Monthly Archives

January 2006

Reports

Annual Meeting Report and Photos

Sacramento — Reported by Russ Jackson, Secretary — The 2006 RailPAC Annual Meeting was held in the California State Rail Museum auditorium on Saturday, January 28, 2006. Over 100 members attended, making it one of the most successful meetings in the spirited history of the organization. “KUDOS for the KIDO”, was Director Bruce Jenkins’ comment to Executive Director Richard Silver, who organized the day, “I think it was a a great meeting. It was a smashing success. There was a very obvious POSITIVE air after the meeting broke.” All 13 officers and directors of the organization were present! Many members and guests arrived at the nearby Sacramento train station, a short walk down the platform from the CSRM. Ralph James, who planned to attend by train from his home in Blue Canyon (5,000 ft elevation in the Sierra) had to cancel his trip as the snow was falling! A photo which will accompany this report on the www.railpac.org website will show a picture of the group at the head table. The crowd included several representatives from Caltrans, Amtrak, and the Union Pacific Railroad. The meeting celebrated the opening of the RailPAC legislative office in downtown Sacramento this year.

The RailPAC business meeting head table: Left to right, starting up from the bottom of the photo: Directors Anthony Lee, Bruce Jenkins, Art Lloyd, Marcia Johnston, Vaughn Wolffe, Matt Melzer, Past President Noel Braymer, new President Paul Dyson, Treasurer Bill Kerby, Directors Dick Spotswood and Bart Reed, VP James Smith, and Director Dennis Story. Executive Director and meeting organizer Richard Silver is standing in the doorway. (Photo by RailPAC Secretary Russ Jackson)

The meeting was split into a morning session, which was the Business meeting of the organization, and an afternoon session for discussion of rail issues, but as usual that discussion continued before, during, and after all sessions.

  1. Business meeting: Because President Noel Braymer chose not to run for re-election, instead returning as the newsletter editor, and Treasurer Jim Clifton decided to retire from his job, the organization had to replace these veteran rail advocates. Both Noel and Jim go back to the CRC days in the early 1980’s and have continued as loyal rail advocates and leaders. Tributes were paid to them during the meeting. Paul Dyson, Burbank, was elected the new President, and Bill Kerby, Sacramento, was elected Treasurer. In his remarks, Mr. Dyson spoke of the need for us to continue to be heard as advocates for a “quality experience” for the rail passenger, whether on long distance, corridor, or light rail. A complete list of the RailPAC directors and associate directors can be found on the www.railpac.org “Contacts” page.Other business conducted at the meeting included a change in the bylaws to add a second Vice President, with one VP “North” and the other VP “South.” The board will choose a new VP North at its next meeting. Mr. Silver reported on his successful efforts to contact legislators to explain the RailPAC positions on various rail issues in California. RailPAC director Matt Melzer, a student at UC Santa Cruz, reported on his semester as an intern at the Washington, DC, headquarters of the National Association of Railroad Passengers. Mr. Melzer spoke enthusiastically about the efforts of NARP to further the cause of the railroad passenger.
  2. The afternoon session was chaired by veteran rail advocate, Arthur Lloyd, a retired Amtrak employee who serves on many rail committees in the state and nationally. We are proud to include his name as a RailPAC director. Mr. Lloyd introduced Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson, who is also the Chairman of the Capitol Corridor JPA, and he welcomed us to his county and city. Mr. Dickinson stated, “We need a national rail passenger system. And, it would be a mistake to postpone the development of High Speed Rail. If other countries can do it, why can’t we?”A panel of directors from the National Association of Railroad Passengers briefed us on the future of rail advocacy. Pat Montague, Long Beach, was the principal speaker, saying “This is an exciting time for rail passenger advocacy. Keep it high on the radar screen, and Get the message to the decision-makers in the states and nationally.” Bob Conheim, Auburn, who is also the “Lord Mayor” of the Capitol Corridor Riders group, spoke about how great it is that we are “finding common ground between NARP and RailPAC; there is so much we can agree upon.”

