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.

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