Monthly Archives

May 2006

Commentary

Testimony by RailPAC President, Paul Dyson

Testimony to the California State Senate Transportation Committee — My Name is Paul Dyson and I am the President of RailPAC, the Rail Passenger Association of California. I am a resident of Burbank and a member of that City’s Transportation Commission.

Our RailPAC organization has always favored an incremental approach to rail passenger improvements. We have successfully campaigned for 25 years for service in the Capitol, Surfliner and San Joaquin corridors and the Caltrain service. With each step improvement of frequency, reliability and transit time, ridership has grown and the services come closer to supporting themselves from the fare box.

However, the agencies in this state have gone almost as far as they can with existing rights of way and we must make some larger investments to take our services to the next level, so that we can make a real impact on traffic congestion and fuel consumption. While our organization, and many other groups in the state, supports the California High Speed Rail Project, we know that this will take time to implement and cost a lot of money, money for which there is a lot of competition in this room.

Which brings me back to the incremental approach. We’d like this committee to consider investing in three projects that are vital first phases of High Speed Rail but are also valuable stand alone regional projects. These are:

  • Electrification and upgrading of the Caltrain service from San Jose to San Francisco.
  • Increasing capacity at Los Angeles Union Station by completing the run through tracks project. This is vital to Metrolink and Surfliner as well as High Speed Rail.
  • Acquiring and building a more direct and faster right of way between Los Angeles and Lancaster, which will provide Express Regional Rail service in that corridor AND be Phase One of the Los Angeles to San Francisco High Speed Line.

These projects are in addition to the proposed investments in improvements in the San Joaquin, Capital Corridor and other services.

These incremental improvements are both affordable and vital to their respective regions, and at the same time are foundation stones for an eventual state wide system of High Speed Trains.

Let’s build High Speed Rail, but let’s do it in affordable stages.

Reports

San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee

Reported by Russ Jackson — Hot rumor of the day, provided by a “high ranking official” in an interview with this writer after the meeting: “Don’t look for the Sunset Limited to be extended back to Jacksonville and Orlando. There are too many problems for the limited ridership that would result, and we’d have to deal with the CSX, after we’ve now solved most of the on time problems with the UP on the line west of New Orleans.” (Note: On Wednesday, May 10, the Sunset Limited arrived in Los Angeles on time, something that’s been happening more frequently. -RJ)

