Monthly Archives

March 2011

Issues, Reports

Metrolink CEO Kicks off Steel Wheel in California

On Saturday, March 19 Chair Richard Katz provided opening comments for the 4th Annual Steel Wheels in California conference hosted by RailPAC and NARP. Over 200 rail professionals gathered in the L.A. Metro board room for a conference providing information and education to “opinion formers and decision makers” and grass roots supporters of the rail industry. Chairman Katz spoke about Metrolink’s commitment to safety, specifically as it applies to insisting that the 2015 federal mandate for PTC implemented not be extended.

CEO John Fenton gave a presentation on Metrolink’s journey to become Southern California’s commute of choice. He covered Metrolink’s core values – safety, people, quality, efficiency and growth – and the ways Metrolink is working to add value to the region, such as introducing a pilot program of new express trains on the Antelope Valley and San Bernardino lines.

At the conference, Metrolink’s Guardian fleet was on display for the conference attendees. Operations staff was also on-hand to provide information about the cars and answer any questions.

Commentary

Don Sepulveda joins Metro

Don Sepulveda has joined Metro has the Executive Officer – Regional Rail.   Don will be leading the regional rail team in working on matters related to high speed rail, Metrolink and intercity rail corridors (such as I-5 and the LOSSAN corridor).

Done comes to Metro after spending his career in the private sector as a consulting engineer.  Don has worked on all the phases of high speed rail, including the early statewide planning efforts and the project specific environmental work on several of the segments currently in design.  IN addition, he has worked closely with the Alameda Corridor, Metrolink and other civil infrastructure projects.  In 2009, Don was appointed by the Southern California Regional Rail Authority board to co-chair the peer review that produced comprehensive recommendations regarding the safety and governance of Metrolink.

RailPAC congratulates Don and looks forward to working with him.

Boarding Starlight in San Jose
Issues, Reports

Officials Tour Rail Line: San Jose to Soledad

On March 3, 2011, the Transportation Agency of Monterey County (TAMC) led a tour of the rail line from San Jose to Soledad. Elected officials, agency staff and other interested persons rode the Amtrak Coast Starlight from San Jose to Soledad, with a stop in Salinas.

Dave Potter, Monterey County District 1 supervisor and Chair of the TAMC Rail Policy Committee, noted, “The train system just to the north of us in the San Francisco Bay Area is well-developed, and we have two projects in the works that would help us to have better connections to that system. This tour helps show how important it is for us to establish this new connection, to provide another way for people to get between Monterey County and the Bay Area.”

Monterey City Councilmember and Rail Policy Committee Vice Chair Frank Sollecito agreed, “This was a wonderful opportunity for us to see where the train tracks go through Monterey County, and how a new Coast Daylight or commuter train would be a convenient, easy and comfortable travel option for Monterey County residents or visitors. The views were great, and the trip went beautifully.”

Special Soledad Stop
Of particular interest to the decision-makers on board, the train made a special stop in the City of Soledad. The train pulled in at the future site of the Soledad Coast Daylight Station, which was the historical site of the Southern Pacific Train Depot. Currently, the site is a park and ride lot. The City is planning to make improvements to the station area, including the construction of an 800-foot long platform with shelters and changes to the tracks, in order to facilitate the future Coast Daylight train stopping in Soledad.

Amtrak “Coast Daylight” Service
Tour participants learned about the proposed Amtrak “Coast Daylight” service, which is planned to be daily operation of new state-sponsored Amtrak service along the Coast Rail route between downtown Los Angeles and downtown San Francisco. The service is being proposed to close a gap in existing train services, serve travel demand between Los Angeles and San Francisco, improve mobility for visitors and millions of Californians living in counties served by the new train, enhance goods movement and economic development at stations along the route, and provide environmentally sound transportation for a variety of travel markets and needs.

Rail Extension to Salinas
The tour also was relevant to the Transportation Agency’s proposal to extend the commuter rail system from San Francisco Bay Area to Salinas. Such a service would be operated by Capitol Corridor or Caltrain, and would relieve congestion and provide transportation alternatives for commuters and those seeking access to health care and education. This proposed service would start in 2014 with two to three round trips and expand to four to six round trips as demand warrants. Improvements that are planned as part of the project include a Salinas layover facility; platforms, parking and bus bays in Salinas, Pajaro/Watsonville and Castroville; and track improvements to the mainline track and at station areas.

