Monthly Archives

November 2011


eNewsletter for November 21, 2011

This is the way progress has always been made in California for rail service, one grant at a time. A million here and a million there and soon you are talking real money. Local projects and High Speed Rail will continue to be built one step at a time. When you try to build rail service in one giant leap you get shot down by critics crying about the cost and saying no one will ride it. When people are have decent rail service they will demand more. NB

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Rail Photos, Reports

Congratulations Union Pacific: Steam arrives in Indio, Thursday November 17, 2011

Report and photos by Robert Manning, RailPAC Executive VP

The temporary Transportation Center in the heart of downtown Indio, witnessed more people then anyone could have imagined on this special day. Two temporary modular buildings now house the Greyhound bus station and the future passenger train facility which will be built.

UP 844 arriving at site of Indio Transportation facility

UP 1996 in historic SP colors was on the train

Today the Union Pacific Railroad’s steam locomotive No. 844 made a service stop at that Indio Station which lasted a little less then 15 minutes, on its way to the San Bernardino area. This beautiful train had 17 cars, probably from the 1950’s and included two dome observation cars.

It was a crowd pleaser! I thought maybe 60 to 70 people would be there to watch the train come in, was I ever wrong. More then 500 people were on hand to witness this great event. The parking lot and surrounding dirt lots were jammed packed with cars.

Part of the huge crowd that greeted 844

The long string of "armor yellow" cars

In walking around the crowd, which consisted of many young families and obvious retiree’s, I heard many comments. One little boy about 10 asked his mother “why can’t we take this train to Grandmas for Thanksgiving?”

There were several comments from others like “why don’t we have a train everyday to LA”. One dad with two little girls stated to his wife “let’s look into taking the train to Chicago right after Christmas!”

Thanks to the Union Pacific for running this spectacular train and encouraging passenger train travel.


eNewsletter for November 14, 2011

 Lately there has been a great deal of hysteria about the possible 98 billion dollar price tag for California High Speed Rail adjusted for inflation for an 800 mile system. Below the radar  are plans by Amtrak to build a new 200 mph plus High Speed Rail line on the 457 miles between Boston and Washington for around 120 Billion dollars. There is little talk about the states of the NEC paying for this project and it looks as though the plan is for this to be fully funded by the Feds. Last week House Transportation Chair  John Mica gave up on his ill conceived plan to get private financing and operation for HSR on the NEC and he said he supports transferring money to the NEC from HSR funding allocated for California which he expects will be returned by the State to the Feds. NB

Click on this link to see entire enewsletter for November 14, 2011

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Capitol Corridor November 16 meeting report: changes are coming

Report by Mike Barnbaum, RailPAC Associate Director

The Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Board of Directors met for the final time in 2011 on November 16 in the City Council Chambers at the City of Suisun City. Chair Bob Franklin (San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District) opened the meeting with his “Report of the Chair” that included news of all-time records being set for the Capitol Corridor in three key categories of Ridership, Revenue, and On-Time-Performance. Chair Franklin also mentioned that there will also be $42 Million coming in in Proposition 1B Funds that will include 42 rail cars and 6 Locomotives for Amtrak California, of which the Capitol Corridor will get 10 cars and two locomotives. Chair Franklin went on to highlight Section 209 in regards to Amtrak Operations Pricing Policy and that December 11th is the 20th Anniversary for the Capitol Corridor.

Managing Director David Kutrosky gave the highlights and the low lights of legislative matters. It was mentioned on the Federal side that prohibitive language (with a sigh of relief) was removed from a Congressional Conference Report that would have been a blow to State Supported Corridor Rail Services. Unfortunately High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) Capital Grants Program is allocated at zero dollars. It was also mentioned that in FY ’13-’14 Operations Costs will increase mainly because the Pacific Surfliner will no longer receive Amtrak Funding, but will be operationally covered 100% by the State of California. Also in the State of California, Governor Brown will release his FY ’12-’13 Draft State Budget. A report by the Managing Director will be made shortly after release of this critical draft document. CCJPA is also monitoring at the State Level, legislation by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg that would allow for a Regional Fee Proposal to help increase the Gas Tax. More will follow when the next steps on this are taken.

