Allegiant Air Using A-320s on Peoria-Phoenix (Mesa) Flights!

IMG_4095 - Copy
An Allegiant Air A-319 at Peoria last April 26. Larger A-320s are now showing up.

I saw it from a distance yesterday while waiting for Norfolk Southern’s Train D46 to depart, and only a quick glance through binoculars gave me confirmation.

Normally, Allegiant Air uses an Airbus A-319 on most of its nonstops between Williams Gateway Airport (in the Phoenix, Arizona suburb of Mesa) and Peoria. But on Wednesday, a larger A-320 was used. Apparently, this happened for the first time on February 17.

Allegiant’s A-319s are configured for 156 seats. The A-320s have 177. Compared this to the MD80s that have been flight to Peoria for a decade. They have 165 seats (up from 150 before recent conversions).

It should be noted that w’ere coming up on the tenth anniversary of Allegiant Air’s inaugural service to Peoria (from Las Vegas) on March 3, 2004. Allegiant, probably more than any other airline, has contributed to the passenger boom here in which the 500,000 passenger mark was broken only for the second time in 2005, and the record 550,000 passengers set in 1978 was finally broken in 2008 with just under 565,000.

– David P. Jordan

Tractor Day – Evidence Of Rising Cat Machinery Sales?

NS022614D-VIDstill

For the Norfolk Southern Railway’s Bloomington District, Wednesday is “Tractor Day.”

On this day, Train D46, the weekday local that runs from Good Yard in Normal to East Peoria and back, hauls out of town a block of machinery loads gather from Caterpillar’s Aurora and East Peoria plants, and Komatsu’s Peoria plant.

Most Caterpillar loads are from East Peoria assembly Building SS or Keen Transport’s Creve Coeur facility. Since East Peoria is the worldwide source for large track-type tractors (D9, D10, D11), the length of this block is a good indicator of worldwide machinery sales.

The biggest block of machinery loads I’ve was this one from December 28, 2011. Train D46 had 85 cars, 62 of which were either Caterpillar (54) or Komatsu (8). I caught this one exactly three months later with 75 cars, 51 of which were Caterpillar loads.

Moving production of hydraulic excavators from Aurora, Illinois to a new plant in Victoria, Texas by summer 2012 reduced the number of machinery loads on “Tractor Day.” This 54-car D46 from May 16, 2012 (note the rabbit) had only 31 machinery loads (27 Caterpillar,4 Komatsu). By spring 2013, a downturn in sales to mining firms and a decision to cut dealer inventory, reduced shipments to less than ten a week. Only five loads moved on this February 20, 2013 “Tractor Day.”

Soon after, “Tractor Day” was suspended.

Last summer, I started to notice tractor shipments had resumed on Wednesdays, though at first it seemed every-other-Wednesday. This D46 from August 21, 2013 had seven machinery loads.

Then last Sunday, I noticed the biggest string of machinery loads accumulating on a track in the Tazewell & Peoria Railroad’s East Peoria Yard. Turns out, there were 19 Caterpillar loads, all but one from East Peoria. I knew I had to return for “Tractor Day.”

The increasing number of machinery loads indicates that sales are indeed coming back. Hopefully, the trend will continue for the foreseeable future. See video from this afternoon.

– David P. Jordan

Is A Privately-Operated Passenger Train An Option For Peoria?

Revived interest in privately-operated intercity rail passenger service has me pondering its potential to play in Peoria.

The area has not had the option of rail passenger service since Amtrak rerouted its Southwest Chief between Cameron (Galesburg) and Chicago on August 1, 1996, depriving Chillicothe as a regular stop. Service to the immediate metro area was last available when Amtrak operated the Prairie Marksman between East Peoria and Chicago from August 10, 1980 until October 4, 1981. The last passenger service to Peoria proper, the Chicago Rock Island & Pacific Railroad’s Peoria Rocket, ended after the final roundtrip December 31, 1978.