  1. A very interesting presentation was made by Mr. D. J. Mitchell, VP Passenger Services for the BNSF. He was proud to report that their winter track work in the Valley is done, and only one minute of slow orders exists between Port Chicago and Bakersfield. In fact, Mr. Mitchell said, most of the Stockton to Bakersfield trains are arriving early in Bakersfield. “Significant delays are behind us,” he said, “and the UP has finished its work on either side of \u2018us,’ too, so their part of the corridor is working well now.”Mr. Mitchell and his staff then presented a look at the BNSF’s new experimental “electronic management program,” which is the next generation of train operation management. The company that is providing the project to the railroad is Webtec, which was originally founded by George Westinghouse as the famous air brake company, and which also manufactures end-of-train devices and other rail products. This new system is a “safety compliance system,” which will eventually be adopted into the nationwide dispatching system of the BNSF. It provides an encrypted “safety net” system to control trains, to prevent violations, thereby increasing productivity, safety, etc., using GPS satellite tracking data that is calculated for each train every second. It will stop a train if the engineer does not respond promptly. A second pilot test program will be from Ft. Worth to Oklahoma City, and will include Amtrak. The UP will test it, as will Chicago Metra and other railroads. It is tied to present speed restrictions, up to 79 mph for passenger trains, but in order to go faster than those limits a train would have to be equipped with ATS, as the Surfliner line to San Diego is now which allows it to be operated at 90 mph. The cost of this system is estimated at $20-25,000 per locomotive, much cheaper than a full CTC system can be built. It will not replace the current signal masts on a railroad now, but could in the future.
  2. The State report was presented by Patrick Merrill, representing Caltrans Division of Rail Chief Bill Bronte. Of immediate concern to the Committee is the new Bond Issue proposition that will appear on the November ballot. Mr. Merrill reported it is getting strong initial support: $400 million for intercity trains is in the proposal, including $125 million for badly needed new cars and locomotives for the state corridors. Because there is no North American rail car builder, and assuming the bond money is available, Caltrans is prepared to act in early 2007 to put their requirements and designs out to bid world wide. All four corridors in the state, including the Coast Rail corridor, will receive money from these bonds. A companion amount of $3 billion is earmarked for goods movement and port access improvement for the freight railroads, which must match state money dollar for dollar to get any, and there is money for grade separation projects through the state PUC. A controversial provision tightens up how the legislature may use Proposition 42 transportation dollars for other things.Mr. Merrill happily reported that there is full funding for the state rail program in the 2007 and 2008 budgets they are working on, and no cuts have been proposed by the administration. Caltrans Eric Schatmeier presented the Committee with a detailed Promotions report in writing. He also reported that while the Amtrak Thruway feeder buses are paying for themselves on 18 of the 22 routes now, one, which is operated by Orange Belt Stages between Hanford and Santa Maria carrying Amtrak passengers on its own scheduled route, has asked for an increase in state support due to the fuel price increases. To do that puts that route, with somewhat low ridership, in jeopardy for Amtrak passengers unless ridership increases.
  3. The Amtrak report was done by Jonathan Hutchison, the new Director, Government Affairs, West, who was welcomed to California by the Committee, speaking in the absence of Liz O’Donoghue. The San Joaquin service April ridership was up 13%, and the revenue was up 32.4%. Nationally, he reported Amtrak has requested $1.59 billion in government subsidy to supplement its revenues from ticket sales, an amount that is almost 300 million higher than what they received for the current year. It “only” takes 500 million for operations of the system, the balance is for capital expenditures 750 million, and other items. (Needless to say he didn’t point out most of that goes to the Northeast Corridor. -RJ), but at that capital level any new car purchases are precluded. Amtrak is doing a “fleet needs” assessment to determine its future needs for cars, and the result will have a redeploying of assets. When it is completed Amtrak will act with requests to the Congress. Special requests for next year include $100 million for debt restructuring, a small capital matching program for the states, $50 million for “network reliability,” meaning improving on time performance, and $25 million for ADA compliance for stations. At the end of the fiscal year 2007 they hope to have 90% of their equipment available for service on a regular basis compared to 75% now. Mr. Hutchison concluded by acknowledging that significant challenges are ahead this summer, as they seem to be every summer with Amtrak.
  4. Art Lloyd spoke passionately about the benefits and safety of cab cars. Art, who is the Committee Facilitator, as well as being RailPAC’s VP North, on the Caltrain board and on the board of Operation Lifesaver, reported there is a pending bill in the state legislature that would ban cab cars on commuter trains. Cab cars have been safely used on all the state routes for many years. Art asked support from the committee members to see that this unnecessary bill does not pass.
  5. Miscellaneous: Amtrak’s Carol Shannon called attention to the new features on Amtrak.com, such as the Spanish language option and a new map that will assist purchasers in buying their tickets. RailPAC member Mike Barnbaum asked why he couldn’t buy Capitol, San Joaquin, or Surfliner merchandise from Amtrak.com as well as generic “Amtrak” and “Acela” items. Ms. Shannon replied that those two are the only registered logos for Amtrak, the others would have to be sold by the state. Amtrak feels there would not be enough business to stock regional or local items. The meeting adjourned in memory of Congressman McFall, who was instrumental in securing Federal funding of San Joaquin service in 1974.

The next San Joaquin Committee meeting will be July 13 in Martinez.

