Monthly Archives

September 2007

Commentary, Rail Photos

OTP on the Southwest Chief lately

How has Amtrak train 3/4, the Southwest Chief, (and others) been doing lately?
Commentary by Russ Jackson
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When a long distance train has a very good on time performance it’s a time to celebrate, and while the Southwest Chief regularly has one of Amtrak’s best records it’s good to look once in a while.

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Southwest Chief #3 is arriving at Los Angeles Union Station at 1:30 PM on August 9, 2007, an unusually late arrival. (Photo by Mike Palmer)

For the year to date, starting October 1, 2006 through September 1, trains 3 and 4 have been “on time,” (meaning no later than 30 minutes late according to the timetable), 60% of the time. That still means, however, 4 out of every 10 Chiefs arrive at their endpoints late. The relatively good record shows “on time” can be done by these trains, and the BNSF works with Amtrak to run them that way.

For the two weeks between September 8 and 21, Train 3 arrived in Los Angeles from Chicago “On Time or Early” 9 times. For the same period, Train 4 arrived in Albuquerque from Los Angeles “On Time or Early” every day but one. However, for the last four days of that reporting period #3 has been late one to two hours. Regular early arrival in ABQ for #3 and 4 has been experienced for some time. When this writer rode it in October, 2006, BOTH 3 and 4 were early at ABQ. “Reliable”? If you are planning a long distance train trip, the Southwest Chief is the one to select. Compared to the other western long distance trains entering/leaving California it stands head and shoulders above them.

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Southwest Chief #4 has arrived at the Albuquerque, New Mexico, train station early on Ocober 8, 2006, a nearly normal occurrence. (Photo by Russ Jackson with Jon Messier)

Followup: The past two months we have checked and reported on time performance for the California Zephyr and the Coast Starlight. What has been their results in the same two reporting weeks, September 8 to 21? Not as rosy, but not too bad for three of the four affected trains. For the year to date trains 5/6 are on time 8.8%, although for the first half of September it is 47%, while trains 11/14 are 21%, and the first half of September are at 31.3%.

Specifically for train 6, from September 8 to 21 it was on time or a few minutes late into Salt Lake City 6 times, and no more than 30 minutes late 7 times. Train #5, the westbound Zephyr, arrived in Salt Lake City from Chicago and Denver 8 times, and into Sacramento “on time or early” 5 times with 4 others under 45 minutes late. Again, this proves that the extended schedule is workable. At the RailPAC September 15 meeting Amtrak’s Jonathan Hutchison said Amtrak will return 5/6 to the regular schedule when the Union Pacific completes its track projects in Nevada.

RailPAC Associate Director/InterMountainRail, John Dornoff, rode 5/6 round trip between Salt Lake City and Denver for a meeting earlier in September. He reports that eastbound 6 was on time despite it leaving Elko almost 2 hours late and the train must back in and out of the SLC station because of track construction. It was 20 minutes late at Denver. Westbound it was 2 1/2 hours late out of Denver but arrived SLC only two hours late. For a colorful trip report, see his trip posted on InterMountainRail.org.

The Coast Starlight is another matter, however. The southbound train, #11, arrived in Los Angeles “EARLY” 10 times! Only two days, the 12th and 13th, was it very late. Then we look at the northbound #14. Its record of arrival during the same two weeks at Sacramento showed three days it was two minutes early or no more than 11 minutes late. The other days it was late within a reasonable time of 60 minutes or less. Going north from there, however, #14 encounters Union Pacific track gangs working inside defined windows, more freight interference and other delays more often, so it arrived in EUG 66 minutes late on September 9, but was late in TRIPLE DIGIT minutes every other day!

As they say, three out of four means you are batting .750. Just wait until next month when we report on the Sunset Limited. As of September 15, 2007, trains 1/2 have been on time only 14% since October 1, 2006.

