamp such a thing) is only long enough for one coach of our train, so each car with passengers for the stop must pull up individually, causing some initial confusion as to why we are not let off when the train first stops. On the second stop Philip opens the door, we bid our farewells and disembark. What awaits is not an air conditioned coach with Amtrak branding as I suspected, but a minibus pulling a luggage trailer. It is actually getting a bit cold so we give our luggage to the driver and take a seat in the somewhat dilapidated bus from which the paper is peeling from the walls. Some passengers are already on board and enquire whether we forgot to get off when the train had first stopped. As we explain, the train draws forward one final time to allow seated passengers off from the rear. With that the Southwest Chief is gone, the station light goes out and our bus is left alone in the darkness of the woodland. The driver, Clay, does a headcount and although we are one short there is no prospect of them arriving now the train has gone so the engine is started. The passenger light is flicked off and we start on the gravel road for Williams. The 10 minute journey is a rather un-glamorous end to our 30 plus hours of travel from Chicago.

Read the final part here.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Across America with Amtrak - Part 2 - The Capitol Limited

The Chicago skyline viewed from Lake Michigan (the Willis Tower, the tallest in Chicago is to the left and obscured by low cloud). The Capitol Limited links Washington DC with Chicago each day.

Boarding our first Amtrak Superliner at Pittsburgh.
Our stop in Pittsburgh was purely functional and I felt a little embarrassed when people asked how long we were staying and what our plans were- 'About 3 hours, we've got time for dinner.' The Pennsylvanian had dropped us off shortly before 9pm and our onward connection about the Capitol Limited (which as the names suggests originates in Washington DC) was at one minute to midnight. Not really sure where to head for dinner we accost a local who seems to know where he is going- indeed he is able to point us in the right direction to reach some restaurants and after a while of aimless wanderings we sit ourselves down behind the bar at a burger restaurant only to find our local two seats down behind the same bar- 'this is a good place'. He is right as it turns out and we enjoy a very nice meal washed down with a pint or two of American 'hard cider.' Besides football, a subject on which i probably have far less knowledge even than the average American there are several other hot topics to discuss with our friendly barmaid Ashley; the UK 'Brexit', the US election and possible presidency of Donald Trump and of course a few lighter topics also 'why is a dime a smaller coin than a five cent piece?' When it came to desert Ashley was quick to recommend the pumpkin cheesecake. Now I like cheesecake but I wasn't convinced 'no, really, it's good. If you don't like it I'll eat it ' she said with a smile. It was alright- but I don't think I'm yet converted, or particularly likely to order it again. We regrettably order our bill as one of the managers appears with  his head in a bag of mint 'mmm, fresh mint- the best part of the job'. I point out that a couple of our drinks are missing from the bill but Ashley is well aware so we don't press the point any further! We leave a tip and make our way back to the station leaving our new friends to debate whether or not the mint should live in the cooler (apparently it shouldn't... but it always has).

There are plenty of passengers in the waiting room for the Capitol Limited to Chicago and despite being present more than 30 minutes before departure we have apparently missed the chance to check in our bags- not a problem though as an Amtrak steward confirms that our suitcases will be fine as carry-on luggage. The train arrives a little earlier than expected and we file on for boarding. The first attendant at the Superliner door asks 'Sleeper or car?'. 'Sleeper' I reply. 'James & James?' - well it's nice to be expected! I guess there aren't too many pairs of males joining the train here tonight.
Chicago Union station building- the grand hall is currently undergoing a
refurbishment which will include long term repairs to the large skylight.
Our Superliner roomette is upstairs and consists of two bunks running along the inside of the coach wall lengthways, there are another two on the other side of the train with a central corridor between. The car hosts explains the features of our cabin and that there are hot drinks and juice available at the centre of the coach with one restroom on the upper level together with three more and a shower below.. Breakfast would be served from 6am. Having secured the lower bunk with more generous proportions I decided to call it a night and after grappling with the tap (which insists on releasing a high powered jet of water which ricochets off the basin bowl) and forgetting my towel I bed down for the night.

