Monthly Archives

March 2010

Commentary

Steel Wheels in California 2010: The Countdown is On!

The countdown is on for Steel Wheels in California© 2010. April 17 is the date for what we believe will be our most informative and thought provoking conference and members meeting to date. RailPAC and NARP members and guests will meet at the Metro Board Room, One Gateway center at Los Angeles Union Station for a day of speakers, presentations and discussion, and if you’re a supporter of passenger rail you had better be there. Continue Reading

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Commentary

February California Intercity Passenger Rail Performance

Reported by David B. Kutrosky, Managing Director, CCJPA

Ridership for the Capitol Corridor in February 2010 continued to decline compared to February 2009 and 2008, but the monthly loss was less than prior month comparisons. Ridership for February 2010 was down by 4.7% and while the service was impacted by the second phase of the tie renewal program (February 22 – March 15, 2010) between San Pablo and Oakland, the ridership decline appears now to be the clear result of the three Friday furloughs per month for state government employees (which also impacts businesses, vendors, and service industries in the Capitol).  It has been estimated that these furloughs are contributing to an approximate overall reduction of 5%, representing well over half of our YTD ridership decline.

Revenues for February were below projection (-4.5%) but slightly above the prior February (+0.5%) with YTD revenues almost even (-0.8%) with last year.  To respond to the weak discretionary travel market, we are beginning marketing campaigns (now that the tie renewal program is complete).  These campaigns will target mid-day travel (discounts for school groups and seniors) and restart of the Kids Ride Free on Weekends (now including Fridays).

For February, UPRR delivered the Capitol Corridor trains above the On-Time Performance standard (90%) with the trains arriving on-time 92% of the time.  This is quite a spectacular feat considering that the tie renewal program was going on in the busiest section of the corridor during the last week of the month.

With respect to the Governor’s original gas tax swap proposal, there has been much activity in the Senate and Assembly to counter the Governor’s proposal, which would eliminate all state operating assistance to local transit agencies, the Capitol Corridor and the other state Intercity Passenger Rail (IPR) services starting in FY 2012-13.  The State Assembly prepared a proposal that would retain and increase (by 1.75%) the sales tax on diesel which would provide a steady stream of State Transit Assistance (STA) funds to local transit agencies and fully-fund the annual CA IPR Program (operations, staffing, marketing, and equipment renovations), allowing the CA IPR Program to survive and expand plus provide the ability to apply for the FRA capital grants.  This proposal was embraced by the Senate as it met the primary principle that the solution be revenue-neutral as part of this special legislative session.  Both the Assembly and Senate passed this legislation which was forwarded to the Governor for enactment. However, on March 15, 2010, the Governor threatened to veto the package of gas tax swap budget bills explaining that the bills did not provide tax relief for consumers at the pump and the package raises taxes on commuter rail services.

Upon further research, the reference to increased taxes on commuter rail services is a somewhat misplaced.  The Governor is referring to an issue raised by private railroads, which currently are exempt from the excise tax on diesel but pay sales tax on diesel. Their concern is the increased cost they would pay as a result of the increased sales tax rate on diesel proposed in the “gas tax swap” package. The railroads state that this would result in a $10 million tax increase for them. Furthermore, this impact will primarily affect freight rail as the benefits of an enhanced funding stream to the commuter rail agencies from the proposed diesel sales tax increase far outweigh the slight increase in fuel costs paid by
the commuter rail agencies. Please note that Amtrak purchases diesel fuel for the Capitol Corridor and the other IPR services and is exempt from both the excise tax and sales tax on diesel fuel.

Our understanding is that the legislative leaders may repackage the proposal and submit it in the next few weeks to address the governor’s concerns while also maintaining funds for public transportation.

To supplement this report, attached is a pdf file highlighting some of the key activities that have occurred since the previous monthly performance report.