Reports

CA Corridor August statistics

Summary of August 2007 ridership and ticket revenue on the California Corridors As received from Amtrak.
Reported by Gene Skoropowski
These results are good news for all intercity passenger rail services across California, and particularly good news for the Capitol Corridor service.

After 11 months, with every month in the fiscal year setting a new record high growth, we are AVERAGING +13% ridership growth for the last 12 months, and 21% revenue growth. On time service slipped a bit in August, back down to mid 70% range, with an unusually high proportion of these delays due to mechanical failures. These are being addressed with Amtrak, and reliability has improved substantially thru mid-September. Union Pacific performance has improved substantially (about 90%), in both August and so far in September, and if trends continue we should end September around 85-88% on-time, or better, total delivered service to the riders.

The revenue-to-cost ratio is now at 48%, and after eleven months, it appears the year will end about 49%, just below the targeted goal of 50%.

Capitol Corridor

130,568 passengers +18.7% vs. FY06 and another record for the month
$1,676,304 +22.6% vs. FY 06

July 2006 had 109,986 riders, so, once again, the +18.7% growth in July is consistent with the growth that really ‘jumped up’ starting in October, 2006, shortly after the new, more frequent service schedule was implemented. Not only has ridership ‘stayed up’, looking at a graph chart, ridership growth is escalating as time goes on.

On time performance will average about 75% or the year, but this belies significant improvement in the last month or so, again in the 85-90% range. Again, not yet where we want to be but a lot closer than at any time in the last few years. Union Pacific is performing well on dispatching and track maintenance (almost no slow orders on the entire route!), and UPRR stats show 89-92% performance. The recent ‘bug-a-boo’ of mechanical failures is being addressed jointly by CCJPA and Amtrak, and we are seeing progress on that front as well.

With 44 passenger trains on the line every weekday, 32 of them Capitol Corridor trains, conflicts are now less with freight trains than they are with other passenger trains. For the Capitol Corridor, the key to improved reliability lies in the provision of four capital projects:

  • West Causeway universal crossovers (ability to pass/run around trains on the 16 mile run between Davis and Sacramento)
  • Benicia crossover (cuts the distance in half between Vista (Martinez) and Cordelia (Suisun) and the delay time in half when Main Track #2, the lower-level track at Bahia, is blocked by freight trains working the yards)
  • Emeryville Station tracks and the ‘Wimmer’ crossover (reverses one crossover at the north end of the station to permits parallel moves into and out of the Emeryville Station, greatly reducing congestion and extends the station-side track about a mile farther south, allowing between passing opportunities for passenger trains, and reducing the number of times passenger trains block freight trains into-and-out of the Port)
  • Double track extension in Santa Clara County (extends double track north from ‘CP-Expressway’ to Great America Station area (or perhaps beyond), and provides and added crossover from the new main track north of CP-Coast to Main Track #1, permitting freights to occupy and pass other trains on the controlled siding between CP-Stockton and CP-Coast. This crossover will also be essential when the new downtown Santa Clara Station is completed with a platform directly serving UPRR Main Track #2
  • Lastly, additional coach cars are increasingly required, and they are the key to the Capitol Corridor’s ability to both increase capacity (longer trains) and improve our cost recovery from fares ratio. The two rebuilt/leased Amtrak Superliner Cars arranged by Caltrans are helping bridge the gap during the overhaul process, and hopefully will get us through the ‘crunch period’ until the planned new cars are delivered 4 years or so hence.

