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.

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