I didn't sleep as badly as I had expected as I could only remember being awake for one of our overnight stops, at Toledo, Ohio. James on the upper bunk had slept OK as well though he did complain that it was a little on the small side. We attended breakfast at around 7:30 and for the second time this trip my attempt to order French Toast was thwarted due to it's non-availability. I settled instead for omelette- with grits. I couldn't remember what grits where, though was sure I had had them once before. I still couldn't really tell you what they were except that they had the consistency of porridge and didn't look nearly as nice as James' potatoes. You live and learn.
Chicago at dusk from the top of the John Hancock Centre.

The train passes several industrial yards on its final approach to Chicago and neither theses, the dismal weather or the eventual arrival 30 minutes late into the subterranean platforms of Chicago Union seem particularly inspiring. The sun however did make an appearance before our stay was out and gave us a taste for this great city which we had really come to rather enjoy.

Read part 3 here.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Across America with Amtrak- Part 1- The Pennsylvanian

Almost missing your first train of a trans-continental trip probably isn't the best way to start. In truth it was mostly my fault- for some reason I am just not capable of allowing enough time for these things. Of course it wouldn't have been so bad if the '10 minute' taxi drive that I had predicted had actually taken 10 minutes- I swear we hadn't seen traffic in downtown Manhattan until we had a train to catch! The elevator in the hostel hadn't helped either- you don't expect an eight floor descent to take almost ten minutes do you?- but it did. Due to maintenance only one elevator was in service and of course everyone wanted it. We were full by the seventh floor but that didn't stop us from pausing at every other floor for the doors to open and the incumbents to wave at waiting guests who could not board.
'Amtrak?' questioned the taxi driver, 'that's right over the other side of the station- you'll have to run!' I guess entering New York's Pennsylvania Station just 5 minutes before your train departure does have one advantage- you don't have to spend any more time than absolutely necessary in this ugly cavern beneath Madison Square Garden (though you also don't have time to pick up a New York Cheesecake for the train). We found the train (and we really did have to run for it) on track 34 and boarded with two minutes to spare.
A similar train to ours, headed by an new ACS-64 locomotive with Amfleet or 'Amtube' coaches passes through the upper level at Secaucaus Junction just a few minutes after leaving New York's Penn Station.
The Pennsylvanian left New York right on time and immediately dives under the Hudson River to emerge into New Jersey. We find some satisfactory seats and settle in for the journey. Seating is reserved on the train but only in so much as we are guaranteed a seat- which seat we chose to occupy is up to us. The train continues along Amtrak's busy North East Corridor until we approach what is undoubtedly the most important intermediate stop on the route at Philadelphia, where the train pauses for more than 30 minutes for an engine swap and reversal. The only electric loco we will experience this trip is promptly uncoupled and the train is briefly plunged into darkness. While the diesel engine which will work forward is attached there is time to head up from the dark platforms to the grand station hall, we are reminded however not to be late back to the train as it is the only departure today going east of Harrisburg. Philadelphia station is filled with a great array of eating establishments but seems to lack options to take food away to eat later. Feeling my diet in NY had been far from healthy I picked up a cup of fresh fruit and joined the re-boarders queue to get back onto the train.
The grand station hall at Philadelphia.
It is shortly after we resume our journey that we are forewarned of our first Amtrak delay. There is a broken down train in front of us and we may need to make an extra stop to pick up its passengers. We don't know how long the delay will be, or even if it will happen at all for certain but the conductor does stress that if it does, all available seats on the train will be required. Anyway, this is uncertain as of yet- what is certain is my hunger. The plan was to buy provisions back in at Penn Station in New York but of course there was no time for that. The on board cafe car would have to suffice. The smiley bar attendant was happy to serve me a microwave pizza (all the staff are so friendly on this train!) which I sit down to eat on the tables near the counter. We could gain snippets of the situation with the broken down train through listening to the calls on staff radios. Towards the end of the meal it was announced that we would indeed be rescuing the stricken train and would be delayed as a result. We would then be further delayed as we would now be calling at all the local stations to Harrisburg. We return from the cafe to our original seats to await the influx of passengers- and the delay.

