A RailPAC Special Report, November, 2004. — In its September issue, the Train Riders Association of California’s (TRAC) “California Rail News” displays a front page photograph taken without permission from the RailPAC website. The photo isn’t shown in its entirety. The entire photo was published in the August 2004, “Western Rail Passenger Review” magazine (on page 6), and was posted to www.railpac.org that same month (and is reproduced here). Three people are shown in the edited version with their heads cropped off. The two males are wearing suits and ties as if the editor wants the audience to believe, that “Amtrak suits repeatedly had free dinners at the now-closed Chef Mario’s Island Lighthouse Seafood Grotto.” Absent evidence, does the article’s author hope the gullible will believe the worst as a result of seeing the cropped photo?
Of course, as RailPAC members know, the original photo, taken by RailPAC secretary Russ Jackson, doesn’t show Amtrak or Caltrans “suits,” but RailPAC members Art Lloyd and Bruce Jenkins, former TRAC officers, who were invited (along with current RailPAC and TRAC officers, San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee members and the Capitol Corridor’s CC Riders representatives) by Caltrans and Amtrak to participate in a taste test of potential new menu items for San Joaquin and Capitol Corridor trains. As Caltrans and Amtrak explained on the day of the test, it was not designed, as the photo’s caption suggests, to select new vendors, but to involve riders, to the maximum extent possible, in choosing food to be served aboard trains. Test participants were given the opportunity to rate a large selection of potential items and rate them on taste and marketability.
This is the second year that RailPAC has participated in this process, while TRAC did not. The test is held in the PPS kitchen in Alameda and the food is prepared and displayed as it would appear on the trains, by Chef Mario Garcia, one of the two food contractors who provide food for the San Joaquins and Capitols. Some of the proposed dishes weren’t very good. The reviewers of those dishes were unhesitant and merciless. Any “mystery meat and stale pasta” cited in the TRAC article is doomed by this critique. Other recipes, however, are excellent, and the favorites, as chosen by the test participants, become candidates for serving aboard the trains. Some are already available to customers. The article alleges several other improprieties in the Caltrans relationship with Chef Mario. To find out the real story RailPAC asked several questions the article raised. The picture Caltrans paints is very different than the one portrayed by the article.
Most food sold aboard state-funded trains is provided by Amtrak’s national food provider, Gate Gourmet. The exceptions are dinner and breakfast entrees aboard the San Joaquins and fresh sandwiches aboard both the San Joaquins and Capitols. These are provided, under a separate Amtrak contract with Party Picnic Specialists (PPS), the firm owned by Mario Garcia, the Chef Mario referred to on on-board menus, and in the article. The article delights in using descriptive phrases such as, “Caltrans’ favorite contractor” to refer to PPS, but it’s a curious sort of favoritism that, according to Eric Schatmeier, Caltrans’ Manager of Rail Operations and Marketing, has shrunk the dollar amount of the contract to about half its original size.
Caltrans’ relationship with Chef Mario began three years ago after the Division of Rail commissioned a consultant report examining San Joaquin dining car business practices. The report opined that the attendant-served meals then served on the trains could never cover their costs and that high quality micro-waveable meals could be formulated and served over-the-counter at great savings. The consultant, a Seattle chef named Kathy Casey, had developed similar menu items for Pacific Northwest corridor service and, as part of her work on Caltrans’ behalf, produced California-style recipes for the San Joaquins. In the short term, these recipes appeared on board the train to rave reviews. For the long-term, Caltrans asked Amtrak to put the entr=E9e/fresh sandwich menu development and food preparation portion of the business out to bid. This was done and the contract extensively advertised. Two bids were received and the winner in the bid process, managed by Amtrak procurement, was PPS. Similar to Caltrans, Amtrak’s bid process frowns on sole-sourcing without extensive and detailed justification. No such justification was sought in this case because none was needed or desired by either Amtrak or Caltrans. This was, according to Schatmeier, a competitively bid contract in every sense of the term. Since it is the only evidence offered for the article’s assertion that “inside Caltrans, sole sourcing continues unabated” the claim looks to be both unproven and incorrect.
As is the case with all Amtrak food providers, the PPS contract requires Chef Mario to pass frequent Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspections, to specify the quantity and quality of the ingredients in the menu items he provides and to withstand periodic “spec checks” to ensure that he delivers the right food for the right price. According to Schatmeier, Chef Mario has consistently met his obligations during the contract, whatever the condition of his outside business interests. In addition, contrary to the article’s assertion that, “competition between vendors has been replaced by taste tests,” anyone attending the tests knows that their function is to establish a repertoire of menu selections that will be attractive to train customers and that Amtrak and Caltrans solicit a variety of customer input to this end. “Our goal is to make the food service on the trains 100% customer-driven,” Schatmeier says. “The tests are aimed at making sure that we’re responding to what the riders want rather than what we might choose. I’m gratified that RailPAC takes the process seriously and provides us with both praise and needed criticism. I’m also puzzled about why TRAC chooses to sit on the sidelines.”