    Pacific Surfliners
    :
    286,313 passengers +3.5% vs. 2006
    $5,376,830 +9.4% vs. 2006

    San Joaquins
    :
    75,477 passengers +8.7% vs. 2006
    $2,359,864 +0.4% vs. 2006

    Eugene K. Skoropowski
    Managing Director
    Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority

    Reports

    TAMC Rail Policy Committee meeting

    Transportation Agency for Monterey County
    Rail Policy Committee,
    September 10, 2007. Salinas
    Reported for RailPAC by Chris Flescher

    There is a strong interest in trying to reduce the cost for the Branch Line Project (the light rail and/or bus rapid transit from Castroville to Monterey). Parsons has come up with a list of options to consider:

    1. Make the project go from downtown Monterey to the northern end of Marina, instead of Monterey to Castroville.

    2. End the line in Monterey at Washington Street instead of Portola Plaza. This would shorten it by a few blocks. It would also place it near the historic building that was once a train station. There is also a possibility that the Monterey bus transit center will be moved there in the future (that is currently a few blocks away in a different direction).

    3. Defer construction of stations at Canyon Del Rey Blvd and 1st Street (these are both in Seaside).

    4. Reduce the size of the park and ride lot at 8th Street in Marina. Also, defer creating a park and ride lot at Casa Verde Way in Monterey.

    5. Reclassify the MST transit center proposed for 8th Street as a bus project instead of a rail project. This will reduce the cost of the rail/bus rapid transit project making the rail/bus rapid transit project appear cheaper, although the money will need to be made up elsewhere.

    6. Defer construction of a second light rail platform at Beach Road (in Marina).

    7. Defer construction of a second light rail track in 3 locations.

    8. Reduce the width of the bus rapid transit guideway from 12 feet to 11.5 feet and the shoulder width from 4 feet to 2 feet.

    9. Reduce the station amenity package. I believe this means doing things like making smaller, more plain benches at the stations, fewer ticket vending machines, and a simpler roof over the platform.

    10. For light rail, create shorter platforms which will only allow for 1-car trains, instead of 2-car trains (which is now planned).

    11. Use lower cost bus rapid transit vehicles.

    12. Remove the combination bus rapid transit/light rail transit alternative from further consideration. This means, study having just light rail and study having just bus rapid transit, but don’t study a system that uses both modes (which was considered earlier).

    TAMC will apply for the money under the Small Starts program, so having a low cost is very important. The limits for Small Starts are a total capital cost of $250 million or less, and a total federal grant of $75 million or less.

    One thing to consider is that the city of Monterey would like to have a transit center next to the historic train station (by Washington Street, as mentioned earlier).

    Another consideration is to avoid large parking lots near city centers, if possible, and only have such lots on the edge of cities, or outside them. This would allow for more transit oriented development in the city centers, and more pedestrian friendly areas next to the city center stations.

    For the Caltrain extension (Gilroy to Salinas), people from TAMC met with a FTA official, who said that the FTA wanted a more detailed modeling analysis (for the expected ridership). In November, people from TAMC will meet with a ridership modeler who works for the FTA, in order to learn more about creating a better model.

    A capacity analysis of the rail line appears to show that most of the capacity problems come from the proposed Coast Daylight train (San Francisco to Los Angeles), not the Caltrain extension.

    On September 18 and October 2, there will be meetings with Salinas City Council members, where TAMC will ask the Salinas council to pick either layout 17 or 18 for the station and surrounding area, and with some owners of property next to the station. The layouts 17 and 18 are nearly the same, but one has a garage, while the other has entirely surface parking.

    The proposed High Speed Rail could impact the Caltrain extension, and TAMC officials testified in favor of the Pacheco Pass alignment for the HSR line. The state cut a lot of money from the transit budget, but it cut less than expected from the HSR planning group.

    The Bay Area has created regional rail plans, describing what rail lines are planned to be running in the next 20 to 30 years. The planned Monterey County projects are now mentioned in the Bay Area regional plans.

    If Caltrain is electrified, the cost could be about $470 million (this is not counting electric powered locomotives). The project would go from San Francisco to San Jose. Trains starting in Salinas would probably run from Salinas to San Francisco, with no change of locomotives, so they would be diesel powered, under the overhead wires, north of San Jose. The project might start in 2008, and then it would be completed in 2014.

