Tracking Rail News: May 2010 May 18th, 2010
Commentary and PHOTOS by Russ Jackson
. . . On Time Performance. April was again a good month for the Amtrak western long distance trains. There were more “on time” than late, but when it was late was it late! The big exceptions were #6, the California Zephyr, was almost 11 hours late into Denver on April 23, but on other days in April it was close to OT every day; #7 the Empire Builder was late 168 minutes into Spokane on April 14, and its counterpart #8 was late almost 20 hours into Minneapolis on April 10. For the rest of the system, “close to OT” is the operative word and the medal for this month goes to Texas Eagle #22, which was OT or early into St. Louis every day but one, and that was on 4/2 when it was only 45 minutes late. For the FY, since October 1, 2009, the Sunset Limited has been OT close to 90%, and the Coast Starlight (photo) is now 88%. It’s almost getting to be non-news to comment on this topic. On the other hand, we looked at the Acela Express performance on April 6 and found since the FY began Acelas had been delayed 71,700 minutes. Nothing is perfect, even on the Northeast Corridor, but perfection is closer for the long distance trains in the west!
. . . Riders and Revenue. Last month this column reported on the ridership and revenue of the three small stations on the Sunset route, which brought up the question of how were the small stations in California doing in the same period, FY 2009? These are stations served only by long distance trains and the stats do not reflect any bus or connecting riders at those stations. This month we will highlight the Coast Starlight route: Dunsmuir (photo) had 3,950 riders and brought in $225,187. Paso Robles had 9,513 and $468,258. Salinas had 27,316 riders and $978,130. Chico had 8,526 and $479,748, and Redding had 8,985 and $547,259. This data was found on greatamericanstations.com. These small stations cannot be compared to large stations, like Martinez which has both the Starlight and the Zephyr, etc., where they had 394,814 riders and $8,157,255, but those small stations were positive contributors to the revenue of the long distance trains and served the traveling public in a way that other public travel modes did not.
. . . RailPAC-NARP meeting comments. This writer was unable to attend the April 17 Los Angeles meeting in person, but thanks to Editor Noel Braymer I was able to see the presentations on the DVDs that he sent me. I’ll only comment on two presentations here, as much has been written about the meeting in this publication and on Carl Morrison’s excellent report on Trainweb.com. Bill Bronte, the Chief of the Caltrans Rail Program (photo), is always good for some pithy remarks and this year both at the Sacramento meeting, which I was able to attend, and in Los Angeles he spoke of the future of California’s rail program. It’s important that all California rail enthusiasts pay attention to what Bill has to say, so here is my summary of his remarks: “Positive signs!” Mr. Bronte is starting to see growth, particularly on the San Joaquins (Note: ridership there is up 6.6% in this FY). But, there is no money for expansion, so when will that get better? He sees 3 to 5 years to recovery. “Our dollars come from truck drivers and their diesel fuel purchases. We came close to losing the rail program in March,” when support funds were destined to be erased from the state budget and would have been dumped into the general fund to compete for funding along with many other programs. But, advocacy groups got together and walked the halls of the State Capitol. CRCC, LOSSAN, Capitol Corridor, and the San Joaquin Committee, along with other advocates like Orange County’s Art Brown, worked successfully to get the program included in the new gas tax bill. But, Mr. Bronte explained that operating fund expansions in the future will have to be self-financed through increases earned by the program, as will capital expenditures, as the state level of funding will remain static. As for matching grants for federal funds, the state will be short on new funds to match. Bond sales will be very limited as repayments begin quickly and there is no funding for them. The main point of his presentation was, “A dedicated fund source is needed, as rail is a critical part of the state’s transportation system.” Will the next administration make positive changes? Not a lot, regardless of who is elected, as budget problems will continue. “Get out there and advocate,” he said. The other presentation to be mentioned here was from Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s VP for Policy and Development. While nothing new, which attendees were hoping to hear, was forthcoming from him, he did say Amtrak’s farebox recovery is 80% for its operating costs. An astounding figure. As for California, needless to say Amtrak considers the state its #1 “partner,” as well they should with all the dollars that flow into Amtrak’s coffers. Amtrak has 2,800 employees in California. As for the long distance trains, he only said they are working on getting the Sunset Limited daily but had no details. When RailPAC’s Mike Barnbaum asked about that train’s new schedule Mr. Gardner chose not to reply, but said a daily Sunset “can add value to the present system.” No additional routes can be added under current law, only improvements to current routes.
. . . Here and there.
The Heartland Flyer, train 822, at Gainesville, Texas, station, running late on May 4, 2010, powered 20% by biodiesel.
All the jokes have now been used up, but what else can be said about Amtrak’s plan underway since April 20, to experiment with having the Ft. Worth to Oklahoma City Heartland Flyer locomotive fuel tanks filled with a blend of 20% biodiesel made from beef fat, and 80% petroleum-based diesel. Amtrak’s Texas assistant superintendent Joy Smith had the best comment: “I don’t smell any french fries yet.” The source of the biodiesel being used by Amtrak is from “the remains of cattle raised near Fort Worth.” This experiment could have positive environmental benefits, and could lead to increased usage by Amtrak nationally which uses 62 million gallons of fuel a year. RailPAC’s Paul Dyson says “Our San Francisco Bay Rail’s 1940-built switchers have run on biodiesel for about a year now, and meet emission standards as tested by the State of California.” . . . Missouri’s lawmakers successfully killed a move to cut more than $8 million in funding for the Amtrak trains that run between St. Louis and Kansas City, despite having a looming budget gap although nowhere as large as California’s. The Missouri trains have had poor on time records until recent investments in the corridors have raised that to about 90% on time now, and that reliability has brought upward of 16% ridership growth. Missouri’s local transit funding was saved as well. . . . Sunset Limited riders can now download a “podcast” which will give them an “interpretive tour of the communities and regions through which they are traveling.” Amtrak is working with the National Park Service and Texas A & M University on this project, which is available at AmtrakRailGuide.com for a free download. Something about this sounds familiar, and it goes back to an article written by RailPAC member Richard Strandberg which was published in the August, 1998 Western Rail Passenger Review, titled “Interpretive Recordings for Long Distance Passenger Trains.”!! where he proposed just such an idea. . . . Technology is slowly coming to benefit Amtrak ticket holders, too. California writer Gene Poon reports that passengers who book online at Amtra.com can now change their reservations online instead of standing in line at the station, but can only be used before a paper ticket is issued. If the reservation is made by phone or at a station, however, changes cannot be made online.
. . . Vaguely on-topic from Minnesota’s Andrew C. Selden on April 12: “For the Minnesota Twins’ home opener in their new outdoor baseball park, Target Field, MetroTransit is operating a baseball special, which just arrived in Minneapolis in push mode, with five cars (Bombardier Bilevels), for a 3 pm first pitch. The return train will leave 30 minutes after the last out. The Northstar Minneapolis station (such as it is—two tracks and a platform) is directly adjacent to and under the left field corner. I believe that this is our first five-car revenue train. Scheduled trains are three and four cars long. BNSF’s former GN Willmar Division main line was displaced 40-50 feet to the northwest to allow for stadium and Northstar construction. The end of the line for the Hiawatha LRT line is adjacent to the same point (the left field corner) at street level, perpendicular to the railroad.