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Photo Credits: Christina Watson, TAMC: Boarding Starlight in San Jose, Flowers and Field
Alan Miller, Caltrans: Steven McHarris in Soledad

The Transportation Agency for Monterey County (TAMC) is responsible for investing in regional transportation projects for Monterey County residents, businesses and visitors. The mission of TAMC is to develop and maintain a multimodal transportation system that enhances mobility, safety, access, environment quality and economic activities in Monterey County. For more information visit www.tamcmonterey.org or call 831.775.0903.

Commentary, Issues

Write the Governor: Re-allocating the Florida HSR Funds

We understand that the Federal Railroad Administration plans to re-allocate HSR funds that Florida has refused to accept.  California is among the states vying for a share of the $2.4 billion available.

In November of 2009, California was poised to apply for federal funds for improvement of its three intercity rail corridors as well as for the high-speed rail project.   As reported as the lead story in the LA Times on November 13, 2009,  “Schwarzenegger quietly quashed effort to improve commuter (and intercity) rails.”  The entire application of $1.1 billion by Caltrans Division of Rail for rail cars and track/signal improvements was never even applied for as per the Governor’s last-minute directive.

Unlike the high-speed rail project, almost all of the projects Caltrans was to apply for were and are shovel ready.   Again today, both Caltrans and the High Speed Rail Authority will apply for the available funds, with applications due April 4th.   The California state passenger rail corridors are themselves vital components of the High Speed Rail Program.  It is a mistake to direct all available resources to the High Speed Rail program alone.   The infusion of funds to the state corridors will provide immediate employment to construction workers as well as laying important building blocks upon which the state rail system will thrive whether true high speed rail is built or not.

RailPAC president Paul Dyson wrote a letter to LOSSAN Board and the Governor.  We urge you to write a similar letter to Governor Brown immediately.  Click here for contact information.

Commentary, Reports

HSR, Commuter Rail discussed at Steel Wheels in CA

Report by Dennis Lytton, RailPAC Director and NARP Council Representative

Saturday I attended the joint meeting of RailPAC and NARP at the Los Angeles Metro headquarters building at [Los Angeles] Union Station.

The day of presentations included updates from Metrolink’s CEO on future plans including express service to start in May and PTC implementation. Californians for High Speed Rail’sDaniel Krause talked about their vision for seeing HSR implemented in California and Friend for Expo Transit and the Sierra Club’s Darrel Clarke discussed lessons from grass roots organizing for light rail in Los Angeles.

NARP Chairman Bob Stewart updated the group on national efforts for passenger rail and HSR, affirming as one of the organization’s goal’s as seeing a true HSR system established in the US in the next several years. Gene Skoropowski gave an excellent presentation. Known to many of us as the managing director of the Capital Corridor, he is now a consultant at HNTB working on the LOSSAN [Los Angeles-San Diego] corridor. He gave a very good presentation on the success of the Capital Corridor working with Union Pacific, updates on trying to rationalize service on the Surfliner corridor and establishing commuter service to Santa Barbara.

Remarking on the Florida Governor’s rejection of federal HSR funding (despite the guarentees potential builders made for the project’s financing), Skoropowski said that Alstom and other contractors feel thoroughly burned by Florida, a state that was once on target to have America’s first true HSR

The High Speed Rail Authority’s Project Manager Hans Van Winkle gave a very good update on the project. A former Army Corps of Engineers Major General and senior manager at Parsons Brinckerhoff, he opened by grabbing the latest edition of the California Rail News, a harsh critic of the Authority and addressed their cover story attacking the current first segment through the Central Valley. He showed a very well developed skill dealing with stakeholders no doubt developed from his years of dealing with big projects managed by the Army and other large organizations.  He gave a general update of the project’s state and next steps forward to get to the Bay Area and the LA basin.