Peoria area travelers have found other options to reach Chicago – driving, Peoria Charter Coach, etc. – but riding Amtrak from Normal, Kewanee or Princeton is becoming increasingly common. So there is no doubt a market exists if rail passenger service ever returned here. Yet, for three decades, there has been plenty of talk but little or no action. The most recent study favored a rail shuttle between East Peoria and Bloomington (or Normal) to connect with existing Amtrak service. This obviously flawed plan went no where fast, and now local officials seem to be satisfied with bus connections.

Fortunately, there may be another option. Not this year or next, but perhaps in the not too distant future, railroad entreprenuers will have demostrated successfully that privately-operated intercity rail passenger service is viable in some markets.

One suprising plan has been put forward by the Florida East Coast Railway, which plans to operate its own high-speed passenger service between Orlando and Miami. All Aboard Florida will require a new line between Orlando and Cocoa to draw some of the 50 million who travel between Orlando and south Florida each year, but this is a serious proposal. It may actually happen.

Less ambitious (and less costly) are some existing excursion trains that provide connecting service to Amtrak. Shortline Maine Eastern Railroad operates the Mid-Coast Limited between Rockland and Brunswick, Maine to connect with Amtrak’s Downeaster trains to and from Boston and Portland. The excursion trains are seasonal and operate mainly on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, however.

Iowa Pacific Holdings’s Saratoga & North Creek Railway has been operating regularly scheduled excursions between its namesake New York towns since July 2011. See link for schedules and days of operation. Connections are made with Amtrak’s Ethan Allen and Adirondack at Saratoga Springs.

Iowa Pacific, in partnership with Watco’s Stillwater Central Railroad, is now planning to institute scheduled intercity passenger service between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. To test demand for such a service, Iowa Pacific ran three, sold-out Eastern Flyer demonstration runs between suburbs Sapulpa and Midwest City in February.

What is amazing about plans for regular service is how soon it may start – Memorial Day 2014! Within two years, Iowa Pacific want to increase this to eight roundtrips with service extended into both Tulsa and Oklahoma City proper.

One hurdle may be sale of the 97.5-mile Tulsa-Oklahoma City route, which is owned by the state, to a party that may not favor privately-operated passenger service. There are four bidders, including prior owner BNSF Railway.

Could something like this happen for Peoria? Back in 1993, former Mayor Bud Grieves was involved in a project that seemed to be a privately-funded venture. But not quite: The plan was to run between Peoria and Chicago via P&PU, Iowa Interstate and Santa Fe, which would’ve required a taxpayer-funded connection at Chillicothe. And the train would almost certainly have been operated by Amtrak.

Grieves’ plan was shelved following the deadly Sunset Limited wreck at Big Bayou Canot, Alabama on September 22, 1993. Amtrak’s insurance rates tripled in the aftermath of the crash (caused by a barge that knocked a bridge out of alignment), a cost which would undoubtedly be passed down to those contracting it to operate intercity services.

Amtrak itself lacks the resources to begin new services without taxpayer-funded studies followed by costly taxpayer-funded infrastructure improvements. That politicians seem to have no interest in anything but high speed rail (however it is defined) is another costly barrier. This takes years. Remember that new service to the Quad Cities and Rockford was first proposed in 2006. The first trains might start running a decade later.

So Peoria’s only hope may be for a privately-operated service. The Iowa Interstate Railroad owns, subleases and/or operates the trackage used by the Peoria Rocket. Parent Railroad Development Corporation is involved with the privately-operated Hamburg-Koln Express (HKX) in Germany. HKX reported good results one year after starting service on July 23, 2012.

Lessons learned from the German passenger train service may be applied to North America. Perhaps Peoria can take part in a future demonstration?

– David P. Jordan

Pantagraph Flubs, Sugarcoats CIRA Traffic Figures

IMG_2555 - Copy

I’ve been critical of local media for its relentless pro-Central Illinois Regional Airport (CIRA) propaganda. This airport has an amazing ability to convince the public that it is growing when it is not. I sort of expect this from The Pantagraph, but I also expect them to get their facts straight.

Case in point: Yesterday’s article on the retirement of Paul Harmon from the airport board.

During Harmon’s time on the board, CIRA experienced growth in passenger traffic, leading to the opening of a new terminal in 2001. In 1997, when Harmon began on the board, the airport had 382,091 passengers. Last year, that total was 27 percent higher — 485,285 passengers.