Reports

LOSSAN Corridor Meeting Report

Reported by Noel Braymer — The meeting was well attended by representatives of member agencies. Also at this meeting was Amtrak VP Gil Mallery with Liz O’Donoghue. There was a lot of material discussed at this meeting so this report will stick mostly to the highlights. In the audience were only about a half dozen people including myself and Bart Reed. It seems a Pacific Surfliner train was annulled this morning. Few detail were given at the meeting but it was a concern of several of the LOSSAN Board members. The LOSSAN corridor is 351 miles long from San Diego to San Luis Obispo.

The hottest topics of the meeting were the bond issues recently placed on the November ballot by the legislature. Of just over 37 Billion dollars in bonds on the ballot, almost 20 billion will be for transportation.The plan is to use this money and leverage it with matching funds to spend over 116 billion dollars. The hope is to get an 80% Federal, 20% State match for many projects including rail projects. This is down from 68 billion in bonds the governor was proposing back in January. Bill Bronte, Chief of Caltrans Division of Rail gave the report on the bond issues: California intercity rail will get 400 million from the bond money, not counting matching funding. Of this 125 million is locked in towards new rolling stock and locomotives. This equipment is for expanding existing trains to meet traffic demands, not for new trains. The rest of the 275 million hasn’t been allotted yet. Right now over the next 10 years 2.74 billion dollars in infrastructure projects have been proposed for California intercity services.There is other money in this bond proposal that may be used or shared with intercity service. These include transit money which Metrolink or Coaster can apply for which would also benefit intercity services. There is also bond money (if passed) to improve security at ports, airports as well as to improve air quality and reduce traffic congestion. Some of this money might be used for improved grade-separations and track improvements. At the same time there is more money available in existing transportation accounts which is making life a little easier. As part of the ballot measures 1A through 1E, measure 1A would make it harder for the legislature to raid gas tax revenues to balance the budget. The last 3 years or so has seen transportation money used for this purpose. November should be interesting. Current polls show strong supports for these measures and increasing spending for transportation. If approved this November, the first money could be allocated by January.

Amtrak gave a slide presentation (power point?) which had almost nothing to do with California. LOSSAN clearly wants large amounts of Federal dollars. Amtrak just wants more money. I thought it odd that Amtrak would have a slide about the on-time performance of the NEC and talk several times about bringing the NEC to a state of good repair to a group of California politicians. Mostly the talk was company party line, “things are so much better since 2002,” and how Amtrak is saving so much money etc. One issue which was discussed at length was the question of on time performance. The board was unhappy that the COAST STARLIGHT has an on time performance of 2%. It was explained that for most of the STARLIGHT’s route most trains run on time, the STARLIGHT gets held up north of Redding. Jacki Bacharach representing Los Angeles County (she has been on LOSSAN for well over 10 years) asked Liz O’Donoghue of Amtrak if the on time performance of Amtrak trains included data for annulled trains. This left O’Donoghue unable to respond. Finally with Mr. Mallery they admitted that annulled trains were not included in the on time performance.

There was a presentation on the planning for possible commuter service in Santa Barbara and Ventura County.There was also a speech from Santa Barbara County about their hope to get approval from the votes to raise the sale tax for transportation from 1/2 to 3/4 cents to fund commuter rail service. What is being studied is additional Amtrak service, Metrolink or a new agency running RDC’s. The Amtrak model was to add an additional train leaving Los Angeles at either 6 or 6:30 AM and adjusting the departures south out of Santa Barbara at 4:05, 5:40 and 7:05 PM. The results for this was an estimated 50 additional passengers a day. Running either Metrolink or RDC’s between Santa Barbara and Camarillo came up with ridership of 3,000 daily. The big issue is getting cooperation from the UP and finding out what impacts this and other projects on the Coast Line will have.

There was a presentation from Amtrak on where there was growth on the SURFLINERS. Los Angeles to San Diego, Solana Beach and Oceanside were doing well. Mr. Mallory was please that ridership was continuing to grow despite steady fare hikes. Where there was modest shrinking ridership was on Business Class. The Board members who clearly travel on Business class had ideas about how to improve it. The question was asked if JetBlue can give individual TV sets on the seat backs on their planes why don’t the TV sets on the PACIFIC SURFLINERS work. Apparently things like complimenty soft drinks, newspapers etc that are suppose to come with Business Class are often missing.

