Monthly Archives

November 2009


What happened on the weekend of October 24-25 on the Surfliners?

Report by Noel T. Braymer

Train 571 left San Diego on time at 10:35 A.M. from San Diego on Saturday October 24, 2009. But by the time the train got to San Clemente around 11:40 the brakes locked up on the Business Class Car bringing the train to a halt.

This was just the start of the problems for Amtrak and the passengers of trains 571,785 ,763 and 768. Despite being on the busiest passenger corridor outside of the NEC, train after train flew by the 571 as it sat stuck in Serra Siding in San Juan Capistrano. Six hours latter an Amtrak train stopped to pick up stranded passengers. This would have been train 785 bound for San Luis Obispo. By the time train 785 got into Anaheim it was around 9:00P.M and the train crew was running out of time on their legally allowed work day. By this time many passengers bailed out of the train and car pooled in taxis to get home. The 785 was about 3 hours late getting into San Luis Obispo.

Sunday morning after some repairs it was decided to use train 763 to bring train 571 back to Los Angeles. It left San Diego at 6:10 A.M. and was scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles by 8:50 AM before proceeding to Santa Barbara. Train 768 arrived on time at 9:25AM in Los Angeles from Santa Barbara . Amtrak changes crews in Los Angeles for trains running between San Diego and San Luis Obispo. The crew from train 763 usually gets off at Los Angeles and takes train 768 to San Diego leaving at 9:40 A.M. On Sunday October 25th train 763 didn’t leave at 9:40. By 10:20 A.M. an unhappy passenger asked the Café Car attendant why the train hadn’t left. The very defensive attendant didn’t know. Shortly after this the Business Car attendant got on the public address system saying the train was delayed because the engineer was late arriving, but that the train would be leaving soon. Of course the reason was there was no train crew. The only Amtrak employees on the train were the two attendants. No one from Amtrak it seems had noticed that train 763 hadn’t arrived at Los Angeles Union Station by 10:20 A.M or that train 768 hadn’t left by 10:20. Only after someone started asking questions that a crew was found and the train left at 10:50 A.M. The first public address by the train crew wasn’t an apology, but a warning that the lower level of the cars were for elderly and handicap passengers, and that luggage for passengers sitting in the upper level left in the lower level would be taken off the train if not moved.

Train 768, which I was on, arrived about an hour late into Oceanside after 12:30 P.M. As the train went through Serra Siding I was shocked to find 3 trainsets of Pacific Surfliner equipment in the long siding as we went by. Complicating life this weekend Metrolink was doing track work adding switches and a stub end track to a platform at the Mission Viejo/Laguna Niguel Metrolink Station north of San Juan Capistrano. But this doesn’t explain why the passengers of train 571 were left stranded for over 6 hours. Or an in-service passenger train was being used to tow a disabled train. Less than 30 miles away there is a rail yard in Camp Pendleton for the Coaster, Metrolink and BNSF. Metrolink runs trains on this route on the weekends., couldn’t they have helped? Couldn’t the BNSF be used to bring a train crew and locomotive to tow train 571 out of the way, even as far as Los Angeles? Was Amtrak trying to save money? If so how much money was lost from hundreds of angry passengers calling their friends and family that their train was very late and how unprofessional Amtrak was?


The Never Ending Battle for Truth, Justice and Rational Rail Service

Editorial By Noel T. Braymer

What rail passengers want is very simple. They want trains that are clean, comfortable, safe and convenient.

Convenient means trains that run on time at times people want to travel and arrive at times they want to get to were they are going. Convenient means stations that are easy to get to, easy to make connections to other trains, transit, taxis or walking distance to places they are going. Convenient stations have good places to eat, stores, services, and security. Yet so often these basic passenger needs are still missing in California. Most passenger trains don’t travel faster than they did 60 years ago. Connections are missing from trains that meet each other coming and going from stations. Development around stations can be encouraged to make them more attractive for passenger. Quite often rail service can be expanded with existing resources but aren’t.

RailPAC was reluctant to support High Speed Rail in California for many years. The reasons were that expensive projects often suck up funding from less expensive but more critical projects and HSR require a broad foundation of conventional rail services to feed enough passengers to justify it. The nearly billion dollars for conventional rail in the HSR Bond Issue and the proposed joint use of track for HSR and conventional rail in some urban areas was the turning point for RailPAC’s support. Without those RailPAC will not be able to support HSR. It still remains to be seen if HSR will live up to their promises. Conventional and HSR trains will need connecting schedules. The distance between the connecting trains need to be reasonable. Single ticketing between services should be planned for now. There has to be coordination between the many players to ensure convenient service for passengers. This is common in Europe and usually is done through a small oversight organization which is a neutral arbitrator between the many transportation players in a region.