According to Schatmeier, the article’s claim that, “TRAC has been asking CALTRANS for more than a year why they picked Chef Mario to provide food service is false.” Until this article appeared, we have never been asked by TRAC or anyone else to provide information about what we do or why we do it. “It isn’t due to lack of interest,” he says. “I attribute it to three things. First, we anticipate our riders’ and the public’s interest and curiosity about on-board dining and so we share all of our plans in public at venues such as the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee. When we took radical steps like discontinuing attendant-served meals, we made detailed presentations about the economics involved and the alternatives. We never moved without their sign off. Advocacy organizations such as RailPAC are regular attendees and contributors at these meetings. Second, as a public agency, we know that nothing we do is secret. All anyone has to do is ask and if the information exists, we provide it. TRAC is certainly within its rights to make a public records act request, but it seems odd that they would do so when the same information is available to anyone just by asking. Finally, customers are satisfied with the food we provide them. In addition to the tests, we perform more market research on the subject of food than any other service in the country. This research consistently yields praise. Sales are down recently, but so is train ridership. 2004 has been a rough year for the San Joaquins. We’ve had track maintenance blitz’s, levee breaks and paralyzing freight train interference that has led to late trains and significant ridership loss. In June, the month cited in the article, a huge percentage of our trains were annulled. If fewer people ride the train, fewer people eat the meals. Those who do, however, love them for their quality and value.”
And what of the economics of food service? The article claims that, “Caltrans has not disclosed how much it pays for the meals that Chef Mario provides,..” but maybe that’s because TRAC never asked. This information was not part of the public records letter and RailPAC has learned, simply by asking, that the cost, for example, of the San Joaquins’ new pork loin dish is $7.24 compared to its selling price of $9. This represents a 25% mark-up, which contributes to Caltrans’ and Amtrak’s overall goal of earning a 50% average profit on food items. In the fiscal year ending September 30, Amtrak will report a profit on San Joaquin food service of about 23%, with revenues of about $1.7 million and costs of about $1.4 million. “Despite all our problems this year,” Schatmeier says, “we’ve been successful at our goal to have food service contribute to lowering train operating costs. Every dollar we take in here is a dollar we can allocate to additional services elsewhere.”
Finally, what are we to make of the article’s portrayal of PPS’ outside business problems and un-named “whistleblowers?” “I suspect smoke-blowers’ would be a more appropriate term,” says Schatmeier. “But Chef Mario’s alleged problems are of interest to me only to the extent that they limit PPS’ ability to fulfill the terms of the contract it has with Amtrak. To date, PPS has met every contractual obligation they’re required to. We expect them to continue to do so well into the future.”
Caltrans and Amtrak are fair game for criticism for bad calls and RailPAC must always guard against being co-opted. But these organizations are also entitled to praise when they do the job right. Lacking evidence to the contrary, they appear to be on the right track with food.
Article approved by: Noel Braymer, James Smith, Russ Jackson, and Richard Silver.
by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President — Faster Rail Passenger service not only increases ridership but also improves productivity. It does this by carrying more passengers per day with the same number of train crews and equipment. To achieve these results require major investments in equipment and trackwork. A fast, efficient railroad infrastructure can benefit not only intercity passenger rail, but commuter and freight services as well. The biggest bottleneck in California to faster intrastate rail service is between the San Fernando Valley and Bakersfield. No single project could do more to improve intercity, commuter and freight service in California.
Between Sylmar and Santa Clarita is an old single track rail tunnel which is a major bottleneck for Metrolink and future intercity service north of the San Fernando Valley. Between Santa Clarita and Bakersfield is the current rail route between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. It can take up to 5 hours or more to travel by train between Los Angeles and Bakersfield on this route. Much of the problem is with the route through the Tehachapi Mountains. This major freight corridor is heavily congested and in a mountainous area where running speeds are slow and construction costs high. The I-5 and 99 freeways in the San Joaquin Valley are heavily traveled by big rig trucks which are a major source of pollution in the San Joaquin Valley. This north-south truck traffic will continue to grow increasing the growing congestion on California’s primary transportation artery.
