Monthly Archives

July 2008

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SAN JOAQUIN VALLEY RAIL COMMITTEE Report and PHOTOS

By RailPAC Director Bruce Jenkins and Treasurer Bill Kerby
Photos by Bill Kerby

The San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee meeting met in Richmond Thursday, July 17, 2008 at the Richmond Amtrak/BART Station.

During Public Comment, Mike Barnbaum (RailPAC Associate Director), made comments on menu items and food service as well as several other items that need attention.

Vern Moss, Supervisor from Madera County was elected Vice Chair (effective Jan 1 ’09) in a special election resulting from Dianne Fritz, Supervisor from Madera, stepping down due to unfortunate health reasons.

Ty Holscher (Tulare) reported that planning effort on running added passenger rail on the existing Union Pacific ROW in the West Valley will fall back and regroup to see how the HSR issue fares in the November election.

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Some of the meeting leaders, including Art Lloyd (right), sat in front of a window, with a view of this Richmond Pacific RR caboose.

Including the request by Paul Dyson, RailPAC President, Art Lloyd, RailPAC VP North, spoke to the committee about efforts to get legislation going to relax existing law prohibiting Amtrak Buses from serving non-rail passengers. He stated “we need Division of Rail to go to the legislature and get them to introduce a bill relaxing this restriction on all citizens who want to get from point A to point B without a circuitous route and the required purchase of a rail ticket.” There was a motion for (and carried) to agendize a resolution on this matter for the next meeting.

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George Gaekle has represented Stanislaus County from the inception of the SJVRC. Mr. Gaekle is a long time member of RailPAC.

Mr. Gaekle suggested the real need for a “Quiet Car.” “The cell phone chatter is unbearable.” He brought out that the Capitol Corridor and ACE have this feature. Stacey Mortenson, Executive Director of ACE stated that there are problems with enforcement. This matter will be agendized for the next meeting, with a possible input from Gene Skoropowski of the Capitol Corridor.

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Tom Mulligan represents the Union Pacific at the SJVRC meetings.

Mr. Mulligan stated that there is ongoing track work from Richmond north to Martinez. He attributed some of the improvements in on time performance of the San Joaquins to UP projects.

Rod Diridon of the High Speed Rail Authority gave a comprehensive presentation extolling the numerous attributes of HSR and making very clear just how far behind the US is when it comes to rail transit. Right now there is only one major industrialized country that has no HSR operating or under advanced planning or construction———–guess who?

Carol Shannon of Amtrak stated that the “first ever National Train Day” was a huge success. Seventeen California stations particpated in NTD in California, 8 of these along the San Joaquin Corridor. Future National Train Day events will be held on the Second Saturday of May to stay as close as possible to the May 9 date in 1869 commemorating completion of the transcontinental railroad.

Martin Yurth of Amtrak gave a stunning report on the performance of the San Joaquin Corridor. Ridership is up 34%, revenue is up 18%. Customer Service Improvement (CSI) scores increased in all categories including friendliness/helpfulness, trip info, comfort, cleanliness and food service. On Time Performance for this year is 84.4%, an improvement of 19.5% over last year’s 68%. The en-route restroom cleaning initiative is still in progress, with current efforts aimed at defining the scope of work and identifying funding for the use of agreement-covered employees as compared to outsourcing. The food cart test period is complete, and initial results show 39% cost recovery. Further analysis will determine if the cart is to become a regular service.

Stockton Amtrak station rehab improvements are underway. Improved bus area signage and a weather canopy will be in place by early fall. New Stockton station funding and location are still in progress with collaboration between Amtrak, DoR, BNSF, ACE, the City of Stockton and other interested parties.

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Bruce Heard is, like his mentor Art Lloyd, retired from Amtrak but continues his rail advocacy by representing Los Angeles County on the SJVRC.

Amtrak and DoR are assessing the impact of rising fuel costs on the bus feeder system. More efficient equipment, shorter routes, alternative fuels, fare adjustments and awareness marketing are all being considered to mitigate increase in costs.