(Download: February 2010 Performance Report)

CAPITOL CORRIDOR (February 2010):

  • Ridership: 110,280 riders; -4.7% vs. Feb 2009; -8.2% vs. prior YTD
  • 5.9% vs. FY10 Plan; +3% annual growth compared to 2 years ago
  • Revenue: +0.5% vs. Feb 2009; -0.8% vs. prior YTD; -4.9% vs. FY10 Plan
  • On-Time Performance: #1 in the Amtrak system for multi-frequency trains at 92% (YTD = 92%);  even with Phase 2 of the tie-renewal during the last week of the month, UPRR was able to meet the standard
  • System Operating Ratio: 45% YTD vs. 47% in FY09; expenses are under control, revenue are slightly below plan
  • The Capitol Corridor route still continues to be third busiest route in the country, with ridership at 1.54 million for the last 12 months

PACIFIC SURFLINERS (February 2010):

  • Ridership: 180,196 passengers; +6.0% vs. Feb 2009, and -1.5% vs. prior YTD; first month with ridership increase over prior year month; remains second busiest route in the nation, by a wide margin.
  • Ticket Revenue only: +10.1% vs. Feb 2009, and +3.2% vs. prior YTD; excellent results due to ridership gains
  • On-time performance for Feb 2010:  83% (YTD FY 2010 on-time performance: 81%)

SAN JOAQUINS (February 2010):

  • Ridership: 71,940 passengers  +14.3% vs. Feb 2009, and +4% v.s prior YTD; routes continue its streak of positive growth compared to prior year months
  • Ticket Revenue only: +11.7%  vs. Feb 2009, and +4.9% vs. prior YTD
  • On-time performance for Feb 2010:  92%, (YTD FY 2010 on-time performance: 91%)
Editorials

There is Plenty of Traffic on the Weekends

Editorial by Noel T. Braymer

Recently I was watching on a local access cable TV channel a discussion about plans to add 4 more lanes between Del Mar and Oceanside on the I-5 Freeway. The panel had representatives from Caltrans and SANDAG the planning agency for San Diego County. These 4 new lanes would be a combination HOV lanes and toll road for single occupancy vehicles. What got my attention was the fact that traffic on the I-5 is 10 percent heavier on the weekends than during the workweek and another 10 percent heavier in the summer than the rest of the year.

Anyone who has been on the I-5 in San Diego County knows traffic is getting worse every year. What is causing this heavy off-peak travel? It comes from people north of San Diego County coming as tourists to San Diego County and northern Mexico. This show did mention the Coaster rail service between Oceanside and San Diego. But there was no mention of the need for more double tracking to expand rail service in San Diego County or of rail service from Amtrak Surfliner or Metrolink.

It is ironic given the potential demand on the weekends and off peak that Metrolink recently announced service cutbacks to “save” money as of February 15th. The largest cutbacks were for service out of Oceanside on the weekends. For now there is one round trip each from Oceanside on the weekends to Los Angeles and San Bernardino. These new schedules are in place until summer so there is hope service may increase latter. Current track work on the weekends between Mission Viejo/Laguna Niguel and Irvine is making a mess of on time performance this winter. Let’s hope that with summer the Coaster, Metrolink and Amtrak can start to get their act together to increase ridership and revenue by capturing more of the traffic to San Diego County.

Let’s look at what works to increase ridership and revenue for regional passenger train service. The most recent example of this would be the Capitol Corridor which runs 170 miles between San Jose and Auburn with the majority of the trains running the 134 miles between San Jose and Sacramento. Back around 1998 the Capitol Corridor had 4 round trips a day and annual ridership was around 463,000. Ten years latter service was 16 round trips on weekdays, ridership rose 245% to 1.6 million and revenues were up 276% from $6.25 million to $23.52 million. The cost per passenger mile went from 33 cents per mile to about 18 cents per mile and future service expansion can drop that to at least 13 cents per passenger mile.