    Rail Photos, Reports

    CCJPB September Meeting Report

    Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Board meeting
    September 19, 2007
    Suisun City Hall
    A PHOTO report by Russ Jackson

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    As Capitol Corridor JPB Managing Director, Gene Skoropowski, said in the meeting, “Good news is always easy to report,” and that seems to be the theme of all of the CCJPB meetings to the delight of the board members as well as the staff.

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    A discussion of safety-related projects began with the introduction of Amtrak Police officer, Jake Mumford, who outlined his program.

    Officer Mumford is now assigned to the Corridor, and a second officer will soon join him. He worked on other Amtrak lines, and said he is “very impressed with the way the Capitol Corridor operates, it is a safe system compared to other agencies, and I want to keep it that way.” From a law enforcement perspective, “As soon as passengers feel unsafe it takes only one incident and they go back to driving.” He interacts with passengers as often as possible, and wants “to be seen by riders.” He’s impressed with the CC Riders group of dedicated riders. He’s found that there is frequently a problem with local agencies that will delay movement of trains at accident scenes to the detriment of passengers on the trains, so he’s meeting with local agencies to interact with their police departments to keep “our transportation system working,” and he is looking forward to safe growth.

    A followup discussion with board members brought a question from Vice Chair Mary Ann Courville from Dixon, who represents Solano County, wondering if a “train watch” group similar to “Neighborhood Watch” could be developed. Mr. Skoropowski reviewed the existence of Operation Lifesaver. He went on to discuss the new proposal for a limited number of security cameras to be installed on trains, and a proposal being worked on with the Union Pacific for placing cameras 1 to 3 miles apart in the right-of-way which will trigger knowledge of problems ahead for engineers who may be in a blind area. Director Steve Cohn, who represents Sacramento County, said “Safety on trains is important, but it’s also important at stations.” Mr. Cohn told Officer Mumford he was pleased about him meeting with local agencies. The Corridor has been plagued with too many accidents and fatalities resulting from car drivers thinking they can beat trains to crossings.

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    (l-r) CCJPB members Mary Ann Courville, Chairman Forrest Williams, Steve Cohn, Tom Blalock

    Several “routine” items were discussed and funding approved, including an updated plan for the Oakland-San Jose Track Improvement Project which requires cost overruns on three projects bringing the total cost for this project to $61,840,345 from the Capitol Corridor and $485,000 from Caltrain. The 2007-08 Budget was likewise adopted, based on continuance of the current schedule of buses and trains, which amounts to $26,729,416 including $2,959,062 for Administration and $1.174,000 for Marketing. It should be noted the latter figure is the same as last year, as the second year of a two-year agreement with Glass McClure Advertising is entered which takes care of advertising @$540,000 per year. The FY 2007-08 Operating Agreement with Amtrak was also adopted. Working with Amtrak, the CCJPA has secured additional operating funds through Caltrans Division of Rail, with Caltrans Director Will Kempton’s support, for increased fuel/labor costs and improved yield (revenues per passenger mile traveled) so that the service expansion (to 32 trips weekdays/22 on weekends) can be continued and financed. This amount had been frozen for 6 straight years. The amount to Amtrak is $22,596,354. This agreement also “Maintains the modified UPRR railroad performance payment program of higher incentives for improved dispatching of Capitol Corridor trains,” which are “separate from Amtrak’s national payment to UPRR for systemwide performance.”

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    Capitol train 535 is at the Suisun-Fairfield station on September 19, and will take some CCJPB members back to the Bay Area. In the background is the Solano County Administration Center, and the train station is in the trees to the right. Highway 12 crosses over the tracks here.