The Airline Industry seems to always be in trouble. Times are getting worse for the Airlines with rising fuel prices adding to existing woes. Given the difficulties the Airlines have making money, why would anyone want to compete for the same markets as the Airlines by rail? To travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco in under three hours would require almost non-stop service. But there are a lot of cities and people between LA and San Francisco that express service would skip. Serving most of California would be slower than flying, but much faster than driving, which is how most people travel. For most people economy is more important than speed. The “Chunnel” between London, Paris and Brussels is learning this where their ridership is hurting from discount airlines offering slower service, but at half the price. We need a fast rail service that competes with the auto for convenience, price and speed, not the airplane. Instead we need a passenger rail service which serves the airports to feed passengers, not compete with the airlines.
Given the high capital costs of construction, the greatest utility from any investment should be made. Passenger Rail trains capable of traveling over 130 miles per hour in most countries are very light weight. Many of the problems the Acela has comes from mixing lightweight European parts with ARA mandated impact standards which made the Acela trainset much heavier than passenger trains overseas. If a lightweight trainset were used here in California it could not share the same tracks with other trains. This would be no better than building Mag-Lev. Many High Speed rail projects around the world share tracks with slower conventional passenger and freight trains. Exclusive high speed running is limited to open country where construction is cheap and urban area are served by alternative routes.
Perhaps the biggest concern is, will a High Speed Rail project contribute to the rest of the rail passenger network, or suck away badly need funding from other projects. It certainly will if other services are not able to share in using major track improvements built for a high speed rail system. In almost every form of transportation through out history, freight is the primary user and most profitable. The freight railroads have congestion problems which require major track improvements. Passenger services, both commuter and intercity share trackage with freight railroads. A healthy railroad benefits both passengers and freight. Any projected supported by the taxpayers of California must benefit the largest number of people and interests, if it hopes to be built and succeed.
by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President
The gods help those who first help themselves: Or, It is easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission.
Generally the state of rail passenger service in this country is bleak. Many large cities in this country have no service. Some of the largest cities in this country have three trains a week– when they are lucky. But there are bright spots. The brightest spot is right here in California. Most of the other bright spots have followed California’s example to expand rail passenger service.
What is the “secret” to getting more rail passenger service? In two words: “local initiative.” Waiting for a far-away bureaucracy in Washington or Sacramento to come like a knight on a white horse to take care of everything is a form of delusional thinking. The greater the local control, the greater the progress. A good example of this would be our Capitol Corridor. These trains are operated by Amtrak, but they are managed by Gene Skoropowski, who works for BART! Under this arrangement improved service has increased ridership and revenues so much that it was possible to run additional trains without increasing the subsidy budget! How we’d like to see this repeated around the country.
Most of the progress for rail service around the country has been for light rail and commuter trains, not intercity service. The reason is that these are local services which had local support to have them built. Grassroots efforts will work if you have a good idea that won’t bust the budgets. Large scale high priced projects are usually the favorite of bureaucracies and politicians. They have a poor record of getting built. If they are built they rarely live up to the promises made to get them built.
Amtrak has many hard working, competent, dedicated and very frustrated employees. Amtrak is a classic top heavy, micro-managing and overly centralized bureaucracy. The result is all initiative is squeezed out of the employees who deal with passengers every day, with decisions made by top management insulated from the problems they are supposed to solve. Many of the problems Amtrak has could be prevented if the people dealing with the problems were given authority to act! Too often simple things like opening a locked deadheaded car to relieve overcrowding on a train requires phone calls back east. Employees are afraid to do common sense things because they could get in trouble for not obeying orders.
About the only good thing Amtrak did in the 1990’s was to try to decentralize itself with the creation of three business units. California fell under Amtrak West. Under Amtrak West the Coast Starlight was allowed many innovations. The Pacific Parlor Car is an example of this. Upgraded service resulted in increased ridership and revenues. If more equipment had been available, more passengers would have ridden the train. Did Amtrak learn and repeat the lessons of the Coast Starlight to its other long distance trains? No, Amtrak has since been “recentralized” and most of the innovations on the Starlight taken away to “save money.”
It would be unfair to pick on just Amtrak’s bureaucracy. Most people work for organizations that share many of the same faults as Amtrak. The problem is that if we want better rail passenger service, we can’t allow things to stay as they are. Politicians are often part of the problem. They love to reorganize things in the name of efficiency by taking several bureaucracies and making one larger bureaucracy. Smaller organizations can concentrate on their core mission. Bureaucracies often have too many balls in the air to handle any of them well. A good example of this is the merging of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) and the Southern California Rapid Transit District (RTD) into the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The MTA did such a good job that construction of rail transit came to a halt with often delayed and over budget projects. The Pasadena Gold Line was finally built after years of delay by an independent local agency created only to build the Gold Line on time and on budget, which it did.
by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President
NOTE: The following was received from Elizabeth O’Donoghue, Director-Communication Public and Government Affairs (West) Amtrak. My comments follow hers, and refer to my August commentary.