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RailPAC Roundtable PHOTOS

Reported by photographer Mike Palmer

Los Angeles Union Station was BUSY on Saturday, July 10. Lots of people on the trains. The line waiting for the Northbound Surfliner #775 around 2:45 (scheduled departure at 2:55) was very long. Metrolink had tons of people getting off the trains at the station.

The RailPAC Roundtable met for about 90 minutes in the plaza between the main waiting room and the Amtrak bus boarding area.

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The group discussion, led by President Paul Dyson (center with hat), VP South James Smith (left of Mr. Dyson), and Associate Director Ken Ruben (in tam). Some new members showed up for the talks.

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Another view of the group, showing the beautiful day at LAUS in the patio area. The Amtrak bus loading area is beyond the wall.

Metrolink provides limited service on Saturdays. The Metrolink noon departure to Lancaster was very well patronized. I did a quick turnaround trip to Sun Valley (all I had time for).

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This is my returning train arriving at the Sun Valley station. It was not quite as crowded, and was running maybe 10 minutes late.

A great way to spend Saturday.

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AMTRAK INITIATIVE TO RELIEVE SURFLINER CROWDING

Commentary by Paul Dyson, RailPAC President

Agreement uses Coaster train set on weekends to relieve two of the busiest beach and race track trains.

Starting next Saturday, July 19, A leased “Coaster” train set will operate as an “advanced” Amtrak 768 and 591 return between Santa Ana and San Diego, according to informed sources at Amtrak. This eminently sensible and laudable arrangement will provide up to 840 additional seats as train 1768, 10 minutes ahead of the 768 which originates in Goleta and is the 9.40am departure from Los Angeles to San Diego, a popular train for beach goers and for the Del Mar racetrack. The return service, 1591, will deadhead to Solana Beach and run 10 minutes ahead of the 591, 1820 (6.20pm) departure from San Diego as far as Santa Ana. Amtrak will crew the train.

Amtrak has been in communication with the management at Del Mar so that the track will publicize this service to race goers. While there may be a little confusion among riders when they see a Coaster train arrive, most will appreciate the extra space. For the long haul riders, between San Diego and Los Angeles and points north this is a great benefit. The possible downside, delays caused by the additional meets (San Diego County is still 51% single track), will we believe be somewhat offset by the reduction in delays trying to load passengers into already crowded trains as happens now.

RailPAC is delighted that Amtrak is taking this initiative, which we have been recommending for some time, and we hope that this is just the beginning of an integration of schedules. What better time to begin introducing “commuter” sets for short haul passengers than on weekends?

Paul Dyson
President

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California Corridors June statistics!

By Gene Skoropowski, Capitol Corridor Managing Director

The ridership and revenue numbers continue to be VERY GOOD across the board in California, and indeed across the nation. The June 2008 Capitol Corridor statistics from Amtrak are an all-time high for the month of June, as are the stats on the state’s other two intercity passenger corridors, with the San Joaquins sustaining last month’s big leap upward in ridership.

There is no doubt we can confirm that Californians have “discovered” intercity trains as a real travel option in many parts of the state. The price of gasoline is not hurting ridership, and many folks ‘are continuing to do the math’ on the comparative costs of driving versus the train. The train is still winning.

Capitol Corridor (June 2008):

145,482 passengers +16.6% vs. 2007
(another record for the month, still the third busiest route in the country, by a wide margin)
Passengers for 9 months YTD: 1,288,743 (9 months YTD: +13.6%)
(total riders for the latest 12 months: 1,597,390, +14.2% above prior 12
months)

$1,966,359 revenue +17.3% vs. 2007 (9 months YTD: +21.2%)

The farebox recovery revenue-to-cost ratio for June is 57.1%, and the year-to-date revenue-to-cost ratio is still about 55%.

