October 22, 2009
By Paul Dyson, President of the Rail Passengers Association of California
Photos by Bill Kerby, RailPAC Treasurer
Chairman Davis, Vice Chairman Fletcher, and Committee members:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have no money, therefore we must think”.
These are the words of distinguished New Zealand Scientist Ernest Rutherford when asked how he would conduct his research with inadequate funds. This will be the theme of my presentation.
You have invited me here today to comment on how we can improve passenger rail transportation in California. The expected response would be to present a very long shopping list of projects involving billions of dollars of investments. That’s not surprising in a state where many rail journeys are accomplished at speeds that you would expect to find in Bolivia. Do you realize that half of the main line route in San Diego County is single track railroad, on what is the nation’s second busiest passenger rail corridor? A trip from Oceanside to San Diego is like a journey back in time, the trains creeping up hill and down dale while the freeway traffic whizzes by on a viaducts and through cuttings. It’s a tribute to how robust is the demand for alternatives to the automobile that these trains are quite well patronized. Did you know that there are still single track sections within the city of Los Angeles handling heavy commuter and intercity passenger traffic and freight? That commuter and intercity trains regularly have to wait for each other outside the station at Van Nuys because there is only one platform? So yes, I can bring you a shopping list of railroad improvements, and I can support it with a cost benefit analysis that would demonstrate that these are good public investments.
The problem is you see that the money has already been spent, and our borrowing power is severely circumscribed. So while there are many ways to spend money on passenger rail, what I want to talk to you about today is how to make better use of what we have. We don’t have the money, so we must think!
Our thinking should begin by reviewing the services we operate today and exploring how we can improve their efficiency and make them more user-friendly. We face an uphill struggle trying to entice travelers from the comfort of their cars, and we also have a big problem in that many people are simply afraid of using public transport. They worry about catching the train, being on the right train, making connections etc. and all too often are confused by information systems and schedules. We have to make it easier to travel by train.
Let me give you a couple of real life examples. I have attached for your reading enjoyment a report of an hour and a half that I spent at Oceanside Transportation Center last year. This is a public facility provided at great expense to the taxpayer and which is completely bewildering and dysfunctional for anyone other than an experienced train passenger. (See RailPAC Oceanside Transit Center 011108). Because we have separate agencies operating commuter and local passenger service in San Diego County and Orange County, and a third agency running so-called intercity service along the same route, there exists a “Berlin Wall” in Oceanside with no comprehensive information system, no through tickets, and trains that do not connect to provide through journeys.
Later today I’ll be traveling to Palo Alto by state sponsored Amtrak Capital Corridor service to San Jose, and connecting there to Caltrain to Palo Alto. The train to Palo Alto leaves San Jose 5 minutes after my train from Sacramento arrives but because I cannot buy a through ticket to Palo Alto from Sacramento I have to find a ticket office or ticket machine at San Jose. (The conductors no longer sell tickets on the train) My chances of connecting with Caltrain are near zero and I will have to wait 30 minutes or more for the next train to complete my journey.
In my home town of Burbank we now have weekend Metrolink service to and from Los Angeles. Metrolink also provides weekend trains on the Orange County line and yet they are not scheduled to connect with each other. Families that could take the train to say Disneyland or Knotts Berry Farm are unable to do so. It’s a similar situation if you want to go to San Diego by Amtrak. If there is a connection with Metrolink it is simply by luck, not because of a comprehensive plan to provide good service to the public.
These are the sorts of irritations and road blocks that passengers find throughout the California public transportation system, (it really doesn’t deserve to be called a system) that turn people off from using trains and buses. Many try it once and don’t come back a second time.
The question is, what can we do to improve these passenger services with no or very little money? We need a plan, and we need state or super regional authorities to implement it. There is no excuse for the lack of cooperation between these taxpayer funded agencies. But I can tell you from observation that these bureaucracies will not give up any of their territory without being forced. I recently attended a meeting of the LOSSAN Board called to discuss this very issue. These meetings are normally attended by about 20 people but this time over 60 crowded into the room. As soon as the discussion turned to cooperation and appointing a manager to coordinate the services you could see from the body language that the walls were going up, that the turf had to be protected. I’m convinced that these agencies will not develop a coordinated user friendly service unless mandated to do so.
What do we want from our passenger rail operators, and what can they produce at very low cost? We want coordinated procurement of rolling stock and other equipment, using standard designs which allow economies of scale. We want shared maintenance facilities, reduced management and administrative overhead, and more money spent operating trains. We want a user friendly single ticketing system and a single schedule with connections at main hub stations. And we know it can be done because there are examples in other countries where it works.
Let me close with a vision of what we at RailPAC and our affiliates are aiming for. Switzerland is a small country with about 9 million inhabitants. About 20 years the federal government made the decision to coordinate all of these services so that it would be possible to travel between any points in the country by train, bus and ferry using a single ticket and with coordinated, connecting schedules. This was not an easy task. This is a country that has four official languages and very independent local governments. We could have followed this example when we created Metrolink, and ACE, and all the other passenger agencies over the past 20 years, but it’s not too late to start now. But I say again, from experience in advocating this since 1980, it will not happen without direction from State Government. The Swiss example works because it was directed by the federal government. So please, imagine taking the light rail to Sacramento station, riding Amtrak to Oakland, the ferry across to San Francisco and Muni to your final destination with just one ticket, and the knowledge that these service will connect.
What I hope you will take away from here today is a picture of a number of isolated institutions, each working to an inward looking agenda, each appearing to fulfill their mandated functions, but failing to provide a comprehensive, user friendly service that will attract far more passengers than use the trains today.
Mr. Chairman and committee members, you have created these various agencies and Joint Powers Authorities and you fund them to a large degree. What you have failed to do is to force them to talk with each other and to cooperate. You have granted powers to county level agencies but you have not created a regional framework, let alone an authority with any power, to overcome this parochialism.
We in California have considerable talent and experience in developing computer generated systems of all kinds. This is the state that is the home of Google, and Apple,