Commentary

Gas Pains! Where is the train?

By Noel Braymer, Editor, Western Rail Passenger Review — The answer in most cases is that the trains are full, at least during rush hours. The Department of Energy has announced that it expects gasoline prices to continue to rise during the peak summer driving season. This on top of already record breaking prices for fuel. The current run up on fuel prices is mostly a political rather than a technical problem. Many of the major oil producing counties are politically unstable. Greater political stability would greatly improve the current oil supply. American politicians have done little to reduce America’s dependence on oil or to develop alternatives. In the future if we continue to use oil faster than we can find new sources, it is only a matter of time before we experience serious shortages. But for now we can be sure that neither the oil companies nor oil producing countries are very upset over record profits.

Current transportation planning in this country is totally blind to the reality that in the future there will be oil shortages. Neither is there any acceptance that rising levels of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is a factor in global warming and weather change. A good example of this is the expectation that air travel will continue to grow at a steady rate. Yet after the September 11th terrorist attacks, air travel declined for several years. Even now air travel barely exceeds the levels before 2001. Air travel ridership can be very volatile. Air travel burns a significant amount of fuel which is a major cost for airlines. Major increases in fuel costs translate into higher air fares. This won’t end all air travel. But higher fares will mean people will travel less by air.

Transportation shapes development. Urban sprawl is directly related to the building of roads and dependence on the auto. This is all dependent on “cheap oil”. The quest for “affordable housing” has people commuting 100 miles or more a day between work and home. Many people have put themselves indebt up to their eyeballs to buy houses far from their jobs in the hope that it will pay off if housing continues to appreciate. But higher fuel costs doesn’t only dig into stretched transportation budgets for many Americans. Higher fuel cost creates inflation, rising prices on everything. With these come higher interest rates which will hit many people hard as the “housing bubble” continues to deflate.

Planning is going ahead to expand freeways up to 14 lanes wide in San Diego County, and Riverside County wants to build a tunnel for a new freeway through the mountains to Orange County. Rising energy costs will soon make such projects much more expensive than they are currently projected. But there are still places where modest improvements to the railroads can greatly improve transportation. In San Diego County much of the Coast Line is still single tracked. Double tracking would allow trains to run up to every 15 minutes during rush hours and half hourly the rest of the time. A train tunnel can carry more people and cargo, more safely at a fraction of the cost than a freeway tunnel. A factor to consider since concrete production is energy intensive.

Rail based development is much more energy efficient than urban sprawl. Not only are high occupancy rail vehicles more energy efficient, but the development created around rail service saves energy. Because things are not so spread out there is less travel to get to place to place. People can even walk to get from the train station to where they are going. This is a major reason most other developed counties in Europe and Japan use so much less energy than we do. Just in California we still have miles of rail rights of way that can be rebuilt for passenger service. The old SP right of way over the Altamont Pass, the old Santa Fe Harbor sub in Los Angeles County, The UP mainline in the San Joaquin Valley and miles of UP branch lines in Orange County for regional rail are just some examples that come to mind.

More rail passenger service is clearly in the future for California and the rest of the county. Upgrading rail lines will expand service on existing services and create new services. This can be done while also expanding freight use on the railroads. It will cost money. But it will be much more economical than continuing our dependence on the auto, which without “cheap oil” will become very expensive.

Commentary

The Public’s Relationship With The Union Pacific

Guest Editorial by “Coast Observer,” who by his position has asked to be anonymous at this time — In spite of the continued efforts by a handful of stalwarts particularly in the Central Coast area, the effort to increase Coast Line passenger service remains stalled. The problems are a combination of a lack of project specific funding and UP procrastination and obfuscation. Maybe it’s time for a new approach.