Most interesting, he expressed the staff’s current thinking that they may try to reach Los Angeles from Palmdale on the conventional railroad right-of-way to get service from LA to San Francisco on a quicker timeframe, without of course abandoning the goal of true HSR from LA to SF. I think that some of this is a reaction to the pushback from the gold plating and initial phasing being pushed in 2009 for the short LA to Anaheim segment. Full HSR build out for this 30 mile segment hardly seemed a good use of limited funds. The authority has seriously backed off LA to Anaheim for now, delaying decisions on it until 2012.

One possibility for a one seat ride would be a true HSR ROW from Merced to Palmdale, using the conventional row to the East Bay and Los Angeles while the Pacheco and SR-14 high speed ROWs are being built. This incremental approach would probably be more in line with the way most European HSR systems were (and are being) developed. The lack of mainline electrification and the ownership structure of the conventional railroad in this country compared to Europe is an obvious but not insurmountable difference.

I think that the Authority, given the year-to-year funding of HSR from Congress, is doing a good job of keeping all options open for the system. I think a one-seat ride from LA to SF, even with some conventional ROW running, would be a smashing success from day one. Given the strong financial interest expressed from private groups just the other day, there is room for optimism. Obama’s push for a five year plan for HSR is also another good sign despite the dysfunction shown by the House of Representatives’ current majority.

Rail Photos, Reports

Winter Trip Report: On the Texas Eagle-Sunset Limited


Photos and Comments by Russ Jackson

On January 26 we boarded Texas Eagle train #21 at Ft. Worth and set out for a ten day winter round trip vacation back in California. This report is divided into specific train items, rather than day-to-day train operating reports.

Amtrak. A trip report always considers the food service, facilities, and on board service. On this trip the food was quite good. The Diner-Lounge on the Texas Eagle has been improved by having the car open for meal service all the way to San Antonio rather than having the crew turn around at Austin, allowing dinner to be served at normal hours. That was the big improvement over our trip from last year. We did note, and the crew agreed, that the “lounge” area of that car is no longer used for its purpose, and is a waste of space since a Sightseer Lounge is always in the consist. Our first sleeping car was a rebuilt Superliner II, originally having the name “Vermont.” It was very comfortable in bedroom D. In West Texas, however, that car developed a “vacuum loss” which afflicts some sleepers but not all, and shuts down the toilet system in the higher elevations between Del Rio and El Paso. Amtrak management has tried to find the solution to that problem, but so far without luck.

Attendant Anthony (right) with passengers on a cold morning in Del Rio, Texas

On our return trip in a non-rebuilt Superliner II originally named “Pennsylvania,” no such problem arose, but there was clean water in the floor carpet in bedroom A which did not dry up until past San Antonio despite the work of our attendant and a mechanic. We were fortunate to have the same attendant, Anthony, on the Sunset Limited from San Antonio to Los Angeles and on the return trip, who was excellent. There’s just something about Los Angeles crews that stand out, and he is one.

Weather. We couldn’t have picked a better week weather-wise, as California was its usual beautiful self. However, on the return trip we began to encounter the freezing weather that had caused problems across the country while we were gone.

Conductors always mention the Pecos River high bridge crossing, but some say little else.

When train #2 reached Alpine, Texas, which is a crew change point, we noticed a pickup truck loaded with boxes waiting for the train. Crew members quickly loaded the boxes into the dining car. According to the crew, the train had been unable to replenish the water supply in the diner at either Tucson or El Paso as the hoses there had frozen during the night and the next location was San Antonio. They feared there would not be enough water to keep the diner going, so they had called ahead and the boxes were full of Subway Sandwiches to serve “in case.” Well, they were handed out free to all coach passengers along with a free drink and bag of chips, while sleeping car passengers were able to be served from the regular menu.

Alpine, Texas station

That reminded us of the times similar problems arose with the Coast Starlight years ago, and station agent Ken Miller had to order meals from the local Kentucky Fried Chicken store in San Luis Obispo. There isn’t a KFC in Alpine. On #2 the diner was TIGER fund re-built car 38068, and we met TIGER fund re-built P-40 locomotive 823 leading stopped #1 at the siding south of Alpine allowing dining car crews to exchange needed items.

