RAILPAC MEMBERS MEETING – SACRAMENTO 4/19/08

State of the Association
By Paul Dyson, RailPAC President

Honored Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:

While it’s normal at an Annual meeting of members to hear a number of reports from Officers of the Association, in the interests of putting together an interesting program, and our activities and plans into a single “State of the Association” report. We’ll be printing a full synopsis of this in the Review, and in addition if any members would like to see a copy of our financial statements, please e-mail me. It’s not that we have anything to hide. On the contrary, we have had a very successful year, and we have a very strong bank balance. But the Board thinks that its more important to listen to our speakers and to figure out how to carry the campaign forward in the coming year.

First of all I’d like to personally thank the Officers and Board of RailPAC for the hard work that they put in. There are very few all volunteer groups, with the geographic challenges that we face, that put out a monthly publication like the Western Rail Passenger Review, and I’d particularly like to recognize our Editor, Noel Braymer, for his 30 years of dedication to RailPAC. In addition to Noel we have a team including Russ Jackson, Ric Silver and Bill Kerby that put the Review together and into the US Mail. Bill is doing a wonderful job as Treasurer, Ric Silver is de facto membership Secretary, and Russ Jackson updates the web page. In addition each Board member and Associate Director attend as many meetings as possible in their area and keep their fingers on the pulse. Art Lloyd, as VP for Northern California, put this meeting together along with Ric, Bill and Russ. James Smith, VP Southern California, and I promise to restart the Los Angeles meetings as soon as we get a moment to catch our breath. Between us we attend the meetings of the 4 state rail corridor boards and TACs, and as many other rail related public meetings as possible.

In addition to our Board member activities we either sponsor or support a number of activist groups around the state. In particular I’d like to mention Coastal Rail Now in Santa Barbara, led by our Board member Dennis Storey, our ad hoc group in San Luis Obispo, David Weisman, Curtis Reinhardt and Eugene Jud, Chris Flescher at Salinas and Monterey County, and Bob Manning in the Coachella Valley. We also have a new Coast Starlight pressure group, Justin Walker and company. This year we’ve organized or assisted with public meetings in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara, and we again sponsored the reception at Inter city rail day here in Sacramento. Over the next year we want to expand these activities, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley.

Finally, as this meeting testifies, we are working much more closely than in former years with NARP. While maintaining our affiliation to URPA, we believe there is value in working with both groups. URPA is an informal, unpaid think tank. They ask the awkward questions and come up with interesting and thought provoking ideas. Sometimes they can be a bit harsh in their criticisms, and we certainly don’t have to agree with all they say, but they perform a useful service. NARP on the other hand is a membership organization and an important link to the federal government and Amtrak head office in Washington DC. I have just been appointed to the Board of NARP and will be attending my first Board meeting in a couple of weeks. Look for my report in the subsequent Review.

We now have a paid up membership of over 1250, a 20% increase this year. We can record a couple of milestones in that department; we have our first ever local government member, the City of Santa Barbara has just joined us, and we have a corporate member, the UK railcar financing company, Angel Trains. Another focus for this year is to increase our income through sponsorships, grants and corporate and civic memberships in order to finance additional activities and publications.

We continue to campaign on as many fronts as our resources permit. This year we have tried to have an impact on a number of issues, including the Coast Daylight service, punctuality of Amtrak trains, funding for grade separations, restoration of and daily service on the Sunset, coordination between commuter agencies and Amtrak, and High Speed Rail. As you know we had some unforeseen issues crop up that we had to respond to. You will I hope be aware of our efforts to restore the Coast Starlight service after the Oregon landslide. Believe it or not we have been criticized in some quarters for my strident criticism of Amtrak’s suspension of service. Let me remind you that the Sunset service is still suspended east of New Orleans even though the track has long since been repaired, and with that in mind I felt that the only right course of action, as an advocacy group, was to raise as much of a fuss as possible with as many interested parties as possible to force Amtrak to do the right thing and run as much of the service as they were able. If we ruffled some feathers at Union Station in Washington, I make no apologies. Perhaps if other groups had been equally forceful after Katrina the Sunset would be running today to Florida.

We now have a mighty struggle on our hands to keep any kind of state level funding for inter city rail programs. I’m sure many of you are like me in that you held your noses and voted for Prop 1B only because of the rail component of that program. As you will hear later, the obstruction by the state finance department amounts to blatant deception of the voters and makes a mockery of the initiative process. In addition, the Governor seems to regard money that had previously been committed for passenger rail and transit as his personal piggybank to balance the budget. Now in a downturn all state expenditures should come under scrutiny, as well as revenue streams. The Governor has clearly indicated his priorities by continuing highway spending, maintaining the sales tax breaks for luxury yachts, and starving all forms of public transportation. So much for his claims to be concerned about the environment.

So where do we go from here? In spite of some impressive looking statistics I think we can all agree that in general passenger rail services in this state are at best mediocre. Trains need to be faster, more frequent, and more reliable. How do we accomplish this? First, by making noise. We need to make sure that we keep passenger rail on the agenda in every forum that we can engage. It’s the responsibility of everyone in this room to open a line of communication with local, state and federal elected representatives to tell them that passenger rail is a necessity, not an option. Second, by not accepting mediocrity when its possible to do better. An example would be the connections at LAUS between Metrolink and Amtrak. Minor schedule changes at zero cost can open up additional travel opportunities, resulting in more ticket sales. What a concept, sell more tickets!

RailPAC has always stood, and still stands for incremental improvements to existing services. Some of you may have heard my analogy of Switzerland, a country which would fit nicely between Santa Barbara and Palm Springs, or between Monterey and Auburn. They have a plan which they worked on for 20 years. 9 railways, 40 bus companies, even the lake ferry operators work together to provide a seamless passenger service linking just about every community in the country. They have geographic obstacles greater than ours, they handle a lot of local and overhead freight, their local governments are extremely protective of their independence, and they have 4 official languages. We can have a system as good as the Swiss if we put our minds to it. We have a lot of the tools already in place. We need leadership and a plan to start putting it all together.

And at the same time as we are building these regional networks it is clear to me that we are going to need some new, dedicated, rights of way to provide high speed links between these regional networks. The priority for these new lines should not be a race against the airlines between Los Angeles and San Francisco, but a series of links between the dozen or so major population centers in California, many of which have minimal and very expensive air service. The advantage of this latter approach is that again the system can be built in stages with each segment having intrinsic benefits in addition to being part of a whole that will eventually link north and south.

Let me conclude with an appeal. RailPAC has been able to accomplish a lot thanks to the dedication of a very small group of people. We need more of you to be involved in running the group. We particularly need more computer literate people to help with graphics, map making, and presentations. We also need help establishing more local groups such as we have in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. We need to be able to attend more City and County government meetings to state our case and to explain the benefits of a joined up system. And if you’re unable to give us your time, then give us your money! We deliberately designed the membership subscription amounts to provide you with the flexibility to add to your contribution. We’re going through a period of inflation in which we’ll have to run faster just to stand still, so please consider adding a few more dollars at renewal time.

So let’s not be downhearted. We and our friends and allies have accomplished a lot in the 30 plus years that we’ve been running this campaign. I believe that we are being heard as never before, and that passenger trains are on the agenda front and center. Together we can make it happen.

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