Monthly Archives

December 2010


Building HSR on the Installment Plan

Editorial by Noel T. Braymer

“An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought”. Simon Cameron US financier & politician (1799 – 1889)
Since the midterm elections it is becoming clear that if people thought Washington was partisan, gridlocked and out of touch with what people wanted before the election, then you ain’t seen nothing yet. The issues most on people’s minds are jobs, a healthy economy and keeping their house.
In politics the game is to get as much government money for your supporters at the expense of your opponents and their supporters. Opposition from recently elected officials to Federal Funding for Passenger Rail Service in New Jersey, Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida has nothing to do with concern about spending too much taxpayer’s money. These politicians want to spend this money, only they want to take it and use it for highways. There is a need for highway construction. But this money by law is for Passenger Rail service. The Department of Transportation has told these states that if they don’t use this money for rail they won’t get the money. Instead it will be available for other states which will, such as California.
The reality for California is while there will be some money for High Speed Rail, there won’t be 40 plus billion available to build a passenger service between Los Angeles and San Francisco in the next ten years. As it stands there seems to be enough money to go ahead and build a HSR railroad in the San Joaquin Valley. Construction will be fairly cheap in this mostly rural area and there is broad local political support for the project in an area of high unemployment. The problem is not many people are going to travel in the Valley. Valley residents are more interested in going to the Los Angeles or San Francisco regions than shuttling back and forth in the San Joaquin Valley. How do we create a state wide rail service in about 5 year using available funding? The same way it has been done in Europe: running trains on both existing and HSR trackage.
Improved San Joaquin Trains will work as a stop gap between Oakland and Bakersfield: but what about Southern California? Metrolink operates the 76 rail miles between Los Angeles and Lancaster. The missing link is the 87 miles between Lancaster and Bakersfield. If we make it a high priority to extend HSR trackage south of Bakersfield to Lancaster we could run direct service between Los Angles and Oakland. This won’t be 5 or more trains an hour but it will be a more viable service than running trains just in the Valley. We should build over 200 miles of HSR track, between Lancaster and Fresno to get HSR for about half of the way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. This won’t give you running times of under 3 hours between Los Angeles and San Francisco. But it will give you much faster service in under 6 hours or so. It will create the traffic to bring in revenue and create popular support for finishing the California High Speed Rail Project.
For years Transportation spending has been considered a non-partisan issue. Most everyone travels and improved transportation improves the economy. There are a lots of jobs for rail construction and the development created by improved rail passenger service. People like to see their tax money spent on services that they will use. How do we get the attention of the politicians in Washington and Sacramento to let us use our tax money here for Rail? We must work at the local level to show broad support for rail service. We should prioritize our efforts to get the most out of limited resources by running the longest distance service possible using both existing and HSR trackage. We should build the most trackage first where construction costs are the lowest or have the greatest improvement in service. And we should build something now that will show the California taxpayers that they are getting their money’s worth.
Tracking Rail News

Tracking Rail News: December 2010

Photo and Comments by Russ Jackson

. . . Winter has begun for Amtrak.

One of our classic photos is the westbound California Zephyr #5 at Winter Park, Colorado in the winter of 2000.

The Thanksgiving weekend saw the start of Amtrak’s annual battle with winter weather, and nowhere was it more evident than along the route of the Empire Builder. Train #8 (22) departed Seattle 3 hours and 20 minutes late and finally arrived in Chicago 3 days later, 20 hours and 8 minutes late due to storm conditions across Montana and North Dakota. Along its route it went from just under 7 hours late at Cutbank, MT, to 13 hours late out of Havre. The California Zephyr #5 (22) departed Chicago 3 minutes late, and was only 54 minutes late out of Salt Lake City, ended up 4 hours and 24 minutes late into Emeryville after losing almost 2 hours between Truckee and Colfax. Coast Starlight #11 that departed Seattle on the same day 1 hour and 43 minutes late was 4 hours late out of Tacoma due to mechanical problems, not the weather, but #14 that departed Los Angeles on time that day and was 23 minutes late into Dunsmuir ran into the Cascades winter weather and was 2 hours and 40 minutes late out of Klamath Falls. Meanwhile, the Sunset Limited and the Southwest Chief continued their pattern of excellent on time performance, arriving early at their endpoints consistently.