    The panel of California directors from the National Association of Railroad Passengers: (left to right) Bob Conheim, Pat Montague, Jim Salvador, moderator Art Lloyd, George Gaekle, RailPAC President Paul Dyson, and 30-year NARP director Gene Skoropowski. (RailPAC photo by Russ Jackson)

  3. The next panel was introduced by Mr. Lloyd included three dynamic speakers who carry much authority about the rail programs in California.

    Guest speakers at the afternoon session: (left to right) Gene Skoropowski, Managing Director of the CCJPA; Bill Bronte, Chief of the Caltrans Division of Rail; moderator Art Lloyd (standing), Dan Leavitt, Deputy Director of the California High Speed Rail Authority, and RailPAC President Paul Dyson. (RailPAC photo by Russ Jackson)

    Mr. Skoropowski stated “The California rail experience is unique! In the automobile capitol of the world are located 3 of the 5 busiest rail corridors in the country! We have the results.” The Capitol Corridor is devoted to a “maximum level of service for the dollars and equipment available. We try to work WITH the Union Pacific to solve problems, not in an adversarial way, to get the job done.”

    Mr. Bronte said he has been in the state rail program for 15 years, and “I’m the most excited I’ve ever been. The Governor said, \u2018I will build it now!’ and he has included $500 million of stated rail projects in his proposed bond issue.” Other politicians are including money for rail projects in their proposals, too. (A list of these proposals and their contents are available from the RailPAC Executive Director.) Mr. Bronte said, “We will be more active publicly as advocates for these expenditures, and Mr. (Will) Kempton (Caltrans director) is a national leader in rail advocacy. Think 80-20 split for funds between the feds and the state match! ” Their first priority for the money is new passenger rail cars and locomotives.

    Mr. Leavitt called this year “critical for HSR.” While “The Governor’s bill does not contain HSR for the next ten years, if adopted that would probably end the project.” The money needs to be allocated now so the state can afford to buy right-of-way and do the planning necessary. Senator Perata’s bill would “move us forward.” The HSR EIR has been certified. HSR will serve a variety of uses, according to Mr. Leavitt, “besides just Los Angeles to San Francisco trips. It will serve many short distance trips, too.” He vowed that the project would be “built incrementally,” not all at once, and asked, “Can we afford to NOT build HSR?”

  4. During the Question and Answer period many members of the audience asked about issues in their areas. Director Dennis Story asked about the Santa Barbara to Oxnard commute proposal. Mr. Bronte said “The cost of operating that rail service,” which must be paid from local funds, “could destroy some very important local bus systems.” The UP’s Coast Line, which is single tracked between those cities, will have capacity issues, so, “We are looking to readjust schedules so the Surfliner train set that currently overnights in Goleta can be used for an early morning commute train.”While the San Joaquin Valley does not have any stated projects on the Governor’s list, “that is because there are currently two major $25 million state financed track projects underway there, and there are others already allocated. The Governor’s list are what cannot fit into the current STIP,” Mr. Bronte said.

    We discussed the need for more grade separation projects. Mr. Bronte pointed out that the current thinking should be that those are “highway” projects, not rail, and more funding for them would be available that way than through the current rail financing mechanism. Mr. Dyson pointed out that these should be “public safety” projects, not just considered “highway” or “rail.”

Reports

Coast Rail Coordinating Committee

Reported by Bruce Jenkins, RailPAC Director — This writer was arm twisted, cajoled and dragged feet first by Art Lloyd to the CRCC Policy Luncheon mtg at Mission Bay Inn in Pebble Beach. The mtg room was oriented so that we were “forced” to observe the 7th green, with a backdrop of the white breakers and blue water of the Pacific Ocean (needless to say, my limited attention span was further impaired).

Overall, this was one of the better mtgs of this group, obviated by the “upbeat mood” of chair Pete Rodgers. Reason: there could be funding on the horizon.