The delay and drama of the broken down train turns out to be somewhat less exciting than we perhaps might have anticipated- no pushing of the failed train and no passengers scrambling up on to the train from the tracks having been stranded in the back of beyond. The conductors estimate of over 100 people joining our train however is not far wrong and while everyone who has been waiting 2 1/2 hours does get a seat it is certainly now busier on board.
Long Norfolk Southern freight trains dominate this route.
We woke to sunshine in New York but as the day has gone on and we have headed west through Pennsylvania the weather has deteriorated and by Harrisburg it is raining heavily. The scenery however has been interesting with a green undulating landscape and a river which we have followed for much of the journey.
I am often struck by how unfamiliar Amtrak passengers seem to be with the most basic principals of taking a train ride- getting on and off. There seems to be an attitude that the train will wait for them no matter how long they fancy taking to finish their coffee, pick up their bags and make their way to the door. After about four 'Final call's' for Harrisburg we eventually get back on the move, now minus the extra guests who's train was due to terminate here. I would love to see how these people would get on in a country like Japan; 'We will shortly be making a brief stop at Shin Osaka.'- miss that announcement and the 30 second stop and you'll be missing your destination!
It is now just our train, running one hour late and a steady procession of black and white Norfolk Southern freight trains heading west towards Pittsburgh. After rounding the famous horse-shoe curve near Altoona (with commentary from the train conductor) there isn't a lot of daylight left with which to admire the scenery so attention turns to our books and magazines to keep us entertained until our arrival in Pittsburgh some 45 minutes
behind schedule.
Arrival in Pittsburgh with Amtrak P42-DC 89 in charge.
Read part 2 here.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Amtrak in the USA

You may have noticed it has been a little quiet here over the last couple of weeks. I've been off on one of my trips again- this time to the USA traveling coast to coast with Amtrak, and then visiting some of the famous railspots in California. There will be plenty to read about over the coming months so do be sure to check back here for updates. As a taster I present here one of my favorite images if the trip, a view of Amtrak's train 14, 'Coast Starlight' at Gavotia Beach, CA on it's northbound journey from Los Angeles to Seattle on 6th October with Amtrak 11 an 157 in charge. Note the private California Zephyr dome cars on the rear of the train- an added bonus!

Sunday, 18 September 2016

DB Trip Report 1-6 September 2016

Day 1 01/09/2016-

It was an early start from the Premiere Inn at Stanstead airport for the not too easy walk to the terminal (no pavements... but we didn't fancy paying £3 for the bus when that was actually a reasonably high percentage of the flight cost!). Our Ryanair flight to Memmingen was on time and we arrived nicely at a time without a good rail connection in to Munich. Our first taste of German efficiency was also showed off when the bus into town arrived just over 10 minutes late- a surprise to everyone who was expecting it on time.
Memmingen is quite a nice town it turns out and we found some lunch before returning to the station to see 218435 and 218481 on a northbound IC from Oberstdorf before eventually boarding the midday(ish) EC to Munich with 218416 and 281403.
With the weather reasonable and not much more of a plan than to try to track down some 218's for a run to either Muhldorf or Fussen (two routes we failed to tackle last time round) we headed to Heimerenplatz for a few hours of freight photography. Of course as soon as we turned up the light faded and by the time we left it was a full thunder storm- however the station was busy and while the 111's we could watch 3 years ago were much missed there was no let up in the freight traffic with trains often running back to back. Highlights of the freight activity included LocoMotion 139 312 on a container train and Spitzke Logistics V100-SP-008. We also got our first taste of the thoroughly uninspiring class 245's but did see a few more 218's than we were expecting on the Muhldorfs from the diagrams. One run had N-Wagons but we couldn't photograph that as a freight had parked up in front of us. The loco hauled Meridian turn was running slightly late and handled by 189918.
The rain having got too much we headed back to Munich Hbf in the hope that one of the evening departures to Muhldorf would produce both rabbits and some fresh air stock. It didn't go quite to plan. Due to some sort of problem on the rails many trains were running severely late, up to 60 minutes and one Muhldorf train was still sitting in the station long after it should have left, Dostsos of course. When one of our next options was started from Munich Ost we were beginning to give up on the idea- particularly as we had now realised we were committing ourselves to returning on a unit. Instead we developed a plan to get maximum locos with minimum distance, taking 218429 on a Memmingen train to Geltendorf to drop back onto the 17:52 Fussen train, again realising that a trip the whole way would get us back far too late, to Buchloe. This train as widely reported is a pair of rabbits, but rather than being double headed is two 218+Dosto sets together, one of which leaves at Buchloe. We changed sets at Kaufering to confuse the ticket lady and be sure to get both sets in with 218420 and 218415 now covered.


