TRACKING RAIL NEWS . . .
. . . and Commentary by Russ Jackson
June, 2009. On Time and other performances. Yes, it’s the economy that can be charged with the recent on time performance improvements of Amtrak’s western long distance trains. Freight traffic has dropped over the past months which coincides with the increase in Amtrak trains arriving on time or early.
Case in point: the trains running on the Union Pacific, which notoriously had poor OTP for Amtrak and many of its freight trains. The Coast Starlight #11 has consistently been arriving into Los Angeles in the 8 PM hour; and train #14 has been consistently on time or only minutes late into Portland. For the California Zephyr #5 has been arriving into Emeryville in the 4:00 hour, and #6 has been within minutes of OT into Denver. The Texas Eagle #21 and 22 have been arriving early into Dallas. For the BNSF, the Southwest Chief #3’s arrival into Los Angeles Union Station has been up to an hour earlier than the schedule, as has the arrival of #4 into Albuquerque. But it is the Sunset Limited running on UP that has been the most consistent in recent months. Train #1’s arrival into LAUS has been in the 8:00 hour despite an OT departure from Palm Springs, and #2’s arrival into El Paso was early every day for two weeks in May.
How bad is it for the freight railroads? For example, RailPAC VP South, James Smith, says the Union Pacific has two MILES of stored locomotives on single track in the Colton Yard area east of Los Angeles, between Cedar and Sierra. For passenger trains, in March Amtrak released a report showing it wasn’t seeing a ridership drop in its long distance trains, which were up 6.1% for the fiscal year. Yet, a decrease began to show after the first of the year, with February down 6.9% from the previous year. The Northeast Corridor was seeing a sharp decline of 15%, so Amtrak reduced fares there by as much as 25%. In March the decline became 10% system wide, yet on selected long distance routes ridership was up; for example, the Silver Star out of Tampa gained 3.8%, and the Coast Starlight in April was up 55.6%, taking into account the year before the Starlight had severe service disruptions due to the Oregon mudslide. Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman, on his western inspection trip the end of April on the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight of course saw great OTP, but now it was more a regular performance than one designed for him. Across North Dakota and Montana his train was up to an hour late, yet managed to reach Seattle 15 minutes early. That’s why the OTP figures at end points can be misleading, as there is much padding that makes an on time arrival actually be up to an hour running late from the last intermediate stop. The day before on the Builder a similar situation existed, and RailPAC’s James Smith was on board that one, the delays caused by the extensive flooding in North Dakota.
Then Mr. Boardman arrived in Los Angeles, and on Saturday, May 2, spoke to the RailPAC-NARP joint meeting. Of great interest to the gathered rail advocates from both organizations were prospects for a new car order for western long distance trains, which he dodged from answering, and the possible daily Sunset Limited, rumors of which had been flying for weeks. Mr. Boardman passed that issue to his VP Brian Rosenwald, who spoke later in the day. Mr. Rosenwald gave the scenario of planning for a daily Sunset departing Los Angeles at 10:30 PM again, and arriving earlier into Los Angeles. While this change would break the possibility of Palm Springs riders using it for commute purposes, it returned the missing connection with the Coast Starlight and the San Joaquins, and made much better arrival times at Phoenix and Tucson despite retaining the Maricopa station instead of direct access into the Arizona state capital. On the eastern end the Sunset, under a new undetermined name although perhaps becoming the Golden State, would be an extension of the daily Texas Eagle in and out of San Antonio with a new stub train from SAS to New Orleans. Nothing about a return to Florida. While neither Mr. Boardman nor Mr. Rosenwald said it WOULD happen, at least plans are in the works with the end result being a daily Sunset Limited at long last. That can only help the bottom line for the politically besieged train as we have consistently said here for the past 20 years or more.
Some Train Day items. RailPAC was very proud to participate in the ceremony on May 9 at the California State Rail Museum when Art Lloyd, our VP North, was given the Caltrans Golden Star award honoring his 67 years in the business. See photos of that day and other Train Day events on www.railpac.org. While the Santa Barbara plans for Train Day were killed due to the horrible fires there, other events in the state and around the country were big successes. On May 4 the 70th anniversary of Los Angeles Union Station was celebrated, and RailPAC President Paul Dyson was at both of these events. We note that plans to move the historic Sacramento train station from its present location are being dropped, replaced with an under-track passenger passageway similar in length to the tunnel to the tracks at Los Angeles Union Station. And, the CC Riders group saw “smiling faces” when the Sacramento Bee newspapers returned to the morning Capitol Corridor trains on April 20th. Group leader Chuck Robuck said, “It’s amazing how such a small amenity can bring such happiness!”
Around the West with passenger rail. In Arizona, the appropriately named city of Surprise, on the proposed commuter line west of Phoenix, was looking ahead by agreeing to pay for a piece of land for a 500-space park-and-ride facility. What makes that interesting was their statement that it was a “good positioning exercise if a commuter railway does come in within the next 5 to 10 years!” The City of Tucson has purchased 7 modern “streetcars” from Oregon Iron Works, the first American company in 60 years to make one, which also has an order for the Portland streetcar line. Buy American, indeed! And, what about a high-speed solar electric-powered train which at build-out would go between Grand Canyon, Phoenix, Tucson, and Nogales? A private partnership has hope of designing and building the 220 mph train which would run nonstop and local trains ala the California High Speed project, would cost $27 billion, and could start operating in 2018. Everyone is on the bandwagon for high speed now. In New Mexico the Railrunner is off to a great start, with March ridership being 115,812, up 99,511 from December when it was free for Santa Fe County folks; on time is 98%. Many riders are commuters, but shop owners in Albuquerque are reporting increased business. Added service midday and on Sunday is now considered a must, and reports say all the track that runs through livestock grazing areas has now been fenced (7 animals total were killed when they wandered onto the tracks). In May a survey was taken and riders showed a 93% service approval rating, they feel safe on the trains and at all ten stations. Looking ahead, New Mexico Congressman Harry Teague is calling for the extension of the Railrunner south from Belen to Las Cruces and El Paso. A demonstration train was run on May 16 on this BNSF route. In Montana they not only hosted a NARP meeting to discuss it, but residents are rapidly showing support for a return of the North Coast Hiawatha. Senator Jon Tester, D-MT, who spoke at the meeting, showed support for rail advocates and other regional passenger rail groups for their “unparalleled passion.” Comparisons to the Empire Builder which travels across the northern part of the state were made, with the expectation that the Hiawatha would provide the same needed service to the other route. On the other hand, in Idaho the Boise newspaper reported that financial and logistical obstacles exist to the idea of commuter rail between Boise and Nampa, citing too many crossings, poor track quality, insufficient right-of-way, etc. Support in Idaho continues to grow, however, for a return of the Pioneer. In Colorado rail advocates and elected leaders want the Pioneer, if it is re-instated, to be routed through Boulder rather than the old route through Greeley. And, in a surprise statement on May 18 at the launching of the construction on the new Auto Train station in Florida, Amtrak said almost as an afterthought, “Amtrak plans to seek other places throughout the country where it can launch OTHER AUTO TRAIN SERVICES.” Support that? YES!