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 Amtrak.com. 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)

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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.

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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.

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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,

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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.

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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

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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.

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