Trains back to Munich were still in a mess from Buchloe but we didn't have to wait too long for a loca with 245002. This was taken to Kaufering where we dropped back onto a much more rateable 218414 into Munich.
It had got late enough by our return that the 21:08 CNL to Rome had arrived in the station behind 115114 (nice to see these still in use)- after that was photographed it was off to the Augustina Beerhouse for some much needed dinner!



Day 2 02/09/2016-


One area we had largely failed to cover on our previous Rabbit hunting trip to Munich was Ulm so this became the main target of the day. First up was 120137 (whole class required!) on the 07:39 Karlshrue as far as Augsberg where there was time for a little look round before boarding an ICE on to Ulm.

I had an understanding that the Ulm-Lindau trains were still 218's and a good bet for N-Wagons but none of this was confirmed- so I was pretty pleased to see 218326 and N-Wagons sitting with Lindau displayed in the windows for the 10:12 departure! There was a little time to photograph other trains around the station which included the stabled rabbits and HGK DE669 (class 66) light engine. We have an enjoyable run in the front coach all the way to Lindau with the Rabbit before a quick leap onto the Austrian EC back to Friedrichschafen Stadt with 218465 and 218476 (I was desperately regretting that I had not transferred my loco records into my new DB book so had no idea if any of them were required!). We missed 218406 to Lindau while photographing the EC running round so it was a 628 unit to make the journey back. Incidentally except for our own set all other trains on the Ulm-Lindau corridor had been Dostos- a bit of luck for a change! At Friedrichshafen we saw the only Ludmilla of our trip -232201 but it was stabled a bit far away to really count it as a photo.
Back at Lindau we had around 30 minutes to take some sunny photos in the harbour, get some lunch and photograph 218429 which had arrived on a regional train from Munich. Our chariot forwards was a pair of 612 units, which gave a very enjoyable run with the front window blind open to give us a wonderful tilted drivers eye view of this spectacular line. The journey came to an abrupt end at Oberstaufen where the line is shut for tunnel works and we transferred onto a bus for the onward journey to Immenstadt.




2143.18 greeted us as we had hoped with the Obestdorf ALEX portion but that is about where our luck ran out on this branch. A nice afternoon's photography was planned on the branch, and well, I have some stunning photos of 612 units! The first IC (due to arrive at 16:44) totally failed to show up- and it would have been in sun, though there were some coaches already at Oberstdorf with a rabbit- very confused as there isn't an earlier IC and all the literature showed the 16:44 arrival- anyway- it didn't show up. We headed back to Altstadten for the second IC, which duly arrived in cloud- the same small one that had been lingering above us for the best part of 90 minutes... had we had a car we'd have escaped it probably everywhere else in the valley!





We did manage a couple of photos of the 2143 but none could be described as 'full sun' despite the amount of blue in the sky. Even leaving at a sensible hour and taking 223065 back to Munich on an ALEX it was almost 21:00 by the time we arrived in Munich. 115350 with the more attractive rounded front had brought in the sleeper this time so this was photographed before another trip to the Augustina Beerhouse and then the hostel bar.






Day 3 03/09/2016


Another day which probably could have benefited from some more advanced planning. We had concluded that the 103 was still working the Worgl diagram and with a report that required 113 had worked the train the previous weekend rather than 245 it seemed worth a go. We took the leisurely 09 something OBB EuroCity to Italy as far as a roasting Rosenheim where there were far too many Meridian units, lots of Germans in traditional dress and some girls handing out a weird coca-cola and orange drink. We did see a bit of freight also but were generally in the wrong place for most of it. On que 103113 rolled in with the IC to Munich and despite the sun being largely wrong some quite pleasing shots were taken.

