SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY RAIL COMMITTEE
Meeting Report, October 11, 2007
Reported by Russ Jackson
RailPAC was well represented at the quarterly meeting of the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee, led by Director Bruce Jenkins, and Associate Directors George Gaekle, Mike Barnbaum, and this writer. What made the meeting important was some news that we heard for the first time.
San Joaquin lapel pin distributed at the meeting.
Bakersfield Mayor, and SJVRC Chairman, Harvey Hall opened the meeting by expressing his pleasure that train 702 arrived in his city 20 minutes EARLY carrying many of the meeting participants including the RailPAC contingent. It was indeed a fine trip, showing that Amtrak and the railroads can run this train and its sister trains ON TIME or better. Meets with freight trains were perfectly timed; two passed 702 while we were in stations, Merced and Fresno. Meets with other Amtrak trains were perfectly timed, including one south of Hanford where 702 was put on a passing track for a rolling meet with the northbound 713! Our return on train 717 was marred only by meeting train 704 south of Merced, and 717 having to back out of the siding which cost ten minutes. Oh, and the food and drink on board was very good, and the service spirited.
San Joaquin train 702 stopped at the Lodi station. Three passengers boarded here. For other stations, see the photo report right after this report here on railpac.org.
This On Time Performance for 702 has been typical lately. The other San Joaquins are “doing better,” but are still not perfect despite both the BNSF and the UP running its segments at 90% or better according to their representatives. Amtrak-related delays for mechanical reasons, etc., account for the rest of the problems. The BNSF’s D. J. Mitchell and Rick Depler attend every SJVRC meeting. Mr. Depler reported there are no “maintenance of way blitz” projects planned for early next year that would disrupt passenger service.
A spirited discussion of connectivity for the San Joaquins to Amtrak’s long distance trains, particularly the California Zephyr and the Sunset Limited, was sparked by Stanislaus County representative George Gaekle, who again expressed his dissatisfaction with the current schedule that does not permit connection to either train from the Valley. Under the current schedule a bus connection from train 711 to train 6 is at Reno! “We know you can do it,” Mr. Gaekle said. He asked for figures be provided to the Committee showing how many transfers are requested.
The good news (almost) came from Caltrans Thruway bus supervisor, Rick Peterson. He stated that starting with the October 29 timetable change train 6 will arrive in Sacramento 55 minutes earlier but still not early enough for the 711 connection (an unreliable 14 minutes), so it will remain in Reno. This improved schedule was made possible by the early elimination of some Union Pacific slow orders in Nevada. The UP’s Tom Mulligan reported there is great progress in the Nevada work, with Sparks to Winnemuca completed, the next phase from there to Elko is under way, and “if weather permits” this winter work will continue to Salt Lake City and completion in two instead of the anticipated three years.
The westbound train 5 schedule will also be shortened by 25 minutes into Sacramento starting October 29, so the connection to train 718 will continue. Trains 5 and 6 have been operating close to scheduled time almost daily in the past month or so. Further schedule changes will take place as soon as the UP completes track work, so the connection to 711 will be restored as soon as possible. Amtrak is working to have the Sunset Limited departure time from Los Angeles moved ahead to 3:30 if Metrolink will agree, which would restore the connection with the San Joaquins..
The lineup of Thruway buses is at Bakersfield station in January, 2006.
However, the fate of some Thruway connecting buses could be in jeopardy. State law requires these routes to “break even after two years.” Mr. Peterson told this writer that while most Bakersfield to Los Angeles buses earn 300% of costs, other routes are not doing so well. “Bus operations costs have increased 40% lately due to fuel and some labor costs,” rising faster than ridership. While no routes will be canceled October 29, evaluations in process could produce changes next Spring. Routes such as San Francisco to Stockton, San Jose to Stockton, Merced to Monterey, and Bakersfield to Santa Barbara among others are showing low results and could be a problem to retain.
Another spirited discussion involving the freight railroads and Tehachapi pass for passenger trains ensued, following on reports the BNSF and this line segment owner UPRR are working on double tracking much of the remaining single track segments on this route. The question, again from Mr. Gaekle, was whether there was any involvement for passenger trains in this project. Tom Mulligan, the UP’s “Director of Passenger Operations” was present, taking some kidding when he admitted his railroad “does not operate any passenger trains of its own, only those under contract from Amtrak.” When pressed by Mr. Gaekle, Fresno representative Larry Miller and others, Mr. Mulligan and the BNSF’s Mitchell agreed that if Amtrak requests to have service on this line “the process will begin.” (seeing the UP and the BNSF side-by-side at this meeting was refreshing) Extension of the San Joaquins would have to be initiated by Caltrans and it must go through Amtrak. Retired Supervisor Illa Collin representing Sacramento County asked for a “ballpark figure” of costs for a project like this, but neither railroad could give one. The “news” from this discussion was there was no “flat no” to having passenger trains there, which has been the response in the past. Mr. Mitchell did say, however, that if it was train 718 extended to Los Angeles overnight as the Committee proposes, the 5 hour running time from Bakersfield (compared to 2 hours by bus) was not something he would ride. When Tulare County representative Ty Holscher asked about running service on the UP south of Fresno, Mr. Mulligan replied in the same vein, “go through Amtrak and the process begins.” Again, no total rejection.
Amtrak’s Jonathan Hutchison reported on the exciting prospects for Amtrak’s budget for the coming year, with both houses of Congress passing significant amounts, and each version containing state capital- matching funds. The latter amount ($100 million), while relatively small, is considered “seed money” for future allocations. The President has threatened to veto the DOT authorization bill containing Amtrak, but this time Amtrak is not the issue. If a “continuing resolution” is the result rather than full passage, Amtrak stands to receive what it had last fiscal year, $1.294 billion.
Mr. Hutchison announced that former Amtrak West President Gil Mallery, who has been President for Strategic Planning and Contract Administration working out of Washington DC, has retired from Amtrak. His replacement is Don Saunders, who has been Superintendent for the Central Division in Chicago after working here on the West Coast for some years. Mr. Saunders’ new title will be, “Assistant Vice President, State and Commuter Partnerships-West,” and he will be stationed in Oakland. “This does not mean the return of Amtrak West,” Mr. Hutchison said, but does mean more localized decision making. The Committee applauded this idea. In another announcement, Amtrak Board Chairman David Laney has indicated he “does not want another term,” which opens another board seat. When replacements will be appointed is unknown.
A joint letter signed by the Chairmen of the four California corridor groups, LOSSAN, Central Coast, San Joaquin, and Capitol Corridor JPB, was sent to Governor Schwartzeneger expressing their concern at the level of capital funding that will be available for rail in the coming years. The next SJVRC meeting will be January 10 in Merced.