Before we can start up HSR, we need to expand the level of service and the frequency of service of existing trains. Service every half hour for most Metrolink, Coaster and Caltrans trains seven days a week is desirable. For half hourly service the Coaster needs double tracking and to have better connections with Metrolink and Amtrak. ACE should be extended to Sacramento and even Modesto with additional trains to connect with HSR. Amtrak California needs additional service on the coast between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, up to Redding, Reno and Palm Springs. Not only should these services connect with HSR but with each other. Additional cars and locomotive will also be needed to expand service and increase revenue.

The battle for rational rail passenger service goes beyond having trains meet each other. How good the connections are matters For example many though not all Sprinter trains from Escondido connect with Coaster trains in Oceanside; A problem though is as passengers leave the Sprinter several run to buy Coaster tickets before they miss their train. Sometime they can’t get the new ticket in time. Now it would make sense to buy the Coaster ticket at the same time as getting one for the Sprinter. Actually this is possible though not well known. In San Diego County for $14 at any Ticketing Vending Machine (TVM) for the Trolley, Coaster and Sprinter you can buy a Regional Plus Day Pass good on all local rail and most buses in San Diego County. But it isn’t listed on the main screen of the TVM. You have to go to Compass Cards to find the right screen. It isn’t easy to find for someone who doesn’t know where to look. In San Diego County Compass Card are hard plastic cards with a rewritable memory chip now used for transit passes. Such systems are being put into service by transit agencies around the country. In theory these cards should be usable by multiple agencies. This could open up seamless ticketing. A passenger could buy at one time all the tickets for a trip on a single card and tap a reader with the card to board.

Lastly this brings us to Amtrak Long Distance service in California. There are a lot of places in California and the rest of the country which you can get to by train but not by bus or plane. But Amtrak’s service needs to be improved. Amtrak was created in a crisis atmosphere and has gone from one crisis to another since. Such an atmosphere creates fear; fear of speaking up and fear of delegating authority. Amtrak has a major problem with communication; problems are ignored or hidden until they blow up as a crisis. Amtrak Management is in a crisis mode most of the time dealing with problems that should have been taken care at a much lower level long ago. The main problem is maintenance. Amtrak has a lot of equipment out of service waiting to be repaired. Much of the equipment on the road needs work. Equipment failures are common which create delays, increase costs and upsets passengers. Almost every winter passenger cars electrical systems at yards are not plugged into yard power. The cars heating systems are not on so the water and sewer lines freeze. The cars are taken out of service, plumbing is often damaged or the toilets fail on the road. The key word in preventable maintenance is prevention. It prevents problems, saves money and keeps passenger much happier. Local people at the problem areas need the authority to prevent problems and be encouraged to do so.

With more reliable equipment available Amtrak can think about expanding service and revenue. However much of Amtrak management seems interested in avoiding meaningful growth whenever possible unless they are bribed to do with a large pot of money from the government. It should be a no-brainer to run Sunset/Eagle service daily from Los Angeles with connections to the Starlight. Extending the City of New Orleans to Orlando and creating a connection with the Sunset at New Orleans is doable. The Heartland Flyer already connects with the Eagle; it can be extended using the existing equipment to at least Newton, Kansas to the Southwest Chief, maybe as far as Kansas City. With one additional trainset Amtrak could extend the California Zephyr down to Los Angeles on the Coast Line. Using San Joaquin trainsets it would be possible to run connecting service south of Bakersfield to Barstow with through cars on the Southwest Chief. These ideas will improve revenue, equipment and station utilization and need little new capital. And is this not a complete list of what is possible or what can be done if Amtrak grew and ordered more Long Distance equipment to really generate revue.


CCJPB November Meeting Report; Farewell to Gene Skoropowski, Welcome to David Kutrosky (photo)

DavidKutrosky_DSC3617 Reported by Mike Barnbaum, RailPAC Associate Director, Sacramento. NOTE: See a RailPAC photo report on Gene Skoropowski’s Capitol Corridor career on this site. (NOTE: Thanks to BART/CCJPB for the photo of David Kutrosky)
The 74th meeting of the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority began with a report of Chair Jim Holmes who referred to Gene Skoropowski as “Double O Skoro.”

The consent calendar was adopted unanimously, but Board Member Steve Cohn of the Sacramento Regional Transit District asked that Board Members bring back the calendar at the February Board Meeting so that a different date for April be discussed so that it is not in conflict with the Sacramento Metro Chamber’s Annual Cap-To-Cap Trip, in which a great many in the Sacramento Regional go with the Metro Chamber to Washington, D.C. to bring back federal funds for key projects across the Sacramento Region.

