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October 2007

Reports

Coast Rail Coordinating Council meeting report

CRCC Policy Committee Meeting
September 29, 2007
Paraiso Winery, Soledad, CA

Reported by Chris Flescher, RailPAC Associate Director, Salinas
NOTE: This article contains many news items of statewide interest
RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, and Director Dennis Story attended the meeting, also. There are three categories of actions needed to start the Coast Daylight train: track access negotiations, equipment, and operating funds.

It may be possible to extend one Pacific Surfliner train from San Luis Obispo to San Francisco. There was a track capacity study completed in 2004, but it needs to be updated for the current conditions, and for the possibility of Caltrain extension to Salinas.

The railcars needed for the service (coming from Prop 1B money) might not be here until 2011, and there is a concern that a current capacity report could be outdated by then. There is a possibility that the first new railcar could arrive in late 2009.

It was stated that the goal is to bring the train service to downtown San Francisco, not Oakland.

Caltrain has passed a resolution supporting the Coast Daylight train as long as that does not add any operating costs to Caltrain.

Caltrain has provided tunnel profile data to Amtrak, in order to see if the Superliner cars will have clearance problems. A few years ago, the Caltrain tunnels were reinforced, which reduced the clearance slightly. It appears likely that electrification of Caltrain will occur, which could also alter the clearance, but it appears that the electrification will not cause problems.

Caltrans recently renovated some Superliner cars that Amtrak was not using, and that process could be repeated, to provide more railcars without waiting for the new ones to arrive.

Although Amtrak would operate the Coast Daylight train, Caltrans would decide many of the details.

One problem is that although $150 million in Prop 1B money is ready to purchase new railcars, the money cannot be spent until an audit is performed on Amtrak, to determine that Amtrak really needs new railcars. It appears that the audit will be done in January.

Santa Barbara County supports the project called On Trac. This involves taking an existing Surfliner train (which leaves Los Angeles around 7:30 am) and changes the departure to time to about 6:30 am, which would make the train more useful for Ventura County to Santa Barbara County commuters. Caltrans has resisted that change, saying it is supposed to be an intercity train, not a commuter train.

Providing operating funds for the Coast Daylight will depend on when track improvements are completed, and when more equipment arrives. If the train service is supposed to start in 2011, then it will be necessary to make a request to the state legislature in 2009.

Another problem is the proposal for the height of platforms for new stations. The Federal Department of Justice (DOJ) wants to have platforms 15 inches above the top of the rails. At this time, most are 8 inches high (except on the northeast corridor). The DOJ is still in the process of creating the proposal, but the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is treating it like an existing rule.

Some of the effects of this include the problem of a single height platform when multiple types of railcars (with different platform heights) use a station. Right now, Amtrak cannot use the new platforms at certain stations because the platforms do not match with the height of the railcars. If Amtrak uses those platforms, it is in danger of losing operating funds. The 15 inch height will cause problems with freight cars passing them. If this rule is in effect when the Coast Daylight is ready to run, it will greatly complicate the service.

At this time, there is a new platform at the Hanford station which was built with state money but the FRA will not allow trains to use that platform.

The CRCC decided to ask federal legislators to work on changing the rule of platform height, in order to allow more flexibility.

There is a possibility that a factory (at Betteravia on the Santa Maria RR) in North Santa Barbara County will be modified to create ethanol. The ethanol would be carried by rail, and the CRCC is considering asking for capacity improvements as a mitigation for the new freight rail service.

There is currently enough money in the state budget for current rail operations, but the funding situation may require service cuts in the future. The legislature has approved a budget that will divert significant amounts of future money from passenger rail. The California Transit Agency is currently suing the state over the diversion.

In the federal government, there is a Senate bill to provide 6-year funding for Amtrak, but it has not moved forward recently, and there is no companion House bill. It appears that the House is waiting to see how labor negotiations for railroads go in the future, and they seem to be currently stalled.

The California Transportation Commission is considering giving around $25 million (from the $400 million Prop B rail money) to go towards capacity improvements which would allow the Coast Daylight train to operate.

The Coast Starlight is current doing much better at on-time performance, which has resulted in a large ridership increase. Because of the on time performance, there are fewer people using the San Joaquin trains (as an alternative way) to travel between the Bay Area and Los Angeles, so the San Joaquin ridership has dropped significantly.

The Pacific Surfliners are commonly reaching capacity on weekends, with 100 to 200 standees. Now that trains have been added to the Capitol Corridor, ridership is up about 14%.

Congress is currently debating capital matching for Amtrak. This would allow states to spend 20% of the money on capital projects to help Amtrak, and receive a matching grant of the remaining 80% from the federal government. The total funding might be $50 to 100 million per year. This kind of matching has not been allowed before for Amtrak, like it has been for highways, aviation, and transit.

It is hoped that Congress will allow this capital matching, and will later increase the amount of money allocated per year.