Monthly Archives

June 2006


Trip Report: The Zephyr, the Builder, and the Starlight

By Ralph James, RailPAC member

Trip Overview
My wife and I booked a one week cruise on Lake Michigan, which created the opportunity to include Amtrak in our travel plans between California and Chicago. We booked an economy sleeper between Sacramento and Chicago arriving two days before the cruise date with return from Chicago to Portland to Sacramento via connection to the Coast Starlight. As our travel plans developed, we ultimately departed from Colfax and detrained at Naperville to best accommodate our arrangements to be dropped off at the beginning of the trip and to pick up our rental car in the Chicago area. Our return leg also included the final bus segment back to Colfax from Sacramento. Continue Reading


Coast Rail Coordinating Committee

San Luis Obispo — Reported by Bruce Jenkins, RailPAC director — Discussion of a slot for the proposed Coast Daylight train on CT (Caltrain) led to a probable solution (suggested by RailPAC VP North Art Lloyd, who also represented Caltrain at the meeting) in that the morning train, #799, would depart San Francisco at 8:15am and use a “Caltrain Bullet train” slot. This would give CT a southbound train to Gilroy in the AM. This same solution is used by Metrolink for the San Luis Obispo Surfliner.There is a major problem in getting a funding source for the new train on the ’07-’08 budget. SLOCOG’s Peter Rodgers gave a presentation on the use of “Spillover Funds”: “These are generated when gasoline prices increase at a rate faster than all other taxable items. Hence we are presently seeing unprecedented amounts of revenue in the spillover.” In recent years the Legislature has diverted $694 M of these spillover funds to the general fund for other purposes. This could very well be the source for the Daylight.

A “chicken-egg” problem exists however in that we can’t get funding from the CTC till we know what upgrades are required, and the Union Pacific won’t put in time or money on the Coast Route unless funding is forthcoming.

There was a presentation made by the City of Soledad for a station and stop. There is impressive growth going on now in that city. new hotels are coming and tourism is expanding (wineries etc). They are now planning a transportation hub which will include (obviously) the train station. A resolution to support Soledad was moved and passed by the CRCC. The Mayor of Soledad proposed that he host the next policy meeting in Soledad.

The Amtrak Report was given by Liz O’Donahue: She expressed optimism that the Senate usually increases $$ for Amtrak in the budget. She said she thinks that “Spillover” is the most promising source of funding for the Daylight. There is legislation pending to penalize the host railroad for (habitual) late passenger trains. Twelve states are now working on new design of new equipment. WI-FI is coming to more Amtrak trains.

In a discussion of On Time for train #11/14, Liz reported that 40% of the delays to the Coast Starlight are caused by “slow orders” in Northern California and Southern Oregon. Amtrak is now pursuing a permanent track gang at their own expense to remedy this problem.

The design of the new “California Car” is in progress. Amtrak invites our input ASAP. We suggest readers forward your input on what a new car should be to Richard Silver ( for submittal to Amtrak. No “nit picking” please, they need good workable suggestions.

On the way to the meeting Art Lloyd and I learned that DOT Secretary Norman Mineta would be resigning. A discussion ensued at the meeting, but we heard no speculation as to his replacement.


RailPAC Opposed AB 1699, the Anti-Push-Pull legislation

Below are three documents RailPAC published which helped defeat this legislation on June 27.

Grade Crossing Basics

Commentary by Noel Braymer

The high cost of grade separation makes it impossible to fully grade separate all rail crossings in California, let alone the United States. Not all grade crossings are the same. Modern grade crossing protection can greatly improve safety on the railroads. This is unlike banning cab control cars which will greatly increase costs with no improvement in safety. Nothing is 100% safe, even grade separation hasn’t stopped some drivers from ending up on the railroad and being hit by trains. The key to modern grade crossing protection is reliability and sealing the intersection. Older crossing gates can have the reputation of coming down when a train isn’t approaching or coming down long before a slow train arrives. This encourages impatient drivers to go around lowered gates because of the perception that there is no danger. Modern electronics greatly improves reliability, so gates come down only went a train is coming. Mini-computers at the crossing can raise gates if the train is not moving , drop the gate if a train starts to move and calculate when to lower the gates based on the speed of a trains so the gates don’t have to be lowered longer than necessary. People take lowered crossing gates more seriously when they see and hear the trains shortly after the gates are lowered.

