The Never Ending Battle for Truth, Justice and Rational Rail Service November 29th, 2009
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.