Monthly Archives

July 2006

Commentary

A Proposed Coast Daylight Schedule and Service for 2007 (Train #798/799)

A SPECIAL REPORT by Anthony Lee, RailPAC director, Oakland — The proposed schedule is designed to provide advance train schedule of the Coast Starlight train 11/14, since the Coast Starlight is often sold out during peak periods such as holidays and during the summer period

Given the significant population growth along the Central Coast as well as Southern and Northern California, the reduction of Greyhound and airlines service, and increased congestion on the US101 Corridor: The proposed new train will provide an alternative and niche for those wanting to travel to the Central Coast, San Francisco Bay Area-Northern California or Los Angeles and Southern California by train.After reviewing comments, suggestions and reviewing old and current train timetables of Amtrak, Caltrain, Metrolink, Coaster and Southern Pacific Lines, I came up with the following schedules and service suggestions for the proposed Coast Daylight. Continue Reading

Issues

Regional affiliate should form to take over Coast Starlight train

(Op-Ed from the San Jose Mercury News, Published July 23, 2006) By Arthur L. Lloyd and Paul Bendix — Bay Area Amtrak service to Seattle and Los Angeles has declined so dramatically that state rail agencies must intervene.

The Coast Starlight, once the most popular train in America, now limps into San Jose hours late, in disrepair and in disrepute. Amtrak politics and congested freight lines are literally driving it off the rails — and driving passengers back to driving. With the Bush regime openly hostile to long-distance trains, California, Oregon and Washington must forge a regional solution.

The Los Angeles-to-Seattle Coast Starlight once set something of a standard. In 1995, Amtrak’s Brian Rosenwald gave the overnight train a dramatic makeover. He decided that the 1,400-mile run, averaging 40 mph on Union Pacific track, required more than scenery. Amtrak ordered new sleeping cars and installed a diner with white tablecloths, carnations in bud vases and restaurant-quality food. The Starlight acquired a glassy observation car, a “Kiddie Kar” for children — and a domed lounge car modeled on posh old trains like the Super Chief, with armchairs, a bartender and even a movie theater downstairs.

Soon, passengers jammed aboard the Coast Starlight for views of the central California coast, the upper Sacramento River canyon and Mount Shasta, followed by a cliff-hanging ride over Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. Still, there were problems. Freight trains from West Coast ports often delayed the train for hours. Track repairs added to the headaches.

But it took the Bush administration to stop success in its tracks. Since 2001, with draconian budget cuts and the ousting of Amtrak’s popular president, David Gunn, the Starlight’s service and equipment have deteriorated. Congress has fought back with bipartisan support for rail. Still, ideological opposition from the Bush administration and chronic delays from freight trains jeopardize Amtrak’s once-a-day service along the West Coast.

The case for the Coast Starlight rests with the passengers who still sell out the train part of the year. Each departure can take upward of 300 cars off the roads. Fares account for a hefty proportion of the Starlight’s revenue. In the summers, a couple can pay more than $900 to travel in a sleeper from the Bay Area to Seattle. Year-round, student discounts attract college kids from the many campus towns en route.

Like a scenic highway, the Starlight carries travelers and tourists, but without the cars — and without the lobbyists. Powerful commercial interests push for tax-supported airport and highway construction, while grass-roots groups speak up for funding Amtrak. It’s an unequal fight.

Still, the train’s supporters include state agencies like the Caltrans Division of Rail. Over the decades, the Coast Starlight has helped keep Western rail service alive. Four intercity trains have sprung up along the Starlight’s route, from San Diego to Vancouver, B.C. One of these, the San Jose-to-Sacramento Capitol, is the nation’s fastest-growing passenger line.

The feds seem determined to kill the Starlight. Passengers keep paying to keep it alive. In today’s reality, California, Oregon and Washington must operate the train. A regional affiliate — call it Amtrak Pacific — should run the Coast Starlight in conjunction with the national system.

The three states value the Coast Starlight. They know its role in rebuilding Western rail service. They are used to fighting delays on its freight-clogged route. For the sake of passengers, they need to take over.

Art Lloyd is a RailPAC Vice-President and member of the NARP Board of Directors. Paul Bendix is a long time rail advocate and is a member of Caltrain’s Citizens Advisory Committee.

Commentary

Why I oppose the plan to reopen the Santa Paula Line

By Paul J. Dyson, RailPAC President — It may come as a surprise that a 40 year veteran of passenger and freight rail advocacy is opposed to the idea of reopening the former Southern Pacific line linking Santa Clarita with Ventura (“the Santa Paula line”). The line parallels the busy state highway 126 for most of the route and would also appear to be an outlet for freight to and from Port Hueneme. Much of the route right of way is still in existence. So why the opposition?

