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.

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