Union Pacific is claiming that there is no capacity for additional passenger trains on the Coast Line and in other areas, while at the same time refusing to offer specifics as to the facilities and investments they would require for each additional train. This is in spite of their insistence that the taxpayer pay for a computerized capacity analysis of their choosing. UP is now saying that the analysis may be flawed but it should be run again “when funds are available to run a train”. It’s hard not to characterize this as deliberate obstruction.

I think it’s time for a statewide review of the public’s relationship with Union Pacific at the highest political level. In 1995 when UP was beginning the process to acquire Southern Pacific freight shippers were promised a new dawn; a high level of service from a company with the resources to implement it. The opposite happened, and many California businesses suffered heavy financial losses as a result. Now the economy is strong, we’re sucking in imports at a record rate, and all the spare railroad capacity has been soaked up. UP’s response is to raise freight rates to such a level as to drive away business that they don’t want and consequently to increase truck traffic.

What does this have to do with the proposed Coast Daylight train from Los Angeles to San Francisco? Public agencies, including the Southern California Association of Governments, are proposing to invest heavily in rail freight facilities such as Alameda Corridor East. That’s fine, but public investment in rail freight should be reciprocated with some of the capacity being made available for passenger trains. The Coast Line is one of only two rail links between Northern and Southern California and we need some reserve capacity. Let’s have an amicable, positive dialogue with UP to determine what the true needs are for freight and passenger and then figure out a way to fund it. This is true for all passenger routes in California, not just the coast. It’s time for the Governor of California to get involved.

Reports

A 37 billion dollar bond measure with something for everyone

Special Report — Analysis by Noel Braymer — After failing in March to come up with a package for the June election, the legislature and governor with major horse trading and political arm twisting produced a 37 billion dollar set of bond issues for the November 7th election. This is down from the original 68 billion proposed in January. The plan is to use this bond money in addition to local and Federal matching funds to spend 116 billion dollars. Of this 37 billion, 10.4 goes to school construction, 4.1 billion would be used to repair river levees to prevent flooding, and 2.8 billion would build affordable housing. The largest share, 19.9 billion would go to transportation. Of this 4 billion can be used for public transportation including commuter and light rail.

California’s intercity corridor trains have been allocated 400 million under this proposal that could be used for matching funds. There is an effort to get an 80% Federal, 20% state match for rail, just as there is for highways. Of this 400 million, 125 million has been reserved for new rolling stock and locomotives to expand capacity on existing trains. The remaining 275 million has not yet been allocated, but would go towards projects that are ready to go but awaiting funding. Other bond monies can be used for projects which benefit intercity trains. This includes track improvements for commuter train lines shared by Amtrak. There is also 2 billion dollars for improving freight traffic to ports and airports as well as 1 billion to reduce air pollution. Some of this money can be used for rail projects which can benefit passenger trains. There is also 4.5 billion dollars for highway congestion relief which might also be used for grade separations.

A part of this bond package is a measure for the voters to approve to make it harder for the legislature and governor to tap gasoline tax revenues to pay for things other than transportation. In the last few years gasoline tax money has been raided to deal with “fiscal emergencies” which has cut into capital projects for rail and highways. Several rail projects have been on hold because the money was used to shore up the general fund.

There will be other bond issues on the ballot in November. As we go to press this includes 10 billion for the California High Speed Rail project. Bill AB 713 would move the High Speed Rail Bond Issue to the 2008 election and fund the California High Speed Rail Authority with 116 million dollars. Currently there is no funding for the CHSRA in next year’s budget, which would force it to shut down. There is concern the High Speed Rail Bonds would compete with the other transportation bond issues which is why it has been proposed to move it to a latter election. On May 16th RailPAC President Paul Dyson testified at the Senate Transportation Committee in favor of AB 713. President Dyson emphasized the value of incremental steps towards High Speed Rail with the first projects being those that can be shared with other rail services. He gave four examples of this: electrification of Caltrain, construction of run through tracks at LAUS, rail service extended to the Transbay Terminal and upgrading the route between Lancaster and Los Angeles. (See text of this testimony above)