Monthly Archives

November 2008


What is Next for Amtrak?

Editorial by Noel T. Braymer

Amtrak was created by politics and remains a child of politics. The recent resignation of Amtrak President Kummant doesn’t come as a major surprise. It is doubtful that he would have the support of the new administration. There are stories of friction between Mr. Kummant and the Amtrak Board. Also the credit problems hitting the world economy are also having an effect on Amtrak which may be a factor in Kummant’s calling it quits. The issue of who will be the next Amtrak President is secondary as to what is to be done about the Amtrak bureaucracy. Presidents seem to come and go but the culture of the Amtrak bureaucracy stays the same.

Like most bureaucracies, Amtrak tends to concentrate its efforts around the areas employing the most bureaucrats. More than half of Amtrak is tied up on the North East Corridor, and its headquarters are in Washington. Because of this Amtrak has an East Coast orientation and spends more of its energies thinking about Washington politics than operating a good National Rail service. Amtrak has gone out of its way to justify its ownership of the NEC at the expense of the rest of the National Rail Passenger System. RailPAC for years has criticized Amtrak’s accounting system which charges costs from the NEC on trains of the National System to make the NEC look better. This creates cost estimates that make it almost impossible to get Amtrak to make basic service improvements. This same fallacy is behind the route cuts which never saves Amtrak money, but every time has cut revenues for Amtrak.

If left to themselves, the bureaucrats of Amtrak Management would cut most of the National System to the NEC and a few regional corridor services which they would charge States what they like to run. Often there is criticism that there is too much political interference on Amtrak’s Management. Yet too often the political intervention of elected officials is much more on the mark than Amtrak’s bureaucrats. Recently local congressional representatives have called for the return of the Sunset back to Florida, the return of the Pioneer to Utah, Idaho and Oregon and the return of rail passenger service to Southern Montana. These are all common sense services which should never have been eliminated. But Amtrak Management will claim they are all uneconomical.

The best chance for truly National Rail Passenger Service is from grass roots lobbying of Congress. Given a good case, elected officials who want to be reelected will respond and support a rational improved service for their constituency. The amount of money needed for the National System is fairly small; most of it is for capital for new equipment and will result in reducing the operating costs of Amtrak. There is increased excitement about higher speed corridors between large cities. While express trains have their place, they must me seen as part of a system. Corridor trains may carry a lot of passengers, but often with high expenses and low revenues. Long Distance passengers often pay much more than corridor passenger. This is because they both pay by the mile and long distance passengers run up more passenger miles. The result is long distance trains yield much more revenue per train than corridor trains.

The best thing that can happen for Amtrak is growth. More routes, more trains, more equipment and more passengers will mean more money, political influence and reduce the need for subsidy. The long standing games played by the Amtrak bureaucracy with its accounting must be replaced with an accurate measure of the incremental costs of expanding rail service. Amtrak needs to be part of a system, where its trains connect with local transit and commuter rail and its local trains connect with its long distance trains. Better connections and service translates into higher revenues and happier passengers. Local groups need to talk to their elected officials with concrete plans that will improve Amtrak’s service. In turn elected officials with be better able to propose steps that Amtrak can do to grow rail service. As history has shown we can’t depend on Washington to deal with rail problems in California, Florida or Idaho if it is left to the bureaucrats.


So what about the San Fernando Valley?

By Noel T. Braymer

Proposition R raises the sale tax another half cent in Los Angeles County. This money will be used to help build the “subway to the sea” which will extend subway service west down Wilshire Blvd. There will be money to extend Light Rail on the Gold Line east from Pasadena towards Montclair and the Expo Line west from Culver City to Santa Monica. There is planning for a downtown connector for new trackage to connect the Blue and Expo Lines to the Gold Line. There are plans for extending the Green Line to LAX. But there are no new services planned for the San Fernando Valley. What can be done is improving what the Valley has, which would be Metrolink and the Orange Line.

The Orange Line is a “busway” built on an old SP branch line that crossed the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. In a perfect world this right of way would have been rebuilt as a Light Rail service. The Orange Line starts across the street from the terminus of the Red Line in North Hollywood. Again in a perfect world the Red Line would have been built so trains could branch out from the subway to light rail segments like the Muni Metro in San Francisco. But this is a political not a perfect world. Instead passengers have to transfer from Orange Line Buses, cross the street and then go underground to catch the Red Line.