    On Legislative matters, it was noted that State SB 684 (Cox), which the CCJPB supports, passed the Legislature and is enroute to the Governor for signature. This bill would make changes to the current state code regarding restrictions on bus service. Currently, those citizens paying state sales taxes on fuel are not able to use the intercity buses without a train ticket. That is modified now, with limited access in certain locations. On the “Watch List” are SB 717 (Perata) which could result in reduced funding for the state’s intercity rail program, and various bills regarding allocation of Proposition 1B bond funds. Amtrak’s 2008 Budget request (in the Transportation Department Appropriation) has passed both houses of Congress, but differing points must be resolved in Conference, which should happen soon. Meanwhile, S 294 (Lautenberg/Lott) which the CCJPA supports, and is a six-year reauthorization for Amtrak containing a rail capital match (80%-20%) program, is still pending in the U.S. Congress.

    Mr. Skoropowski’s “Managing Director’s Report” contained more good news, with ridership up 18.7% in August, and revenues are on their way to a 50% recovery ratio by the end of the year. Sacramento’s train station now is #7 on the list of busiest stations in the Amtrak system, just behind Boston at #6!

    september-2007-2-005.jpgThe corridor’s “Quik Trak” ticket vending machine project will be completed “by Friday,” with each station, staffed and unstaffed, having at least two of the new machines. They are working on software simplification.

    capitol-15th-anniversary-flyer.jpgThe Corridor received APTA’s first place “AdWheel Award” this year for its 15th Anniversary poster.

    A full display of Corridor marketing activities was made available, showing not only advertising items but other promotions which all have the objective of growing ridership and revenue.

    The next CCJPB meeting will be November 14 in Suisun City Hall unless changed before then.

    Reports

    RailPAC September Meeting Report

    California State Railroad Museum, Sacramento
    September 15, 2007
    Reported by Russ Jackson and Bob Manning

    Photos by the authors
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    The CSRM is a perfect place for a rail advocacy meeting. The atmosphere and hospitality were outstanding. The Rail Passenger Association of California board of directors (shown below with President Paul Dyson presiding) met in a morning session to discuss items pertaining to the operation of the organization, which is this year celebrating 30 years of passenger rail advocacy in California.

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    The afternoon session opened with a report from Amtrak Governmental Affairs spokesman, Jonathan Hutchison, who reported that “everything’s up” at Amtrak these days, ridership, and revenue. System on time performance is 68.4% as of September 12. In keeping with the meeting theme of “running trains without money,” Mr. Hutchison pointed out how that would be very difficult. He said, “True performance comes from enhanced investment,” pointing out that there are currently 41 Superliners and 110 Amfleet cars deadlined at Beech Grove, Indiana, waiting for funds to repair them. There is a “backlog of $1.7 billion of projects needed in the Northeast Corridor alone.” He added, “When we receive a smaller allocation from the Congress than what we need, more projects must be delayed, and the backlog increases.” So, Amtrak is “forced to make decisions on priorities, such as whether to rebuild the yard facilities in Seattle or perhaps put more china on passenger cars.” The current allocation is a “status quo figure.” In answer to questions from the crowd, Mr. Hutchison said “the dynamics of change have improved” in the Congress, with more bipartisan support being generated than at any recent time. The success of the new schedule for the California Zephyr was keeping the train close to on time. After 3 years of UP work, Amtrak anticipates returning the train to its shorter schedule. As to reopening the San Bernardino station, “that’s unlikely, but they are looking at having station hosts to keep it available at train times perhaps by October. He confirmed that the Coast Starlight cars and service will be renovated during the Spring of 2008 and that the Pacific Parlour Cars will remain and will be staffed.