. . . However, the overall picture of on time performance for FY10 is not bad. The California Zephyr ended up OT 52.6% for the year, down 7.1% from 09. The Coast Starlight was 89.9%, up 7.4%; the Empire Builder was 77.8%, up 2.2%; the Southwest Chief was 79.1%, down 6%; the Sunset Limited was 87.5%, up 8.3%!

. . . Let’s look at some of the “routine” problems encountered by long distance trains last month. Train 3 (13) was delayed over 2 hours at Peach Springs, AZ, because it set off a drag detector due to a broken strut and sheared bolt on a coach. The BNSF was able to help that one. Train 11 (13) was delayed departing Seattle for 95 minutes because inspection revealed a faulty toilet vacuum pump in a Sleeping car. (Where have we heard that problem over and over before? At least it was corrected prior to departure.) Train 6 (12) was delayed 45 minutes 35 miles east of Green River, UT due to a locomotive “not loading.” (Another regular problem.) Train 21 (11) the Texas Eagle, was delayed 2 1/2 hours near San Antonio due to “losing traction power” on locomotive 81. The Union Pacific provided a helper locomotive. But, the train was delayed 3 hours more at San Antonio “swapping locomotives”, due to a horn problem on the freight locomotive and toilet problems on train 22. Then Train 1 was delayed another 2 hours at Deming, NM removing that freight locomotive because it had “bell and whistle problems and lateral motion.” Another freight locomotive was taken off an eastbound freight train and the Sunset continued to Los Angeles. And, Train 4 (13) was delayed over 2 hours at Albuquerque as a result of having to switch the rear car and another coach on the rear of the train due to bad ordered marker lights. It takes much patience to run a railroad, particularly when many problems can be prevented but are not.

. . . Thanksgiving weekend was sold out on Amtrak! On Wednesday, November 24, one of the busiest travel days of the year, NBC TV stationed one of their top reporters, Mike Taibbi, at New York’s Penn Station and through the day he provided information to all of their networks, the Today Show, MSNBC, CNBC, and the Weather Channel. There was parity for rail travelers with air and highways at last! Mr. Taibbi reported after interviewing train riders that with the controversial TSA “patdown” procedures in effect at airports there was definitely more interest in rail traffic. He went on to say that since all trains were full a reservation was a must, that Amtrak had every available car running, and was serving turkey in its long distance train dining cars. That summed things up rather nicely! Elsewhere that day, the Capitol Corridor added cars to its consists, some with 7 cars, and borrowed a set of Caltrain equipment (Gallery cars), running that consist on trains 542 and 553 with limited snack service! Some Surfliner consists had 9 cars, and there were 5 cars including the Great Dome on the low level train to San Luis Obispo. While it is difficult to pinpoint how many travelers took Amtrak rather than flying this year, a New Orleans TV station, WWL, interviewed four passengers waiting to board a full Sunset Limited and the result was mixed. Amtrak spokesman Todd Stennis told the station, “I think that (those TSA screenings) played a role” in a jump in ridership.