So what happened? In 1998 the Capitol Corridor had 4 sets of equipment for 4 round trips a day. This equipment was capable of running a second round trip a day. A second round trip had the potential to bring in double the revenue over the increased costs from the second frequency. Well what happened as frequencies increased so did ridership because it became more convenient to take the train. When service went from 6 to 7 round trips a day ridership jumped 40%! When ridership went from 8 to 9 round trips a day the ridership jumped another 40%! To get past 8 round trips a day additional equipment was needed and the operating subsidy for the Capitol Corridor went up a little. Since then the Capitol Corridor’s operating budget has stayed the same as service increased from 9 round trips up to 16 round trips on weekdays. The last 7 round trips were not paid with taxpayer’s money but from increased revenue from ridership!
This is not a unique experience. Way back in the early 1970’s with the creation of Amtrak ridership between Los Angeles and San Diego on the “San Diegan” trains was just over 300,000 annually with 3 trains daily. In the mid-70’s the State of California under Caltrans started paying Amtrak to add more trains on the San Diegans. By 1979 there were 6 round trips a day and ridership more than tripled to over a million riders annually. More interestingly after years of battles with the Southern Pacific service on the San Diegans was extended north of Los Angeles to Santa Barbara with one round trip in 1988. This one service extension dramatically increased revenues for the San Diegans. So much so that the new service eliminated the subsidy the State paid for a few years for the San Diegans. What this illustrates is improving ridership and revenue for corridor services needs a decent level of frequencies. Maximum effect seems to be from 8 to 12 round trips a day. Just as important is the need to expand service either by extending the trains or providing better connections to other trains to maximize revenue and ridership.

In the case of Metrolink, it seems to look at itself as a commuter railroad not a regional railroad. Ridership is very heavy during rush hours. But there is plenty of potential capacity on the weekends and off peak when ridership is now much lower. In order to capture this off peak market however will require decent levels of frequent service (between 8 to 12 round trips a day) and extended service or connection to other markets. While the longest route on Metrolink is 87 miles, it has 512 route miles in total, so that the potential for connections just within Metrolink is great. Metrolink and Coaster could jointly operate non-rush hour service from San Diego to Orange County and up to San Bernardino. Some trains might only operate as far as Riverside or even northern Orange County but the service could be connected by bus to Riverside and San Bernardino. Coaster and Amtrak could provide easy connections to each other. In the summer and holidays Amtrak and San Diego County could work together using Coaster equipment to provide increased capacity to carry more riders between Los Angeles and San Diego.

In these times of both budget shortages and crowded highways we can still get better use and improved revenues from exiting rail passenger service. There is a travel market to and from San Diego County from Lancaster, Palmdale, Ventura, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange County and the rest of Southern California. Minor service adjustments and new weekend service that connects and is frequent will quickly fill up trains. There are over 7 million people combined in San Diego and the Inland Empire counties. For Southern California as a whole there are 24 million people. To get more of these people to ride the train more often there needs to be more service to more places people want to go.

Reports

San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee Meeting Report

February 11, 2010 Meeting

Reported by Michael Barnbaum, Associate Director

The San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee met February 11th and for the first time since October of 2009. The meeting took place inside the Castle Conference Center in Atwater. A special stop located at a railroad crossing directly across the street from the Castle Conference Center in Atwater was arranged by San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee Facilitator, Arthur Lloyd in cooperation with the BNSF Railroad, Amtrak, and CalTrans Division of Rail.

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Reports

Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Board Meeting Report

February 17, 2010 Meeting

Reported by Michael Barnbaum, Associate Director

The Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Board met for the first time in 2010 and for the first time under Managing Director David Kutrosky. Chair Jim Holmes representing the Placer County Transportation Planning Agency called the meeting to order. He reported on the legislative meeting that took place on February 10th and the Governor’s Budget Proposal.

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Commentary

Is CA HSR on Track for Successful Implementation?

A small shift in priorities could produce major benefits sooner and help build public support.

Commentary by Ralph James, RailPAC Member, Alta, Blue Canyon CA

NOTE: This article also appears in a shorter version in the March Western Rail Passenger Review.