To: Editor, Western Rail Passenger Review
One thing – you wrote in the Western Rail Passenger Review that “…if Amtrak receives this money the Northeast Corridor will get the far largest share.” I’m not sure what you were referring to, but if it’s one of the following issues, I want to be sure that you understand, since I would disagree:
- if the funding you refer to is for the Corridor Demonstration Pilot Program – we would envision that the funds would go to the states, not Amtrak; and it would be based on the ‘near term implementation plans’ outlined in the states’ plans — all the Tier I’s listed in the report. The NEC is a different animal and we focused the $1.990 Billion program only on the other corridors.
- if the funding is for the National Network Demonstration program – that funds would also go to the states, or freights, to invest in the vulnerable segments. That doesn’t apply at all to the NEC.
- if the funding is for equipment – the Strategic Plan calls for new Auto trains, as you mention (that’s not NEC equipment); and also overhauls of the Superliners and other equipment. We are also working with the states on a partnership procurement’ process whereby we contemplate issuing RFP’s for single level and bi-level corridor equipment (non electrified) that would be deployed on corridors throughout the country, with direct state involvement.
We’re just putting this together now and things will get clearer in the next few months.
My reply: RailPAC fully supports Amtrak’s efforts towards additional funding for the states for regional rail services, which can also improve Amtrak, freight and commuter services. I believe you are replying to my August President’s column. In it I said “Most of the money Amtrak gets goes to the Northeast Corridor which it is a minority user.” The NEC is the heaviest traveled commuter corridor in the country. The majority of the train run there are commuter trains.
Amtrak brings in about 2 billion dollars in revenues a year. It loses about 1.3 billion dollars a year which is the subsidy for this year. Amtrak is asking for 1.8 billion which I assume would give an additional 500 million dollars toward some of the projects you mention. Three hundred million dollars is the fully allocated cost for the National system. The subsidy requirements for the NEC ran 468 million dollars for operations. This leaves roughly 500 million dollars in Federal funds of the current 1.3 billion in Federal support. This money is used for management’s discretionary use and investment. Ninety percent of this money in Amtrak’s FY04 budget has gone into the NEC. Since 1975 Amtrak has received 27 billion dollars, 75% of that money has gone to the NEC. Of this 27 billion dollars, 90% has gone to the NEC and all other corridors. This leaves 10% for the Long Distance Trains .
The Long Distance Trains are Amtrak’s crown jewels. They bring in over 50% of Amtrak’s passenger revenues. The COAST STARLIGHT by itself brings in more passenger revenues than all the PACIFIC SURFLINERS combined. They could bring in more revenue for Amtrak, if they only had the capacity. There have been no additional Long Distance equipment bought since the 1980’s. Only since Mr. Gunn became Amtrak’s President has an effort been made to repair damaged Long Distance equipment that had long been left out of service. Additional equipment and better equipment utilization would expand ridership and increase revenues.
There is no program, let alone capital funds, committed to expand the Long Distance train fleet so ridership can expand, insure at least daily service on all trains, and create a national network of connecting trains to allow greatly expanded ridership and revenue at modest incremental costs. Such a program would greatly improve Amtrak’s bottom line and reduce its exposure to annual congressional budget battles. Too often the focus is on “saving money” at the expense of revenues. Currently brake inspections and routine maintenance are centralized at Beech Grove instead of done locally. This would make sense if the scheduling of all trains brought them close to Beech Grove on a regular basis. But this not being the case, equipment is being deadheaded thousands of miles to Beech Grove and kept out of service for days for work that use to be done at the train’s end points. This has made an existing equipment shortage worse during the peak summer season. This translates into lost revenues on Amtrak’s prime source of revenue.
Since Amtrak’s creation its Long Distance system has been greatly reduced in a effort to “save money”. The assumption was that route miles was the basis of costs, and Long Distance trains with plenty of route miles generated most of the costs. The result of each major cut of Long Distance train service was a massive loss of revenues and increase, not a decrease in Amtrak’s subsidy needs.
by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President — Amtrak over the last thirty plus years never seems to change. Amtrak always seems to want more money from Congress, and threaten to shut down most or all service if it doesn’t get what it wants. Most of the money Amtrak gets goes to the NEC to run a railroad which it is a minority user. Amtrak keeps trying to develop expensive high speed rail service in intercity corridors which are low revenue producers. Service on Amtrak doesn’t seem to get better, only slowly to get worse. And Long Distance Trains remain the stepchild of Amtrak, even though they brings in over half of Amtrak passenger income!