. . . More on the weather and other things. . . . Did you see the excellent article in the December issue of Trains magazine about snow removal on Donner Pass? It says, “When the rotaries (plows) move out of Roseville, (enroute to the Sierra) workers have to pull up crossings and remove the Amtrak station platforms at Rocklin and Colfax to accommodate the plows. The platforms were designed to be portable because of this.” We didn’t know this, so we asked our Sierra correspondent, Ralph James (who is busy shoveling out his property these days), who says, “Colfax would only have one platform on the #2 track but Rocklin would have a platform on each track. With CTC cross-overs at Rocklin, Newcastle, Bowman and Colfax (west of the platform and in the wrong direction to avoid the platform) it would be possible to get by with removing only one platform in Rocklin.” Isn’t railroading interesting? . . . A new $7 million crossover at the West end of the Yolo Causeway was one of California’s federally funded projects. Construction should begin soon to increase efficiency between Davis and Sacramento. CCJPA Managing Director, David Kutrosky, says they are still in negotiations with the UP. That leads this writer to finally in this issue report that negotiations with the UP on the daily service for the Texas Eagle-Sunset Limited are still going on, as best as we can determine, but no decision. As the agent in the Austin, Texas station told us last month “you probably know more than we do.” . . . The Union Pacific has “re-ignited” its double-tracking effort on its 760 mile El Paso to Los Angeles Sunset Route, putting in $18 million to complete nine miles in Imperial County, California and another nine miles in Maricopa County, Arizona. It just gets easier to operate the Sunset Limited daily. . . . The American Society of Civil Engineers recognized the rehabilitation of the Cal Park Tunnel between San Rafael and Larkspur on the future route of the SMART trains as the “Outstanding Small Project of 2010″, and we extend congratulations! The tunnel has been rebuilt and now contains a bicycle-pedestrian pathway, so when construction of the rail line commences the tunnel is ready. After reading RailPAC Secretary Dick Spotswood’s article about the future of the SMART project that tunnel may wait a while before it sees trains. . . . Congratulations are in order, too, to Metrolink’s SCRRA Board for unanimously agreeing to buy 20 more train cars from Hyundai Rotem for $1.68 million each, about $1 million below market value! Now, if Metrolink can come up with money like that why has it taken so many agonizing years for Amtrak to come up with the cash for any new western long distance cars? Where there is a will there is a way. . . . All that’s left now is to wish our reader/members a Happy Christmas Holiday! See you on the rails next year!


Bikes and Trains

By Noel T. Braymer

A major problem with taking the train is getting to and from the train stations. Ridership for rail service is dependent on the amount of parking since most people drive to the train station. Many train stations have full parking lots. Increasingly more parking structures are being built at stations. But these are expensive and can’t keep up with the demand needed for expanded rail service in the future. Increasingly at stations all over California we are seeing another alternative; bicycles.
Bicycles are inexpensive, require much less space to park than cars and are good for trips of 1 to 2 miles. A healthy person can ride a bike 2 miles in 10 minutes or less. Many people are traveling these distances to and from stations. In many cases public transit is non-existent for such trips and it is too far for walking. Still many more people who could ride bikes aren’t. There are simple reasons for this which can be solved.
First finding a safe place to park a bike: many bikes can be worth thousands of dollars plus have accessories bolted on them which are easy to steal. Leaving bikes out in the open also leaves them subject to damage from the sun and bad weather. There is bike parking at most stations. But not always at the places people will be riding too. Bike boxes are common at train stations but these are for people using them on a regular basis. Bike Boxes are rarely available for one time use by visitors.
Another big reason more people don’t ride bikes more is traffic. Our road system is dominated by car and truck traffic. To get most anywhere you have to take busy arterial roads. There are few alternative routes on quiet streets. Many cities have bike lanes on arterial roads. These are mostly on the shoulder of the arterials which are often rough, poorly surfaced and covered with debris which can puncture bike tires. Plus many people are afraid of heavy traffic racing past them only a few feet away. There are bike paths but these are usually for recreational use and often don’t connect with activity areas. A better long term solution would be the creation of bike routes using quiet streets and made available by short cuts available only for pedestrians and people on bikes to activity areas. Better bike parking and bike routes to jobs and shopping from train stations will get more people on bikes and out of their cars.
One of the concerns about more passengers riding bikes is finding enough space on the trains for passengers who want to carry their bikes with them. Part of the problem is many of the bike racks on trains are poorly designed wasting valuable space for the number of bikes they carry. Any bike shop owner could design a better system to carry more bikes in less space. Another solution is to encourage regular bike riders to use 2 bikes. Park one at their home station and pick up another bike at their destination station. Persons parking their own bikes for commuter purposes could use secure parking to get to their final destination. For passengers who are not commuting having more rental bikes available is a great way for passengers to get to were they are going.
More people are already riding bikes to catch the train and more will as facilities continue to improve over the years. We can’t build enough parking structures to carry all the people that a train station can handle. We will need to build more development that is walking distance to stations. We can improve transit connections to stations to carry more people at stations. And we can encourage more people to ride bikes to and from stations.