The Orange Line Busway was sold as cheaper than rail transit. Well, you get went you pay for. With in a year of the Orange Line’s opening it was nearly at capacity at just over 20,000 passengers a day. One reason for the low capacity of the Orange Line is unlike a train these buses stop at red lights. While they get some priority at traffic lights, they don’t have the right of way like a train, and so are slower than rail service. The Orange Line has 60 foot articulated buses which are approved for street use. They have to be since the buses leave the busway to go to the Warner Center stop and to the bus garage for servicing. Larger buses would be a problem for street use and it is doubtful there is a practical technology to MU buses and run them as trains.

It is clear when riding the Orange Line that the vast majority of riders transfer at the North Hollywood Red Line Station. The buses are full coming into and leaving North Hollywood. But on a midday run it was clear that most of the ridership was between Van Nuys and North Hollywood, West of Van Nuys the buses are fairly empty. If the Red Line was extended to Van Nuys the majority of the ridership for the Orange Line would dry up. Well it is unlikely that the Red Line will be extended further in the San Fernando Valley or any other expensive transit projects will be built in the Valley any time soon.. So any near term improvements will require using what is available.

RailPAC President and Valley Resident Paul Dyson is advocating upgrading and double tracking the railroads in the Valley and expanding Metrolink service to twice an hour, seven days a week. It would be possible to use the Orange Line to act as a feeder to expanded Metrolink service. There is planning now to extend the Orange Line to the Chatsworth Transportation Center which is also a Metrolink and Amtrak Station. It also makes sense to extend the Orange Line service east to the Bob Hope Airport’s train station and the downtown Burbank train station.

One problem with expanding Orange Line service is the buses are full between Van Nuys and North Hollywood. The solution is clearly to run more buses, but running more buses will cause problems with the traffic signal priority system and disrupt auto traffic. A way around this is to run the buses behind each other so they can share the same green lights and not force cars to stop for additional stop lights. Now you don’t need to run additional buses all the ways to Chatsworth. You can turn the additional buses at Van Nuys. In fact as long as you are in Van Nuys one could bring the Orange Line Buses up to the Van Nuys Train Station. You might run the Chatsworth buses up to the Bob Hope Airport area serving the airport, commercial area around the airport and the nearby train station.

The Van Nuys buses could be extended to Beautiful Downtown Burbank and connect with other services at the downtown Metrolink station.

Tracking Rail News

Tracking the News: November 2008

Commentary and Photos by Russ Jackson

NOTE: This column first appeared in the November, 2008, issue of the Western Rail Passenger Review. Tracking the News will now also appear here monthly, with color pictures added. Your comments will be appreciated.

November, 2008. Elections, elections, elections. That is the focus of attention as this edition goes to press and is dealt with elsewhere, so this column will deal with rail news. You plan to vote, don’t you? If ever there was an important election it’s this one and the future of many California rail projects are at stake.

Amtrak’s on time performance is always our lead item, and this month we will review the performance of the western long distance trains over the past 12 months. A summary sentence would be: not bad, but could be much better. The statistics below are from What is interesting is to see the differences between the eastbound and westbound trains on the same route! As usual “OTP” means within 30 minute arrival at the endpoints of the train’s route.
Sunset Limited: Train #1 39.8%, #2 26.5%.
In September 76.9%, 25%
Southwest Chief: #3 65.2%, #4 55.5%
In September 66.7%, 73%
California Zephyr #5 31.8%, #6 12.8%
Empire Builder #7 73.7%, #8 43.4%
Coast Starlight #11 69.7%, #14 50.8%
In September 50%, 20%

Railfans got excited about the October 24, 26 and 29 (and beyond) alternate route for the Starlight, again detouring between Sacramento and Los Angeles. What was different this time, of course, was the trains operated via the Union Pacific’s San Joaquin Valley Line as well as over the Tehachapi Loop instead of operating up the Valley on the BNSF.