To discourage drivers from going around lowered gates it helps to seal the intersection. There are practical problems on how long the crossing gates can be. Center medians at crossings stops many drivers from going around the gates. It seems drivers are less willing to risk certain front end damage than possible death. In some cases four instead of two sets of gates are used to block the intersection. To prevent vehicles from being “sealed” between gates the second set of gates are lowered after the first set to allow vehicles to clear the crossing if they are between the gates. We can expect to see more improvements to grade crossings as rail service grows. Also needed is improved security along the railroads which reduce suicides on the railroads, enforcements of traffic laws at crossings, and more pedestrian bridges and tunnels to improve safety on the tracks by keeping people off them.

Rail Passenger Association Of California

1008 10th St-217 Sacramento, CA 95814 877-288-3103,
June 18, 2006

The Honorable Alan Lowenthal
Chair, Senate Transportation and Housing Committee
California State Senate
Capitol Building, Room 2209
Sacramento, CA 95814

Re: Opposition to AB 1699

Dear Chairperson Lowenthal and members of the Committee:

The Rail Passenger Association of California (RailPAC) is a statewide membership organization working for the expansion and improvement of passenger rail service in California and Nevada.

We are writing to express our strong opposition to AB 1699, a bill that would require the commuter rail operators in California to restrict occupancy of the first 10 rows of their cab cars beginning on January 1, 2007 and, additionally, starting on January 1, 2010, the bill would ban the push mode of operating commuter trains. The push mode is used about 50 percent of the time, which is standard practice throughout the country.

The assumption that cab cars are not safe and need to be banned is incorrect. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the federal agency that regulates the railroad industry, has done extensive studies of crash energy management (CEM) designs that improve the crash worthiness of cab cars. With the cooperative efforts between the federal government and the industry, it is expected that a national standard for CEM cars will be issued in 2-3 years. AB 1699 would ignore the scientific research and prohibit California operators from using the new, and perhaps better, CEM equipment.

Additionally, RailPAC advocates for various new ways to reduce risk that include median barriers, four quadrant gates, bells and lights, and better signage and striping. It would be a better investment to increase funding in these areas than banning the push mode of operation.

It would be a terrible step backward to the expansion and improvement of passenger rail service in California to ban the push mode. To the best of our knowledge, no authority in this country prohibits this operating mode. The precedent this bill would set would clearly have a negative impact on the growth of passenger rail service in California.

Richard L. Silver, Executive Director
Rail Passenger Association of California

20th June, 2006
Hon. Mayor and Council Members
City of Burbank, California

Why The City Should Oppose AB 1699, Metrolink Operations Mandate

By Paul J. Dyson, RailPAC President and member, City of Burbank Transportation Commission

Dear Mayor Campbell and Council Members:

In January of 2005 our neighbor city, Glendale, was the site of a tragic Metrolink Passenger Train incident in which eleven passengers and crewmembers were killed. In my 38 years in the railroad industry I don’t recall such an unfortunate combination of circumstances that led to the worst possible outcome of one individual’s criminal actions. Assemblyman Frommer became involved in response to an emotional outpouring from relatives of the victims and has authored AB1699 in response. The Rail Passenger Association of California opposes this legislation for the following reasons:

  • The legislation bans the use of push-pull operation of passenger trains even though there is no evidence that this standard practice increases the risk to passengers.
  • Banning push-pull operations will cause a major capital cost for train turning facilities AND increased operating costs, as train crew and equipment utilization will be reduced. This will result in reduced passenger rail service at a time when demand is increasing, and will force passengers to return to their cars, putting themselves at greater risk than when traveling by rail.
  • Professional railroaders and safety engineers, including the United States Department of Transportation, as well as the American Public Transportation Association, oppose the legislation.

Legislators must understand that safety is relative, not absolute. As a society we tolerate over 50,000 deaths per year on our highways. We could spend say $250,000 per automobile, or have a 30mph speed limit on our freeways and have fewer deaths, but we would give up so much mobility that we could not function. Rail safety is also relative. The safety record of commuter railroads worldwide is exemplary, but not perfect. AB1699 sets out to regulate one aspect of railroad operations instead of attacking the root cause of most of the rail related accidents in this region, namely the large number of at grade crossings of the railroad by busy streets.