Prior to the Administrative Support Agreement between CCJPA and BART Item came up, CCJPA Executive Director Dorothy Dugger announced that Deputy CCJPA Managing Director, David Kutrosky, will become Managing Director on Tuesday 1 December 2009. That announcement alone received a resounding ovation from the capacity crowd at the Suisun City City Council Chambers. Following that the agreement between CCJPA and BART gained unanimous approval and will be in effect until February of 2015.

Legislative Matters were approved, but members urged caution and had a great discussion regarding California State Senate Bill 409 by Denise Moreno Ducheny. Here, from the CCJPA Packet is the issue at hand for all to see so that all can become educated;

SB 409 (Ducheny) – Department of Railroads [CCJPA POSITION – WATCH] This bill would create the Department of Railroads in the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency and would transfer various state railroad programs currently administered by CalTrans, PUC, and High Speed Rail Authority to this new department. This bill would provide that the department shall be the only state agency eligible to apply for and receive grant and loan funds from the federal government for intercity rail, high-speed rail, or freight rail purposes.

Staff is recommending a “Watch” position because it is unclear where the CCJPA (and its state operating and capitol funds) will reside in the State’s transportation organization if the bill is enacted.
Status: On August 31, passed out of Sen. Approps. Comm.

The CCJPA also had discussion with the U.P.R.R. for one additional added Capitol Corridor Train to/from Auburn. The matter will be continued to the February Board Meeting, but this writer spoke on behalf of the CC Riders that ride daily between Sacramento and Auburn to get their feedback on times and train numbers that would be important to them for both weekday and weekend schedules. It was spoken into the record to begin weekday #527 in Auburn and extend #538 to Auburn. For weekends, it was spoken into the record that #727 begin in Auburn and #744 be extended to Auburn. It was also spoken into the record, by this writer, that all other schedules would remain as is so as to keeep the changes limited only to extending one weekday and one weekend roundtrip to/from Auburn.

After the meeting adjourned, board members, meeting attendees, and staff bid farewell to Gene Skoropowski with cake and coffee. All of us at RailPAC will truly miss Gene Skoropowski as he and his wife, Joanne, move to Florida where Gene will work in Orlando for the Kansas City, Missouri based HNTP Corporation. David Kutrosky will take over on December First. Folks can get a hold of David in the following way:

David Kutrosky, Managing Director
Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority
300 Lakeside Drive, 14th Floor East
Oakland, CA 94612
(510) 464-6993



Commentary by Paul Dyson
I have previously quoted New Zealand scientist Ernest Rutherford, “We had no money so we had to think”, and this struck a chord with a lot of readers. Regardless of the field of human endeavor to which you might apply this aphorism it is a good starting point. Try to do as much as you can with as little as possible.

So when I read the L.A. Times earlier this week conveying the news that the already enormous state budget deficit will grow even larger next year I wondered to myself how Mr. Rutherford would have reacted. The headline to this commentary is the best I could come up with, but I hope it conveys the message.

The State of California has an enormous debt load, and as a result the cost of borrowing even more money is becoming prohibitive. In order to fend off catastrophe the State Government has to make more spending cuts, and it seems almost certain that this time around the Intercity Rail Program will become a target. We have been very fortunate so far to avoid any cuts in service or even the complete cancellation of the program. And if cuts are proposed, can we honestly argue that intercity rail is more important than prisons, universities, or many other services that the state provides? Noel Braymer commented the other day that deficits usually increase if individual trains are cut and while I agree with the statement the reality is that cuts will probably come. Unfortunately the State Government is no more sensible about making cuts than it is about spending more money than it takes in. The operation will be successful but the patient will die.

What are we to do then, as passenger rail advocates? I think we should look to the first principles of this organization and see how we can maintain the services we have, even expand them, by greater efficiency, less overhead, and more value for money. Secondly, we can reasonably campaign for a greater share of federal passenger rail dollars to be spent on national network routes within California.

How would this work? I believe, and have stated so many times here, that we can sell more tickets to passengers (always the best way of financing passenger rail) if our disparate passenger rail agencies cooperated in scheduling, marketing and advertising. Let’s have a combination of ACE, Capitol Corridor, and Caltrain in the north, Metrolink, Surfliner and Coaster in the south. Let’s operate the same number of train miles but on schedules that maximize the utility and matrix to serve a greater number of passengers. We should also campaign for coordinated procurement of rolling stock and other supplies to use purchasing power to drive down costs, and to reduce head office overhead.

The second part of the action plan involves the federal government and California’s large but generally ineffective congressional delegation. I am certain that if you asked the majority of these fine elected officials how the Capitol Corridor, Surfliner and San Joaquin trains are paid for they would answer that they vote for them each year as part of the Amtrak funding process. It’s not surprising. Just how many minutes per week do you think the average legislator devotes to passenger rail issues, and right now they only concern is with High Speed Rail. It is our job to change that. We must educate our state delegation with the facts. Where do the Amtrak funds go? Why does California pay so much and receive so little? How can we grow the Amtrak pie by about $50 million per year to take over 50% of the state rail program? Why can’t we justifiably argue that, in the same way the Acela expanded the NEC service, part of the national system, by the same token Surfliner expanded the original San Diegan service, which was also part of the original national system? If the NEC and New York State trains can receive federal operating support then so can our national system trains, even though they are intrastate.

