Year in review: New Amtrak routes, VIA challenges

Year in review: New Amtrak routes, VIA challenges

Passenger train at the station next to bodies of water
The direction north Adirondack arrives in Port Kent, NY on September 22, 2016. The Montreal-New York City service remains the only Amtrak route not yet restored after the 2020 cut. Bob Johnston

Trains News Wire continues our look back at the top stories of 2022. We’ll be tallying the top 10 stories of the year, voted for by Trains editors, columnists and correspondents as of December 26th. To kick things off, we’re going to look at important stories that didn’t make this list. Today: passenger train.

Service expansion, VIA Rail Canada challenges, and Brightline’s continued progress in preparing for the launch of Miami-Orlando service in 2023 were among the significant passenger rail developments of 2022 that didn’t quite make our top -10 list.

New routes and a non-starter

The state-sponsored Ethan Allen was extended from Rutland to Burlington, Vt., 29 July. Federal grants with state grants improved the Vermont Railway’s tracks between the two cities, including replacing a detour route with a tunnel in Middlebury, Vt.

About Lake Champlain, sponsored by New York Adirondack remains the only Amtrak route canceled in March 2020 that could not be reinstated. The state and Amtrak took a “Montreal or nothing” approach and declined to operate it near the Canada-US border, despite repeated calls for its reinstatement by US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D) and the US Rep Elise Stefanik (R). [see “Adirondack’s uncertain return …,” Trains News Wire, July 21, 2022]. Round-trip service resumed between New York City and Albany-Rensselaer in December on the train’s previous schedule, with service to Montreal now promised for “Spring 2023.”

Elsewhere, Virginia added a second daily round-trip service from Roanoke to Washington, DC in July. Minnesota and Wisconsin secured a $31.8 million federal grant for capacity improvements that will allow a second Chicago-Twin Cities train to expand capacity Empire Builders once a day departure. Construction of capacity upgrades on Canadian Pacific’s route is expected to begin in 2023, with service expected to begin in 2024. Pennsylvania and Norfolk Southern also signed a $200 million infrastructure upgrade contract that includes a second route Pennsylvanian Round-trip service between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh upon completion of construction next year [see “Plan to allow second ‘Pennsylvanian’ includes …,” News Wire, March 9, 2022]. The state also sponsored route improvement funding for a possible Amtrak route between New York and Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Though tangible results are likely years away, passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has sparked renewed interest among states and passenger rail advocates seeking route expansion. It will allocate billions of federal dollars over the next five years to the design and construction of new and good-condition projects that the Federal Railroad Administration will assess as part of its Corridor Identification and Development program [see “FRA unveils Corridor ID …,” News Wire, May 17, 2022]. The legislation also directs FRA to investigate the resumption of service on suspended long-haul routes, as well as day-to-day operations for the cardinal and sunset limited, Amtrak’s only tri-weekly trains.

The turbulent year of VIA Rail Canada

VIA Rail Canada developed what it called “High Frequency Rail,” a separate right-of-way plan to escape the clutches of the Canadian National Railway on its Toronto-Montreal corridor. But in March, Canada’s Transport Secretary, Omar Alghabra, announced the concept would instead become a venture seeking “expressions of interest” from private developers who would presumably bring funding to the table, rather than allowing public investment to flow through VIA itself [see “Transport Canada inches forward …,” News Wire, March 10, 2022]. The move resulted in the resignation of VIA CEO Cynthia Garneau two months later.

Man at the control panel of the passenger car
VIA President Martin Landry tests the controls of a Siemens railcar at the Montreal maintenance center. Landry took over as VIA President and CEO following the departure of Cynthis Garneau earlier this year. Bob Johnston

As Canada began to ease strict COVID-19 restrictions that had made inter-provincial travel extremely difficult, VIA had enough equipment to meet post-pandemic demand. A second Toronto-Vancouver Canadian Frequency per route was added in early May; Montreal-Halifax, NS, ocean and remote service round-trip trips in Quebec, Ontario and between Jasper, Alta, and Prince Rupert, BC increased again to three per week through July.

In October, however, the discovery of unspecified structural flaws prompted VIA to add unmanned “buffer” cars at both ends of every train that was operated with stainless steel Budd equipment originally built in the 1940s and 1950s. The requirement will remain in place until 2023 while the cars undergo testing [see “VIA: Need for ‘in-depth’ inspections led to buffer-car decision,” News Wire, Oct. 19, 2022].

The following month, the Canadian carrier quietly introduced the first of 32 Siemens-built Venture multiple units in a service debut between Montreal and Ottawa; The new trains are scheduled to replace mixed LRC and Budd inventory on the VIA Quebec City-Windsor, Ontario corridor over the next three years.

Brightline construction advances

Yellow and white passenger train at level crossing
A Brightline test train speeds over a newly constructed double-track freeway intersection in Cocoa, Florida, on February 23, 2022. FRA-mandated 110-mile testing continued throughout the year as crews added a second track to the Florida East Coast Railway’s West Palm Beach-Cocoa Main line. Bob Johnston

The dual track and associated bridge construction along West Palm Beach on Florida’s east coast to the Cocoa, Florida, north-south main line was nearing completion in preparation for the start of Brightline service to Orlando International Airport in 2023. With the segments complete, test trains began a series of Federal Railroad Administration-mandated braking and signaling tests at 110 mph, the first US application of this upper speed limit to Wabtec’s positive IETMS train control system.

Plans for an extension west of the airport to Orlando area attractions and onward to Tampa on the median of Interstate 4 have also advanced with an agreement to build the route as a shared Brightline-SunRail “Sunshine Corridor” that will provide frequent commuter rail service. and are therefore entitled to local transport funding and federal public transport funding [see “Brightline, SunRail ‘Sunshine Corridor’ project could cost $6 billion …,” News Wire, Sept. 6, 2022]

With most of the heavy lifting completed, 2023 promises to be a landmark year for Brightline.

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