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    (l-r) Art Lloyd, Gene Skoropowski, Jonathan Hutchison, Brian Schmidt, Bill Bronte, Paul Dyson

    Art Lloyd then introduced “a good friend,” Bill Bronte, Chief of the Caltrans Division of Rail. Bill spoke of his pride in the history of his organization, from his predecessors Cindy McKim who founded the “rail program” and Warren Weber, who made things happen for its growth. He takes pride in the San Joaquin corridor, where “rail is now a critical element in the Valley.” The future of operating funds, the availability of voter approved bond issue funds, the diversion of the PTA moneys to other purposes, and particularly increased costs have the program having to plan for doing with less. Mr. Bronte reported that over a two year period the State will be billed up to 20% more for Amtrak’s costs for operating the California corridor services. That is due primarily for fuel costs, now $4.8 million per year, and in anticipation of new employee contracts.
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    The good news came in response to a question from the crowd about how many new rebuilt Superliner coaches will be leased for use on the Capitols and San Joaquins in California Car colors, (One is shown above, the “Pacific Grove” on Capitol train 533 at Davis on August 29) Mr. Bronte reported there are now two running and he has funds for 5 more. He discussed what he told Mr. Dyson in a letter that “Surfliner sets will have new upholstery and carpets this winter.” And, “a huge committee is looking at the Surfliner/Metrolink schedule to see if there can be better integration.” Also in reply to a question, there will “be no change to Santa Barbara morning service as they would lose too many riders between LAUS and Oxnard on train 799.” Service to Imperial County is not likely in the current plan without more local involvement. Mr. Bronte emphasized the importance of “rail advocacy” to keep them informed of what needs should be addressed. Mr. Dyson responded by thanking Bill for his “straight talk and for reminding us of OUR responsibility in the political process.

    Gene Skoropowski was the next speaker, and his usual eloquence was appreciated. The Capitol Corridor started December 12, 1991, and now has 16 round trips daily, in anticipation of a maximum of 18 in the future being the currently perceived optimum. California has 20% of Amtrak’s total riders, obviously because the State “responds to passenger needs.” Ridership and revenue figures are up monthly on all three corridors, and the biggest current challenge according to Gene is On Time Performance. Year-to-date the Capitols are 73.6%, Surfliners are 75%, and the San Joaquins are 66.8%. Most of the problems now are not host railroad related, but due to a “rash of mechanical failures and an epidemic of collisions and fatalities from people who decide to park on the railroad.” When an accident occurs “a train is delayed two hours, and some as much as five hours. There are almost no slow orders on the Capitol Corridor currently.” There are many capital needs; more double tracks, more crossovers, more grade separations (which are big benefits to the highway users), quick ticketing, etc. There is a proposal to place cameras on the corridor to help engineers anticipate crossing problems ahead that are out of their line of sight. The need for capital in the Capitol Corridor alone is $50 million. Gene agreed with Bill Bronte about the importance of active rail advocacy. He has been a 30 year member of NARP, and serves on its board of directors.

    Brian Schmidt from the Altamont Commuter Express staff spoke next, introduced by Art Lloyd who mentioned that ACE operates over his “favorite railroad, the former Western Pacific,” where Art worked prior to going to Amtrak. Mr. Schmidt reported that ACE is a “9 year success story.” ACE is studying whether to buy the WP line it operates over, and expects to spend $300 million for Stockton to Niles on that line. They have $150 million on hand in anticipation. As for commuter service in the San Joaquin Valley, a proposal has been put forth for ACE to operate between Merced and Sacramento. Studies have shown a rider preference for running over the Union Pacific’s Fresno sub, but the UP has said not only “No,” but “Hell No” when approached on the issue. ACE will continue its efforts, but funds for commuter lines must be raised locally. ACE anticipates having 8 round trips. The mid-day 4th trip now carries 150 passengers daily, a success, and it has helped lower operating costs as crew scheduling is easier.