Um…last year’s figure was 428,638 passengers. They reported this accurately on January 16. The 485,285 figure was from 2012.

But notice how the newswriter attempts to sugarcoat CIRA’s passenger traffic during Harmon’s tenure. An uninformed person would only see growth, but readers of this blog know better.

Except for 2002 (9-11) and 2009 (Great Recession), CIRA passenger traffic generally grew each year from 1997 through 2011 when it peaked at 579,265. Then AirTran Airways pulled out, operating its last flight on June 2, 2012.

New service from Allegiant Air and Frontier Airlines helped to offset this loss, but passenger numbers predictably dropped to 485,285 in 2012 and 428,638 in 2013, the first full year without AirTran.

The Pantagraph has no excuse for misreporting this figure, especially when the same writer reported it accurately in the first place.

– David P. Jordan

State Subsidies For Nonstop DC Air Service?

Since everyone knows Illinois has all of its budget problems worked out, approval of funds for a dream air route to the nation’s capital is a no brainer, right?

Illinois State Representative Mike Smiddy probably agrees. The Hillsdale Democrat told the Quad City Chamber of Commerce in late January he was going to introduce a bill that if passed would offer subsidies to an airline that would provide nonstop service between the Quad Cities and Washington, DC.

According to the Quad City Dispatch-Argus article, negotiations are underway for such service. Travel to and from the Rock Island Arsenal is cited as a reason for such service.

A Quad City Times article published at the same time reveals the airport and airline desired.

In addition, direct service to Washington, D.C., also remains a priority for the airport, which is working with the Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce to land it. “There still is no way to get into Reagan (Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport), but we’re trying to work with United to get into Dulles (Washington Dulles International Airport),” Carter said.

Which prompts the question: Is Peoria trying to secure nonstop Washington, DC service as well? With the Quad Cities openly attempting it, and Bloomington-Normal and Champaign-Urbana talking the same with their Small Community Air Service Development (SCASD) funds, you’d hope so.

– David P. Jordan

Peoria Gateway Revival: Rumblings of Another Revival?

Ever since heavy BNSF-Norfolk Southern interchange shifted to Streator or back to Chicago in 1999-2000, some local railroads have somewhat made up for the loss through expanded interchange of unit trains.

CANADIAN NATIONAL GRAIN TRAINS
In October 2000, Canadian National Railway obtained haulage rights on BNSF for Iowa grain traffic bound for Decatur or the Gulf of Mexico, giving a shorter route that bypassed Chicago. The CN had acquired the Illinois Central Railroad in July 1999 and merged operations on October 1, 2000. Within days, a haulage agreement with BNSF added trains to that carrier’s Galesburg-Peoria line and the former Illinois Central Peoria District.

Trains of Iowa corn originated at several CN-served gathering points (Cedar Rapids, Council Bluffs, Sioux City, Waterloo) for A. E. Staley Manufacturing Co. (Tate & Lyle North America from 2005) in Decatur. On occasion, a soybean train was loaded for ADM in Decatur. BNSF crews handled up to three 100-car trains a week between East Dubuque, Illinois and the Peoria & Pekin Union’s double track along Rt, 29.

This pattern held until about 2005 when the diversion of Iowa corn to an increasing number of ethanol plants reduced the number of corn, soybean or DDGS trains routed via Peoria to an occasional or seasonal basis. The BNSF-Canadian National haulage agreement expired June 1, 2012. CN ran its last grain train via Peoria in late March that year.

COAL TRAINS
Then-Burlington Northern’s Galesburg-Peoria line saw a significant decline in coal tonnage after losing the Commonwealth Edison Powerton contract to UP-C&NW in March 1994. Occasional Powerton coal trains continued until about 2001. But things had already gotten interesting.

In January 2001, BNSF began delivering a weekly coal train to Canadian National for ADM’s Decatur co-generation facility. Crews were changed on P&PU’s double track along Rt. 29. Also in 2001, CN began delivering a weekly coal train to BNSF. This movement, Cedar Rapids-bound, was short-lived.