This June only one Amtrak train, The City of New Orleans had a better on-time record than in June of 2003. Last fall Amtrak redid the schedule of its “flagship” Acela Express trains, adding padding to try to bring on-time performance to over 90%. This June the on-time performance for the Acela was slightly down from last June.
In the news has been the efforts by some Democratic Senators to block the nomination of three Amtrak Board members pending since September. The point seems to be to stop a new Amtrak board from implementing the Bush administration’s proposals to overhaul Amtrak. Time is not on the side of those trying to stop a major overhaul of Amtrak. Even a board with 2 members out of 7 seats under Amtrak’s bylaws can do business. A truncated board with a majority of Bush administration appointees can still vote in the Bush Plan.
What is the Bush administration’s plan? Over the next six years Amtrak would be split into three separate companies. One to operate trains, one to maintain the Northeast Corridor and the third would retain Amtrak’s rights to operate passenger service on the freight railroads. The property of the Northeast Corridor would be leased to a coalition of the states in the Northeast. This plan would open the door for bidding out operation of service to private companies or public agencies. This is how service is provided by most commuter rail services today like Metrolink, Coaster, Caltrain and ACE. The federal government would not pay operating costs for trains, the states would be free to do that at their discretion. The federal government would pay 50 percent of rail infrastructure costs.
The last part, that the federal government would not pay subsidy to train operations is the scariest sounding part of the proposal. But the fact is most Amtrak trains already cover their operating costs. Most of Amtrak’s subsidy goes into its overhead, which is largely from ownership of the Northeast Corridor. When the passenger service is cut loose from ownership of the Northeast corridor, you will no longer hear stories of it costing $300 dollars a passenger in subsidy to ride a long distance train. The thrust of this proposal is to turn over control of rail service to the states. This makes sense for emerging corridors such as we have in California.
My main concern is over the future of Long Distance trains. What would happen to a route if one state doesn’t sign on to continue service? A well managed system with on going capitalization can be self-supporting and would see massive ridership growth. My other concern, and the concern of many States, is that this plan doesn’t turn rail passenger service into another unfunded federal mandate for the States. I would like to see adequate federal funding for capital improvements for rail throughout this country which will benefit passenger and freight rail service.
We will need an Amtrak so that we can have seamless interline ticketing and coordinated scheduling between trains so passengers can transfer between trains. We need Amtrak’s power to continue to have the right to operate passenger service where needed over any and all of the Nation’s freight railroads. We don’t need Amtrak to peddle fast corridor service between major city pairs. If the Acela is the best Amtrak can do, then Amtrak should get out of the express train business. Regional rail services are social services best handled by the States themselves. To serve most of America, since after all Amtrak is the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, it should concentrate on it’s core business which is the Long Distance service, which supplies most of its income and if run well could produce a great deal more.
by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President — As in any business, time is money when running a railroad. The Union Pacific Railroad is learning this the hard way. In the face of growing traffic Union Pacific’s earning are declining. They are declining because traffic congestion on their lines is causing their trains to run late. The result is less freight being carried, many angry customers and lost business. As RailPAC’s Russ Jackson observed after a recent auto trip to Texas, siding after siding on the UP was clogged with idle freight trains. Because of delays many train crews hit their maximum 12 hour workdays miles away from their intended destination. The UP is already short on train crews so replacement crews often are not available. Many of these trains were left stranded without replacement crews to run them. The trains that are running are hindered by the lack of available sidings on busy mainlines further adding to the slowdown and congestion.
I can’t think of a successful commuter railroad that doesn’t run better than 90% on time. On the other hand I can’t think of a commuter rail line that doesn’t see ridership drop sharply when their on time performance drops. The Swiss are among the most rail riding people in the world. Is it any wonder that their trains have some of the best on-time performance rail service in the world, with 95% within 4 minutes, 81% within 60 seconds!?
This brings me to Amtrak. Amtrak can’t do much about the on time performance of its trains on the UP for the moment. It is interesting that on the BNSF being on time is less of an issue. Amtrak offers host railroads incentive pay if they deliver their trains on time. The UP has generally ignored this program. The BNSF hasn’t. In at least one case on the SAN JOAQUINS when it failed to earn Amtrak’s incentive pay, the BNSF replaced the responsible executives! But what about those things Amtrak can control. At the October 2003 schedule change Amtrak revamped the schedule of their ACELA trains which largely run on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor. Amtrak’s aim was to raise the on time record of the ACELA from 70% to 94%. They added more padding to the schedule and took out some intermediate stops to improve on time performance. Well, it has been about 9 months now and the ACELA on time performance doesn’t seem to be much better: in January of this year the on time performance of the ACELA was 65.8%. Granted this was during the winter when there were weather-related problems, but in May of this year the ACELA was running at 74.1% onetime. Hardly better than the system average of 70.4% and behind the METROLINER’S 74.2 % on time record for May.
