. . . and Commentary by Russ Jackson . . . March, 2009. February will go down as an important month for rail funding in the U.S. and California. As you saw in the Kerby-Jackson report, the California Rail Program received an increase, not a decrease, in operating funding for 2009!
That does reflect the respect the three corridors’ administration has from state officials. What with the Federal Stimulus package, the 2009 appropriation for Amtrak that is as yet funded along with all the other Federal agencies, and the recently passed Amtrak reauthorization bill which is also not yet funded by the Congress, big dollars can be coming available to Amtrak with some shared on a matching basis with the States. For once Amtrak has to figure out where to spend its largess, and that’s the rub as far as this writer is concerned.
In a PS to his “co-workers” in the February 23 “Amtrak This Week,” Amtrak President Joe Boardman said, “By the way, I know everyone wants to know the details of our proposed “stimulus” capital programs, I’ll share the list with you as soon as we’ve finalized it with the FRA — I wouldn’t want to mislead you.” So, right now it’s unsure where the final expenditures will be spent, but earlier in the same report Mr. Boardman said, and it’s a repeat of other statements he’s made, “Among other things we’ll return to service 100 cars that are currently sidelined, completely replace the Niantic River Bridge in Connecticut, install more Positive Train Control systems and make major ADA modifications to our stations. And, we have an administration that seems to be building a legacy defined in part by the development of high-speed rail.” He goes on to say, “I met with vendors about how quickly they can deliver the Viewliners we need for our long-distance fleet and am seeking the funding to do that. I want to electrify the railroad to Richmond,” etc. There is your definition of “long-distance fleet.” Boardman told the Wall Street Journal on February 21, “We can improve Acela in many ways and reduce travel time from New York to Washington to two hours and 30 minutes (from 2:50), including five stops, but to get to 2 hours, then you’re talking billions of dollars.” One item in the stimulus package that should interest those who take public transit to work: The bill allows employees to set aside up to $230 a month in pretax dollars to cover the cost of a bus, train or van pool, up from $120!”
With 40 Superliner cars sitting in the weeds at Beech Grove, are they included in the 100? As of right now there are also 25 of the original P40 locomotives from 1993 in dead storage.
Caltrans Rail Program Chief, Bill Bronte, told RailPAC Treasurer Bill Kerby he trusts Boardman’s judgment and backs up Amtrak’s request for 60 new electric locomotives. Does Amtrak need new diesels, too, or just better maintenance of what they have? Kerby said, “Curiously the rebuilding of Acela trumps the maintenance of diesels and cars hauling passengers over vast western areas without much back-up in case of equipment failure. Building those single level Viewliner sleepers may just focus discussion on a very small part of the picture. Strategic thinking should pull us toward saving the decaying and damaged, but repairable, rolling stock standing on various tracks around the country.” Bronte confirmed that national bi-level specs for future new cars are based on the California car design. Amtrak should not only “return to service” those Superliner cars, but start new orders for more Superliners, diesel AND electric motive power NOW. Kerby added, “Amtrak seems to follow the sequential path of restoring the NEC assets before attending to the rest of the system.” The West is entitled to at least some parity!
Speaking of those rail cars, did you know that Amtrak has 1,551 fewer cars than it did in 2002? That’s mostly due to older equipment being sold for scrap by previous Amtrak stewards, and Amtrak allowing too many cars to go into the wreck line for minor maintenance issues which Amtrak chooses not to pay for to restore the cars to service. An interesting thread developed on a rail chat list this month instigated by RailPAC President Paul Dyson and this writer about the fleet of Material Handling Cars (assets) sitting in the weeds on the Santa Maria Valley RR.
Suggested chat uses for them ranged from cutting windows and putting in folding chairs, to full scale conversion to baggage cars instead of buying 75 new ones at $2 million each. While there are technical problems with train-lining, etc., isn’t it better to use those assets rather than pay storage fees? If there are 100 cars there, which is pretty accurate, at $2 per car per day Amtrak is paying the SMVRR $73,000 per year to let them sit and rot, and they’ve been there for five years or more . Mr. Dyson commented, “there must be a less expensive solution to the need for baggage cars, even converting aging Horizon cars for that purpose.” To which RailPAC Director Anthony Lee said, “Horizon cars are best used either for charter runs, cabbage cars, extra sections, or convert them to slumber-coaches and sell them as business class for short overnight runs, or for food service or as first class lounges.” The discussion continues.
On time performance. It took a while to get to this, and there’s good news. For the month of February all Amtrak long distance trains were OT more than 65%! The California Zephyr on its new schedule, a half hour shorter for eastbound #6, has been arriving into Denver close to on time daily, while train 5 has been arriving into Emeryville in single digit early times, showing more time can come out of the run. The Sunset Limited has been arriving close to on time at LAUS, even 56 minutes early on February 15. The Coast Starlight has been early most of the time at both Los Angeles and Seattle!
The Southwest Chief at Flagstaff has been single digit late or on time for some time, even in the snowy weather, showing, as RailPAC photographer Mike Palmer said after his trip to Flagstaff (and bus to Phoenix), rail is still an all-weather mode of transportation.
Looking ahead for the Sunset Limited. RailPAC Secretary Dick Spotswood and Director Bob Manning arrived back from their trip to Washington DC on March 1, where they met with several Congressmen, Amtrak and NARP staff, AND with Amtrak President Boardman. More on that trip in the next issue of the Review and on railpac.org. A daily Sunset was high on their agenda in DC, as well as the pursuit of new and/or rebuilt cars. RailPAC Associate Director, Bill Lindley, also with ARPA in Arizona, and ARPA President Rob Bohannan report, “ARPA continues to support a daily Sunset and restoration of metropolitan Phoenix service.”
Sunset Limited #2 arriving at the Maricopa (Phoenix) stop on a day it was running there in daylight. There still is no dedicated bus connection here. Richard Strandberg photo
They went on to suggest for the future a section of the Sunset or the Texas Eagle, from Tucson as far as Surprise might be an option pending restoration of the Phoenix West Line.” It would also allow intra-state commuting. ARPA’s complete report is posted on railpac.org. That brought a whole list of other Sunset Limited improvement suggestions from Anthony Lee: 1) Daily to Florida, the train lost 41% of its revenue when service east of NOL was suspended in 2005; 2) Need to re-connect with San Joaquins and the Coast Starlight at LA, by moving departure time for train 2 to 3:30 or even 8:00 as the historic SP did. Lee’s complete list is posted on railpac.org as “The Sunset Limited Needs Improvements.” Meanwhile, Amtrak has announced a 30 minute shortened schedule for train 1 between El Paso and LAUS, which will depart Tucson at 11:59 pm.