This is where you come in, dear reader. We need help finding some friendly elected officials to carry some much needed amendments to Amtrak legislation. This can include eliminating some nonsenses from the previous administration that micromanage dining car service, and it should include reinstatement of the Sunset east of New Orleans. But most of all it should provide for more federal level funding for our corridor trains as well as for other state funded services such as the Heartland Flyer. It’s time we reestablished the philosophy that Amtrak is a federal program to provide a national network of intercity train service. Trying to push this obligation down to the state level is a mistake that needs to be rectified immediately.

Paul Dyson

Rail Photos

1999 RailPAC Annual Meeting in photos!

January 23, 1999

Report by Steve Grande of Trainweb

Today the Rail Passenger Association of California (RailPAC) held its 19th annual meeting/luncheon at the Old Spaghetti Factory Restaurant here in Fullerton, next to the Amtrak station.

Speaking to the capacity crowd first was Michael McGinley, Director of Engineering & Construction for Metrolink. Then John Barna, Deputy Director of the California High Speed Rail Authority, made a presentation. All of TrainWeb’s staff was there, and here are our photos from the luncheon:

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Rail Photos

GENE SKOROPOWSKI . . . in RailPAC photos

Picture report by Russ Jackson Photos by the writer unless otherwise indicated. Skoropowski photo
The rail advocacy community was disappointed to learn that Gene Skoropowski would be retiring from parent organization BART and his position as Managing Director of the Capitol Corridor JPB the end of November, 2009, and that he would be leaving the Golden state for the Sunshine state of Florida.

This report brings back some of the photos of Gene that have appeared in the Western Rail Passenger Review in the past and/or posted on this site. The gentleman is very photogenic and is instantly recognized wherever he appears, whether reporting to his Board, riding one of the trains, or attending events.

Skoropowski and Alan W. at SLO 11-1995
November, 1995. Gene (right) with RailPAC’s then-President, the late Alan Wimmergren, rode the newly refurbished Coast Starlight to a NARP meeting, before Gene was employed in California. For 30 some years Gene was a board member of NARP. Notice the gleaming side of the then new Pacific Parlor Car.

Skoropowski w Art and Bill Fleischer 9-1999
September, 1999. There were 6 round-trip Capitols that day. Gene has arrived at the Suisun City Hall for his first Capitol Corridor JPB board meeting. On the right is Gene’s predecessor, the first Capitol Corridor Managing Director Bill Fleischer who was retiring. We all know the face in the middle, RailPAC VP North (then a Director) and Amtrak retiree Art Lloyd, who had known Gene for many years through his NARP connections, his employment in Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, and Florida, and his activity with the American Public Transportation Association.

Skorpowski at Auburn groundbreaking 5-03
Groundbreaking in the Sierra Nevada foothills, March, 2003. Gene attends one of many events on the Corridor, this one for the new Auburn train station. Holding the shovel is Auburn Mayor Kathy Sands, who also chaired the CCJPB at the time, and to the right is Robert Conheim, the “Lord Mayor” of the CC Riders, a group which rides the train into Sacramento and beyond daily and socializes together on and off the trains. This group has been Gene’s “sounding board” to his “customers.” A few years later this station would be named for the late Mr. Conheim, who had also been introduced to national rail advocacy by Gene when Bob joined the NARP Board of Directors.

Yolo causeway speakers 09-03.
September, 2003. Gene participates in the dedication of the long-awaited return of double tracks to the Yolo Causeway, just east of Davis. Gene (right) and the group are at the west end of the causeway, with (l-r) Kathy Sands, State Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, then Caltrans Director Jeff Morales, Wayne Horiuchi from the Union Pacific, and Amtrak’s Gregg Baxter. This was one of the highest priority capital items which have made travel on the Capitol Corridor speedier and more reliable. Notice a train is approaching the scene. Another project soon underway will put a badly needed crossover at this same site. (This photo for RailPAC by Caltrans’ Bill Bronte.)

Discussion Saturday in June, 2005. Gene, left, joined a small RailPAC discussion group at an Oakland sandwich shop in Jack London Square. Gene was a regular, attending RailPAC formal and informal meetings whenever he could to discuss current issues not only in California but nationally. Second from left was RailPAC’s Executive Director Richard Silver, Arizona RPA President Bill Lindley, NARP Director Jim Salvador, CC Riders’ Bob Conheim, and RailPAC Director from Sacramento Marcia Johnston.