A big choke point for ACELA is when it runs on Metro-North trackage. Amtrak has time slots reserved on Metro-North for its trains. The problem is when Amtrak doesn’t show up on time for its reserved slot when entering Metro-North territory it screws up the scheduling for Metro-North trains. Metro-North doesn’t feel obligated to bail out Amtrak when they show up late. The same problem happens when Amtrak trains are not on time at other host railroads. This is the basis of the old saying late trains only get later.
Trains are late for many reasons, some of them outside the control of the railroad. Too often on Amtrak the equipment or personal are not ready on time. Equipment is sent out needing repairs that then breakdown on the road. Trains have been delayed because the switching locomotive has run out of fuel while bringing equipment to the station. A train was delayed because a valve to a water tank wasn’t checked and closed before being set out of the yard. This winter many railcars were damaged and unavailable the next day for service in the East and Midwest because the head end power wasn’t connected at the yard between runs to keep the cars warm, which resulted in frost damage. Many stations are poorly designed to handle passengers quickly; platforms are too short so the train must be double-stopped to load the train. Some stations are poorly organized to expedite the loading of passengers. Many of these problems boil down to a lack of operational discipline from the top down.
So the bright spot on Amtrak would seem to be California’s corridor trains, particularly the PACIFIC SURFLINERS, with on time performance sometimes reaching above 90%. But considering the improved equipment and upgraded right of ways paid largely by the state of California, this shouldn’t seem unexpected. In the case of the SURFLINERS when these capital improvements were approved in the 1990’s the goal was that the running time between Los Angeles and San Diego would be 2 hours and 10 minutes by the year 2005. At this rate I don’t think the SURFLINERS are going to achieve this goal. Currently the train has a slower schedule than in the 1970’s when the run between Los Angeles and San Diego was 2 hours and 35 minutes. We have the equipment and the railroad to easily slash 10 to 15 minutes off the current schedule between Los Angeles and San Diego. Where is the will?
by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President — When it comes to transportation, many people get hung up on technology. People argue we need the latest in monorail, or maglev, bullet trains or whatever. Naturally the people most hung up on the technology are the people trying to sell a particular technology. Now, technology can be wonderful. But most transportation systems boil down to a box carrying people usually on a right of way. This is true of trains, planes, cars, ships, maglev or monorails. What most people care about when they travel is safety, convenience and economy. The technology is secondary.
RailPAC got started in San Diego. This was not an accident. Why San Diego? In large part because of State Senator James Mills of San Diego, considered the “Father” of the San Diego Trolley and the success of the San Diegans. He wasn’t the founder of RailPAC, but the success of both the Trolley and San Diegans formed the basis of the philosophy of RailPAC. The Trolley is far from hi-tech, but it was cheap to build. It was not possible to get enough money to build the full system all at once. But enough money was found to build the first line. It opened in 1980, used an existing rail right of way, and served a major local market. Also, the San Diego Trolley was built to serve the train depot in San Diego. Many of the transportation planners thought this was a waste. The depot station became the busiest station.
The most important thing Senator Mills did was show that a transportation service could be well managed. When Senator Mills was involved with the Trolley, it was always built on time and on or under budget! Before the Trolley, Senator Mills got the state to pay Amtrak to run additional trains between Los Angeles and San Diego. He also started the process to upgrade the tracks and stations. From 1975 through 1980 the number of trains on the San Diegans went from three to six round trips. Ridership at this time went from 300,000 to 1,6 million annually. The success of the Trolley not only spurred expansion of the Trolley, but also light rail projects around California and the rest of the country. The San Diegans have become the Surfliners. The success of the San Diegans led to the development of the San Joaquins and the Capitals. It is difficult to see how Metrolink or the Coaster could have ever happened without the San Diegans. This in turn has helped the rebuilding of CalTrain and creation of ACE.
