Amtrak has a reputation for delays on the railroad tracks, one that has now moved into negotiating rooms.
The passenger railroad’s Texas Eagle route that runs through Fort Worth twice a day — once northbound to Chicago the other southbound to San Antonio — arrives at its stations on time only about 31 percent of its trips, according to Amtrak statistics.
“They’ll come on the speaker and say, ‘There’s a problem on the freight tracks ahead. We’re stuck.’ And we’ll sit there, sometimes for an hour,” said Melina Sanchez of San Antonio, a regular Amtrak customer who was recently waiting for the Texas Eagle at Fort Worth’s Intermodal Transportation Center.
As for the negotiating-room delays, the latest example is playing out in Fort Worth, where a nearly 7-year effort to move Amtrak onto less-crowded Trinity Railway Express tracks to speed up its on-time performance remains unresolved.
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And a $7.2 million chunk of federal stimulus funding awarded to the project in January 2010, as part of an effort to get the nation’s economy going, remains unspent. The money would be used to construct a second track along the TRE line in the Valley View area, between CentrePort and West Irving stations. Though not required for Amtrak to begin running on the TRE tracks, double-tracking will make it easier for multiple trains to run on the TRE line simultaneously.
Fort Worth is the sixth busiest Amtrak station in the U.S., behind only Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Springfield, Ill. and Bloomington-Normal, Ill.
The delay in making the change frustrates passenger rail supporters, who say not enough is being done by elected and appointed leaders to provide North Texans with more travel options.
Twists and turns
“There have been so many twists and turns to this project,” said Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates. “The shovels have been ready for nearly six years. Six years for a seven million dollar project. It’s mind-boggling that such a small project can't get started. Railway passengers on the TRE and Amtrak are being held hostage by the delay.”
Nearly a year ago, then-Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo visited Fort Worth to celebrate the completion of the Tower 55 freight rail improvement project near downtown. During his November visit, Szabo said it was a done deal that Amtrak — which for years has used the busy Union Pacific Railroad freight lines through Dallas, Arlington and Fort Worth — would be moved to the much roomier TRE line.
But Amtrak is still using the freight-clogged Union Pacific tracks, and often still passing through the Metroplex behind schedule. Meanwhile, the TRE line is used by the commuter rail and a handful of freight trains per day.
Although several officials say they’re close to finalizing the deal, it’s not at all clear if and when the nation’s only coast-to-coast passenger rail line will make its move to the TRE line, which runs through Northeast Tarrant County.
31 Percent of Amtrak Texas Eagle trains ran on time the past 12 months.
Tied to TEX Rail
The proposal to move Amtrak to a faster set of tracks became a bargaining chip in negotiations among several railroads and numerous local and federal agencies to build another commuter rail line, known as TEX Rail, from downtown Fort Worth to Grapevine and Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.
Union Pacific was asked to allow TEX Rail to build tracks on two miles of UP property near the Fort Worth Stockyards, and UP officials said they would allow the move if TEX Rail advocates would help get Amtrak off their main east-west line through Dallas, Arlington and Fort Worth.
In return, TEX Rail advocates hatched a plan to move Amtrak to the TRE line, which included double-tracking an area that had only one set of TRE tracks. Also, the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, known as the T, had to buy a $21 million insurance policy to indemnify Amtrak from liability in the event someone was killed or injured on the TRE tracks.
Those negotiations are very close to being completed, said Bob Baulsir, T vice president for TEX Rail and procurement.
“We are on good terms with Amtrak and simply letting the legal folks wordsmith the agreement,” Baulsir said in an email. “I expect it will be signed in the coming weeks.”
Although Amtrak held up the negotiations for years over the $21 million insurance policy, this time Amtrak may bear little, if any, of the blame for the delay. The publicly-funded corporation owns none of the tracks it uses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and can’t make a move until federal and local leaders have inked their contracts.
“Plans for Amtrak to operate on the Trinity Railway Express line are still under review,” spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said. “A time line to for the move hasn’t been established.”
They’ll come on the speaker and say, ‘There’s a problem on the freight tracks ahead. We’re stuck.’ And we’ll sit there, sometimes for an hour.
Amtrak rider Melina Sanchez of San Antonio
Some federal officials are coy when asked to explain the delay.
Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Michael Booth said he could only provide background information on the construction delay of the double-tracking on the TRE line. But an official from Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which co-owns the TRE, said Amtrak could begin using the TRE line even without the double-tracking.
“Nope. Not a requirement,” DART spokesman Morgan Lyons wrote in an email.
LeCody said he heard from reliable sources that a little-known player in the saga, the short-line Dallas Garland & Northeastern Railroad, might be holding up negotiations.
That railroad, which runs a handful of trains per day on the same tracks that would be used by TEX Rail, has so-called “trackage rights” to use the rails in the area and thus far has not signed the deal.
However, an official with the parent company of Dallas Garland & Northeastern this week denied his company was jamming up the negotiations.
“This is a complicated negotiation involving multiple parties, most of whom have not yet signed,” said Michael Williams, Connecticut-based spokesman for the railroad’s parent company, Genesee & Wyoming Inc. “The many agreements involved are close to being finalized, and DGNO hopes to be in a position to sign within the next few weeks.”
Riders just want reliability
For Amtrak passengers, all that really matters is they want a reliable ride.
Sylvia Batson and her grown son, James Batson, both live in Tulsa. They rode the Heartland Flyer, another Amtrak train that stops daily in Fort Worth, south from Oklahoma City to visit the Alamo and other tourist sites in San Antonio.
James Batson, a welder, doesn’t like flying because he always seems to have a tough time getting through airport metal detectors. His mom hates long drives.
They recently stopped in Fort Worth to change trains, and complimented the smooth ride of the Heartland Flyer. But their connecting train on the Texas Eagle bound for San Antonio was nearly an hour late, because of a freight train accident in east Texas that clogged railroad lines all day.
“There were rumors we would have to be put on a bus because of the derailment,” Sylvia Batson said. “At least we won’t have to be on a bus. But it looks like we’re going to be a little late.”