Prioritizing the order of expenditure on public projects which may span many years can have major effects on the usefulness of incremental investments and public perception of project value.

It is important, therefore, that early HSR projects be selected that will produce tangible benefits to established conventional rail services long before the entire HSR system is completed and ready for operation.

General Concerns

  1. The initial bond funding covers only a small portion of the total HSR construction costs and remaining funding has not been identified.
  2. The bond measure was passed by only a small majority, meaning many citizens are not on board with the plan as presented.
  3. Many knowledgeable supporters of the concept of HSR opposed the plan as presented.
  4. The global financial situation will make it slower and harder to implement any massive investment such as HSR.
  5. The state of California is in bad fiscal condition, making the sale of bonds in the magnitude required for HSR more difficult, more expensive and perhaps fiscally irresponsible.
  6. Local opposition to local project details is surfacing where planning has proceeded.
  7. The project is inherently political in nature and, as such, logic cannot be counted on to prevail in all critical decisions.
  8. Coordination of HSR with conventional rail services for maximum service to the public, especially during extended construction periods, requires a high level of cooperation and understanding between many different public agencies, a feat often difficult to accomplish.
  9. No logical plan has been presented as to how each construction segment should be prioritized to best provide early return on investment and complement existing rail services. It is this last item, prioritizing investment increments to maximize early returns and provide tangible benefits to existing rail services, which this writer will explore in this commentary.

Setting Priorities
Recognizing the magnitude of the California HSR project and the significant concerns identified above, this writer believes that it would be highly imprudent for anyone to assume that the overall project will be completed within the proposed timeline or within the proposed budget. It is, in fact, a real possibility that the project could be delayed for decades or perhaps never completed at all despite billions of dollars sunk into specific sub-projects. The best outcome for supporters of integrated rail transportation in California would be to show that every incremental investment has provided tangible benefits to the traveling public in the short term, regardless of completion of the entire HSR system. The worst outcome would be to have billions of dollars sunk over many years in isolated projects unable to deliver value prior to full completion of the HSR system. Should the latter situation be allowed to develop, the naysayers would have their day and the justification for further investment in any rail projects would be seriously compromised. Therefore, this writer believes that it is imperative to establish the proper priority for each incremental investment in the HSR system.

Questions to Ask
To properly assign priority to a given proposal for early investment, certain questions must be asked:

  1. Will benefits accrue to existing rail services prior to full completion of the HSR system?
  2. Will partial segments complement or compete with existing rail services?
  3. Can incremental construction be structured to provide immediate benefits to conventional rail services prior to implementation of full HSR standards, i.e. without full double track, without new high speed equipment and without electrification?

Based on the answers to these questions, the relative priority of various incremental construction proposals can be more usefully evaluated.

Evaluating the Segments
Based on news reports from various sources, three HSR segments have received at least implied priority for design and construction: Los Angeles to Anaheim, San Francisco to San Jose and Merced to Bakersfield (sometimes split into two segments north and south of Fresno). Federal HSR funding grants announced in January 2010 also reference these segments for priority construction. Let us examine these segments and one other, Bakersfield to Palmdale, to see how well each one provides early benefits to existing rail services, complements rather than competes with existing rail services and is suitable for early use by expanded conventional rail service prior to full implementation of HSR.

1.  Los Angeles to Anaheim PASS—HIGH PRIORITY

This segment is an existing bottleneck for Pacific Surfliner, Metrolink and Amtrak long distance services. The area is heavily developed and projects will tend to be difficult and very expensive. Any HSR-related projects that would provide grade separation for rail or road crossings, add track capacity, improve alignment for higher speeds or mitigate freight interference would certainly meet the first two requirements. Any new track constructed could be done in a manner that would allow conventional services to benefit prior to electrification and acquisition of high speed equipment, thus potentially fulfilling the third requirement. Certainly any improvements made to Los Angeles Union Station such as increased capacity or run-through capability could meet all three requirements. Thus, for selected projects, this segment appears to be properly prioritized for early design and construction.