Now lets look at some of the darlings of hi-tech transportation. Maglev heads the list, which the German and Japanese governments have spent a lot of money trying to develop. These projects go back over twenty years. Much of the interest for maglev in this county comes from defense contractors interested in government contracts. So far, only one 19-mile project has been built. It is in Shanghai, China and despite their many attempts the German government has not been able to build maglev in Germany or anyplace else other than Shanghai. The Shanghai maglev was so important to the German Government that it paid about 10% of the 1 billion dollars cost. Chancellor Schroeder of Germany made a State visit to China to celebrate the end of construction at the end of 2002. Germany hoped to use this project as a springboard for an extension to Beijing. After a year of testing the Shanghai maglev went into service in January of this year. After over a year of first hand experience with maglev, the Chinese government announced 2 weeks after the start up of the Shanghai maglev service that new Shanghai-Beijing intercity service would be high speed rail, not maglev.
Many futuristic transportation systems assume elevated structures are cheap to build and will be popular. They are not. Along with monorails, maglev will be difficult to evacuate in an emergency and are hard to switch. In Las Vegas they have built a 3.9 mile, 650 million dollar monorail system. By 2006, the Las Vegas monorail will be extended 3.1 miles to the airport. This Monorail is a fully automated system without vehicle operators. It was supposed to start service in early January of this year. The start up date was pushed back to early March, then late March and now is set for late June. Monorail has less passenger capacity than light rail, is slower (average speed 18 miles per hour) and has nothing to catch falling debris to the street below. In January an 18-inch driveshaft fell off a test monorail train in Las Vegas. Luckily no one was hurt.
The Las Vegas monorail system was built by Bombardier. Another Bombardier product was the Acela trainsets for Amtrak. Enough has been written about the many problems with the Acela. Tilt-trains are a form of hi-tech which allow faster train speeds on existing railroads. Amtrak could have bought tilt-train equipment “off the shelf” from a manufacturer with a proven track record. Instead, Amtrak signed a contract with Bombardier which didn’t have a tilt-train in their current inventory. Early in the Acela program, Amtrak ordered that the train be widened by 4 inches. This made the tilt function of the train unusable in most areas of the Northeast Corridor, which prevented the trains running at their full potential speed. Technology is no substitute for competency. What works is good management, cost control, use of existing resources when possible, incremental improvements of services, good schedules and connections to other markets to feed ridership.
by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President — SCAG, the Southern California Association of Governments continues to promote its plan to build a regional MagLev system in Southern California. This would start with a 54 mile starter line connecting Ontario Airport with Downtown Los Angeles and West Los Angeles. Eventually this starter line would be part of a 92 mile corridor connecting LAX, Ontario Airport and March Air Base which would be part of three corridors of an even larger network. SCAG wants to build their MagLev mostly above freeways at an estimated cost of 80 million dollars a mile. SCAG wants to bet the farm on MagLev, which is an unproven technology. The only operating MagLev service is a 19 mile, 1 billion dollar airport connector in Shanghai, China that started passenger service in January of this year. The German Government spent over 120 million dollars helping to build this project as a showcase for MagLev Technology which the German Government has already spent billions to develop. Despite its best efforts the German Government has been unable to build a MagLev service in Germany or anyplace else besides Shanghai. The hope was that this starter line would be part of a bigger project running from Shanghai to Beijing. Two weeks after the opening of the Shanghai MagLev the Chinese Government announced the new Shanghai-Beijing service would be built as High Speed Rail.
Most of the major airports in California were built intentionally near rail lines. The railroads are closer to the airports than the freeways. Fixing up the existing railroads and connecting them to the airports will be much cheaper than building MagLev. Also, using existing rail lines will be less disruptive than building elevated structures over the freeways. One of the arguments SCAG uses to promote MagLev is that Metrolink doesn’t carry enough people to meet future travel needs, so something else is needed. Metrolink is running at near capacity! With modest investment Metrolink’s capacity can be greatly expanded. For Metrolink to expand its capacity it needs to run more trains, get more equipment, more track capacity and more station parking.
Station Parking? One factor that many planners seem to ignore is parking. Look at any train or transit rail station in California and the parking lots are full! Parking is the biggest constraint on rail ridership. Don’t believe me? Look at the Los Angeles Red Line. Ridership for the first two segments of the Red Line was below expectations. The final segment to North Hollywood had the biggest jump in ridership. It was the only segment that had parking. The Green Line has many shortcomings. While people may say it goes from nowhere to nowhere, ridership exceeded expectations. What the Green Line has is parking.
The assumption about MagLev is that its speed of over 200 miles per hour will draw people to ride it and get people out of their cars. But where will these people’s cars go? To run MagLev fast, you can only have a limited number of stations to stop at. To carry large numbers of people will require very large parking lots or parking structures. This means that if MagLev gets the projected ridership, its stations will be major traffic generators. Much like a large shopping mall next to the freeway, these stations will increase congestion around the freeways they serve.
