RailPAC North October Meeting Report

Reported by Russ Jackson, RailPAC Secretary – A crowd of over 35 people participated in the first RailPAC meeting to be held on the Peninsula, this one at the Samtrans office in San Carlos. Many were regular Caltrain riders, as well as Amtrak riders. RailPAC VP North Art Lloyd hosted the meeting, also attended by several RailPAC Directors, with VP South James Smith and former Treasurer Jim Clifton joining us from Southern California. It was a successful meeting with many good questions from those attending! This report with pictures from the event will be in the November Western Rail Passenger Review, and on railpac.org after November 1.

Mr. Lloyd (right) opened the meeting by introducing featured speaker, Bob Doty, the acting Chief Operating Officer for Caltrain, who also supervises construction and planning for the railroad. Art mentioned how much Caltrain has improved, in that there are now 96 trains daily on this busy commuter service that dates back to the 1800’s when the Southern Pacific first built the line.

CALTRAIN PLANS

Mr. Doty emphasized how much easier it is to operate a railroad when you own it, which the Caltrain JPB does, between downtown San Francisco and San Jose, and that the US is far behind the rest of the world when it comes to developing commuter rail, “which is the safest method of travel. We need to get more trains on the rail, and more bodies in the seats,” he said, introducing a presentation of the growth plans for Caltrain, “Project 2025,” with the strategy being to improve safety, reliability, and allow for future expansion.

Caltrain was “reinvented” two years ago, and now has its regular schedule, the “baby bullet” limited stop trains, and new trackage. Mr. Doty noted that ridership did not drop when gas prices dropped, and that revenue is on target to be over $30 million. A 15% reduction in end to end running time has generated a 25% increase in ridership and a 10% increase in revenue over the last two years, with NO increase in employees or new equipment. Earned revenue per employee (productivity) is up, and On Time Performance is back to 99% regularly after falling when capacity was reached three and four years ago. Adding additional capacity can take ridership an additional 16,000 riders daily. All these improvements are proof, as Mr. Doty said, that you cannot cut your way to a balanced budget. (Is Amtrak listening? -RJ)

A capital improvement program, with the continuing goal of “State of Good Repair,” with ongoing maintenance, bridge replacement because some are 100 years old, the “north terminal improvement” at 3rd & King in downtown San Francisco, other stations improvements, fencing, crossovers, etc., are continually underway to make it “passable.” “South terminal improvements ” at San Jose Diridon station, improving the bottleneck between that station and Santa Clara, new platforms there because the dwell time is too long and clogs the movement of trains, as does trying to solve the problem that putting bicycles on the trains delay movements! New cars will be necessary, “that have more than one door,” to solve dwell time problems.

“Current levels of service cannot meet future demand with diesel locomotives,” Mr. Doty said, leading into his advocacy of electrifying the railroad. New electric locomotives would be necessary for the eventual extension into downtown San Francisco by tunnel, of course, “and that’s gotta happen.” Electrics would reduce the running time even further, lower operating costs, and allow even more trains per hour thereby increasing capacity. Current plans are to electrify only from San Francisco to San Jose. Planned service south to Gilroy and, if Monterey County finances its planned expansion soon, to Salinas, and across the Dumbarton Bridge to the East Bay would be diesel, which would have to be integrated into the electrified train schedules.

Electrification is now mandated by the Caltrain JPB, “so it will happen eventually.” By the end of 2008 that board must say what improvements to make and when; Mr. Doty said, it will help the US join the rest of the world.

THE COAST DAYLIGHT

Art Lloyd spoke about the plans for the implementation of the state-sponsored “Coast Daylight” train which will run from downtown San Francisco to Los Angeles daily. “I think it will happen as early as 2008,” he said, “if Proposition 1b passes on November 7.” Operating funds for the train are in the 2007-8 Caltrans proposed budget, “the funds are all there, but there are capital improvements that must be made and additional equipment made available… April 30, 1971, was the last SP-operated Coast Daylight,” Mr. Lloyd remembered, “which was replaced by the existing very popular Coast Starlight or as we often know it, the Coast Starlate. There is big demand for the train originating/terminating in downtown San Francisco.” (On time performance of 11/14 has improved considerably in the last month. -RJ)

The new Coast Daylight could use Superliner equipment, which the state of California is negotiating to buy from Amtrak. These are wreck-damaged cars that Amtrak does not have the funds to repair, but again, funds for these cars and their repairs are contingent on passage of Proposition 1b. Currently the train operates with Horizon fleet cars between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo as trains 798/799. The new trains on the full route would depart Los Angeles and San Francisco daily, with the northbound train taking a Metrolink slot and the southbound train a “baby bullet slot, 8:16 AM,” on the Peninsula. Caltrain has approved this, and Samtrans is expected to do so shortly. Amtrak would adjust the Coast Starlight schedule so it would not conflict with the Daylight. Meal service on board would be like that available on the San Joaquins. Union Pacific is demanding the line be upgraded to CTC (Central Traffic Control) from Salinas to Santa Margarita, while Mr. Lloyd has been pointing out that using spring switches as the BNSF does would be a far less costly improvement and accomplish the same thing on a line that carries only four freight trains daily now.

“QUALITY” IS VITAL

RailPAC VP South James Smith spoke about the need for our group and all rail advocacy groups to expect a quality product from Amtrak and any rail service provider. He, and this writer, spoke of the food service available on the long distance trains, and how if there is any further reduction in on board amenities and quality the line will have been crossed and diminished quality means potential loss of ridership and revenues.

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