At the local level, Capitol Corridor will be receiving approximately $40 Million in Alameda County Measure B Funds which will be utilized to expand to more frequencies to/from San Jose. Additionally, much was mentioned about the California Transportation Commisssion and the Donner Interchange Project that involves CCJPA Partnerships with the Union Pacific Railroad and the Placer County Transportation Planning Agency. Everyone was told to stay tuned to the Donner Interchange Project as things develop hopefully in going from a Tier Two Project to a Tier One Project. Staff will more than likely will brief the Sacramento Valley Sierra Foothills Riders on the latest developments of the Donner Interchange Project prior to the February Board Meeting when the Annual On-Board Workshops are held on Train Number 536, on a January date to be announced.

In approving the CCJPA Board Calendar for Calendar Year 2012, three things to take note of. In February, when the Board meets in Suisun City on the 15th, it was Highlighted in the Issue Paper Report that this will be the meeting in which will include the Business Plan Adoption and the meeting in which a Vision Plan Workshop will be conducted. The June Meeting, which will take place on the 20th whill be held in Oakland at the BART Boardroom inside the Henry J. Kaiser Center. The November Meeting, which will be held in Suisun City will take place on the 14th of November rather than the 21st so that Staff, Directors, and Public are not meeting on the Day Before Thanksgiving 2012, which falls on the 21st, followed by an Early Thanksgiving Day 2012 on the 22nd. Other than the November Meeting, which will fall on the second Wednesday, the remainder of Meetings will fall on the third Wednesday in the months of February, April, June, and September.

Staff also provided a power point presentation on Positive Train Control which will be legally mandated by December 31, 2015. The first area of the United States that will receive PTC is the Los Angeles area followed by both Northern California and the Chicago, Illinois area. It was shown in the Power Point Presentation that Union Pacific RailRoad expects to complete Capitol Corridor Route Positive Train Control by 2013.

The Marketing and Communications Team, lead by Assistant General Manager for Marketing & Communications, Priscilla Kalugdan went over the Marketing and Promotions campaign wrap-up of FY ’11 and discussed what’s next for FY ’12. Much of the focus will be attracting ridership at the Santa Clara/Downtown University Station once it opens sometime in early 2012. This new station for the Capitol Corridor Route will also include CalTrain, Altamont Commuter Express (ACE), and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority. The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (SCVTA) operates Route 10, a free shuttle service for riders linking the Santa Clara Station with the San Jose/Norman Y. Mineta International Airport. This writer and the folks in the Meeting Room were assured that Amtrak riders using the California Coastal Bus from Santa Barbara to San Jose will be allowed to use the Capitol Corridor Trains for a one station ride to the new Santa Clara Station, once it opens, to get to the SJC Airport and that a receiving only policy as well as a discharge only policy will never go into effect at the new Santa Clara/Downtown University Station. The Marketing and Communications team made mention that the opening of this new station will be the primary focus of the upcoming Marketing Campaign. There was mention that the rest of the Capitol Corridor Route will not go unnoticed, but that since Santa Clara/Downtown University will be so new in early 2012, the concentration of the marketing efforts will be in this section of the Capitol Corridor Route.