On-time performance for June: 66.6% (track renewal project for 4 weeks, 30 track miles renewed, 44,000 new ties, bus bridge mid-day Suisun-Martinez) The year-to-date on-time performance delivered to the customers after 9 months 84.6%, an enviable record. Only the Keystone Corridor and the Hiawatha Corridor have higher on-time stats. The premier Acela Express service on the Northeast Corridor is 83.6% on-time for the same 9 month period.

The ridership growth is all the more impressive since we had the trackwork going on for four full weeks (and reduced train frequencies every day for most of June). A mitigating factor may have been some increased riding between Davis and Sacramento due to Yolo County Transportation District’s (YCTD’s) subsidy program for new rail riders during the month in connection
with the California DOT (Caltrans) I-5 highway reconstruction/closures in downtown Sacramento during the same time period. (Union Pacific performance in June was 77%, again reflecting the delays from the now-completed track renewal project. UPRR performance year to date is above 90%)
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Pacific Surfliners (June 2008):

277,760 passengers +19.2% vs. 2007, (still the second busiest route in the nation, by a wide margin)
Passengers for 9 months YTD: 2,068,418 (9 months YTD: +6.6%)

$5,056,572 revenue +18.2% vs. 2007 (9 months YTD: +7.7%)

On-time performance for June: 75.3% YTD on-time: 77.3%
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San Joaquins (June 2008):

96,476 passengers +34.0% vs. 2007, (now sixth busiest in the nation,
but during the last 2 months the SJs are giving the Empire Corridor and
the Keystone Corridor a run for their money on fourth place)
Passengers for 9 months YTD: 580,474 (9 months YTD: +12.6%)

$2,686,956 revenue +21.2% vs. 2007 (9 months YTD: +14.5%)

On-time performance for June: 78.3% YTD on-time: 84.4%
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Total California Intercity Corridor Ridership for June 2008: 519,718

Total Northeast Corridor ‘Spine’ ridership for June 2008: 907,316
For June 2008, California Corridors are 57% of Northeast Corridor ‘Spine’ Boston-Washington ridership

Total Northeast Corridor ridership for June 2008 with branches to Springfield, MA; Albany, NY and Harrisburg, PA: 1,126,052 For June 2008, California Corridors are 46% of the total Northeast Corridor ridership

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The current status of passenger rail in Southern California:

Commentary by Paul Dyson, RailPAC President

Overcrowded Trains? No New Cars Available? Time to Use our Brains!

Here are a few statements that I believe reflect the current status of passenger rail in Southern California:

Demand is outstripping currently scheduled supply on most days.

While scarce Amtrak (Surfliner) equipment operates up to 18 hours a day, most Metrolink and Coaster trains sit idle in the middle of the day and at weekends.

Surfliner service on a good day is mediocre, based on speed, punctuality and reliability.

Most of the County transportation administrations, and Los Angeles County MTA in particular, fail to recognize the untapped potential of intercity rail to remove longer distance car traffic from the freeways.

Amtrak, Metrolink and Coaster do not cooperate to provide a seamless passenger rail system for Southern California.

Well, I hope that will throw a rock in the pool, agitate a few gray cells. The usual reaction to these kinds of comments is a whining sound, and much hand-wringing. “We need more money, it’s all much more complicated than you think, it’s not in our charter”, and so on. Upon hearing this I like to quote the celebrated nuclear physicist, Ernest Rutherford. When asked how he designed his experiments with very little resources he notably said: “We didn’t have the money, so we had to think”. We all know that money is scarce and that the State faces a budget crisis. On top of that, even if we had a pot of gold tomorrow we couldn’t spend it very quickly because of the lead time to order rolling stock or to design capacity enhancements.

So here’s some suggestions based on a little thinking on my part, which I believe some smarter people than me could translate into an action plan to carry us forward for two or three years:

Immediate Action:

Dump the existing Surfliner, Coaster and Metrolink OC line schedules and start with a clean sheet.

Reduce the number of Surfliner trains between Los Angeles and San Diego.

One approach, a basic two-hourly Surfliner service, with fewer stops than now, alternating with a new Coaster/Metrolink combined service stopping at all stations.

Use Metrolink sets to run many more weekend beach specials ahead of the Surfliners to scoop up the short haul riders.