2. San Francisco to San Jose PASS—MEDIUM PRIORITY

This segment is similar in nature to Los Angeles-Anaheim in being heavily developed and subject to high cost and difficulty for project implementation. Only a short portion of the segment near San Jose is utilized by Capitol Corridor and Amtrak long distance services. The entire segment serves CalTrain commuter service. Adding additional tracks to the narrow CalTrain right-of-way will be difficult and expensive, and initial proposals have drawn significant objections from local citizens. Any HSR-related improvements that would provide grade separation, increased track capacity or station improvements in the San Jose area could potentially meet all three requirements. HSR-related improvements beyond grade separation projects in the majority CalTrain-only territory would be marginally beneficial at best to existing services. Thus, this segment, for selected projects, could be properly prioritized for early design and construction.

3. Merced to Bakersfield FAIL—LOW PRIORITY

This segment, with limited exceptions, is rural in nature and parallels existing San Joaquin corridor services. Smaller intermediate stations at Madera, Corcoran and Wasco would not be served by HSR. Construction costs could be expected to be relatively low on this segment compared to other HSR segments. This portion of the San Joaquin route enjoys 79 mph nominal track speed with few local restrictions and could be upgraded to 90 mph upon implementation of mandated Positive Train Control well prior to any possible HSR service. This segment of the San Joaquin service provides the longest and most time-competitive route currently operating in California. There are relatively few HSR-related improvements possible that would improve travel times incrementally, although elimination of grade crossings would improve safety. Thus, HSR on this segment fails to deliver significant early benefits to existing rail service and fails requirement #1.

Should HSR be implemented on this segment prior to full system completion, it would be in direct competition with existing San Joaquin service but could not replace it due to lack of intermediate stops and lack of continuity at either end. Two competing publicly-funded rail services would then be in operation between Merced and Bakersfield with bus service required to reach the Los Angeles basin from Bakersfield and bus or conventional rail transfers required at Merced to reach Sacramento or Bay Area destinations. If this situation were allowed to develop, it would require on most trips between Sacramento and Los Angeles a bus ride and transfer to conventional rail at Stockton, a shuttle to the UPRR alignment and transfer to HSR at Merced and a transfer to bus for the trip to downtown Los Angeles, a situation that would make a mockery of the high speed rail concept. Thus, isolated HSR on this segment not only miserably fails to complement existing services per requirement #2 but is counter-productive to the goals of improved service in several respects, both physical and financial.

The final test of high priority for HSR on this segment would be the ability to utilize HSR roadbed and rail to augment existing San Joaquin services on an interim basis until the full HSR system is completed. Since Merced, Madera and Fresno HSR are planned for the UPRR alignment, no possible use could be made of the HSR infrastructure at Fresno or north. A temporary connection south of downtown Fresno could conceivably allow access to the HSR rail to Bakersfield, but only a very modest trip time reduction would be possible by pushing conventional San Joaquin equipment from 90 mph to its design limit. HSR on this segment does not offer significant incremental early benefits under requirement #3, nor does it make practical or fiscal sense to place high priority for early investment of the massive amount of money required to upgrade the fastest existing rail segment in the state to something only marginally faster. There are other locations where this investment can produce much higher and quicker returns until this segment is required for testing of high speed rolling stock and to complete the entire HSR network.

4. Bakersfield to Palmdale THIS OPTION PASSES ALL REQUIREMENTS AND RATES THE HIGHEST PRIORITY

This segment constitutes the most important missing link in the California passenger rail network. According to the CalHSR website, the proposed HSR alignment roughly parallels SR58, the UPRR freight alignment over Tehachapi Pass and SR14 between the end points. Also from the website, the proposed length of this segment is approximately 87 miles to Palmdale, but the actual rail gap to the end of Metrolink track in Lancaster is approximately 77 miles. Approximately half of this segment (Edison to Mojave) is in mountainous terrain that will involve high cost grading, tunneling and bridges. According to the website, the longest tunneling required on this alignment would be approximately 3.4 miles, a length compatible with non-electrified operation.

