Tracking Rail News: February 2011 February 15th, 2011
. . . Photos and Comments by Russ Jackson
. . . On January 10 Governor Brown introduced his proposed budget for FY 2010-11. While major reductions are in store for “everyone,” that does not apply to the state rail corridor intercity rail operations. $90,247,027 is exactly the same amount as the last three years. So, no growth in that allocation, but no cut in the funds the program receives from taxes on diesel sales. As one commentator said, “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.” Other rail operations are not so lucky in their funding sources, however.
Caltrain is one and faces a huge cut that could leave a reduction from 86 to 48 daily trains, no weekend service, no service south of San Jose, no game-time trains to AT&T Park, and closing seven stations. Caltrain is subsidized solely by San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties. A “Save our Caltrain” group has organized, and RailPAC is supporting it. (See separate stories.) If ever there was a transportation system that works it is Caltrain, taking so many people off Highway 101 every day!
. . . On January 22 Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman sent a lengthy message to his co-workers reporting on the funding situation ahead. “A Republican study committee has released its vision for reducing government spending,” and, “I’m sure many of you are not surprised that Amtrak is listed for being eliminated.” Mr. Boardman called on his troops to “Please don’t be distracted from what we know we must deliver for our customers and for each other. Amtrak management and the unions are working to inform the Congress of Amtrak’s message of success.” RailPAC President Paul Dyson wrote to Mr. Boardman “on your message to Amtrak employees, and indirectly to us, advocates of passenger rail. Great leadership, thank you Joe.” Mr. Boardman promptly returned his thanks for Paul’s message. The year ahead is another in a long line of challenges facing Amtrak, and while the situation is somewhat different from the past the outcome is not foregone despite much Republican support in recent years, because of all the new members of the House of Representatives where funding legislation must originate. What other large publicly owned transportation system in the world takes in 62% of its funding from the farebox, requiring only a 38% subsidy? However, as rail writer Gene Poon points out, “Amtrak isn’t listed for being eliminated, its subsidy is. Of course Amtrak would not exist were it not for its subsidy.” Most observers including this column writer believe Amtrak will be cut back to its 2008 level, which will hurt but it will not be eliminated.
. . . People report. January 7 was the retirement date for SBCAG Deputy Director Michael Powers. Mike was a believer in passenger rail. He worked on the Santa Barbara County rail stations for the Surfliners that were built during the 1990′s at Carpenteria, Goleta, Surf, and Guadalupe. We also learned that RailPAC Sacramento Director, Marcia Johnston is recovering from surgery for multiple fractures due to a fall and will be away from work for an extended period. We all wish Marcia a speedy recovery. We miss her cheerful messages. She is a real rail advocate in deed and spirit!
. . . Other news around California and the West. We don’t comment much on High Speed Rail in this column, leaving that to others, but we noticed that the California High Speed Rail Authority has earmarked $30 million for Los Angeles projects, including buying Union Station. Since LA will be a major stop for the high speed trains, if they own the place they can better control what goes on there. While 50,000 people use the place daily now they predict double or more than that when HSR gets going. Maybe they will re-open the Fred Harvey restaurant!
. . . Now to train news. Starting this month Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner 565, renumbered 563, which departs San Diego at 7:05 AM (weekdays only) will be a “skip stop” train to Los Angeles, where it will arrive at 9:33 saving 17 minutes running time. Intermediate stops will only be at Solana Beach, Oceanside, Irvine, and Anaheim. This is called an “Express” train, which is not to be confused with the non-stop that was tried twice and failed to attract riders. That idea RailPAC would oppose, but President Dyson cautions us that now “we have Metrolink and Coaster, so the impact may be less than in past years. It is a tiny move in the direction of true Intercity Amtrak and local Metrolink and Coaster. Let’s see what happens to revenue.” The idea of a non-stop goes way back to the Santa Fe’s diesel car service in 1952, which did not succeed either.
. . . Another idea has risen, to terminate the San Juan Capistrano station as an Amtrak stop, with riders being bused to the Laguna Niguel Metrolink station in order to eliminate congestion on the narrow line through the present station at “Capistrano.” This item was on the LOSSAN Corridor agenda last month. With a station that saw 223,580 riders and had revenue of $3,127,466 in FY 2010 (for both Amtrak and Metrolink) this is an operational proposal, rather than a passenger upgrade to say the least. While double tracking through that station is desirable, there are too many local factors against it. We look ahead to see if this idea gets off the ground. . . . The Reno Fun Train will operate February 11 and 25, March 4 and 11. This popular weekend excursion train leaves the Bay Area on Fridays and returns Sundays.
. . . The New Mexico Railrunner train from Belen through Albuquerque to Santa Fe is under fire from the new state administration, but the new Governor has said, “We now have the train and must look at ways to make the Railrunner a more self-sustaining operation that is less draining on the taxpayers, or try to sell it to a private operator.” On Sunday, January 23, the Santa Fe New Mexican ran a series of thoughtful letters to the editor. Most argued that we need more, not less service, and that it makes sense economically. One pointed out that the long afternoon gap in service makes for problems commuting.
. . . Now we can get to our regular report of on time performance or lack thereof. As of January 8, system OTP since October 1 was not bad at all, despite so many winter delays. The California Zephyr was at 53%, Coast Starlight was 76%, Empire Builder 50%, Southwest Chief 82%, and the winnah!!: The Sunset Limited 89.5%. Now for some of the more interesting but less than happy details. The Southwest Chief #3 that departed Chicago on January 11 was only an hour late out of Gallup, NM, the next day when the brakes went into emergency. It had hit a person on foot, not a vehicle, in another of those unfortunate accidents that happen much too often. The train was delayed over 5 hours for investigation and mechanical repairs, but as a rider on board wrote later, “I’m amazed at the lack of complaining among the passengers and crew.” Connection with the Coast Starlight at Los Angeles was missed, even with the new departure time of train 14, when #3 arrived at LAUS after 1 PM. The SW Chief was plagued by another similar situation on January 15, when train #3 struck a woman who was listening to music on her MP3 player while she was jogging on the tracks at Pecos, east of Lamy. She could not hear the train’s horn, despite “several attempts” to alert her, and the emergency stop was not made in time. This time the delay was only 2 hours, and the train arrived in Los Angeles only 55 minutes late the next morning. Then there’s the Coast Starlight #14, which had to be evacuated in Camarillo on January 15 after a freon leak developed in the refrigeration in the Dining Car. The train was delayed 2 1/2 hours. The California Zephyr had its share of problems due to weather and other things, including #6 on January 22 hitting an ATV that was trespassing on the Auburn, California trestle. Apparently no injuries, and someone was seen running away from the scene. That delay was an hour and a half. Back east the big delays happened to the extent that Amtrak NEC service between New York City and Boston were suspended January 12 and 13 during a winter storm that hammered New England. On January 24 Empire Service from New York to Albany was canceled due to storms. One observer said, “This is probably beating a dead horse, but: All VIA trains so far out of Montreal (which is north of Albany) have departed on time that day.” Last but not least, there’s the news of the Sunset Limited: not what we all want to hear, but the departure time from Los Angeles effective January 23 will be at 3 PM, in response to Metrolink schedule changes. The good news is that does open the connection from San Joaquin train 702. Daily? In your dreams.