Once into Munich we headed out west as it was felt some more shots of the 218's on Zurich EC's were needed. We stopped at Kaufering for shots from the bridge, which turned out to be a more constrained shot than we hoped. The sun took a while to warm to us and while we didn't get our EC in sun (again!) we did get a 245 and an ALEX. 218's are very scarce on this line on Saturdays so we took the only all day diagram (a Fussen) back to Munich Passing with 218497 which was a bit of a beast.
We set up near Munchen Aubing for our final shots in this area and FINALLY got an EC in full sun along with several other trains- if only it had been a weekday we'd have had plenty of rabbits! When we lost the light it was time to head back into the city at a reasonable hour, go for an explore and find some dinner.
Finally it was back to the station to board the City Night Line to Hamburg. 115350 again brought in the stock and 101008 could just be made out at the dark head of the train. For a service which looses money and is going to be discontinued it was very busy with all of the berths we saw fully booked. Progress I suppose.


Day 4 04/09/2016



Arrival in Hamburg was about 20 minutes late as I recall and I hadn't slept as badly as I was expecting. Still badly though. 101001 was now at the head of the CNL as it headed to Altona but for ease of our hotel we left the train at the impressive Hamburg Hbf. The weather was as dull as anything and we didn't really have a plan for the day (are you spotting a pattern here?).
After checking in we headed back to the station to buy Bratwerst and formulate a plan... one was fairly quickly made to take the 09:24 IC to ride some Rabbits (might as well since it was so grey) and get in the portion to Dagebull Mole. Only problem- we couldn't find the train. Oh... it leaves at 09:16 on a Sunday. Missed. Wandered around Hamburg a bit and eventually took the next IC at 11:24. This was 101096 to Itzehoe for 218314 and 281341 forwards. We had planned to take the train to Westerland and then come back to reach Minature Wunderland at a reasonable hour... but seeing that the weather was brightening up and that this train too had a portion to Dagebull Mole we decided to do that instead.
The first big surprise was waiting at the NEG station in Niebull- what on earth was former DSB MZ 1439 doing there?! I wasn't expecting to see any of these locos on this trip! MZ shock over it was an enjoyable run behind the DMU up to Dagebull- very weird being hauled by a unit in IC coaches!
The sun tried its best to come out while we were by the sea, and put in an appearance for the boat, but sadly not the train. We headed back in the single car DMU (the two car one had towed us to Dagebull) to Niebull as it had better opening windows than the IC coaches. A very curious branch and well worth the effort of doing with the IC portions. The DMU was fitted with a very good live information screen... which unfortunately was suggesting that the IC we were joining onto was going to be 60 mins late from Niebull... unfortunately it wasn't wrong. Arrival at the DB station revealed that it was job stopped on the line to Sylt with 'an accident at Klanxbull'. With a northbound IC going nowhere and two Sylt Shuttles also ready to go but not it was decided that the best option would definitely be to take the only train which was going anywhere- and that was 245212 on a southbound NOB. Fortunately we did repair our rabbit total when we realised that by Heide that the IC was only 15 minutes behind us. We bailed and successfully also scored 218321 and 218322 back to Itzehoe- it was the same 101096 back to Hamburg Hbf.
We had looked up the opening hours of Minature Wunderland the night before, and though it was now a bit tight we still ventured over to spot some smaller trains- The 2 1/2 hours we had inside wasn't nearly enough, but definitely better than not going at all. Honestly- if you are in Hamburg it is fantastic!
It ended up being a late night again with a pizza by the station well after 22:00.










Day 5 05/09/2016



Today was one of the real targets of the trip- photography on Sylt. We had worked out that by travelling on a Kiel train from Hbf we could pick up the 08:40 NOB on our Schleswig-Holstein tickets when it called at Elmshorn at 09:01- this worked well and got us up to Morsum an hour earlier than if we had travelled from Altona (and scored 112156). The weather was again not great in Hamburg, but as we headed north the clouds cleared beautifully and we were able to enjoy a full day of full sun (with some clouds inland to help the photos- wonderful!). Photos were taken after the long walk to the Hindenburgdam and also at Morsum and Keitum. We also just about made it to the beach in Westerland with time for an ice cream before coming back.


The environment of the Hindenburgdam is something quite different to anywhere else- but photography isn't always the easiest trying to catch the train in the landscape. One unexpected thing that did not help was the fact that there is clearly a re-signalling scheme in its advanced stages- while semaphores were still in use each had a new colour light in front looking almost ready to go. These had not been evident further down the line at Niebull or Langenhorn.