The meeting ended with intriguing public comment coming from Alan Miller of the CalTrans Division of Rail. Alan discussed the upcoming January 9th changes on the Pacific Surfliner and highlighted changes for Capitol Corridor Riders heading all the way down to San Diego as one example of a major undertaking on the Pacific Surfliner. Alan mentiond the current train-to-train transfer that must currently occur when a rider departs San Luis Obispo at 2:00 P.M. Come January 9th of 2012 Alan mentioned that the rider will no longer need to make such a transfer in Los Angeles as the 2:00 P.M. train departing San Luis Obispo will be a “through” train all the way to San Diego. Other changes that will take place will include streamlining the schedule so that many of the Friday through Sunday Trains will be re-tweaked so that the Pacific Surfliner Corridor will be schedule consistent throughout the week. This “new” timetable, which will also include California Coastal Connections in the “Dress Shirt TimeTable” will debut on Monday the 9th of January, which falls in 2012 as the Monday between “New Year’s Day Observed” and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

As far the exact date of the Capitol Corridor Schedule Change, which will include scheduled times at the new Santa Clara/Downtown University Station, CCJPA Staff mentioned that an exact date is not ready yet as scheduling issues and construction issues are now being finalized with CalTrain and the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE). Once these are resolved a date will be announced in the near future.

The next meeting of the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority Board of Directors will take place inside the City Council Chambers of the City of Suisun City on the Wednesday before President’s Day 2012. The Wednesday date and time will be February 15th at 10:00 A.M. The Meeting Forecast calls for adoption of the Business Plan and the holding of the Vision Plan Workshop.

–Respectfully Submitted by Mike Barnbaum on Wednesday 16 November at 11pm EST


September 2011 Amtrak California Trip Report, Part I

Traveling The Web Of California Bus/Rail Connections
Report and Comments by Ralph James

I. Trip Overview

A fairly unusual circumstance set up the opportunity for a round trip on Amtrak California beginning and ending at the “away” terminal of Grover Beach and turning at the “home” terminals of Auburn and Colfax. Due to the limited schedule options available for thru travel on and off both the San Joaquin and Capitol trunk lines and the desire to travel once on each, the San Joaquin was chosen over the essentially equal Capitol alternative northbound and the Capitol was chosen over the decidedly less suitable San Joaquin options southbound.

Comment: Another example of the value of intermediate stations vs. just the major city end points. Using Colfax, Auburn, and Grover Beach instead of Sacramento and San Luis Obispo greatly shortened the pick-up/drop-off mileage at both ends and made leaving a vehicle at the home terminal much easier.

Grover Beach to Auburn (San Joaquin)

My wife and I enjoyed breakfast at the Station Diner adjacent to the Grover Beach Amtrak station. The diner was open in plenty of time to make the 7:30AM bus departure for Hanford and all buses and trains load just a few steps from the building, serving Pacific Surfliner, Capitol and San Joaquin schedules. The morning Surfliner 774 to Los Angeles and San Diego stopped on time at 7:05AM while we were eating.

My bus was out on time and we picked up additional passengers up to Paso Robles for a total of about 16 on board to Hanford, where we arrived several minutes early despite delays for road construction enroute. There was no business at Atascadero, Kettleman City or Lemoore.

Train 713 was approximately five minutes late departing Hanford, and maintained that status all the way to Stockton. The train was moderately populated and had regular turnover at all intermediate stops. Two buses met the train at Stockton—one express to Sacramento and the other making intermediate stops at Lodi and Elk Grove. After a fairly long 45 minute layover and change of buses in Sacramento, I caught the “Auburn Express” bus to Auburn (not noted in the public timetable, but used to position the 5:10PM departure from Auburn back to Sacramento) where I picked up the car for the final leg home. It was pleasant to note that the Stockton shuttle buses, formerly best described as rattletraps, are now up to standard with modern equipment.

Colfax to Grover Beach (Capitol Corridor)

For the return trip about a week later I arranged to be dropped off at the Colfax station to catch the 10:05AM bus from Reno to Sacramento. The bus arrived early as usual for a 15 minute rest stop before boarding for Sacramento. At the Auburn stop, the driver held back a minute or two as the RB/B&B circus train made its way up the mountain through the station on its way east to the next engagement. It was obviously an interesting and unusual sight for many of those on board the bus.

Arrival at Sacramento was early and there was about a half hour wait to board train 537 to San Jose. Construction for the new platform area and relocated UP trackage was evident with a “bridge to nowhere” overpass with no approaches standing over the future track location and an underground pedestrian tunnel making its way from the new platform area back toward the existing station.