Union Pacific. The UP treated Amtrak quite well on this trip, and the timekeeping was almost perfect. From westbound train #1 we observed almost every siding between Del Rio and El Paso to have a waiting freight train or stored cars in it as we went by. Train #2 was a slightly different story, as it is obvious that if Amtrak gets out of its slot even slightly the UP gives its freights preference, so we were “in the hole” several times in the same area. The biggest delay came on #21 at Taylor, Texas, the point where the train leaves the BNSF for the UP tracks. We were on time when we arrived at the junction, but the UP held us there until a slow moving northbound double-stack lumbered across in front of us. That junction point is within sight of the Taylor Amtrak station, so a conductor walked over and talked to the passengers who were waiting there until the UP released us, one hour and 14 minutes later. Very frustrating.

Daytime view of the Tucson Amtrak station, still "served" only tri-weekly.

By the time we reached the busy Tucson station the next night we were quite early and the train had to sit on the main line for an hour and a half; on the return trip we arrived there over an hour late. We were on time or early at each endpoint.

San Antonio. A look at the timetable shows Amtrak still treats Texas Eagle passengers going to/from Los Angeles to an overnight stay in their car, and while that 8 hours in a “stationary” train in each direction usually guarantees an on time situation, it is really unnecessary and is expected to be changed when or if the Sunset Limited goes daily. What isn’t a treat, however, is Amtrak’s movement of the cars during the night to align them for departure the next morning. On the return trip the usual bang-slam was accomplished, including two shudder-bang-slams, then supplemented by a 5-mile trip to a wye as the UP had decided the Texas Eagle should depart San Antonio by going around the town on the west side, rather than go straight out and up the east side as we had been aligned. Sleep is hard to come by there. RailPAC contributor, Ralph James, remembers when the west side movement was done every day and the “750 foot Tower of the Americas down by the Riverwalk stayed in view for a full 45 minutes as we stopped and started through manual switches and interlockings making the circuitous loop around town to finally access the ex-MoPac line.” Thankfully those hand-thrown switches have been replaced by automatic switching on both sides of the route.

Fellow Passengers.

Writer Russ Jackson with Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp statues at the Tucson Amtrak station.

Traveling on the long distance national network trains always means meeting interesting people, particularly in the dining car. For us the highlight was the dinner meal on #2 out of Palm Springs. We were seated across from Jeff Morey from Escondido, a researcher specializing in the life and times of Wyatt Earp and the infamous “Battle of the OK Corral” in Tombstone, Arizona back in 1881. Jeff was the historic advisor on the 1993 Kurt Russell movie, “Tombstone,” and for the BBC’s OK Corral TV show in which he appears on camera explaining what was going on while actors portray the events. Jeff was kind enough to give us a copy of that outstanding program, which has added much to our understanding of what went on in those wild days. Appropriately enough, Mr. Morey was enroute to Tucson. The Tucson train station is the place where Wyatt Earp found one of the murderers of his brother Morgan, Frank Stillwell, and enacted severe revenge. Statues of Earp and his companion Doc Holiday along with information about the Stillwell event are displayed in the garden area of the Tucson station today. There were many other passengers on the Sunset Limited bound for Tucson to attend the “world’s largest gem and mineral show” that was on-going throughout the city. They told us when they returned home they would be carrying large sacks of rocks. Now that’s a real rock show.

Tracking Rail News

Tracking Rail News: March 2011 (Grand finale)

Photos and Comments by Russ Jackson

. . . Rail fans all over the country were chasing newly re-painted Amtrak P-42 locomotive 145 in February as it toured the country leading various Amtrak long distance trains. The new paint job is in Amtrak’s “heritage” colors to commemorate Amtrak’s 40 year anniversary coming up May 1. #145 visited Los Angeles Union Station on the weekend of February 20-21 in front of the Sunset Limited. Four other locomotives will be repainted in heritage colors and dispatched by Train Day.

