By Noel T. Braymer, Editor, Western Rail Passenger Review — With Washington in control of intercity passenger trains now for over 30 years, we have seen a slow but steady decline of service. Yet again we are hearing veiled talk of cut-backs to eliminate “money losing” trains. California is a proud leader of local control for its rail passenger service. Caltrans Rail Division can teach Washington a great deal about how to schedule and market rail passenger service. But Caltrans can’t do everything by itself. Local organizations like LOSSAN, the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Board (JPB) all have a major role in the progress we’ve seen in California. LOSSAN started out as a network of cities on the SAN DIEGAN route in the 1980’s.This networking was started by then Oceanside City Councilman Walter Gilbert with help from RailPAC’s Byron Nordberg. One of the battles the locals had to fight was the SAN DIEGAN METROLINER. Washington thought an express train was just the thing between Los Angeles and San Diego. This didn’t go well with the cities which had invested money in new train stations to find themselves losing service for this express train. Washington was also told by the locals that an express train would fail, which it did.
In the 1990’s Amtrak experimented with a decentralized organization. Out of this decentralization came Amtrak West, headquartered in Oakland, with responsibility for all service on the West Coast. During this time the COAST STARLIGHT was Amtrak’s premiere train. Many successful innovations were tried on the STARLIGHT during this time. In the last 4 years Amtrak has recentralized all operations and service has declined, not improved. The COAST STARLIGHT is a good train to start the process of local control. California has sent the precedent with intrastate organizations. Now we need to create interstate organizations. All the progress in rail service in this country in the last 30 years has come from local initiative. New commuter and light rail services are springing up around the country. It is time to put this energy to work on long distance trains across America.
It isn’t just the STARLIGHT which is in trouble. The long distance trains work together as a system connecting with each other. At even greater risk is the much maligned SUNSET LIMITED. The SUNSET should have gone daily over 20 years ago. It should never have been rerouted to bypass Phoenix. The trackage east of New Orleans is now fully operational after Hurricane Katrina, yet there are no plans to bring back service on the SUNSET to Florida. As the late Dr. Adrian Herzog demonstrated, ridership and revenues for passenger trains are directly related to the length of the route, number of connecting services and total number of stations available to passengers. In other words, the more the merrier. The more travel combinations available brings in more passengers. Minor expansion can greatly increase ridership. Small service cuts can be disastrous, not economical. For example, on a system with 500 stations, eliminating fifty stations doesn’t eliminate 50 travel choices for potential passengers, but over 47,000!
It is not enough to “save the trains”. Simply criticizing the freight railroads, leafleting trains or releasing press releases is not a plan of action. Dr. Herzog calculated that to create a viable rail passenger service would require at a minimum an additional 1,500 Superliner Cars. That’s 150 cars a year for ten years. There haven’t been any new Superliners delivered in almost ten years. Long distance trains now generate a positive cash flow. Not necessarily a profit, but enough to borrow money to buy more equipment. When dealing with the railroads you need both a “carrot” and a “stick” to get their attention. There is a great deal of track work needed to meet the growing demands being made on the railroads. Cash grants and tax credits will go a long way to help the railroads with rebuilding their infrastructure. But public support for the railroads should be connected with benefits for the rail passenger public. We’ve seen this work in California; it can be expanded Nation wide with your tax dollars at work.