Around the west. So many rail projects are underway this is a good time to update what’s happening with some of them:

Arizona. In addition to the Union Pacific’s huge double track project across the state the big event is the coming of the Phoenix light rail startup line, which is now running test trains as seen in the photo below. (photo courtesy ARPA)


This 20 mile line across the Valley of the Sun has a December 27 startup date planned for its 28 stations which will operate 20 hours a day with 10 minute headways, and officials, businesses and residents are already looking ahead at 6 planned or discussed extensions. The state’s department of transportation has also won a $1 million federal grant to study passenger rail service between Phoenix and Tucson, which has been talked about for years and been a major goal of the Arizona Rail Passenger Association. A story in the Arizona Republic on October 1 coined a term for this proposed line: it would run through a developing “megapolitan” area that could eventually merge the two cities. ARPA’s Bill Lindley, also a RailPAC Associate Director, “thinks the state is at a unique crossroad. When light rail opens it will be a watershed, and we will see more rail and other things that are better for us socially, economically, and ecologically, and save us money which will make us all feel better.”

Utah. The TRAX light rail system in Salt Lake City continues to expand, and has purchased 77 new Siemens built cars, the model S-70, like the ones now in use in San Diego.

The FrontRunner commuter rail service is already running between Ogden and Salt Lake City, and on August 15 they broke ground on the 44-mile expansion south to Provo, with its 2012 completion date scheduled serving 8 stations on the Union Pacific right-of-way. (Photo by Mountainwestrail’s John Dornoff)

Texas. They do things big in this state, as everyone knows, and several projects are underway.

DART, the Dallas County light rail system, is expanding 27-miles north to Carrollton.

A DART train is arriving at Dallas Union Station; Amtrak’s Texas Eagle is on its platform The tracks in between carry the TRE commuter line to Ft. Worth. (Photo by Russ Jackson)

The Denton County Transportation Authority’s rail program will parallel I-35E using the former MKT corridor now used to store grain cars. This “A-train” looks for revenue service startup in 2010 along its single-phase 21-mile , 5 rail station regional rail service. DART learned that its $4.9 billion investment has generated $8.1 billion in new economic activity and the $342 million annual operating budget leveraged more than $500 million in economic activity! Amtrak has joined the commuter rail discussions in the capital city of Austin, and a forecast of six round trips from that city to Dallas on the former MoPAC line are planned. A study is underway, and you can bet the state or local agencies will get the bill. Then there’s the East Texas Corridor Council, which has been funded to conduct an initial study for higher speed passenger rail service between the DFW “Metroplex” as far as Texarkana. As a side note, the latter city could lose its station staff when the current employee retires in an Amtrak economy move, which is being protested by local authorities who rightly advocate the advantage of “having someone there.”

Minnesota. The Northstar commuter service is scheduled to open in late 2009 offering trains between Big Lake and Minneapolis on weekdays including one reverse commute, plus three weekend trains. What makes this interesting is the startup system ends in a hayfield rather than going all the way to St. Cloud and its 10,000 daily commuters, and does not go to St. Paul. The Twin Cities light rail program is growing slowly, with other corridors being planned. Hiawatha ridership is about 28,000 per day with plans to add additional cars.

Colorado. A massive project is underway to develop and restore the property around Denver Union Station,


used now by the light rail trains, the ski trains, and Amtrak’s California Zephyr. Five building sites are being sold with the money raised used to defray costs of building additional rail lines, an underground bus station, other transit facilities and public plazas around DUS which will also be the centerpiece of the future $6.1 billion FasTracks network of commuter rail lines. A new light rail platform at DUS will be built.

New Mexico. The Amtrak ticket office for the Southwest Chief moved to the new bus terminal building back in January, giving it a more modern facility worthy of passenger use. It is next to the Alvarado Transportation Center and Amtrak is sharing the building with Greyhound. The rail platforms continue to be shared with the very successful RailRunner commuter line.

The RailRunner expansion to the capital city, Santa Fe, is moving ahead with a scheduled startup in December of this year. (Photo by Russ Jackson with Jon Messier)

Initially 8 weekday RailRunner round trips will arrive in Santa Fe with six departures. Eventually Saturday service is planned. Many New Mexicans eagerly anticipate saving money by taking the train, and already other locations are begging to have the trains stop in their towns; but, that would increase running times. Oh, and Amtrak responded to demand by restoring the connecting bus to the Southwest Chief from Denver to Raton.