Burbank is a great beneficiary of the Metrolink system, bringing workers to our city and providing mobility for our residents. We don’t want to see service reduced because the system is burdened with inappropriate regulations. RailPAC therefore calls upon the City of Burbank to communicate it’s opposition to AB1699 as being the wrong approach to improving passenger rail and highway safety, and to urge the legislature of the State of California to make available more funds for grade separation projects.


Capitol Corridor JPA Board Meeting Report

Suisun City Hall — Reported by Russ Jackson — The good news is the expansion to 16 daily round trips between Sacramento and Oakland will take place August 28.CCJPB Chairman, Roger Dickenson, opened the meeting with comments about the Bond issue package which the Governor and the Legislature have placed on the November ballot, and reflected on how “Much will be said over the next months about how important this measure is.” If the voters approve it, $400 million will be designated for the three state rail corridors with $125 million for new rolling stock which will “allow us to increase capacity on these routes, by adding cars to the existing trainsets.”

  1. The board quickly approved an updated funding plan for the Oakland-San Jose Track Improvement project based on a revised budget from the Union Pacific Railroad. These new funds, $650,000, were available through cost savings and increased revenues this year. Also approved was a pilot project to place security cameras on the Capitol Corridor/San Joaquin trainsets. The estimated cost of the full project is $500,000.
  2. Adoption of the CCJPA Policy Statement on station and train service brought a lively debate, with a list of standards that must be met for new stations and retention of service to existing stations. Managing Director, Gene Skoropowski, emphasized that this policy statement “focus is on maintaining the existing corridor first, but not ignoring future expansion.” The statement includes such items as, “Minimum daily average ridership of 15 boarding or alightings per train within the third year of CCJPA train service,” “Any extension of CCJPA service outside the Auburn-San Jose corridor shall not drain resources that would prevent the CCJPA from implementing is core service expansion goals,” etc. Board member Jim Spering stated that reliability of service is the #1 concern. Member Steve Cohn asked, “How do we reduce running time on the corridor,” particularly if new stations are added. Mr. Skoropowski replied that reliability continues to be the top priority, and “We are focused on that, also, and each time a new station is proposed we have protected the existing riders so they don’t get longer times.” Other completed projects have allowed a 20 minute reduction in running time. The proposed Fairfield/Vacaville station with its new design will mitigate any increase in the schedule because of the elimination of a grade crossing at that site and other factors. Mr. Cohn added that Sacramento is looking at adding a station at Swanton, five miles east of the current station, in order to reduce the impact on the present downtown facility which is very short of parking spaces. Mr. Dickenson said he thought “we must start thinking about express service.” The policy was adopted.
  3. The CCJPA is an interested participant in planning Caltrain’s Dumbarton Rail Service, which will operate a second transbay train service of six round trip commuter trains via a renovated Dumbarton Rail Bridge between a reconfigured Union City BART Intermodal station and San Francisco/San Jose. Segment “G” of this project includes a new junction of the Niles Subdivision in Hayward and a new connection to the Centerville Line east of the Fremont-Centerville Capitol Corridor/ACE station. The CCJPA agreed to pay Caltrain $9.5 million in Regional Measure 2 funds for planning this segment. Caltrain has begun an environmental review of the entire project, which RailPAC has learned is estimated to take 2 ½ years.
  4. The current “Wi-Fi” project, with internet capability on three pool cars, is successful and plans are underway for an eventual expansion to the whole fleet. Currently these cars are all shared with the San Joaquins, so they are not available all day at the same time. Riders on both routes found they like having the service, but do not like finding the next time they ride that the car is not on their train. Full system deployment can begin in the 4th Quarter of 2007. The CCJPA is a pioneer in this development, and other agencies are watching for its success.
  5. In his Managing Director’s report Mr. Skoropowski reported there have been management changes at the Union Pacific which have resulted in steadily improving on-time reliability, which has brought ridership and revenue growth. Ridership for the past year is about 1,200,000, significantly higher than the past five years. Many trains are regularly running at 50-60% capacity. After the new service begins on August 28, the next expansion will come with the addition of additional cars to each train, up to 7 or 8 per trainset. The system “operating ratio” now is at 47.7% farebox recovery, “the highest in our history.” That can be partially attributed to “our cost-controlled ‘fixed price agreement’ with Amtrak.” Mechanical failures to Amtrak locomotives have again caused the on-time performance to be low. Also, Mr. Skoropowski introduced a new element has become a problem. Increased shipping through the Martinez strait under the 1920’s rail drawbridge has increased substantially, as has rail traffic across there. There is now only a 5 foot clearance on each side for the largest ships that go under that old bridge. Discussions have begun about replacing it.
  6. The CCJPA was awarded a “Compass Award of Merit” for marketing from the Transportaion Marketing Communications Association. In the photo are (front row center) Linsey Ettlin (left) and Priscilla Kaludgian (right) of CCJPA accepting the award. (Photo courtesy Kristie Ruiz, CCJPA)