Executives are also known by their associates. May, 2006, CCJPB Deputy Director David Kutrosky is at the dedication of the Dixon train station, being photographed by RailPAC’s Marcia Johnston. This is one of several station stops that will eventually be added to the Capitol Corridor, and Gene was enthusiastic about growing the corridor. Gene and David as a team developed the financial plan that allowed expansion of the number of trains to its present 16 roundtrips daily without needing any extra dollars from the state; something that has solidified support for the system statewide, and given it national recognition.

November 2007 007
November, 2007. After a CCJPB meeting Gene and Tom Mulligan from the Union Pacific are at the Suisun-Fairfield station boarding a Capitol train bound for Sacramento. Gene spent many hours working with the UP, the “host railroad” for the Capitol Corridor, and developed a good relationship with them as well as with Amtrak, Caltrans, and most important to him the passengers. Gene received hundreds of e-mails from passengers and answered as many as he could, which passengers appreciated knowing that the top was hearing what they had to say.

April 2008 - 1 008
April, 2008, Gene and Caltrans Rail Program Chief Bill Bronte are doing the “Gene and Bill” show at the RailPAC Annual Meeting at the California State Rail Museum. Gene calls Bill his “banker,” as all state support funds for the CCJPB come through Caltrans. This team has worked well together during the tenure of these dedicated rail officials, to the benefit of the state as well as the public, and have made themselves available for meetings such as this which all of us greatly appreciate.

RailPAC San Carlos meeting Paul-Art-Gene 10-09
It’s October, 2009 and Gene receives the RailPAC Outstanding Achieve-ment Award from President Paul Dyson and VP North Art Lloyd at the San Carlos meeting. (RailPAC photo by Bill Kerby) This is only the second time the group has given such an award; the first being to Amtrak’s Brian Rosenwald for his work in upgrading the Coast Starlight. We wish Gene and his family best wishes in their new location, and in Gene’s “retirement job” with HNTB’s passenger rail services and its projects. It’s been a great ten years for California Rail!


CA Corridors stats for October, 2009

November 2007 008Reported by Eugene K. Skoropowski, Managing Director, Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority
October 2009 ridership numbers across the nation are beginning to show a ‘closing of the gap’. During this first month of the new fiscal year, the Capitol Corridor ridership was down significantly compared to October 2008, but again, still higher than October 2007. The San Joaquins ridership was down -5.8%, while the Pacific Surfliners have started recovery, with ridership up +2.1%, after many months of decline. Nationally, the ridership on the Amtrak system overall for October 2009 was down only -2.5% compared to 2008.

The record high California unemployment rate (about 11%) still is not having significant impacts on intercity California services. The Capitol Corridor has been impacted the most now by state “Furlough Fridays”, when state business has been shut down, but those unpaid days-off are apparently coming to a close. The Capitol Corridor still handled 137,104 passengers in October 2009, but that was down -12.9% from the record October 2008 number of 157,353. By comparison, on the busy Northeast Corridor, the rate of decline slowed in October 2009 with ridership down only -0.3%.

The long distance trains were not significantly different, with October 2009 ridership down -3.0% versus October 2008.

October 2009 Capitol Corridor revenue was down -5.3% compared to October 2008, but this is only half the level of the ridership gap between October 2008 and 2009, so revenue appears strong. Similarly, San Joaquins revenue was down only -2.5% compared to ridership being down -5.8%, with Pacific Surfliner revenue down by -0.7% compared to ridership growth of +2.1% in October 2009.

The Capitol Corridor on-time performance remains good. On-time performance in October 2009 for the Capitol Corridor was a solid 93.1%. The San Joaquins were slightly better, at an enviable 93.3% on-time, but the Pacific Surfliners slipped a bit to 79.2% on-time in October 2009.

Capitol Corridor (October 2009):

137,104 passengers -12.9% vs. October 2008
The Capitol Corridor route is still the third busiest route in the country, by a wide margin.
Passengers for the last 12 months: 1,579,376

$1,874,948 October 2009 ticket revenue -5.3% vs. October 2008

On-time performance for October 2009: 93.1%

The farebox recovery revenue-to-cost ratio for October 2009 remained steady at 46.2%. TV commercials and Capitol Corridor sponsorships of peak-period radio reports of road conditions are continuing to help ridership and sustain revenue.

On-time performance for October 2009 ‘delivered to the customer’ was: 93.1%. Union Pacific’s performance continues to be steady at 98% to 99% on time. The proportion of delays attributable to Amtrak mechanical performance is a continuing concern, and CCJPA and Amtrak Mechanical Supervision are still addressing the problem. October 2009 has shown significant en route mechanical delay problems for the first time in several years.