Washington. Restoration of the historic King Street Station


got underway in September, with a new roof, new tiles replicating the originals, and once restored to its “original grandeur,” the station will become a modern transportation hub which sees the Empire Builder, Coast Starlight, and the Sounder commuter line. The four clocks on the distinctive tower have been repaired, and by late 2011 the interior lobby’s lighting and ornate ceiling will be restored and the grand staircase reopened. This $26 million project is being funded by city, state and federal funds. Six more Sounder trips are being implemented to meet increasing demand.


CA October Corridor ridership and revenue stats

From Gene Skoropowski
Northern California Corridor ridership on the Capitol Corridor and San Joaquins continues double-digit growth, despite economic slowdown and falling gas prices, while the Pacific Surfliner ridership levelled off after months of growth.

Ridership and revenue results for the month of October 2008 (the first of the new Federal Fiscal Year) remain strong even at a time when gasoline prices have fallen dramatically, and the economy is slowing down as well. Either the comfort and attractiveness of the trains is keeping the growth going, or the fares are still the best bargain in the travel industry, or maybe a bit of both. Of course, the sustained on-time performance record may have more to do with the ridership gains than either of the other reasons.

Capitol Corridor (October 2008):

157,353 passengers +16.8% vs. 2007
This is a new October record, and keeps the Capitol Corridor third busiest route in the country, by a wide margin
Passengers for 12 months of FY 2007-08: 1,716,159, breaking the 1.7 million
barrier! . (last 12 months: +17.16%)

$2,099,626 October revenue +19.5% vs. 2007

The farebox recovery revenue-to-cost ratio for October is 46.9%, reflecting the increased Amtrak cost base due to labor contracts and fuel adjustments

On-time performance for October ‘delivered to the customer’ was: 91.4%,
reflecting sustained Union Pacific performance at 99% and continued Amtrak operational performance.

This is a good start to the Fiscal Year, and performance remains well above the premier Acela Express service on the Northeast Corridor.

This is the best performance of any Amtrak-operated intercity passenger rail service in the country, whether Amtrak-dispatched or freight railroad dispatched.

Pacific Surfliners (October 2008):

211,768 passengers -3.2% vs. October 2007, but still the second busiest route in the nation, by a wide margin
$3,677,653 October revenue: +3.1% vs. 2007

On-time performance for October: 79.2%


San Joaquins (October 2008):

79,223 passengers +22.6% vs. October 2007

$2,239,224 October revenue: +7.8% vs. 2007

On-time performance for October: 85.5%


Total California Intercity Corridor Ridership for October 2008: 448,344

Total Northeast Corridor ‘Spine’ ridership for October 2008: 927,331
For October 2008, the California Corridors are 48.4% of Northeast Corridor ‘Spine’ Boston-Washington ridership
Total Northeast Corridor ridership for October 2008
with branches to Springfield, MA; Albany, NY and Harrisburg, PA: 1,157,460
For October 2008, the California Corridors are 38.7% of the total Northeast
Corridor ridership
Eugene K. Skoropowski
Managing Director
Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority


Marin vote was frosting on SMART’s cake

Published Sunday, November 9, 2008, by the Marin Independent Journal

Commentary By Dick Spotswood, RailPAC Secretary, and Mill Valley resident

After several false starts, Marin and Sonoma voters passed a one-quarter cent sales tax for construction and operation of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit commuter train. Measure Q needed two-thirds of the combined Sonoma and Marin vote.

A super majority is not required in each county. The unofficial tally shows Q achieving a robust 69.5 percent overall.

Q was expected to do well in Sonoma, where it got 70.1 percent favorable support in 2006 when a similar tax measure fell short. This year, the train plan won a landslide 73.5 percent of our northern neighbor’s “yes” votes.

The frosting on the cake for rail backers was a substantial majority in Marin. Two years ago commuter rail achieved an anemic 57.5 percent positive Marin support. This year, despite all of the hoopla in Novato over freight trains that will share SMART’s tracks and balloting in the midst of a crashing economy, Measure Q captured a respectable 62.6 percent of the Marin vote.

Rail supporters were bolstered by favorable factors in both counties. The spike in gasoline prices convinced many that exclusively relying on the auto commute is a mistake.

They were aided by Democrats who turned out in droves. Demos are more likely to vote for tax increases and infrastructure improvements than Republicans.