  7. RailPAC member Mike Barnbaum provided information from the Sacramento RT about the progress of that city’s Amtrak Depot Improvement Project. Improved lighting, a pickup/dropoff area, a shift of the 5th Street entrance lanes, and modifying the front plaza to add a taxi area are in the works. The opening of light rail into the Sacramento Valley Station has been delayed for 5 to 6 weeks, and is expected to open this Fall.

The next CCJPA meeting will be held September 20 at Suisun City Hall.


Passenger Train Service To The Coachella Valley

RailPAC Policy, June, 2006.  Story by Paul Dyson, RailPAC President — RailPAC has long advocated the extension of Southern California regional passenger services to the Coachella Valley, and indeed into the Imperial Valley and to Yuma and Phoenix. The line is an Amtrak route and so the tracks are maintained to passenger standards. However, the tracks are owned by Union Pacific Railroad, a publicly held corporation whose primary purpose is to make a profit for its owners operating freight services. Any proposal must take this into account.RailPAC strongly believes any new passenger rail link must be properly planned and operated. An ill conceived, poorly executed service will not attract riders and will not survive. RailPAC advocates the following criteria should be met prior to implementation:

  • The line must have sufficient capacity and the host railroad must be contracted to operate the trains punctually. We believe this can be accomplished by adding an additional track or tracks, paid for by a public/private partnership between Union Pacific and the State of California. Freight trains would also use the new trackage as long as they do not delay the passenger service.
  • There must be sufficient frequency of trains to provide an attractive service. We are against one train a day schedules as experience shows they are unsuccessful. We think this corridor needs at least three trains a day to begin.
  • The proposed trains must be integrated with the Southern California Regional Rail system, currently operated by Amtrak and Metrolink. It should be possible to buy a single ticket and connect with trains to San Diego, San Luis Obispo and the 70 plus stations served by Metrolink and the Amtrak Surfliner.
  • The service should be efficiently run with the aim of recovering 100% of operating costs within three years of start up.
  • Local involvement is essential. Riverside County, and the local towns and cities must be involved in locating stations, and setting up shuttle services, taxis, parking, and refreshments at stations. Local business people should be encouraged to provide as many of these services as possible. The trains should be advertised locally with specific fare and schedule information for each station.

Eventually we’d like to see the service extended to Brawley/Calexico and Yuma and Phoenix.

See the June 3 RailPAC Meeting Report for more information on this service.


TAMC Rail Policy Committee

Reported By Chris Flescher, RailPAC Associate Director — The RPC will release a RFP (request for proposals) for legal services related to the easement negotiation. This is about the proposed water pipeline that would go underground, in the Monterey branch line row (around Marina). The water agency is doing an appraisal for the easement value, and TAMC wants a legal firm to prepare easement documents. The legal firm will then subcontract the services of an appraiser, and the two will prepare an appraisal for TAMC. The RPC approved sending this request to the TAMC board of directors.

Recently some RPC people met with FTA representatives. The FTA people suggested that TAMC should do analysis of two different alternatives, and this might allow us to qualify for more money. One is the express bus, which is already being studied. The other will be called something like transportation system management (TSM). TSM involves building park and ride lots in the same places where the trains are planned to stop, and running express buses between them. This would make it inexpensive to change the service to rail in the future. The first alternative, express bus, will involve a few highway projects, some of which are already planned for other reasons, and very little construction. One highway project is the Prunedale Improvement Project (separate from the Prunedale Bypass). The PIP involves building some overpasses on Hwy 101 and a median barrier, so there will no longer be left turns across the highway lanes. This is considered the “no-build” alternative. Everything in this paragraph relates to the service Salinas to San Jose (not the one to Marina/Monterey). A few weeks ago, some FTA people visited this area and observed the proposed station locations. They expressed optomism about our chances of getting money.