Also about this time, BNSF began running a weekly coal train from Southern Illinois (possibly loaded at the Rend Lake Mine tipple served by CN) to the TP&W via P&PU in East Peoria. Until the consignee, Central Illinois Light Co’s E. D. Edwards Station, needed it, the coal train was broken into two cuts and stored in TP&W’s East Peoria Yard. This movement lasted until late 2003.

BNSF began handling coal for Dynegy’s Hennepin (via SCH Terminal Havana barge dock) and Havana power plants in January 2004 and January 2005, respectively. Both movements totaled about three or four loaded, 135-car trains per week.

Another interesting coal train movement began in January 2002 when Crown Mine Three at Farmersville, Illinois began sending a weekly coal train to ADM’s Cedar Rapids co-generation facility via Canadian National, Peoria & Pekin Union, Iowa Interstate and Cedar Rapids & Iowa City. I believe this movement won Railway Age’s “Golden Freight Car” award that year. In January 2011, ADM switched to two Norfolk Southern-served mines: Shay Mine  (Carlinville) and Deer Run Mine (Hillsboro), thus trains are now routed NS-TZPR-IAIS.

FEED TRAINS
In June 2004, CN began handling 60-car blocks of gluten feed from ADM’s Decatur plant to BNSF, which hauled them as a unit train to ADM’s Summerfield, Texas shuttle elevator. This movement lasted until late 2005 by which time unit trains of 100 cars were common. The Peoria routing resumed in May 2011 with CN’s Peoria Local hauling 18- and 21-car blocks to East Peoria. These blocks were accumulated and built into a unit train by Tazewell & Peoria RR crews until it ended in August. A few 100- or 110-car trains ran in June and July 2012 and also in 2013. As with coal trains, crews changed on the double track along Rt. 29 near Pekin.

WIND TURBINE TRAINS
Spiking oil prices and government promotion of alternative energy led to construction of number wind farms, especially in the Midwest. At the time, most components were imported from Vietnam, Indonesia and Denmark so rail afforded the best way for such bulky products to move from ports to inland staging areas. In February 2008, the first of several “tower” trains was hauled from Stockton, California to East Peoria on BNSF then was handled by TP&W to the old Hoosierlift near Remington, Indiana for a nearby wind energy project. In 2009, Union Pacific began handling trains hauling blades, hubs and nacelles to TP&W at Sommer (near Rt. 9 and Rt. 24 intersection) for both East Peoria and Remington staging areas. The same year, BNSF handled tower trains from Houston, Texas to the TP&W at East Peoria. Wind turbine trains have plied the TP&W since, but from eastern connections, thus none have been routed through Peoria in more than four years.

BNSF GRAIN TRAINS
The severe 2012 drought forced area processors to purchase corn from alternate regions of the country. Elevators in Minnesota, North and South Dakota began sending 110-car shuttle trains via BNSF to not only ADM in Peoria but also ADM and Tate & Lyle in Decatur. The latter were interchanged to Canadian National on the double track along Rt. 29. Each processor received up to three trains per week through the end of the year, and somewhat less for most of 2013. A better crop during 2013 curtailed these movements, though ADM in Peoria is still getting them on occasion.

NS GRAIN TRAINS
For years, Norfolk Southern relied solely on BNSF to provide haulage for grain and some carload freight  from Des Moines, Iowa. But in April 2012, NS began sending 75-car grain trains loaded every five- to seven days at Heartland Coop’s 18th St. elevator in Des Moines for southeast points over the Iowa Interstate to Peoria. This movement continued with little interruption for 13 months. Several more trains ran in August 2013. The lack of NS grain trains running on the IAIS since that time is blamed on a poor central Iowa crop. Expect these trains to resume sometime in the future.

CARLOAD FREIGHT THROUGH THE GATEWAY
Peoria’s prolific Regional or Shortline railroads do generate a small, but steady volume of carload interchange at Peoria. The closure of TP&W West End following the A & K Railroad Materials/SF&L Railway fiasco of 2001-2002, about 900+ annual carloads of Decatur-bound corn germ from Roquette America’s Keokuk wet corn mill were re-routed BNSF-P&PU-NS. After the Keokuk Junction Railway gained control of the TP&W’s West End in early 2005, Roquette America shifted eastbound corn germ to the KJRY and corn syrup, sorbitol, gluten feed and gluten meal shipments that had been moving via Chicago (or Streator) back to Peoria. Norfolk Southern got most of this, but some went to the Iowa Interstate, TP&W and Union Pacific as well.