. . . Winter. What else can we say? The past month was more weather-related problems for the Amtrak western long distance trains, and at the halfway point through the month the endpoint on time performance of the California Zephyr was at 33%, the Empire Builder was at 25%, Southwest Chief was 54%, and even the Sunset Limited was down to 50%. The Coast Starlight was hanging tough at 81%. The effect on Amtrak’s locomotive fleet’s reliability was substantial; on one day in February 46 P-42’s were out of service for use on Intercity trains. On the same date 8 California locomotives were out of service. The Pacific Northwest was hit hard, with the Empire Builder getting stuck between the switches of Glacier Park siding due to a BNSF derailment which delayed #8 upwards of ten hours while repairs were transported to the site over 70 miles away from Shelby, Montana. High winds, some up to 90 MPH were found in the area that day. Five miles north of Vancouver, Washington, a mud slide dumped debris and water on the tracks on February 12, causing cancellation of all the Cascades for two days and the Coast Starlight to terminate-originate in Portland, Oregon.

. . . The SMART train.

Historic Santa Rosa NWP station and platform.

For over ten years we have been following the ups and downs of the Sonoma-Marin commuter train project which finally received voter approval for its funding two years ago. Now, of course, the economy has hit that area the same as elsewhere in California and the project has had to retrench in its plans. It is now limited to Santa Rosa to San Rafael. Missing is the much desired 31-mile extension through the growing population areas of Windsor and Healdsburg to Cloverdale in the north, and the vital 3-mile link taking the trains to the ferry connection in Larkspur. Without those extensions the revenue base for the railroad shrinks considerably. RailPAC member John Blaubach, Santa Barbara, traveled to Santa Rosa in January and viewed the downtown Railroad Square station location. The classic NWP station building “was fully restored in the 1990’s and houses the local historical society. I had about fifteen minutes to walk through and read the exhibits, and asked whether the building will again serve as the depot for the SMART trains. No, they will build a new platform with canopies and shelters on the other side of the existing two tracks. SMART already owns that vacant lot. The old limit line from the 1960’s is still plainly visible in front of the station! Newly reconstructed grade crossings in Petaluma and in Santa Rosa are visible.” Meanwhile, SMART is preparing to advertise construction and management contracts for the revenue service which is planned for late 2014. In December they awarded a $57 million contract to Nippon Sharyo and Sumitomo to supply the 18 diesel multiple unit railcars (dmu) which will arrive starting in mid-2013.

. . . Eating at Los Angeles Union Station.

Ken Ruben at the new Subway Sandwich shop in LAUS

Earlier in February we wrote a trip report of our winter vacation trip on the Sunset Limited, and posted a photo report showing all the new eating places that have popped up in the past few months in LAUS on www.railpac.org. Our trip report appears elsewhere in this publication and will be on the website in March with photos. After posting the Los Angeles photos we received a note from RailPAC Associate Director Ken Ruben, who was at the opening of the new Subway Sandwich Shop at LAUS, and was its first customer. Ken signed his dollar bill to commemorate the event for the Subway people. Ken says he was also the second customer at the Famima store. He was at Wetzel’s Pretzels the night before they formally opened and wound up with a free pretzel!

. . . Around the West. . . . Tucson, Arizona’s modern streetcar project received its final authorization and can now spend the $63 million in TIGER grant money, which is in the bank. The 3.9 mile streetcar project is already under construction, and will connect the University of Arizona campus with downtown Tucson and other activity centers. Tucson is only the second U.S. city to order streetcar vehicles from the Clackamas, Oregon,-based United Streetcar, LLC. The order is for seven cars with delivery to be completed by 2013. Portland, Oregon, is the other buyer. . . . In Michigan, fourth quarter 2010 ridership is up 7.8% and revenue is up 14.1% on Amtrak’s Pere Marquette line from Grand Rapids to Chicago. A new $4.6 million GRR station has been funded, which in a state having severe economic problems that shows faith in passenger rail. Other Michigan trains increased in the same period. . . . The Austin, Texas Metro Red Line commuter train expanded it schedule in January with more rush-hour trips and a new station, which resulted in a 40% increase in ridership, although the service is still quite a bit lower than the 2008 startup projections.

Amtrak mobile command post at the Ft. Worth station.