My opposition is founded on the principles that RailPAC has expounded for over 25 years. We believe in projects that are doable. Yes, anything can be done if you throw enough money at it, so we define doable as being a project that can be physically executed at an economically viable cost. We believe in projects that give value for money. Society cannot afford to invest in expensive rail facilities to run trains that are mostly empty, most of the time.

The Santa Paula line connects the Antelope Valley Metrolink route with the Coast Main line at Montalvo. The Coast Main is also a Metrolink route as well as the route of the Amtrak Surfliner corridor. Probably the biggest physical barrier to reopening is the loss of the right of way at the Santa Clarita end of the line. A critical section of the route from the junction with the Antelope Valley line to just east of interstate 5 was abandoned and has largely succumbed to the extraordinary growth of the city of Santa Clarita. This section parallels Magic Mountain Parkway. A power line right of way has been proposed as an alternative but this would require a new bridge over the South Fork of the Santa Clara river and an at grade crossing of San Fernando road, or a very expensive “flying junction”. The remainder of the right of way would require all new track and passing sidings to bring the line up to passenger standards.

Both Santa Clarita and the Ventura and Oxnard areas are mostly “new” communities, with a very dispersed pattern of residential and commercial development. It seems unlikely to me that this demographic mix will attract much ridership other than a couple of weekday commuter trains with subsidized riders from the public sector. Thus the cost per rider, both capital and operating, will be extremely high.

The idea that Port Hueneme is likely to generate a sufficiently large amount of traffic to justify the construction of a new freight route is absurd, in my opinion. I was Southern Pacific’s commercial representative for the Coast Line in the early ‘90s and am quite familiar with the operations at the Port. Most of the cargoes for which the port is best suited and which are in their plans to pursue are not transferable to rail. These include commodities such as imported bananas and export citrus fruit from the San Joaquin valley, which are either too time sensitive or travel too short a distance to be appropriate for today’s rail freight service. The other big business at the Port is imported automobiles. These generate quite a few carloads for distribution in Texas and the Central States and this business could expand significantly. There are some import facilities at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles that many planners would like to close to make room for more containers and transfer that business to Port Hueneme. The importers that use those facilities would probably like to stay where they are to have the benefit of competition for their business between BNSF and UP, (Port Hueneme is served only by UP). But even if they moved to Port Hueneme the additional carloads generated could easily be handled along the Coast Main, especially if a fraction of the money needed for the Santa Paula line were to be invested in the Coast Line instead. In any event it’s difficult to see how freight from Port Hueneme will reach its destination efficiently via Santa Paula. Will there be a new junction to the northbound Antelope Valley Line?  If so, will there also be a new connector south of Palmdale onto the eastbound Palmdale cutoff?  All that does is bring the traffic into West Colton.

This brings me to my main point. It’s not that I’m totally opposed to new train service along this route. There is some potential there and it’s possible that, given time, the line may attract a reasonable amount of business. The issue for me is that both of the existing lines at each end of this route are in serious need of investment. The Coast Main handles the Ventura Metrolink service and the Amtrak Surfliner. Much of the route is still single tracked resulting in extended journey times and inherent reliability problems. The Antelope Valley line is similarly situated, being single track from Burbank Junction north. Both of these lines are operating well below their potential to attract patrons currently using the highly congest 101, 14 and 5. Both need additional double tracking or passing sidings to improve reliability and provide capacity for additional service, as well as reduce journey times. There is a finite amount of money available for investment and the Santa Paula line would suck up too much of what is available in the region, leaving us with three second rate services instead of two successes.

I for one am tired of seeing lines on a map that planners and politicians believe represent a service, while the reality on the ground is slow, unreliable trains with far too many empty seats. RailPAC and other advocacy groups have to tell the story in plain language. We have to make the routes that we have work properly. We must not spread our resources so thinly that the end result  becomes another target for our critics.

Reports

San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee

Sacramento — Reported by Russ Jackson.  Highlights:

  • Improvement seen in on time performance of San Joaquins (photo)
  • New engineer crew districts
  • Two new studies in the works, and an interesting possibility of a new rail line south of Bakersfield
  • Yosemite service to return
  • New ACE train starts August 28, connecting with San Joaquins
  • Liz O’Donoghue to leave Amtrak (photo)

The SJVRC meets every July in Martinez, as Chairman Harvey Hall (Bakersfield Mayor) said, as it’s the farthest west location on the Corridor. It could also be that the catered Mexican food lunch arranged by Contra Costa County member Howard Abelson is always fantastic. A full house was in attendance, and a group of full people left the meeting. (Photo shows several committee members boarding train 716 at the Martinez station) Mr. Hall also reported the committee’s satisfaction with the defeat of the bill which would have banned cab cars. He wrote a letter on behalf of the committee, and committee facilitator (and RailPAC VP North) Art Lloyd, placed 26 calls explaining the opposition.