The greatest positive factor in successful on-time service delivery is the lack on ANY ‘slow orders’ on the entire 170 mile route. Programmed trackwork and bridge replacement work has caused us to initiate an interim schedule for a few weeks, with adjusted schedules, so that on-time performance can be maintained. Our funding of the dedicated Union Pacific night-maintenance-of-way gang is still paying off with superior on-time reliability.

October 2009 continues the superior on-time performance, and these stats keep the Capitol Corridor’s on-time performance among the best in the country.


Pacific Surfliners (October 2009):

216,234 passengers +2.1% vs. October 2008, but still the second busiest route in the nation, by a wide margin.

$ 3,651,377 October 2009 ticket revenue: -0.7% vs. October 2008

On-time performance for October 2009: 79.2%


San Joaquins (October 2009):

74,618 passengers -5.8% vs. October 2008

$2,183,202 October 2009 ticket revenue: -2.5% vs. October 2008

On-time performance for October 2009: 93.3%


Total California 3 Intercity Corridors Ridership for October 2009: 427,960
Total Northeast Corridor ‘Spine’ ridership for October 2009: 924,586
For October 2009, the 3 California Corridors are 46.3% of Northeast Corridor ‘Spine’ Boston-Washington ridership

Total Northeast Corridor ridership for October 2009 with branches to Springfield, MA; Albany, NY and Harrisburg, PA: 1,147,327

For October 2009, the 3 California Corridors are 37.3% of the total Northeast Corridor ridership.

Overall NEC Spine ridership declined by -0.3% in October 2009, and for the sixth month since its rebuilding, the Keystone service (Philadelphia-Harrisburg) declined by -6.8% below October 2008.


Rail Photos

Trip PHOTO Report: On the Heartland Flyer: Nothing to complain about!

Comments and PHOTOS By Russ Jackson, website editor
Ft. Worth Amtrak station 11-4-09 005
Round trip from Ft. Worth to Oklahoma City on the Heartland Flyer September 30 and October 2, 2009. The Ft. Worth, Texas Intermodal station is a busy place, what with Amtrak’s Texas Eagles and Heartland Flyer, the TRE commuter line between Ft. Worth and Dallas, and it’s a local bus hub. It’s also where a Subway Sandwich place has opened, and that’s where we ate before boarding the train.

Ft. Worth Amtrak station 11-4-09 001

. . . Northbound the departure was on the minute, with a small crowd boarding on that Wednesday night. Most of the travelers, just over 40 total for the trip, were mostly destined for OKC, but there was activity at each intermediate station. Locomotives 119 and 11 were with us along with three coaches. A friendly, efficient crew including “Miss Carol” who was working the cafe which was downstairs in the baggage section of center coach 35002. All passengers except a few boarding later were in that car. Our arrival at the classic OKC station was early! Because we didn’t know exactly how far our hotel was from the station we asked the conductor if taxis were available at the station and he offered to call to make sure. One was waiting for us.

Oklahoma City downtown is a good place to visit.
Heartland Flyer trip photos 10-02 09 002 The “Bricktown Entertainment District” is within walking distance of the train station and several hotels. Many fine restaurants and places to see are there, including the Myriad Gardens botanical displays, the Ford Center where the NBA Thunder plays, and the minor league baseball park. A wheeled trolley can take you to everything.

Heartland Flyer trip photos 10-02 09 006

. . . Southbound, the train with the same consist as our Northbound train two days earlier, was waiting for an on-time departure. The crowd boarding was so large departure was delayed, but through the efforts of an efficient on board crew not for long. Heartland Flyer trip photos 10-02 09 015

Baggage was stored in the compartments built into the Superliner car body next to the wheels with outside access, for passengers going the entire distance. Two large groups of ladies traveling to weekend meetings in Ft. Worth occupied one car, and the rest of us nearly filled the other two cars.

Heartland Flyer trip photos 10-02 09 013 The conductor, Mr. M. Doty, (shown here on the Ardmore, OK, station platform) told this writer he had 150 on board with capacity for 210. He said in summers it runs sold out many days. Two passengers told this writer they were connecting to the eastbound Texas Eagle that afternoon.

McKenzie Halloween 10-09 008
The on time southbound Heartland Flyer roars through Justin, Texas just 30 minutes from its destination at the Ft. Worth Intermodal Center on November 3, 2009.

Again, there were several “offs” and “ons” at all intermediate stations. In daylight it was possible to see the attractive re-built stations on this route, (more photos at the end of this report). Heartland Flyer trip photos 10-02 09 012
Amtrak’s newly designed station signs (right)were at each station giving it a modern feel as well as historical.

