San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee May 11th, 2006
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)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.