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    The session closed with our featured speaker, Caltrans Director Will Kempton (left, introduced by Paul Dyson), who spoke of how “rail is important” to the state. He congratulated the Capitol Corridor riders for their increased patronage, saying, “with all the new trains there is no reason for a person to not ride or to consider it,” chiding Mr. Skoropowski because Mr. Kempton was stranded for hours on a recent trip when an accident occured. He has placed a kiosk near his office where he can buy a ticket, then he can take Sacramento RT light rail to the station. State employees are being encouraged to take the train whenever possible. Mr. Kempton sees the Pacific Surfliners expanding and he encourages consolidation with Metrolink and Amtrak as well as increased service there as well as on the San Joaquins where “OTP must be improved.” He supports single ticket passes wherever possible. As for high speed rail, “For $37 billion? that will be hard to get. It must be moved along incrementally. Meanwhile, intercity rail should be expanded.” In response to questions, he pointed out that a group of investors from Las Vegas advised that the last hotel built in Las Vegas cost several billion so that would not be a problem adding the proposed new train service from Victorville to Las Vegas, and Palm Springs service will be done by Metrolink. He urged rail advocates to express their support for the $71 million that goes into the three current rail services. Advocates should work to get the “Feds to give us capital,” particularly the 80-20% match that is contained in pending Federal legislation. Mr. Dyson thanked Mr. Kempton for coming to the meeting and for encouraging us with his obvious enthusiasm for passenger rail.

    Rail Photos

    CA Rail Photos: An Arizonan comes to CA

    From Bill Lindley, RailPAC Associate Director, and Arizona Rail Passenger Association Treasurer. Taken on his vacation from the Arizona heat this summer.
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    An original series San Diego Trolley train is in downtown San Diego on August 6, 2007.

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    A Surfliner train passes through Old Town Station in San Diego The Trolley, Coasters, and some Surfliners stop here. Interstate 5 crosses the tracks in the background.

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    A Coaster train stops at Old Town San Diego station.

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    The historic “Private car” lot at Los Angeles Union Station is still in use for car storage. The Post Office building is in the background. This shot was taken March 26, 2007.

    Reports

    RailPAC welcomes expanded Metrolink weekend service

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    September 5, 2007.
    PRESS RELEASE: RailPAC President Paul Dyson today called for continued expansion of Metrolink train service throughout the region.
    In welcoming the additional trains on the Antelope Valley line on Saturday, and service for the first time on Sunday, Dyson said that: “At last Metrolink is beginning to fulfill its potential as a true Regional Rail system.”

    RailPAC’s policy calls for “all day, everyday” service on Metrolink’s 7 routes. “With 54 stations, and existing rights of way and rolling stock Metrolink is our lowest cost way of increasing regional mobility”, added Dyson. “With reductions in state transit funds, Metrolink represents the best way to enhance service, especially in the San Fernando Valley and north Los Angeles County.”

    RailPAC is an all-volunteer group that has campaigned since 1979 for improved rail passenger service. Information at www.railpac.org.

    Paul Dyson, President
    (Photo by Noel Braymer)

    Commentary

    Editorial: Now would be a good time to raise Gas Taxes

    By Noel T. Braymer

    The recent collapse of the I-35W Freeway Bridge in Minneapolis highlights a problem that has been growing for years: the deferred maintenance of much of America’s infrastructure. There is an old saying in Economics: “There is no such thing as a free lunch“. The “free lunch” referred to was the practise in the past of Bars serving a “free lunch” with the purchase of a beer. The purchase of the beer paid for the “free lunch” and besides the lunch was usually made up of salty foods which tended to make the bar patron thirsty for what else; more beer. The point is one way or the other you or someone pays for what you get. Any money “saved” putting off work on the I-35W Bridge was more than lost when the bridge collapsed. To quote another old saying “a stitch in time save nine.”