One thing that happened the day after the meeting was the failure of the countywide transportation sales tax, which would have provided some money for passenger rail. It appears likely that this will delay any future train service. The build alternative (for SJ to Salinas) is 2 round trips a day at first, then possibly going to 3 or 4. For vehicles, TAMC can use the existing Caltrain cars. At this time, VTA is negotiating for the rights to run 10 round trips per day between SJ and Gilroy, and on the existing Caltrain service, there are usually some empty seats south of Millbrae. Therefore, Caltrain has a significant amount of excess capacity around SJ. For the proposed bus services, there is a bus layover place being planned near Fort Ord, but it will not be large enough for the number of buses needed, so more property will have to be bought. For capacity, 2 trains are about the same as 25 buses. The plan is also to have the express buses make a few stops at Caltrain stations north of SJ. The fare schedule assumes that two zones will be added to the Caltrain system south of San Jose (for either buses or trains). It is expected that the ridership will be similar for the two services, because the buses will be in some traffic, and run more slowly, but the trains will travel a longer distance. The build alternative requires 4 bilevel cars, which TAMC can negotiate the use of from Caltrain, while the no-build alternative requires 60 buses. The capital costs for both services should be similar. TAMC expects that the track slot fee (from UP) will be about $5 million per train per year.

For the operating costs (SJ to Salinas), when ridership is relatively low, it is cheaper to run buses. When the ridership reaches a certain point (maybe 300 people per day, or above), then the operating costs for rail are lower. It is important to run a risk analysis, to see if there are other factors that might affect costs or ridership.

For the FTA grant, TAMC is applying for (‘New Starts’); the local funding counts about 50% and the planned transit oriented development (TOD) counts about 50%. TAMC expects to get money from several local sources, and TOD is planned at all stations, except Pajaro.

In contrast, for the Monterey branch line, BRT is likely to turn out as well or better than rail, so TAMC is going to study BRT from Castroville to Monterey very closely. Another thing they will study is some of the concepts presented at the BRT workshop two months ago, including having buses that run around local neighborhoods, and run partway along the BRT corridor. A planner from Eugene, OR, spoke at the BRT conference, and TAMC will look into having him return here to speak at the August RPC meeting.


Strong Demand For More Passenger Service To Palm Springs And Beyond

RailPAC Meeting Report, Reported by Noel Braymer — Over 60 people filled the Mizell Senior Center on June 3rd. Guest Speakers included Mayor Ron Oden of Palm Springs, Robert Parkins, former City Manager of Palms Springs, Jack Wilson, Assistant Superintendent of Road Operation for Amtrak, Lea Simpson of Caltrans Division of Rail, and Sheldon Peterson of the Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTC). Joining in the discussion was Mayor C. Robin Resser Lowe of Hemet who is a former chair of the RCTC. Also at the meeting was John Chlebnik, Mayor Pro Tem of Calimesa and RCTC Representative, as well as Lorena Marie Da Costa from the office of Representative Mary Bono of the 45th District which includes the Palm Springs area. There was media coverage with cameras from Channels 2 (CBS) and 6 (NBC) in Palm Springs. RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, was the host.

The consensus of the meeting was that the main issue is the need for an extra track for passenger service. Even as the Union Pacific expands double tracking on its Mainline, freight traffic is growing quickly and the railroad has problems expanding capacity fast enough. Such a major investment as additional trackage can only be justified with a plan for significant expansion of service, not just for 0ne or two trains.

There was a realization at the meeting that it will take time and effort to build support for the track improvements to provide decent passenger service. Just as important is the need to develop a working relationship with the Union Pacific. While not easy, both the Capitol Corridor and Metrolink have shown that it is possible to work with the Union Pacific. Union Pacific has to be contacted at the right level, see that this is a serious effort and these improvements are in the best interests of the Union Pacific.

Photo by Noel Braymer

In the short run expanded bus connection to both Amtrak and Metrolink at Riverside and Los Angeles are strong possibilities. These can be done quickly and demonstrate a market for future rail service. The big question after the meeting was “What’s next? What needs to be done to make this a reality?” The answer in a word is NETWORK. Building support at the local level and having the different communities talking with each other and coordinating their efforts is how things get done. One way to do this is to encourage city councils to pass resolutions in support of expanded rail service. This give more leverage when contacting State and Federal elected officials for their support. Once a city or region has a stake in passenger service with a station and train service, or a connecting bus they have far more clout and resources than a group of citizen activists working alone.

See also RailPAC Policy paper ” Passenger Train Service To The Coachella Valley