While aware that 245's had very much taken over in this area we were really hopefull that we might see at least one train with something else both on the NOB and the Sylt Shuttle. Sadly we were disappointed as every single train was 245's- there was barely even a chance for us to have missed any. One surprise we did get was 'Big Mak' DE2700 002 with 'Augozug Sylt' branding working what appeared to be a test car shuttle from Westerland to Niebull and back- with these locos being so angular the light is somewhat unforgiving for photos, but still nice to see. All IC's produced as expected with pairs of 218's and we managed to photograph 5 of the trains all in all. The light was so good we stayed out a little later than planned for the final northbound IC and it was well worth it- though arrival back in Hamburg was somewhat later than planned, again via Elmshorn and with a nice surprise of 112125 on a nice rake of N-Wagons! I'd not seen any of these at Hbf on my last trip so quite unexpected. Dinner was at McDonalds!



Day 6 06/09/2016



Our final day and one involving an awful lot less mileage than those which had gone before! The sun was shining again in the morning but as we left for Hamburg Harburg our Metronom train was plunged into mist! Oh no! Fortunately it had just about cleared by the time we arrived. Last time I visited I managed to scare all the freight away- this time my luck fared somewhat better, though the more interesting trains definitely seemed to be those which were wrong for the sun. More interesting sightings included SBB Re4/4 421396 and EVB logistick 140848 which were stabled, also seen were DE6607 (class 66), 151113 and 151094, EGP blue 151078, HBC 212272, 155112, 296037 and of course a plethora of Traxx locomotives.


As the light was becoming difficult it was time to head back to Hamburg Hbf for our daily bunny fix with the IC which runs through to Hamburg on diesel power. I found a shot north of the station on the bridge which I am still not entirely sure whether I like and waited out for the 218's... and waited... around 40 minutes after they were due I gave up (you've got to call time at some point) and of course while I was in the middle of a traffic island walking back to the station lo and behold the 218's appeared! A quick dash across a main road much to the surprise of the motorists resulted in me getting a phot- but not the one I really wanted! Why do we do this railway photography thing again?
Our final shots were at the south of the station from the adjacent road- unfortunately due to the delay on the IC the sun had gone round just a touch too far here and the shots were not what they could have been- but still nice to get a few pictures of the 112's before picking up our cases and heading to the airport.
Easyjet delayed our flight to Luton by just over an hour, but didn't bother to tell us until 30 minutes before it was due to take off and after we had gone through all the security bits to the non-schengen gates- Even I knew it was going to be delayed before they told us- the lack of a plane on the stand was a massive give away!










Conclusions-


I still feel I need to spend more time in Germany (and get a ride to Fussen and Muhldorf) and I'm already thinking of coming back to Bavaria with a car next year.
N-Wagons were very hard to come by in Bavaria and it turns out we were very lucky to get a long run on them with a 218 (even if it turns out that diagram is a good bet)- the Ulm-Lindau line probably now sees the most regular 218 activity in Germany with trains each way almost every hour- there is some good scenery too so I feel a repeat visit will be made before these disappear.
Travelling on City Night Line re-enforces the absurdity of its withdrawal. This is not a lightly used service and surely there is a way to make it pay- fortunately OBB seem to think so as well, but despite some routes being saved the damage it will do to night services in Europe will irreparable. Throughout the train there were stickers for the 'Save the Sleeper' campaign and the guard on arrival in Hamburg was keen to announce that we would be welcome to ride CNL again but 'would have to be quick because the powers have decided to end the service in December'.
I feel Sylt and the lines north of Hamburg are done now- unless the Ludmilla's would like to make another appearance on freight anyway. Venturing up here for 245's isn't a patch on the 218's which used to work the Sylt Shuttle and while I would quite like to sample the pointless 'Sylt Shuttle Plus' I doubt I will make the effort. Things might get a bit more interesting when competing shuttle services begin but the loss of the semaphores probably counters this.
There are still plenty of loco hauled trains to see in Hamburg with 112's and clearly some trains still with N-wagons. I didn't get to check services out of Altona or catch up with the Kiel 218's on this trip so those still remain a target. Hamburg Harburg remains a great place to see freight and I was pleasantly surprised with the volume of non-Traxx seen.