The BNSF was represented by Rick Depler from the Ft. Worth office. Mr. Depler reported the ETMS (emergency train management systems) “next generation” project (which was detailed last meeting) will be tested between Ft. Worth and Gainesville, TX, this Fall on the line now also used by Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer. Chairman Hall asked for the committee to be kept informed of its progress. Also, Mr. Depler reported the Calwa to Bowles track project south of Fresno is expected to be completed this Fall, allowing better movement of San Joaquin trains in that segment. Later it was reported that on time performance of the trains vastly improved, and in June was 79.9%; also, there was a 6% increase in riders. Amtrak’s customer service satisfaction index for the San Joaquins also showed an increase over the year before.

Amtrak will make a change in the engineer crew district for these trains. Their agreement with the union is for one engineer for a train running under 6 hours trip length. To ensure that, there will now be two engineer districts: Oakland-Merced, and Merced-Bakersfield. It will save money, engineer fatigue, and require 10 fewer engineers be assigned to this route.

Committee member Larry Miller, Fresno, asked what the “load factor” was on the trains. Amtrak’s Joe Deely reported it to be about 30%, with the average for intercity trains being 30 to 40%. Amtrak’s Tom Sponsler added that a load factor is calculated by Amtrak’s computer, and differs from airlines which routinely have airplanes running 80% full. The difference with trains is the airline calculates each segment of a route, while Amtrak uses the length of a route. For example, a train may depart Bakersfield with 100% seats full. At Fresno half of those on board may get off, new persons get on, and the same train could leave Fresno with 85% of the seats full, and so forth. Some trip segments may be less than 50% full, etc., but when the calculation for that route (Bakersfield to Oakland) is done the train may have “averaged” 65%. If a rider wants to go from, say, Stockton to Hanford, but the segment between Modesto and Fresno shows the train is full there are no seats to sell to that customer.

The committee heard reports on two studies that have been initiated involving the San Joaquin Corridor: 1) the Bay Area Regional Rail Plan, and 2) a San Joaquin Corridor Strategic Business Plan.

Tom Matoff explained (1) as being the result of a requirement passed by Measure 2 which increased tolls on Bay Area bridges, with the funds to be used for regional transportation projects, highway and rail. This long range plan will propose ways to increase rail capacity for passenger and freight, improve connections between trains and transit, coodinate rail investment around transit-friendly communities, preserve and acquire rights of way, develop options to consolidate rail activities for better efficiency, and define proposed high-speed rail alignments into the Bay Area. All of these can involve the north end of the San Joaquin Valley and the SJVRC is one of the organizations with common interest that will be involved. Other study partners include the MTC, BART, Caltrain and the CAHSRA. The study is due in Spring, 2007, and can be viewed at www.bayarearailplan.info.

The San Joaquin Business Plan update project (2) was explained by Dominic Spaethling of Parsons-Brinkerhoff, who have been retained by Caltrans to do the study. While this project primarily will involve reviewing previous studies, a new vision plan, a list of projects that support the goals of the corridor, and a focused business plan will be the result. Nine public meetings will be held. New alternatives are expected to include a) Stockton to Bay area service, b) Extension of service to Los Angeles, c) A possible reduction of the bus trip south of Bakersfield by extending the rail line to the foot of the mountains at Wheeler Ridge with the buses connecting with Metrolink at Santa Clarita, and d) Possible integration with high speed rail.

Eric Schatmeier of Caltrans Marketing reported that the rock slide earlier this winter that blocked highway 140 will take a long time to resolve, and the bus connection from Amtrak Merced into Yosemite National Park does not now permit one day visiting. Temporary quick changes for the two bus operating companies are in the works, with a change to Modesto as the connecting point in an effort to retain this service. Announcement will be made as soon as possible. He also pointed out that a new version of “amtrakcalifornia.com” starts the week of July 17 and encouraged everyone to try its mapping function. The new mid-day ACE train from Stockton to San Jose begins operation August 28, and it will connect with San Joaquin trains 711 at 716 at Stockton. Departure time from Stockton will be 9:30 AM, and return from San Jose at 12:05 PM. An inaugural train will run on August 25.

Liz O’Donoghue (pictured) informed the committee that she is leaving Amtrak to work for the Nature Conservancy. Chairman Hall commended her for her service to Amtrak and the committee and everyone wished her well in her new job. Because she resigned the day before, a replacement will not be known for a while. RailPAC joins in wishing Liz the best, and will happily honor her request to be kept on the RailPAC mailing list for the newsletters.