Eliminate the rail-to rail program, which fills Surfliner seats with minimal revenue short haul passengers. Allow Metrolink ticketed passengers to prepay a supplement to ride Amtrak trains.

Medium term:

LACMTA must fund double track from Burbank to Sylmar and from Van Nuys to Chatsworth, including adding a second platform at Van Nuys. There is no excuse for Los Angeles to neglect the needs of the San Fernando Valley. Given the desire of the Los Angeles politicians to extend the Red Line subway and various light rail projects the only way the “Valley” will see any real improvement in rail transit is to follow the Orange County model and use Metrolink as the spine of an integrated bus-rail system. The cost? About the same as a quarter of a mile of subway.

Release Prop 1B money to order railcars. Here’s another rock in the pool. In addition to calling for bids for more “Surfliner” type cars, which will be very expensive, Division of Rail should encourage “non-conforming” bids from the commuter car builders. These cars would be intercity variants of the bi-level cars offered by Rotem, Bombardier, Kawasaki and others. In the same way that a 737 aircraft can be a Southwest “bus” or a luxury business jet, it should be possible to design an interior for a bi-level car that provides better seating for the longer distance intercity rider, a business class section, and a cafe, at a much lower per seat cost. A fleet of these cars could displace the Surfliner sets for longer distance service such as the Coast Daylight and the San Joaquins, and almost certainly be available sooner than a new build of California Cars.

Long Term:

Begin an electrification program for the region. Start with unique Metrolink trackage such as Los Angeles to San Bernardino.

Think Switzerland. Start work on an integrated system approach to pull together all public transportation services in Southern California. SB 53 may help to accomplish this, if the existing agencies are unwilling to work together voluntarily.

It’s too easy to whine and do nothing. We have taxpayer funded resources that are not being intelligently utilized and we have a golden opportunity, with a flood of new passengers, to grow passenger rail into an important component of this region’s transportation. Let’s put those gray cells to work!

Paul Dyson, President, RailPAC
07/06/08

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RailPAC Saturday Roundtable Scheduled

Los Angeles Union Station

Join RailPAC President Paul Dyson, VP South James Smith, and others for an informal discussion of current issues relating to passenger rail! Look for us in the main waiting room, between the newsstand and the bagel shop.

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Are the Airlines Now Like the Railroads Were 50 Years Ago?

Editorial By Noel T. Braymer

The truth is the Airline Industry has never been profitable. While some airlines have made money some years, as a whole the industry loses money more often than it makes money. The recent spike in fuel costs has placed the Airline Industry into a tailspin. Several airlines have or are on the verge of going out of business. Almost all airlines are cutting back service, laying off employees and taking planes out of service. The result will be higher prices for travelers, fewer places people can fly too and more cites that will lose air service. The places that will be most affected will be the smaller cites that are losing the most air service and places dependent on vacation travel such as Orlando or Las Vegas.  

What role can passenger rail service have in filling the gaps caused by the cutbacks in air service? The money in any transportation service is in the longer distance trips (when fares are based on distance traveled) between major cities. What many airlines are cutting are some of the branches to their trunk lines much like the railroads did in the 1950’s and 60’s. In the case of California if High Speed Rail service is built, most Californians will be connected to San Francisco, Ontario and Palmdale International Airports. Most major California Airports can improve connection to regional rail services with modest service expansions or shuttle connections. The same is true of many metropolitan areas if regional rail services are created or expanded. Much of the current commercial air travel is under 200 miles. For years nearly a quarter of the flights in and out of San Diego have been from/to Los Angeles. Such shorts flights are increasingly uneconomical and can easily be replaced with connecting regional rail service.