    I remember on my first trip to Washington D.C. I did the typical tourist stuff and looked at many Greco-Roman Temple Government Buildings. Most of these buildings had inscriptions, many in Latin over the building’s front entrance. The one I remembered was the one over the Headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service. It was a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes which simply said “Taxes are the price we pay for civilization.” Most Americans who have traveled to Europe come back marveling at the Airports, Publice Transportation, Rail Service and Highways. The infrastructure of many parts of Europe is in much better shape than in the United States. Guess what, taxes in Europe are also higher, much higher in many places. Americans often also marvel at how “expensive” gasoline is in Europe, as much as 6 dollars a gallon or more. The cost of the gasoline is about the same in Europe as in America, the difference is the taxes are higher. The “high” cost of gasoline hasn’t stopped Europeans from buying cars and driving. But gasoline taxes are a good source of tax revenues and Europe doesn’t import anywhere near as much oil as we do and doesn’t have the massive balence of trade deficit that we do. As a result of this the Euro is becoming a strong currency while the Dollar is rapidly losing value. A major factor in our trade imbalance is imported oil.

    We in California have just experienced another State Budget battle. The cause of the long 51 day delayed approval of the State Budget was the intransigence of Republican State Senators who were refusing to pass a budget without major cuts to balance the budget, even ignoring the requests of their leader Republican Governor Schwarzenegger to accept the compromise agreed to by the Democrats. This compromise transferred (stole) over a billion dollars in transportation funds recently approved by the voters to short up the general fund. California is one of only three States which require a 2/3’s majority in the Legislature to approve the state budget. Much of this annual theater of the absurd would be avoided if the 2/3’s requirement was dropped in favor of a simple majority as is the norm in the civilized world. We could take a lesson from the past when Ronald Reagan was Governor and he had budget shortfalls in California: he raised taxes!

    The recent volatility of gas prices has shown that people may complain but can live with higher gas prices. Raising taxes on gasoline will be less onerous than the rapid price increases we often see. The increases in gasoline taxes should be used for infrastructure and not just for road construction. Higher gasoline taxes will slow down gasoline consumption and be an incentive to conserve gasoline. As a tax on consumption it gives the taxpayer a choice of how much tax they want to pay. Don’t want to pay more gas taxes, use less gas! Expanding rail passenger service and public transportation will give people more economical choices besides driving and will conserve fuel. In the long run by raising gas taxes we will stabilize gas prices and consumption which will slow down rising gas prices in the future.

    Will there be opposition to raising gasoline taxes? Of course there will, and the oil producers which already enjoy many tax breaks as well as massive profits will scream the loudest against it. But to continue doing what we have been doing will only dig us deeper into the hole we have dug ourselves into from our dependence on fossil fuels. We can’t continue to put off making badly needed upgrades to our infrastructure if we expect to maintain a decent standard of living. Many of the problems we have when traveling by rail, air or road are a result of deferred maintenance. As events in Minneapolis have shown, deferring maintenance doesn’t save money; it only creates future expensive disasters.

    Events

    RailPAC September MEETING NOTICE

  • 10:00 Board Meeting
  • 12:00 Lunch
  • 1:00 General Meeting
  • At the California State Rail Museum in the Museum Theater (use east “group” entrance), in Old Sacramento! Reserve your space NOW! Only a few days left to reserve! EVERYONE is welcome! And, it’s FREE! Our topic: “Running Trains WITHOUT Money!” A Presentation from Operation Lifesaver just added! See new parking information above! New 9/8/07
    Confirmed Speaker lineup of top California rail Leaders:
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    Kempton, Bronte, Skoropowski, Mortensen, Hutchison

  • Will Kempton, Caltrans Director
  • Bill Bronte, Caltrans Rail Program Chief
  • Gene Skoropowski, Managing Director, Capitol Corridor
  • Jonathan Hutchison, Amtrak Update
  • Stacey Mortensen Altamont Commuter Express. Plans for ACE expansion!
  • Paul Dyson, RailPAC President, and Art Lloyd RailPAC VP North
  • ADMISSION is FREE!
    Donations will be accepted.

    LUNCH is on your own at your choice of the many restaurants in Old Sacramento.

    But, please RESERVE your seat NOW! Call the RailPAC Membership office, 916-833-4218, OR e-mail RicSilver@aol.com and say, “YES, I’ll be there.” Give your name, address, and phone number.

    Check this space frequently for updates!