As for food service, “Miss Carol,” was with us again. She said she had been an original employee when this train began serving the route eleven years ago. She works four days on, four days off. We ordered a turkey and swiss sandwich, with drinks and chips. Carol offered to heat the sandwich, and when we ate it we found it to be excellent despite being a “packaged” item. This return crew was very efficient, and the train arrived back in Ft. Worth timetable early. BNSF dispatching had all opposing freight trains waiting in sidings both directions.

Comment: The condition of the three coaches assigned to this train was better than we expected; it was clean! It’s unfortunate that the train consist had to be double ended, as there is no convenient wye to turn it in OKC. It seems ripe for a “cabbage” control car rather than a full powered locomotive at each end.

Ft. Worth Amtrak station 11-4-09 003 (Former F-40 locomotive, now “cabbage car” 229, which was the model for the locomotive on Amtrak’s coffee cups, was at the Ft. Worth station on 11/4, perhaps for use on the Heartland Flyer).

Comment: What is disappointing is despite good ridership, the important financial aspects of revenue passenger miles will haunt this train and the two states, Oklahoma and Texas, who cough up money to Amtrak to keep it running. When it is extended north to connect with the Southwest Chief at Newton, picking up Wichita as a stop, and/or south to Austin and San Antonio or to Houston to connect with the Sunset-Eagle, the financial health of the train will improve.

Below, restored Norman, OK, station which has a “volunteer host” at train times, and a restored AT&SF steam locomotive in the park adjacent to the classic AT&SF Pauls Valley, OK. station.
Heartland Flyer trip photos 10-02 09 007 Heartland Flyer trip photos 10-02 09 010 Heartland Flyer trip photos 10-02 09 008

Tracking Rail News

Tracking Rail News . . .

PHOTOS . . . and Commentary by Russ Jackson
. . . November, 2009.

. . . An important observation by RailPAC Sacramento Director, Marcia Johnston: September 2007 001
On October 16 I stopped at the Davis Amtrak station to check out the southbound Coast Starlight, which was on time. It sat for some time, and I saw the station agent run into the station to pull out the manual wheelchair lift. There was one person attempting to board with an oversized wheelchair. The present long distance cars cannot board this type of vehicle, and neither can the manual wheelchair lift. The rider couldn’t be boarded unless a regular size wheelchair was utilized. When the person and a companion left she was observed crying. Her companion explained that the train was the only option and that they could not afford to fly, as the cost was too great.

I was later informed that Operations called the agent to discuss the situation. This whole scenario took approximately 30 minutes to resolve and the train to get underway. I observed a California Northern freight train and two Capitols waiting in line before I left, with traffic all backed up on the Corridor. I expect this wheelchair/disabled issue is going to get serious as time goes on, and I hope Amtrak won’t be subject to lawsuits! There is also the problem with able-bodied riders with luggage and packages, laptops, etc, on the Capitol Corridor and the San Joaquins taking up the downstairs seating meant for seniors/disabled. Some conductors do announce that seats downstairs are only for seniors/ disabled and as that other riders go upstairs, but other conductors do not. Sometimes the senior has to press the issue with the offending passenger or has to send a companion to track down the conductor.

. . . On Time Performance Reports. Results for the fiscal year 2008-09, which ended September 30, the long distance trains OTP showed a huge improvement over last year. Trains 1-2 the Sunset Limited 82%; 3-4 the Southwest Chief 87%; 5-6 the California Zephyr 65%;July 2007 001 7-8 the Empire Builder 77%; 11-14 the Coast Starlight 88%; and the Texas Eagle 83.7%. Most improvement can be attributed to the decline in freight traffic on the railroads, but Amtrak kept them running and times improving all summer! Now, schedules for both the Zephyr and Sunset-Eagle have been shortened. Since October 1 that OTP trend has continued and, believe it or not, the first half of October found the 14 Sunset Limiteds on time at end points, and having to wait for time at many intermediate stations, 100% of the time! Despite an early snowfall in the West, Zephyr #6 arrived in Denver on time each day, and #5 arrived into Sacramento less than an hour late each day. RailPAC member Ralph James up in Blue Canyon reported the Zephyr had adapted to the new schedule, which puts #5 back on its original schedule. The Coast Starlight was early into Sacramento and LAUS every day, and Amtrak reports the Starlight ridership increased 22.3 percent. Of course the year before it was hit with the 15-week closure due to that slide in Oregon that caused a large decrease, but at least we know the passengers are coming back.

Amtrak total ridership declined during FY 08-09, but still remains high. Just think of what it could be when the economy recovers! Is Amtrak ready for that? It doesn’t look like it. Growth is not on the agenda there as we all know. It didn’t hurt to have CEO Boardman riding in business car Beech Grove on #11, but we need to see more action on improvements using all that money they acquired this year. Maybe of lesser importance, on October 2, ex-GM&O private car Patron Tequila Express owned by actor Dan Akroyd was on #11. (shown here at Los Angeles Union Station on Train Day, 2009, Steve Friedman photo)
Dan Akroyd private car at LAUS 09 BTW, Amtrak’s OTP can be compared favorably to all the major airlines! Now let’s get that overused equipment back in order, and an order for new long distance equipment that is desperately needed.