Highlights:

  • A resolution will go out to the legislaters for the Coast Daylight to be in the ’07 budget.
  • A chicken/egg paradox exists because we can’t get state fund for RR improvements till we have an operating train in place. UP will not allow another passenger train to operate till rail improvements have been made. Solving this dilemma is first priority. These improvements are between SLO and SJC and include lengthening sidings, adding switches and signals.
  • Interagency transfer passes are in the works for Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties (Amtrak/Local agencies).
  • With 96 trains per day Caltrain slots are full up. The Daylight will have to take a “Baby Bullet” slot.
  • Liz O’Donoghue of Amtrak reported on the Amtrak operations (already covered by Russ Jackson’s report on SJVRC). There is $125m for new cars (36) and Locomotives (6). This order may be combined with several other state agencies to leverage a better price . Basic design is similar to Surfliner (Cal Car 2). Our design inputs are requested.
  • Tom Mulligan of the UP reported that the “slow orders” between Moorpark and SLO are now lifted.
Reports

San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee (SJVRC)

Bakersfield — Reported by Russ Jackson — Some facts and figures picked up here and there on Thursday:

  • The UP still has 22 minutes of slow orders between Sacramento and Stockton on a line the state has spent $36 million to improve, and the UP has NO plans to upgrade at this time.
  • The BNSF, however, has only 3 minutes of slow orders between Stockton and Bakersfield and those will be removed when the blitz is done (see below).
  • The UP has 3 ½ HOURS of slow orders between Portland and Sacramento, affecting the Cascades and Coast Starlight, and they have NO plans to upgrade at this time.
  • The UP has an on time performance of 1% on ITS OWN “hotshot” freight trains.
  • The Coast Starlight now has the worst OTP for Amtrak since October 1, falling below the Sunset Limited.

It’s the “getting there” that can be the most enjoyable when attending a rail meeting, as we all would agree. For this meeting in Bakersfield this writer traveled via Amtrak California “motorcoach,” and San Joaquin trains 702 and 717. Actually, more of the motorcoach than the train than I would have liked, but the date coincided with the BNSF’s maintenance “blitz” between Stockton and Fresno, and while it is being done overnight it affects (only) 702 and 711 in the morning. Therefore, after riding the bus (short for motorcoach) from Davis to Sacramento, and meeting RailPAC Executive Director Richard Silver who had a stack of “Reviews” hot off the press to give to meeting participants, I boarded 702 for the short ride to Stockton. The train, delayed enroute by UP slow orders (see above) and the move onto the BNSF main line from the UP beyond Stockton ACE station, turned into a bus ride from the Stockton Amtrak station to Fresno. While the new buses, provided by new contractor Silverado Stages from San Luis Obispo but carrying Wyoming license plates, are very comfortable it just “ain’t” the same.

At Fresno we boarded a trainset which had been the northbound 711, whose passengers had been bused to Stockton to board our 702 trainset for the rest of their trip to the Bay Area, and resumed our trip to Bakersfield. Only three of us had been on the train/bus out of Sacramento: Amtrak General Superintendent Joe Deely, the BNSF’s Asst. Director of Passenger Train Operations Rick Depler (from Ft. Worth) and this writer. We were joined in Fresno by a large contingent from the north who converged there, including Art Lloyd, Bruce Jenkins, Howard Abelson and Mike Snyder along with many officials from that part of the Valley. Interestingly, several people from the Bay Area chose to FLY TO BURBANK and rent a car to drive back to Bakersfield. Some were a bit embarrassed to admit that, but they did have a shorter day than we did. Because of the track work, the heavy tule fog in the Valley, etc., San Joaquin trains ran over an hour late all day, and while the turnaround was accomplished efficiently train 717, due to depart Bakersfield at 3:45, did not do so until 4:55. A long day. All that leads up to the meeting:

  1. Before the group could be “welcomed” by Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall, an angry SJVRC Chairman Bob Waterston, a Fresno County Supervisor, opened the meeting noting it was an hour late, blasting the on time performance of the trains and the inconvenience that affected not just meeting participants but all riders. He did not blame the participants, he went after the railroads for allowing such poor service. While many officials present tried to show how that day was an anomaly, he spoke to the communication problem of informing people of the potential delays. The BNSF had notified Amtrak and Caltrans and they had published statements saying there would be delays, etc., including a note in the meeting agenda that our trains would be affected, but Chairman Waterston still called for the group to write a letter protesting the lateness of these trains.
  2. The BNSF’s Depler then spoke about the project, saying much of what he told the group in November (see our report on railpac.org) about replacing 60,000 ties through Escalon, etc., and while the UP is doing a winter project similar to theirs it will affect freight operations in the Valley until the end of February. When all this work is done the railroad will be in top shape. This writer noted on the return train trip that much of that territory is already a super smooth ride.
  3. Three informative presentations were made by guest speakers:
    1. Mayor Leland Bergstrom from the city of Kingsburg spoke eloquently about the need for passenger service using the UP tracks through Valley cities that are bypassed by the current service, not to move that service to the UP but to use those lines also because of the congestion that is resulting from the increased population of the Valley and the subsequent usage of US99. He noted the increase in accidents during tule fog days on the highways and the consequent blockage of transportation. He called on the Committee to “Join us in figuring out how to get service. We are moving ahead with legal steps to get this underway.” Mayor Bergstrom rode train 702 from Fresno to the meeting.
    2. Carrie Pourvahidi from the CA High Speed Rail Authority spoke of that project’s current status, noting that the Governor’s big bond issue that was released that week also called for another indefinite delay in approving the bonds for the high speed train project. She showed a chart of how the various skip-stop plans would affect intermediate cities along their route. They still have much environmental as well as route planning to do. Chairman Waterston spoke of the need to enhance the present rail system in the meantime. Member Larry Miller asked if there had been any polls of the public regarding HSR since the last one was done three years ago, and the answer was there have been none.
    3. Phillip Denny, Field Director for “Go21″ (Growth Options for the 21st Century) spoke of his non-profit group’s efforts on behalf of the freight railroads to build public support nationally for freight transportation alternatives. It is funded by the AAR, shippers and railroaders. He noted that by the year 2020 there is predicted to be a 67% increase in freight nationwide, and double that in California. They want to see projects like the Alameda Corridor built everywhere. Chairman Waterston spoke of the need to get more trucks off the highways. Mr. Denny reported he had spoken with many groups, including RailPAC’s Richard Silver who emphasized, as did many SJVRC members, that the term “passenger” does not appear in this group’s paperwork. Mr. Silver said it made sense for us to support improvements to the freight railroads routes, but only those that carry passenger trains. The SJVRC will look into this group and will discuss support of its efforts at the next meeting.
  4. The SJVRC then returned to San Joaquin business with a marketing report by Caltrans’ Eric Schatmeier and Steve Roberts. The marketing plans are continuing according to schedule. California does 4 times the research of any Amtrak area in the country. It was noted that Caltrans has traffic counts for highways, but does not know destinations, while rail research shows that for planning purposes. Rail’s share of “trips” in CA is 3%, but research shows awareness of the services is high. The new bus between Merced and Monterey is doing better than expected, and 19 of the 20 bus routes in the state continue to exceed their financial requirements for success. Steve Shelton reported on a Security training session they held with bomb-sniffing dogs on the trains where a C4 explosive spot was placed in a rail car. The dogs picked it up immediately.
  5. Patrick Merrill, representing Caltrans Rail Chief Bill Bronte, reported that Proposition 42 funds will return to transportation use in the new budget proposals, and the Public Transportation Account will have more funds this year. All the proposed bond issues contain money for intercity rail. In the Governor’s bond issue $500 million of rail projects to be funded are specified and the #1 priority is $125 million for the purchase of new rail cars and locomotives. Mr. Merrill said that amounts to two new trainsets for each of the three corridors in CA, but when that amount is divided up there appears to be a discrepancy and there’s more money than for just 6 sets. We’ll have to find that out, and it should come up at the RailPAC meeting January 28 at the Rail Museum in Sacramento. (P.S. This writer gave that meeting a plug.) The reason the Valley did not have more specific projects in the Governor’s plan is there is already $40 million in projects currently underway. The Coast Line, however, was shut out because there are no “adopted” projects that could make the list this time.
  6. Amtrak’s Liz O’Donoghue invited members to come to the reception at the State Capitol on January 26 which will be attended by Amtrak Acting President/CEO, David Hughes. She forgot to mention that RailPAC will be providing the refreshments that day.