There is no question that closing the Bakersfield-Lancaster gap would be the single most important construction project in the state passenger rail system—no other potential construction even comes close to the magnitude of immediate benefits from an isolated project. Key to this analysis is the fact that this HSR segment is also able to stand alone from day one, independent of any other progress on the HSR network. Thus, it easily meets requirements #1 and #2 by immediately providing major benefits to existing San Joaquin rail services and providing a highly complementary addition regardless of the type of equipment used.

This segment also handily meets requirement #3 by being able to provide a means to extend conventional rail service across a critical gap. Initial costs can be trimmed to a fraction of the ultimate HSR cost by eliminating second bores on all tunnels, second track bridge structures, half or more of the general second track and all of the extremely high cost of electrification and purchase of high speed electric vehicles. Instead, a reasonable number of additional conventional passenger cars and diesel locomotives would be required to extend existing San Joaquin schedules to Los Angeles and San Diego.

Making some reasonable assumptions regarding possible elapsed time using conventional equipment on the HSR right-of-way and bettering existing Metrolink schedules between Lancaster and LAUS somewhat by requiring fewer stops, a through Bakersfield-Lancaster run could be expected in a little over an hour for the 77 miles and the run from Lancaster to LAUS could be expected in a little over an hour and a half for a total trip time of about 2 ¾ hours, slightly longer than the current 2 hour 20 minute bus schedules but with the convenience of all rail one seat travel.

Hurdles

  1. To move the Bakersfield-Lancaster construction to its proper high priority status there are some obvious hurdles to be negotiated. First and most obvious is the fact that everyone involved in California HSR and conventional rail must adapt to the mindset that certain portions of the HSR system can and should be used for conventional rail service on an interim basis while awaiting total completion of the HSR system. Although there are some technical issues that must be addressed for compatibility, this hurdle is mostly of an administrative and political nature. Amtrak, Caltrans and commuter rail agencies must cooperate seamlessly with HSR staff to bring the most beneficial result to the citizens of California. Funding arrangements must be established between agencies to cover the costs of additional conventional rolling stock required to operate over the HSR infrastructure. All services are being funded with public dollars and, as such, the citizens have every right to expect the best transportation result, regardless of turf, power or politics.
  2. A second hurdle that must be overcome is the tendency of those charged with implementing HSR to ignore the reality of the tremendous cost and difficulty of funding the entire system on a reliable timetable, if at all. Ignoring the possibility of a greatly extended or truncated construction schedule does not make it less of a possibility. Recognizing reality, on the other hand, makes it possible to sensibly assign priorities and early expenditure of limited dollars to those areas where relatively early functional results can be obtained while still maintaining the ultimate goal of a completed HSR system.

This writer firmly believes that closure of the Bakersfield-Lancaster gap is the single most important project that can be undertaken in California with early investment. Demonstrated results in a few years vs. billions invested in idle disconnected infrastructure can go far in building public support for the long term.

Commentary

CRCC Technical Committee Meeting Report

February 26, 2010 Meeting

Reported by Dennis Story, RailPAC Director

The Coast Rail Coordinating Council Technical Committee meeting was held at the Derby Club, Seaside Park in Ventura on Friday, 2/26/10 from 11:00AM to 12:30PM.

Attendees: Pete Rodgers (SLOCOG), Bill Bronte (Caltrans Rail Division), Jonathan Hutchison (phone), Mike Powers (SBCAG), Scott Spaulding (SBCAG), Vic Kamhi (VCTC), Ed Skytt (SBCAG Rep.– Solvang), Dennis Story (RailPAC, CoastalRailNow) There were others present who I did not know.   Note: No UPRR Rep present Continue Reading

Rail Photos, Tracking Rail News

Tracking Rail News . . . for March 2010

PHOTOS and Comments by Russ Jackson

. . . Amtrak Western On Time Performance. On February 19, Train #1, the Sunset Limited arrived at Los Angeles Union Station at 8:20 AM. Nothing remarkable about that since its due at 8:40, but as crew members will tell you they consider that arrival time as being late as they usually arrive in the 7 o’clock hour these days.