. . . As for Super Bowl Sunday, when we arrived back at the Ft. Worth Intermodal station from our California trip, and #22 was on time, we found a very busy scene complete with the Amtrak Police “Command” motor home and police directing traffic to and from the Arlington “Jerryworld” site of the game. The Ft. Worth-Dallas TRE trains carried 3,200 passengers that day, rode buses 6 miles from the TRE Centerport station to the game. There were many private rail cars in the BNSF yard. . . . So Amtrak plans to order 40 Acela Express coach cars in its FY 2012 budget. Not that they will get that funding, but as RailPAC Director Jarrod Dellachiesa said, “East Coast wins again. When do we get our new Superliners?” Amtrak has a new way to get information and “share the unique experience of Amtrak train travel” with the start of the Amtrak YouTube Channel, to go along with its other “social media” initiatives Facebook and Twitter.

. . . Oh, yes, rarely does this writer take exception to anything printed in Trains magazine, but in their list of the ten “greatest” rail stations in the country, LAUS is “not the greatest” because “In the end, true greatness calls for classic Corinthian columns, not Mission Revival.” Oh, come now. LAUS is what it is because of where it is, and how many Corinthian columns can you find anywhere in California? More Eastern bias? Hummmph.

. . . Last but not least. This is the final edition of “Tracking Rail News” to appear in this publication. It’s been a long ride, over 24 years since this writer started regular contributions to the Review. My first issue as Editor of the Review was April, 1991, with Noel Braymer’s great photo of Los Angeles Union Station (above) on the cover. However, the RailPAC Board is exploring alternative means of communicating with the membership now, so this column will stand aside in order for the solutions to not be influenced by “what do we do with it?” Future stories will continue to be written and submitted to the Editor, however, so this writer will not totally disappear. In those 20 years, what is the biggest advancement in passenger rail? Just look at what is out there compared to back then! The biggest disappointment? That the Sunset Limited is still not a daily train. While it looked two years ago that it was a done deal, Amtrak’s slow moving, the collapse of the economy, and the Union Pacific’s intrancegence have left the project in such limbo it is unlikely to happen in the near future; in fact, despite the House rejecting the plan to cut Amtrak by $446.9 million by a vote of 250-176 on February 17, if the Congress gives any cuts to Amtrak that are talked about and Amtrak reacts in its usual manner those cuts will come not just from capital projects, not from administration, but from passenger service in the national long distance network rather than the Northeast Corridor. The Sunset Limited could be a total casualty of that. In the words of the Speaker of the House, “So be it.”? – RJ

Commentary

Our “Louisiana Purchase”?

Commentary by Paul Dyson, President

Not quite, but a big step forward.

I am of course writing about the acquisition of Los Angeles Union Station by Los Angeles County MTA, with the participation of the California High Speed Rail Authority. While there are still some details to be worked out and contracts finalized it seems safe to say that public announcements would not have been made without this deal being a near certainty. Assuming the transaction goes through this is very good news indeed for passenger rail in southern California.

Over the years it has been hard to imagine just how local transportation planning agencies coped with the fact that the hub of the passenger rail system was owned by a property development company. It’s hard too to imagine oneself in the shoes of the property company wondering what the heck to do with a railroad station in their portfolio. So clearly this is a transaction whose time has long since come and is an obvious and logical outcome.

What will happen to the station under public ownership? First I hope that the ticket hall and the Fred Harvey restaurant will once again become public spaces to enhance the experience of using this great building. I don’t know if it makes sense to use the ticket hall for selling tickets. Nowadays, with electronic ticketing, and with the majority of users of the station no longer passing through the front entrance, that may not be the best use of that area. Why don’t you readers send us suggestions as to how you would like the ticket hall to be used?

This announcement has come just in time to be celebrated at Steel Wheels in California, on March 19th at the Metro Board Room alongside the station. This is our fourth meeting at this location and your Board has worked hard to put together a great panel of expert speakers, an equipment display, and I promise, more time for member participation. While we can celebrate the Union Station purchase this will be tempered by the knowledge that our gains in passenger rail service of the last three decades are in jeopardy from budget cuts, this in spite of record revenues and growing demand. IF you care about these issues, as I know you do, please make every effort to attend and show your support for passenger rail. And if you cannot make it, send us a tax deductible donation in lieu, so that we can gear up for a tough year of campaigning ahead of us.

See you there!