BNSF and TP&W exchange probably 3,000 carloads annually through the Tazewell & Peoria Railroad’s East Peoria Yard. Mostly this is eastbound dry and liquid fertilizer for eastern Illinois and central Indiana points and westbound soybean products from Incobrasa Industries at Gilman. Likewise, BNSF and Illinois & Midland (IMRR) exchange a small but steady volume of carload freight each year. This is mostly roofing granules and liquid feed moving west, but there is also some plastic and lumber bound for Springfield.

Speaking of Incobrasa Industries, for awhile in 2008 and 2009, two 25-car blocks were assigned for soybean loading at Heartland Coop’s Malcom and Kellogg, Iowa elevators on the Iowa Interstate for movement to Gilman. Routing was IAIS-TZPR-TPW.

Union Pacific and TP&W exchange traffic on a regular basis, though this is mostly related to the Mapleton industrial area. However, rice flour for Kerry Ingredients in Gridley is routed UP-TP&W.

BNSF and Norfolk Southern still exchange traffic at Peoria. This is mostly Caterpillar machinery loaded at Aurora bound for export at either Portsmouth, Virginia or Savannah, Georgia. Empty “spacer” cars for ALCOA in Lafayette, Indiana and “home shop” cars bound for repair facilities are also regular visitors.

New carload movements have been noted in recent years. In 2010, Nucor Steel’s Crawfordsville, Indiana mill began shipping coiled steel to a transloader in Altoona, Iowa using an NS-TZPR-IAIS routing. In 2013, Solvay Corp began sending sodium bicarbonate from its Parachute, Colorado mine to Dominion Energy’s Kincaid Power Station near Sicily (southeast of Springfield). Routing is UP-TZPR-IMRR. Both movements seem to generated at least several hundred annual carloads.

Just this past month, the Iowa Interstate began delivering up to three unit ethanol trains a week to Norfolk Southern at Peoria, and Norfolk Southern began delivering up to three manifest trains (mostly ethanol empties) a week to Iowa Interstate. This may be temporary until railroads overcome winter-induced congestion at Chicago, but it shows what Peoria can do. Expect these railroads to pay more attention to Peoria in the near future.

All of this pales in comparison to traffic levels handled in the mid- and late 1990s, but it shows that the Peoria Gateway could come alive once more. With rising freight tonnage and congestion at traditional interchange points, perhaps the Gateway will come back in a major way sooner rather than later.

– David P. Jordan

Peoria Gateway Revival: Conrail [Trans]action Kills The Gateway Once More

The Conrail Transaction, i. e. the “unmerger” that divided Conrail between CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern on June 1, 1999, marked the end of the Peoria Gateway’s second period of significance.

But it didn’t have to be that way. Shortly after CSXT and NS concluded their Conrail deal in 1997, a section of the latter’s website explaining the benefit to shippers. There was a plan to increase traffic through Peoria Gateway, assisted by construction of an east wye at Bement (thus eliminating a time-consuming “runaround” movement).

Unfortunately, reference to Peoria was edited out after a few months. What happened? I’ve been told that relations between Norfolk Southern and the Peoria & Pekin Union had deteriorated. Personnel changes on both railroads (P&PU president, NS Bloomington District trainmster) may also have been a factor.

On June 1, 1999, the NS gained a direct connection with BNSF at Streator and a large classification yard (Elkhart, Indiana) to pre-block westbound traffic. Much of Conrail’s traffic would shift to other CSXT and former Conrail yards and lines, thus giving NS and former Conrail yards and lines extra capacity.

Norfolk Southern drastically reduced train frequency on its Bloomington District. The original plan seems to have been to run Decatur-to-East Peoria D42 and East Peoria-to-Decatur D45 on alternate days, but as it ended up, these trains seem to attempt to operate daily while East Peoria-Bellevue 410 (and new westbound counterpart 409) ran on alternate days. After the Conrail Transaction, NS shifted these trains’ eastern terminal to Frankfort, Indiana. BNSF dropped its own Peoria Local, so TP&W’s daily-except-Sunday train handled all remaining traffic under the 1995 haulage arrangement.