But the United States is a large place, and there are many places in you can’t or won’t be able to fly to. For example how will a person in Iowa get to Las Vegas or Phoenix or someone in Wisconsin get to Orlando or Nashville without driving? This can be done by creating a National Long Distance Rail Passenger System. RailPAC has long advocated Long Distance Trains that connect with each other at hub cities to provide access to almost anyplace in the lower 48 states. Frequencies of 3 times daily, not weekly are rational. Ridership and revenues grow as passengers have more options. It makes more sense to run a train from Los Angeles not just to Las Vegas, but also to Salt Lake City which should make connections to Seattle, Denver, Omaha, and Chicago to other future trains or airports to many more places.

The big question is, are the freight railroads up to this? The answer as always will depend on money. These new passenger trains will have to carry more passengers to produce more revenues to pay the railroads enough for them to see this as a business venture and not an unwelcomed  public service. Also the railroads need rebuilding. There are capacity problems and bottlenecks which are expensive to fix. Public/Private cooperation on the railroads can provide capital to improve the railroads for both expanded freight and passenger service as is happening now in California. We need a healthy railroad infrastructure in the future for growing freight and passenger traffic.

Passenger service by air, rail, boat or bus in the best of times has never been highly profitable. But the economy of any nation is highly dependent on good passenger transportation. Good passenger service will be reflected in profitable operations or very low levels of subsidy. Governments are usually the most useful in providing the infrastructure of transportation. This is what has been lacking for the railroads, compared with other forms of transportation. A bus or trucking company has never had to build and maintain a road, police it and be expected to make money. Economic growth is based on investment which produces a return on investment. For society as a whole, investment in the railroads can provide a return on investment for both passenger and freight.

What is the future of air travel?  Much of that will depend on the future cost of energy. There will be fluctuations in the future price of oil. It will likely come down again, but never to the levels of 5 years ago. But it will also go back up in the future as oil supplies continue to deplete. The future of the airline industry is in the use of either synfuels or biofuels which will be cheaper than oil in the future. Synfuels would likely be liquid fuel made from natural gas or coal, while biofuels would be made from plants like hemp, Jatropha, or algae. It is unlikely that any of these new fuels will be available even as a crash program in significant amounts for 5 to 10 years. Air Passenger Service will continue, but likely to concentrate on the busiest routes with connections to the most cites. Rail service can be integrated with air service to provide passengers with a more seamless and more economical travel experience.  

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RailPAC writes Caltrans re new Amtrak California Timetable

30th June, 2008

Mr. William Kempton
Director, California Department of Transportation
P.O. Box 942873, Sacramento, CA 94273-0001

AMTRAK CALIFORNIA TIMETABLE

Dear Mr. Kempton:

RailPAC’s Board met on Wednesday 25th of this month and directed me to write to you to express our deep disappointment with the new Amtrak California timetable. While we can all have our opinions as to style, format and color, our concern is with the contents, omissions, and utility of the document.

The biggest omission of course is the Capitol Corridor service. This is quite unacceptable, regardless of the opinions of the CC Board, or whether they are in some way unhappy with Amtrak. From the Rail Passenger’s point of view this is an Amtrak service which provides connectivity with the San Joaquins, bus services and the Coast Starlight and California Zephyr. This omission cannot continue into the next edition.

Our second concern is the way the long distance services are treated. In particular the Coast Starlight is an integral part of the service along the route which includes the Surfliners and Capital Corridor. The average fare and taxpaying customer is not concerned whether the service is or is not state supported, and regards all of the services as being provided by Amtrak. A traveler from say Santa Barbara to San Jose should be able to find the Coast Starlight option in the same timetable as the Surfliner, not stuck in the back as an afterthought.

Finally, we would like to see the commuter services integrated into the timetable. Even if the complete schedules are not reprinted, the timetable should indicate specific trains that connect with Amtrak services, e.g. Antelope Valley Metrolink trains that connect at Los Angeles with the Surfliner.

One of the biggest failings of our public transportation system in general is the lack of integration among and connectivity between the various taxpayer-supported entities. We would like to see Caltrans Division of Rail lead the way in providing a comprehensive timetable that encourages trips using all of the passenger rail services in California. If we can assist in the compilation and preparation of the next edition we’d be glad to do so.

Yours faithfully,
Paul J. Dyson, President.