On the 21st #1 arrived at 7:40, proving their point. But, oops, on the 14th it didn’t arrive until noon. Nothing like a few inconsistencies even though the train’s overall OTP since October 1 is still 92%! Can you believe it now is Amtrak’s best long distance train performer? The poorest record in the west now is the California Zephyr, with 63%, although that was an improvement over the 61% on January 31, and #6 has been doing very well into Denver.

Trains 3 and 4, the Southwest Chief, (shown here at Los Angeles Union Station) was 86%, but had its share of problems: on January 31 a locomotive on #4 failed near Glorietta, NM and on the same day #3 had a locomotive failure due to a bad fuel pump at LaJunta, CO, with the BNSF coming to the rescue in both cases. The most interesting delay happened that day south of Guadalupe, CA, because an Air Force scheduled rocket launch from Vandenberg AFB delayed Pacific Surfliner 792 for 50 minutes until the right-of-way could be inspected for “potential fallen debris.” RailPAC VP South, James Smith, rode Amtrak from California to Florida by way of Chicago and Washington DC in February, as he usually does. His comments about this year’s trip were very positive, except for the condition of the Viewliner cars on the Silver Meteor. They are deteriorating fast, Smith says, so the replacement funds Amtrak has announced for those cars are quite justified. He also rode the California Zephyr for the first time in 20 years. Enroute, his #5 departed Denver February 21, just as a blizzard started, but he enjoyed that route because there was snow most of the way but arrivals were ON TIME! The Reno trench doesn’t let you see much of Reno, and Mr. Smith said the Amtrak dining car food was excellent this time, but when you take that long a trip the menu can be monotonous.

. . . Amtrak Equipment readiness. The fleet list shows 200 active western passenger cars. On February 11 they “required” 171 for trains that day. How many were available? 174, with 26 out of service for various reasons. That’s cutting it close, when 13% of your fleet is deadlined. Does that tell you the real need for fleet expansion ASAP? So, how is Beech Grove doing? Last year we were telling you that 40 Superliner cars were sitting deadlined there. Well, an observer writes that there are still 25. Improved, yes, but demand is getting too close. The seven Superliner coaches that California acquired are now all running. On the same day that Amtrak was canceling the Empire Builder for winter weather reasons, VIA was running the Canadian across Canada, with it on time into Winnipeg where the temperature was 10 degrees. … Good news. At least dining car china has returned to the Coast Starlight, and rumors are the Zephyr may be next! The “Food Specialist” downstairs position on the Starlight was converted to a full-year job to support dishwashing. Was it a coincidence that on the same day Amtrak increased Starlight fares by 4%? We can only hope the “fleet plan” Amtrak issued on February 1, showing its vision for updating its rolling stock, gets underway! They say it would require $34 billion to do everything. That’s the need now, when desperation is setting in; they should have been working on it for the past ten years while instead they griped about not getting enough government money. It was there; they just wouldn’t allocate it where the needs were. … Off trains for a moment: Minnesota’s Andrew C. Selden found, “One of the main reasons airlines are slapping fees on nearly everything, but generally leaving fares alone, is taxes. It seems that airline revenue from luggage fees, food sales, headsets, standby changes, mileage purchases, airport lounge passes and anything else that is not a mandatory part of the purchase is not subject to the 7.5% tax on the price of airline tickets!”

. . . Around California.

… ACE, the Altamont Commuter Express, is running 6-car trains now that its 4th train (the one in this photo with 3 cars), the mid-day turn, was dropped. They have three 6-car consists, and one 5-car train available, with a spare maintenance car. They need to do their extensions soon! Some ACE cars are still leased to Metrolink in Los Angeles.