There are existing rail lines near LAX, Ontario Airport and March Air Base. We can fix up these rail lines to carry as many people as we want, to run trains as fast as we want depending on how much money we want to spend. Even the fanciest rail system will be cheaper than MagLev because we will be using infrastructure we already have. Using more, smaller stations for rail will mean a faster trip to the Airport than MagLev. Passengers will save time with more direct service than driving further to a limited number of MagLev mega stations. Smaller trains stations being more numerous and spread out will have less traffic impact than mega stations. They will be closer to where more people live and more convenient for people to get to. Using many smaller stations will get more non-auto dependent ridership. This is because it will be easier to build more housing near local stations and attract more transit transfers than at a few mega-stations. We can quickly start up a basic rail service as a demonstration project on a limited budget and then expand it on a pay as you go basis. You can’t do that with Mag Lev. Metrolink can easily be expanded to serve other airports. It already serves Burbank Airport, and will serve Palmdale Airport. With a good connecting service Metrolink can serve John Wayne Airport out of the Tustin Station. There is even a railroad that goes to the Long Beach Airport.
by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President — Since the bombing of commuter trains in Madrid, Spain that killed 190 people this March, there has been a heightened state of awareness for transportation security. It is true there are terrorists among us in America. Many kill themselves in their terrorist deeds, some are unknowing accomplices spreading death and destruction. These terrorists kill on average 117 people a day, over 40,000 annually. They cost the economy up to $230 Billion in damage every year. I’m talking about the terror on our nation’s roads. We have far more to fear driving to work every day than riding a train.
In 2002 the total number of people killed on the roads rose for the first time to 42,815 after steady declines since 1990. Almost 3 million people in America were injured in traffic accidents in 2002. Much of this was due to the increase in rollover accidents which now account for 32% of traffic fatalities. Most of these roll over accidents involve pick up trucks and SUV’S. These vehicles now make up to half the vehicles sold in this county. Many people buy them in the mistaken belief their size and weight makes them safer and more secure. This false feeling of security leads these owners to drive when conditions are unsafe, such as winter on ice covered roads where TV News cameras show these vehicles sliding around out of control. The facts are as plain as High School Physics; their high center of gravity makes these vehicles unstable and more likely to roll over. The further irony is SUV’S and light trucks do not have meet the same standards for air pollution and fuel economy as cars. This was done originally to help the “poor farmer.” The result is a form of government subsidy to sell unsafe vehicles, which wastes mostly imported fuel and increases air pollution. I won’t even begin to list the economic, health costs or deaths just from air pollution or global warming.
Think fuel prices are high now? Just wait, they’ll go higher. They will go down a little, then back up higher again. It is true that the oil companies are closing oil refineries, and we have less capacity to make gasoline in California than 20 years ago. This may be an evil conspiracy by the oil companies to increase profits, but I think it is realization by the oil industry that it is pointless to expand capacity, in the face of declining supply. The major oil fields in the Middle East are depleting. They are still producing and will for years to come. But, they now can’t continue to produce at former levels. Think Alaska was the solution for our oil? We have long imported over half of our oil and the productions at the oil fields in Alaska have been declining for years. We are starting to see a long range trend of less oil being found and pumped. This in the face of increasing demand for energy, not only in America, but also around the world, particularly in developing counties like China and India.
This county’s foreign policy for years and for many administrations is centered on control of the world’s oil. We lack a policy for the future when we must transition to alternatives to make up for oil that can no longer be produced. So much of what is left of the world’s oil is in the poorest and least stable regions of the world. Plus, we are pitting ourselves against the rest of the world competing for the remaining supply of oil. Think the USA is unpopular now in some places!? Ever see the movie “Mad Max”? In the end our American dependence on fossil fuels leaves us very venerable to the actions of terrorist groups and unfriendly nations.
It is times like this I say thank God for groups like us, The Railroad Passenger Association of California. I can think back to the impact ten years ago of the Northridge Earthquake. Extending the almost new Metrolink Rail service to Lancaster gave one of the few forms of access to people in the High Desert cut off by the earthquake’s closing of Highway 14 at Sylmar to Los Angeles. Think Metrolink would have been around without groups like us promoting economical expanded rail service? I doubt it. Rail service can and does make a difference. It did in World War II when gas rationing forced reductions in driving. We have a lot of catching up to do. We have nothing close to the level of rail service of 60 years ago, but we have more people and places than we did in 1940. I’m not saying that Rail Service is the one and only solution, but it is a central part of the solution.
It is not a question of IF we should transition to a non-fossil fuel dependent economy. It is only a question of when and how painful that transition will be. As is so often the case, not only is the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” but the biggest enemy we have is ourselves.