The next SJVRC meeting is March 9, 2006, in Fresno.

Commentary

How to lose money running a railroad

By RailPAC President Noel T. Braymer — The issue of profits and subsidy for rail service is confusing. Countries differ, but most rail service world wide make or lose money the same way. After World War II, most European and some Asian governments paid subsidies to maintain a high level of rail service in their counties. The United States, on the other hand, saw major reductions in the rail system in the 1950’s and 60’s in the face of shrinking profits and traffic.

Those counties that subsidized their nationalized rail service spent most of their money to prop up commuter rail service, branch line service (particularly in rural areas), and freight. Many countries, including the United States, subsidize commuter rail service. In the past, railroads were more in the real estate than the transportation business. Commuter railroads created the first suburbs. The railroads often developed the land around their rail lines. Commuter service is unprofitable to operate because crews and equipment sit idle for long periods between rush hours, and the short distance traveled by most passengers doesn’t generate enough passenger miles to bring in much money. But many major cities find that commuter rail is a cheap way even with subsidy to carry large numbers of people, compared with the cost of expanding highways and parking.

When you look at the trackage of most railroads, in mileage, most of it is made of branch and secondary lines. When you look at the traffic patterns of most railroads, the vast majority of the traffic is on a small percentage of their trackage. Most railroads traffic is on the mainlines. The branch lines feed traffic to the mainlines. But after World War II as rail traffic declined, many branch lines became money losers. The branch lines were expensive to maintain with their miles of tracks, but produced little income. Most of the track abandoned in the United States after World War II was branch lines or secondary lines. In Europe much of the branch line rail service, both passenger and freight was kept, particularly in the rural areas. This required a high level of subsidy.

It may seem odd in America to talk about rail freight losing money. But in Europe it is hard to go more than 400 miles in any direction even in the largest European Counties. Revenue for transportation is depended on ton miles for freight and passenger miles for passenger service. In many counties freight is largely a short haul operation. Even in America short haul service is far from highly profitable. Many foreign railroads make money on operation of intercity passenger service. Often these trains are international going fairly long distances.

In the last twenty years or so many counties have “privatized” their government owned railroads. This meant selling off government own railroads and often breaking up the railroad into more than one company. The most famous example of this was the break up of British Rail. The result after privatization was a major jump in ridership and freight traffic in Britain. With this came major private investment in new rail equipment and station improvements.

But there was one major failure: the bankruptcy of Railtrack. Railtrack was the company that owned and maintained all the trackage of the old British Rail. The biggest headache for any transportation service is the cost of maintaining the infrastructure. Government usually takes care of roads, airports air traffic and waterways. These can be considered “subsidies to transportation”. In this country the railroads are the only transportation mode which has to pay all infrastructure costs out of operating revenue. In other countries government subsidy pays for the infrastructure costs of the railroads. Railroads even in the glory days of the early 20th century suffered from low return on investment because of the high overhead cost of their infrastructure.

Running intercity passenger trains on mainlines at an operational profit is not as crazy as it may seem. As long as the bulk of the infrastructure is paid for by freight, well run passenger trains should be able to run at a profit and pay for their small share of infrastructure costs to the railroads. Trying to pay the full infrastructure costs of a railroad with just passenger service is generally impossible, at least with the level of passenger miles seen in trains in this country.

Recently, the State of New Mexico wanted to buy some of the railroad around Albuquerque and Santa Fe for a new commuter rail service. The BNSF said take the whole branch or no deal. The rail line between Belen to Trinidad through the Raton Pass was an expensive secondary line for BNSF which produced little revenue. Already California has bought rail rights of way which are used primarily for passenger service. We may see more rail lines bought by government. The railroads will be only too happy to sale in most cases. This would put the railroads more on par with other transportation modes in this country. The emphasis for government spending on rail should be on infrastructure. In order to operate passenger service at a profit, or at least a low level of subsidy they must be efficiently run. That means good utilization of crews and equipment, the longest possible average trips to maximize passenger miles and carrying the largest number of passengers possible on a train with long trains and good load factors.