The next San Joaquin meeting is scheduled for September 14 at Merced.

Commentary

Connections, Connections, Connections

By Noel Braymer, Editor, Western Rail Passenger Review — The biggest turn-off for most people using public transportation is the need to transfer between services to make connections to get to where they want to go. It has been estimated that half the potential ridership on a trip is lost each time people have to transfer. The problem is connections are often confusing, uncomfortable, time consuming or non-existent. Good, fast, simple and easy connections can make all the difference when traveling. Connections make it possible to greatly expand ridership and revenues at low additional cost. This is why airlines depend so much on hub airports. Connections allow longer trips which mean greater revenues when charging by the mile.

The problem for many operators is their trains are already full at rush hour and scheduling is a complicated process. Trying to schedule trains to connect with other trains adds more variables to an already complicated process. If the connections are with another agency then coordination is just that much harder. But not all trains have to have connections. With a little work a basic system of connections can be worked out to greatly improve service. Such connections will work best to encourage ridership on off-peak periods and trains going in the opposite direction of rush hour travel.

For examples of how things are let’s look at some Metrolink services. There are three weekday trains between Oceanside and Riverside with some trains going on to San Bernardino. Oceanside is a connecting point with the Coaster to San Diego. How good are these connections? Train 803 from San Bernardino arrives in Oceanside at 7:15 AM. Coaster 636 leaves Oceanside for San Diego at 7:15AM. The next Coaster leaves Oceanside at 7:40AM. Metrolink train 851 arrives in Oceanside at 12:55 PM from Riverside. The next Coaster train, the 648 leaves at 2:50 PM, almost two hours latter. Train 853 from Riverside arrives at 3:15 PM and connects with Coaster 652 leaving at 3:35 PM. Well, two out of three isn’t bad so far.

Now Metrolink train 850 leaves Oceanside for Riverside at 7:30AM. Coaster 631 arrives in Oceanside from San Diego at 7:32 AM! This is the earliest train from San Diego on the Coaster. Amtrak service is available arriving at Oceanside at 7:03 AM, but would miss stations at Old Town, Sorrento Valley, Encinitas, Poinsettia and Carlsbad. Train 852 leaves Oceanside at 10:35AM, while Coaster train 635 doesn’t arrive in Oceanside until 10:45 AM. Metrolink train 808 leave Oceanside at 4:25PM. Coaster 645 arrives in Oceanside at 4:38PM! The connection would have to be made with train 643 arriving at 3:14PM for a 71 minute wait.

Let’s now look at some Metrolink service connections at Los Angeles Union Station. Between Orange County and the Antelope Valley there are nine possible connections. Train 681 from Orange County arrives at LAUS at 5:30 AM which connects with the 201 to Lancaster which leaves at 635PM. Train 601from Oceanside arrives at 6:40AM, fives minutes after train 201 leaves. Train 603 arrives at Union Station at 7:20 AM and connects with the 203 leaving at 7:37 AM. Train 685 arrives at 9:18 AM while train 205 leaves LAUS at 9:20 AM. Not a guaranteed connection to be sure. The next connection isn’t until train 609 arrives at 5:30 PM and connects with the 217 leaving LAUS at 5:40 PM. The last connection is with train 689 arriving at 6:22 PM and trains 219 leaving LAUS at 6:30PM.

From the Antelope Valley you connect at LAUS on train 200 at 5:53 AM with train 682 to Orange County at 6:44 AM. The next connection is on train 204 arriving at 7:45 AM and leaving LAUS at 8:00 AM. Train 216 will get you to Union Station at 3:33 PM in time to see train 602 leaving at 3:30 PM. Train 218 arrives at LAUS 4:19 PM and connects with the 604 leaving LAUS at 4:35 PM. The last connection with the 220 arrives at LAUS at 6:10 PM and connects with the 608 which departs at 6:30 PM.

It seems that most connections are largely unintentional. In a perfect world connections would be well publicized, on the same platform, made with in minutes needing only a single ticket. Oh, that is the reality when riding BART or the San Diego Trolley. I used Metrolink as an example because I am familiar with the service. Connectivity of services has greatly improved but there is still room for improvement in many places in California. This is particularly true between different services such as between BART and Caltrain or Amtrak and Metrolink. Transit services often have poor connections with in the same operator and with other agencies. With expanding services there will be fewer excuses not to have decent connections between trains. This will be particularly true as additional trains are added on Orange County’s Metrolink trains and the expansion of Caltrain and ACE with the future reopening of the Dumbarton Bridge. Connections between trains and other services need to be a greater part of the planning for rail services.