… San Joaquins. RailPAC correspondent Ralph James reported here last year about the Fresno and Madera stations, and his followup this year brought good news that on his Fresno station visit this year he “found printed timetables available in various racks in the station building. The only posted information for the day’s trains, however, was still one of the timetable folders under plexiglass near the boarding area some distance from the waiting room and still no letterboard or other indoor posting.” It seems each station agent does these chores in different ways in each station. As for Madera, Mr. James reported “damaged tactile tiles noted as extensive last year along the boarding platform have been repaired.”

… The Coaster celebrated 15 years of service in San Diego County on February 27 (shown here at the Oceanside Transit Center), offering two-for-one rides and special promotional events. There are now 20 Coaster trains weekdays, plus some on Saturdays. But, still no Sunday service.

… The West. … By now what California received in federal grants is well known, but in Texas, two small projects were funded that will improve service for the Texas Eagle, the Heartland Flyer, and the TRE commuter line. On January 30 this writer attended the annual TXARP meeting in Dallas, just days after the funds were announced, and while the speakers expressed disappointment that the state couldn’t get its leadership interested in applying for bigger projects, the prevailing attitude was “we’ll take what we got and work for better days.” The BNSF line between Ft. Worth and Gainesville, TX, will have signal improvements so that 10-15 minutes can come off the schedule of the Flyer.

The TRE line between Dallas and Ft. Worth will be double tracked, and when that is finished Amtrak will move the Eagle to that line and off the UP’s freight congested line, which will cut some of the 3 hours Amtrak now takes to go between those two cities, 30 miles apart. We were pleased to learn that former Californian, Bill Farquahar, who worked with RailPAC founder Byron Nordberg on many projects some years ago, then for the Coaster, is now COO of the TRE. Which reminded us of one of Byron’s sayings about train speeds: “It’s not how fast you go, you shouldn’t go too slow.” … Arizona. Tucson got $63 million of the “Tiger” grants to complete the city’s modern streetcar starter light rail system between the University of Arizona and downtown’s west side, which should jump-start downtown redevelopment (we hope to have photos next month). Many states in the West did not get funds from either pot of federal money. The State of Arizona didn’t get any for the Phoenix-Tucson project largely because they had not finished their state rail plan. Montana got nothing while Amtrak waits for the state to fund the huge North Coast Hiawatha study they just completed for the state, which is not likely to happen. Meanwhile, Montana’s ridership on the Empire Builder dropped by 16,532 in 2009, to the lowest since 2005 but still the second highest year ever. Oklahoma, which in the words of one Oklahoman, had “not one county vote for Obama,” got $0 for its project between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Washington and Oregon benefited from the feds, with $600 million to improve speeds between Seattle and Portland, and upgrades for Portland’s Union Station.

. . . Finally, while it is not a Western story, a familiar name popped up last month: David Gunn, former Amtrak President (shown here on a visit to Sacramento station), was called in to “provide an overarching assessment of what ails the Washington DC Metro system, and how to fix it.” One commentator said, “no doubt they will be shocked to find out that their system needs more money, a reliable source of funding, and more people who know how to run a system properly, as well as a Board that has an interest in something other than regional politics. And, they need David Gunn to tell them this? He told them many times” when he was last with WAMTA. To which RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, said, “Most of that could apply to every district of its size in the country. Minimal transportation professionals on the governing boards, maximum political hacks, special interest underused bus routes, and on and on. It’s really hard to be a public transport advocate these days.” We totally agree. … And, we note with sadness that RailPAC VP North Art Lloyd’s wife passed away in January, after 60 plus years of marriage.
… RailPAC also welcomes new Board Director Jarrod DellaChiesa, who has taken over as Website Editor from this writer. Youth has its time, this is it, and Jarrod is already doing a great job on www.railpac.org.