. . . Amtrak Menus change. In this month’s employee newsletter, Amtrak Ink, new menu items for the western long distance trains were announced, introducing more regional flavors. Breakfasts will see the return of sausage patties and smoked bacon, and roasted Yukon gold and red-skinned potatoes will replace the hash browns. A vegetarian spinach quiche, griddled sourdough sandwich, and quesadillas will be new to the Chef’s Breakfast Special category, with more omelet selections and healthy choices. Lunch will add a new chipotle black bean veggie burger, salads, and Chef’s specials. Dinner will include some new vegetarian pasta selections and the introduction of two new steak cuts, as well as new Chef’s regional Specials. Dessert choices have been upgraded. That’s great and certainly something to look forward to, but, if service isn’t up to par it will blunt the impact. RailPAC VP South James Smith called from his Southwest Chief train recently to report that his train had left Los Angeles with only two persons working upstairs in the dining car, and that Amtrak had assigned it that way. It wasn’t because of a no-show. If there aren’t enough workers to handle the food service diners are delayed, as he was, from being seated on the reserved times. Just another irritant, but important to travelers. Mr. Smith also reported there were only two coaches in that consist, and for a while new riders had to be in the lounge car until a seat opened up for them. Poor planning? Probably. Finally, the daily Sunset Limited situation. Not now, but ever? Stay tuned again, and again. What does it take to make a decision?


TAMC October Meeting Report

Reported by Chris Flescher, RailPAC, Salinas
New developments from Soledad, the Coast Daylight, Castroville, and a Projects update.

Presentation from City of Soledad representatives
Soledad is planning to buy some land from the UP railroad for a future station. Soledad recently finished creating master plans for several issues, like parks and schools. One plan dealt with transportation.

There are many potential users of a Soledad train station. The two prisons there have about 3000 employees. The Pinnacles Park, the wineries, and the Mission Soledad are popular with tourists.

The city general plan, for transportation, includes pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and an intermodal transportation center in the downtown area.

Four planning areas for future growth may allow 50,000 more residents than there are currently in the city.

The city planners are working on design guidelines for Transit Oriented Development (TOD), and infill development near a future train station. Some students of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo are creating a plan for downtown TOD.

There is an interest in slightly relocating the rails through downtown, which would free up about 10 acres for an intermodal station and TOD.

Coast Daylight Update
There is a possibility of having stations in Pajaro, Salinas, Soledad and King City. That would result in four Monterey County stations used by the train.

UP will perform a capacity study for this project. The previous study showed that with certain improvements, there would be capacity for the Coast Daylight train.

TAMC would like to tell the state about the problems with the proposed 6 month timeline for UP studies. The state could possibly pressure UP to reconsider the 6 month rule. The concern is that in government, it is hard to get any kind of project going in just 6 months.

Castroville Station Update
TAMC is now actively working on a design for a station at what is called Site 1. There was once a station in that location.

TAMC is now considering 4 parking lot layouts and 3 platform locations.

UP apparently wants a center platform station, and that would be somewhat more challenging to design.

Because of the Coastal Commission opposition, TAMC has decided to drop consideration of Site 2 for the station. There are only a few people living near Site 1, but that presents more opportunities for future TOD. There are some unused industrial buildings nearby. If those buildings are turned into housing after the station is built, then fewer neighbors will be around in the near future who might oppose such a project.

One significant thing about the location of Site 1 is that it is right at the junction with the Monterey Branch Line.

At Site 2, a station will not go there, but that is still the location of a proposed pedestrian undercrossing. That project is continuing to move forward.

Projects Specification and Estimates

TAMC could lose $2-4 million (in STIP money) if they don’t move ahead faster. This is money for preliminary engineering. There is a time limit on this money. The preliminary engineering is one step of a larger contract.

TAMC wants to change the timeline slightly, so the preliminary engineering is split apart from the rest of the contract. This would probably allow TAMC to get federal money for a larger fraction of the entire project.

TAMC was ready to use this money for several years, but there was a concern that spending it at a certain time would hurt the “local match.”

It appears that TAMC will soon move into the main engineering phase.

The TAMC RPC approved what the staff recommended, which is to extend the contract with Parsons and to have Parsons perform the preliminary engineering on the original schedule.

One member suggested using native plants, when possible, when doing landscaping around the future stations.

On October 20, TAMC will make a presentation to the Monterey City Council on the issue of bus versus rail for that area. This will give TAMC a better idea of how the Monterey City Government feels about this issue.