Commentary, Issues

LOSSAN and the Coast Route – A Plan for 2008 and Beyond

A policy idea presented for discussion and comment.20th February, 2007
From: Paul Dyson, President, RailPAC.

Summary:

The current standard of service is unacceptable and is not good use of taxpayer funds.

  • Pacific Surfliner on time performance, ridership and revenue growth, and overall journey times can best be described as mediocre. With the levels of highway congestion and the cost of operating a private vehicle in the region, rail should be growing much faster.
  • In spite of the bond issues, the total cost of desirable infrastructure projects plus new rolling stock far exceeds the funds likely to be available.
  • We have so far been unable to break the impasse with Union Pacific regarding the investments required north of Los Angeles.
  • Even if funds were immediately available there seems to be no prospect of taking delivery of new “California Car” rolling stock for about 4 years, and we are all going to be very shocked when we see the price tag.
  • We have three independent providers of mainline rail passenger service in Southern California, each of which operates in whole or in part of the LOSSAN corridor. The services are not coordinated to serve the market as a whole, but have been individually formulated to meet local needs and budgets. Joint information systems and ticketing are poor to non-existent.

If we want to make an impact on the situation in a reasonable time frame we have to rethink our current approach. Instead of regarding Metrolink, Coaster and Amtrak as separate and isolated services it’s time to look at the available resources as a whole and formulate a business plan and a timetable that makes use of all of the public financed rolling stock in a coordinated fashion.

Starting in fall 2007 we should reduce the number of Surfliner trips between Los Angeles and San Diego in order to reallocate one train set and operating funds to the Coast Daylight. The gaps in corridor inter city service should be covered by rescheduled Metrolink/Coaster trains to make joint run through trains which, while slower and with less on board amenities, will offer acceptable service, especially to passengers taking short trips between intermediate stations. The overall reduction in corridor trains should result in improved on time performance. When new rolling stock is available and the double and triple track projects are complete the Surfliner services can be reinstated.

As we see today, there is no point in trying to crowd additional trains onto an overstressed network. We should therefore allocate ALL of the available investment dollars to the identified infrastructure improvement projects. We must start property acquisition for the LAUS run through tracks before the project becomes unaffordable.

Given the large minimum order and long lead-time for Pacific Surfliner type cars, Caltrans should issue an RFP to the commuter car builders for an upgraded “long distance” corridor car. This car would use the same hull as the Bombardier or Rotem commuter car but have enhanced amenities, Surfliner type seats, and a car with café downstairs and business class upstairs. While this would be a compromise from the “California Car”, there is the possibility that they will be significantly cheaper and available much more quickly. If such a project is successful the present Surfliners could be allocated to the Coast Daylight, San Joaquins, and other longer distance corridors.

Since these commuter hull based cars could be converted to commuter use by changing the seats they become more desirable for a private leasing company to own and rent to many different operators. It will also be easier to add on smaller purchases to existing orders of commuter cars, giving the manufacturer a longer production run and the chance for both parties to save money.

Caltrans, the LOSSAN Board, and the other public passenger rail boards and the elected representatives of the areas which they serve, should approach the Governor and request a high level conference between state officials and the top management of Union Pacific Railroad. The current impasse is unacceptable. If common sense prevails there ought to be a win-win formula whereby the UP enjoys a more efficient railroad with a lower cost of operation while the public sector meets its objective of offering more passenger service.

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