The Best and Worst of Times   February 1st, 2006

By RailPAC Editor Noel T. Braymer — RailPAC’s annual meeting this January 28th highlighted the great progress we have had, and can look forward to in California. Along with this we have problems that never seem to go away which we must still fight. Since 1990 there have been no major sources of new funding for rail service in California. Despite this we have seen service expansion on State supported services using increased revenues from growing ridership. But more money is needed for long overdue capital projects. Proposals from the administration have rekindled the debate on transportation spending. Nothing has yet been approved. But the administration is proposing $500 million dollars in new spending for rail.

The important thing is that no less than $500 million is available in the near term. As proposed this money would go towards the run-through connection at LAUS, and buying 40 additional passenger cars and locomotives state-wide. This new equipment would mostly be used to run longer trains on existing services just to keep up with growing ridership. New equipment would take up 125 million of the 500 million proposed. Another 214 million of this 500 million would be spent grade separating the busy BNSF mainline in Los Angeles. Already the grade-crossing gates are down as much as they are up on the BNSF in Los Angeles. All the projects proposed for the 500 million dollars are good projects that we have waited a long time for. But you can see 500 million will go fast.

Dan Leavitt for the California High Speed Rail Authority made the point that much of the 30 plus billion dollars proposed for High Speed Rail would be for projects that would be shared with existing rail services. Mr. Leavitt also said High Speed would be built incrementally. As always the devil is in the details. Would anything less than 200 mph or even 150 be considered “High Speed “for a start up service? What projects would be built that could be shared and how could they be shared?

Both Gene Skoropowski of the Capitol Corridor and Bill Bronte, Chief of Caltrans Rail Division made the point of the importance of a good relationship with the freight railroads. This was demonstrated by a perhaps first time attendance at least at a RailPAC meeting by a representative of the Union Pacific Railroad, no doubt invited by Mr. Skoropowski. A major issue for the railroads is rapidly growing freight traffic, particularly from the ports, and not just Los Angeles/Long Beach. The railroads are increasingly congested and there just isn’t capacity for more passenger trains on the mainlines unless there is money for track improvements.

Recently in the news is a plan to run express “Flyaway” buses from LAUS to LAX. Requests for airport connections, particularly at LAX is the most common question asked of Caltran’s rail branch according to its web page. It is encouraging to discover that Caltrans is excited and looking forward to working with Metrolink to encourage passengers to travel to LAX via the Flyaway Bus/rail connection. This could be the start of bigger things, maybe more Flyaway buses from more stations, to more airports or even Flyaway trains?

Just in time for the first anniversary of the Metrolink crash is a proposal to ban push-pull operation in California. The crash last year that killed 11 people was caused by a motorist attempting suicide. The proposed legislation would affect push-pull operation on all commuter trains in California, but wouldn’t effect Amtrak push-pull service. No additional money is included in the proposal to pay for the additional costs caused by the elimination of push-pull with no improvement of service. It should be noted that over 42,000 people in the United States are killed every year in auto accidents. About 500 people are killed yearly on the railroad, and most of these are at grade-crossings by motorists. This bill should die. Money is better spent improving the safety at grade-crossings.

Long distance trains continue to get no respect. Amtrak is yet again trying to “save” money on the long distance trains. Amtrak would do better to repair damaged equipment and put them on the road to bring in more money. Cost-cutting doesn’t save money if it drives passengers away. Amtrak continues to be its own worst enemy playing long distance service against corridor services. The long distance trains just don’t cost that much, but brings in the greatest share of passenger revenues. Amtrak is nearer the state of collapse than at anytime since 2002. If ridership on the long distance trains plunges, it will take the rest of the system with it. It seems that the last Amtrak President that understood how important the long distance trains were to keep the corridors running was Graham Claytor.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 1st, 2006 at 2:11 PM and is filed under Commentary.