It must be noted that BNSF and NS didn’t completely cease interchange at Peoria on June 1, 1999.  A small amount of mostly eastbound traffic (empty autoracks, Caterpillar machinery, Coors beer, seasonal nitrogen fertilizer solution, etc.) and even some westbound traffic (canned goods from Red Gold’s Elwood, Indiana plant to an Oregon consignee) continued for at least a year, sometimes more. The reasons for this aren’t entirely clear, but perhaps specifics of railroad-shipper contracts kept select traffic routed through P&PU for a time. In addition, BNSF delivered at least two lengthy “run-through” freights to NS in East Peoria. I saw one the evening of June 7, 1999.

Given its own heavy and increasing freight volume, BNSF may have been fine with exchanging a daily train in each direction with Norfolk Southern at Peoria instead of Chicago or Streator. And it may have continued to do so were it not for Norfolk Southern’s operational meltdown during the months following the Conrail Transaction.

NS train service to P&PU suddenly became unpredictable and sporadic for lack of train crews. Not only did BNSF interchange dry up, so did much of that exchanged with TP&W. NS even ceased handling intermodal traffic for Caterpillar and other shippers to and from East Peoria. Operations had more or less returned to normal by the fall, but it would take years to rebuild lost traffic and the confidence of angry shippers.

Reportedly, the Peoria & Pekin Union Railway made matters worse by raising intermediate and terminal switching charges to make up for lost revenue, but this action likely caused traffic losses to trucks or other railroads.

For awhile, the Illinois & Midland continued to act as haulage agent for Union Pacific, but indifference by P&PU prompted IMRR to arrange for a direct interchange with Union Pacific. Trackage rights on the UP mainline between Barr and Sommer enabled IMRR’s Powerton Switcher to cross the Illinois River and pull and drop cars for UP at Sommer. This arrangement began sometime in the year 2000. Unfortunately, UP diverted its Iowa-St. Louis traffic via Chicago in 2001.

Other sources of traffic went away. Wheat bound for Cargill’s Springfield mill ceased using a BNSF-P&PU-IMRR routing sometime in the year 2000, though the plant closed in June 2001. Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern did exchange some traffic into the year 2000, but this dried up as well.

Since the early 2000s, one could only dream of a revived Peoria Gateway for carload freight, but railroads have increasingly used it as an interchange point for unit coal, grain and even ethanol trains. More on that in the next post.

– David P. Jordan

Winter’s Attack On Chicago Shifts More Rail Freight To Peoria!

It might be temporary, or it might not, but…

Too many days with heavy snow, ice and below zero temps have reeked havoc on Chicago’s already congested rail facilities. BNSF even notified shippers on January 27 that it was suspending interchange operations with other railroads for 36 to 48 hours and would divert traffic to alternate gateways when possible.

Reports are that railroads are still digging out of the mess of parked trains while shippers are dealing with infrequent service. Not a good situation.

One railroad, the Iowa Interstate Railroad Ltd., began diverting traffic normally interchanged with Norfolk Southern at Chicago to Peoria during the last week of January. Up to three unit ethanol trains are expected to run between Silvis (Quad Cities) and Peoria each week. There is some talk of this being a permanent arrangement.

And then there is a not-so-permanent arrangement. Diverted mixed carload freight has been noted as well. Norfolk Southern Train 115 brought 121 cars (7 loads/114 empties) into East Peoria Tuesday evening (Feb. 11). The Iowa Interstate hauled this monster train out of the area Thursday afternoon. Another 115 left Frankfort, Indiana late Thursday evening, and will probably arrive East Peoria late afternoon Friday.

Thursday, February 13, was a good day to catch the action. The Iowa Interstate’s Peoria-to-Silvis train PESI is shown at ADM Grain Co’s Creve Coeur elevator, passing the 1967 Rock Island depot on Morton Street and finally, the entire train at Mossville. The second video shows Norfolk Southern unit ethanol train 64D blasting through Goodfield in late afternoon.

– David P. Jordan