. . . Photos and Commentary by Russ Jackson… January, 2009. Happy New Year, everyone! Let’s start with some good news from the Capitol Corridor’s holiday message to its riders: “You have spoken…and we listened. Back by popular demand is the pot roast sandwich on an onion roll. Visit the Cafe Car today and enjoy a hot sandwich on your ride home.”
But, what about the future? Well, for rail advocates in California 2009 could be a bleaker year than we hoped for. The state’s financial woes are reaching deep into every walk of life, and we hope by the time you read this the situation will have improved, but it might not be a positive result. When the state recently halted the $3.8 billion in public works projects throughout the state, rail and transit were hit hard just at the time when these construction projects were generating good jobs. The long sought order for new rail cars for the California corridor trains; track, signal, and station improvements at Emeryville and for the Coast Daylight; the Los Angeles Union Station run-through tracks; and the Sacramento Railyards project were all put on indefinite hold, as was the state’s contribution to the newly federal funded Kings Park track and signal improvements for the San Joaquin trains.
Of that latter project, RailPAC member/contributor Ralph James writes, “CA got $5 million from the new federal money pot for ‘4.5 mile double tracking and switch improvements near Hanford.'” Mr. James has been following this project for many years. He says, “This is the infamous double track to nowhere that I finally tracked down through (Caltrans Rail Chief) Bill Bronte last year. And now we learn it will take 2 1/2 more years to implement! There may be more scope to the overall project (nearly $20 million had better have more scope) than originally planned in the ’90s, but the power switches and signals have been in place for over a decade. Part of the second track through Kings Park was laid with jointed rail and some incorporated an existing industrial siding so some new rail and ties would be needed for mainline Class IV standards, BUT nothing of significance has prevented using this section as a 40 mph siding! Everyone speaks of this project as something new and wonderful that just appeared on the horizon when in actuality, significant benefits could have been accruing for years at a very modest cost beyond the already sunk funds. One aspect that may add to the cost would be additional realignments at East Shirley and West East Hanford where the recently completed double-tracking project created lap sidings instead of true double track.”
November was a banner month for improved reliability on Amtrak’s long distance trains, with the Sunset Limited OT 73.1%, Southwest Chief 86.7%, California Zephyr 66.7%, Empire Builder 85.8%, the Coast Starlight 83.8%, and the Texas Eagle 50%.
Two Texas Eagles and the Heartland Flyer are at the Ft. Worth, Texas platforms in January, 2008.
RailPAC member John Blaubach points out that the Starlight’s average was helped by the shorter re-route on some days through the San Joaquin Valley, and by on time departures from Sacramento. He rode #11/14 in early November, and “did arrive early into Chemult the next day. On his return trip on #11 it “arrived in plenty of time for me to transfer to #702 instead of waiting for the bus to Stockton. He notes that on December 1 #11 had four coaches and four sleepers, we actually arrived home in Santa Barbara at 6:12, and would have been there at 5:50 had #774 not been late.” Meanwhile, Andrew C. Selden reports the Empire Builder “limped into Minneapolis on December 15 just two hours down after slogging through a genuine blizzard overnight in the Dakotas and central Minnesota that had all the roads legally closed and the airports in a mess.” Railroads are all-weather means of transportation, but sometimes it’s hard going. The unfortunate news from November, however, is ridership on Amtrak trains declined 5.5% against the same month in the prior year and down 10.7% against what the company expected. However, the long distance trains were UP 3.9% against a year ago, with the Sunset Limited and Texas Eagle both UP 20%! Do you think the new Amtrak CEO, Mr. Boardman, noticed that? The biggest decline was the Acela Express which was DOWN more than 15%.
We welcome the New Mexico Railrunner extension to that state’s capitol city Santa Fe, where service started December 17 following an inaugural train that arrived there in a snow storm carrying Governor Bill Richardson and guests. There were the usual problems on the first day, including one train being halted for about 20 minutes after striking a cow near San Felipe Pueblo, track-signal problems and missed bus connections, but comments from passengers were positive despite the delays. Photographer Bob Snow (see his other photos in the Christmas photo album on www.railpac.org ) said he will “ride after Christmas, and his friends have plans to make periodic trips for shopping and lunch in Albuquerque. The park and ride set-up at the second stop south of Santa Fe is excellent. All-in-all,” says Dr. Snow, it “looks like a great achievement. The commerce impact is going to be huge over the next decade and more. They plan to have wireless internet by June.” There are no fares for riders boarding in Santa Fe for the first 90 days, and a round trip ticket ABQ-Santa Fe is only $8, with travel time one hour 20 minutes. (Additional Photos of the Railrunner inaugural train can be seen at http://www.pbase.com/intermodal/2008_december_rail_runner_inaugural_run.)
Amtrak-Caltrans Oakland Maintenance shop, April, 2005, with RailPAC Board members Jenkins, Kerby, and Lloyd on tour.
On November 29 an article in the Sacramento Bee revealed that “California officials have accused Amtrak of neglecting and delaying maintenance on state-owned passenger trains while it pockets extra money fixing private rail cars at an Oakland maintenance center largely built with state taxpayer funds.” The state paid 2/3 of the cost of construction, and Caltrans is now looking at buying it back from Amtrak, which holds the ownership. According to the Bee, That would take at least $18.2 million. Amtrak now manages the facility, too, so another operator would be necessary in the event of a takeover. The state is now paying Amtrak $17 million a year to maintain its fleet of 66 cars. Back in 2007 the Capitol Corridor slapped Amtrak with penalties for missing its maintenance deadlines, which were up to 48 days late. Amtrak of course has denied any wrongdoing. An auditor’s report chastised Caltrans for negotiating terms that “were so weak that California taxpayers’ interests are not properly protected.” This writer has heard rumors of great unrest among Amtrak, Caltrans, and the Capitol Corridor for some time, and I never have understood why the state acceded to Amtrak’s demand to sign over the facility in the first place. RailPAC President Paul Dyson says “the problem goes much deeper. The (former Amtrak President) Kummant philosophy was to shake down the states to boost revenue and grow the business. Unfortunately for him there weren’t any takers except perhaps Illinois. Now California is finally waking up to realize that Amtrak is a vehicle to transfer money to the Northeast Corridor.”