The North Bay is solidly environmental. The message that public transit, and rail in particular, is a potential mitigation to global warming finally took hold.

Marinites and Sonomans were consistent last Tuesday. State Proposition 1A, the bond measure to fund high speed rail between Northern and Southern California, achieved 65 percent support in Marin and 63.9 percent in Sonoma. Unlike SMART, the bullet train required only a simple majority to pass.

SMART’s foes made two fatal errors. First, the Marin-based anti-rail group drove up to Sonoma to spread its fundamentally anti-development message. It’s an axiom of North Bay politics that nothing turns off Sonoma voters more than being told how to vote by perceived Marin elitists. That’s just what happened when these pied pipers faced commuters desperate for any
relief from “freeway” gridlock.

More profound were SMART’s opponents’ failure to propose any viable alternative to commuter rail. The sneaking suspicion always was that the “No on Q” coalition preferred the status quo. Some of the naysayers fear that major transit improvements spur unwanted growth.

Others are against all tax measurers. For all of these factions, doing nothing significant to improve mobility remains the favored alternative.

SMART’s board now needs to deliver. It can do it by promptly getting on with the job of rebuilding the old Northwestern Pacific Railroad on budget and within the promised six-year time frame. Those imperatives need be matched by development of comprehensive plans coordinating the new trains with feeder buses delivering workers seamlessly from home to job.


San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee October meeting report

Report by Bruce Jenkins, RailPAC Director
The San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee met at the California State Rail Museum Thursday October 30, 2008.

Approval of Vice Chair Vern Moss Madera County to be effective Jan 1, 2009 was confirmed unanimously.

The 99 Corridor:
Committee members Ty Holscher (Tulare County) and Larry Miller (Fresno County) reported that that a population assessment has been made and that the “people prefer the establishment of Intercity Rail Service in this corridor”. There was a discussion of using a little used “freight corridor” which serves Porterville, Exeter and Visalia. Howard Abelson (Contra Costa County) expressed concern of expending resources considering the present posture of Union Pacific RR in view of their refusal of state money for Donner Pass trackage improvements. This matter will be brought back to the January meeting.

Quiet Cars:
Gene Skoropowski (Executive Director, Capitol Corridor) reported that they have suspended the Quiet Car (QC) due to problems with enforcement. However, due to heavy public pressure, they are reintroducing the QC on early morning trains only. These trains are specified in the “New Vest Pocket” time table (trains 518,520,521.522,523,525,& 527). Additional signage thruout the train will hopefully aid enforcement. Gene made the point that: “we are a customer driven railroad ” !

George Gaekle (Stanislaus County, RailPAC) motioned that DoR make an assessment of QC on the San Joaquin Trains and report at the next meeting.

Time Table:
A proto-type of the new consolidated time table was passed out. At first glance it looks fairly good, showing connection information for most Amtrak trains, ACE and California Trains and Busses. However, there is an obvious (for this writer) ommission of connections with Caltrain by Capitol Corridor and the Coast Starlight trains.

Rest Room Service is a success, however, there are ongoing labor negotiations with Amtrak and decisions to be made whether to use Amtrak or Caltrans Division of Rail personnel.

Food Cart service is anticipated to be a regular service on the trains by Thanksgiving.

On Time Performance (OTP) was down to 80% in August but overall OTP for the year is the best yet.

Jonathan Hutchison (Amtrak) reported that “we will know after the first of the year how funding will be” (for HR2095).

D.J.Mitchell (VP, BNSF) reported that double track was a very good investment by DoR. Using “Slow Order Management” that slow orders are near zero this year. All short distance freights are on time tables (not like flexible time tables for long distance freights).

California will be the first in the country to have PTC (Positive Train Controls) by the year 2014. BNSF is installing “as quickly as we can”.

DoR is looking feverishly for funding source for sorely needed new locomotives.

Hinda Chandler (City of Sacramento) gave a power point presentation of the two configurations of the proposed Sacramento Station. One showing the historical building moved north adjacent to the new tracks and one depicting the station remaining at it’s present location.

Bob Snoddy (Kern County) gave a power point presentation of “Goods Movement in the San Joaquin Valley”. Depicting freight movements from the ports of Oakland and Los Angeles and future configurations.

The next SJVRC meeting is January 8, 2009 in Merced.

Bruce Jenkins