We were out on time but lost about six minutes immediately due to a door alarm that would not clear. After two impromptu stops the problem was resolved and there were no more issues. It was refreshing to overhear a radio conversation near the Suisun stop with the UP dispatcher wanting to know why we were running so late (six minutes!). There was minimal delay meeting an on-time train 530 and weaving around a westbound auto-rack train approaching Martinez. Departure from Oakland was almost on time and arrival at San Jose was early. Major track and platform construction was evident where we joined the Caltrain line at College Park and at the San Jose station. Ridership was light to moderate at all points.

The Santa Barbara bus was waiting a short distance from the station and, after a nominal wait, we departed on time with about 20 on board. At the King City meal stop we had five minutes to dart inside the McDonald’s restaurant, order, use the restroom and get back on board. It sounds worse than it was, and everyone who participated in this exercise was back on board to eat their dinner in motion.

At San Luis Obispo, all passengers continuing south are required to change buses, which consumed a bit more than the allotted time so we were about five minutes late at Grover Beach for the end of the trip.

Summary Comments

The travel described occurred on a Thursday and Monday and was as punctual as one could want. Most intermediate points ran about five minutes behind schedule, but most end points were early. Bus patronage was about 50% of capacity (except for only a half dozen or so on the Auburn express), which allowed people to spread out comfortably while still representing a decent load factor. The San Joaquin was fairly crowded at times, the Capitol less so with plenty of seats available. Food from the lounge cars was adequate.

The only problem with either of these trips is that they were mostly bus rides and transfers. Using Auburn and Grover Beach as the end points, the San Joaquin consisted of one three-hour bus ride, one three-hour train ride, one one-hour bus ride and another one-hour bus ride. The Capitol consisted of one one-hour bus ride, one three-hour train ride and one four-hour bus ride. Counting the non-timetabled bus to bus transfer in San Luis Obispo, each trip required eight hours of actual travel, three transfers and an elapsed time of nine to nine and a half hours from point to point. Driving time is approximately seven hours. In short, I am glad it is available, it works in an emergency and for the dedicated rail traveler, but it is never going to attract a meaningful share of the available market with all the transfers, connecting time, long bus rides and hassles with luggage that are required.

NOTE: Part II of this report is further commentary about the difficulties of making this trip that are built into the current timetables and makes recommendations for improvements. Mr. James lives near Blue Canyon in the Sierra, and is a long time RailPAC member.


September 2011 Amtrak California Trip Report, Part II

Traveling The Web Of California Bus/Rail Connections
Report and Comments by Ralph James

II. Perspective from the Foothills

Given the difficulties of using Amtrak and Amtrak California between the foothills east of Sacramento and the Central Coast illustrated in the preceding trip report (Part I), what would acceptable service look like and how might it be incrementally developed? Equally important, how might acceptable service from the Sierra foothills to Fresno and Bakersfield be integrated into the matrix? Existing northbound and southbound options are not identical, but are similar enough that this commentary will examine only the weekday (M-F) southbound travel direction.

Living an hour and a half east of Sacramento on the I-80 corridor, Colfax would be our station of choice and Auburn (half way to Sacramento) would be a reasonable second choice. Driving all the way to Sacramento is highly undesirable due to distance, traffic and cost of parking, and would eliminate the usefulness of using rail for most trips shorter than to the Bay Area or beyond Fresno. A convenient level of service would consist generally of the following elements as a wish list:

1. Early morning train all the way to San Jose with direct bus to Central Coast
2. Connecting service to Coast Starlight
3. One or two mid-day connections, two transfers maximum
4. Late day overnight no-transfer train to coast and LA

Here are the 2011 travel options segment by segment:

Colfax-Sacramento: 3 buses
Auburn-Sacramento: 4 buses + 1 Capitol train
Sacramento-Oakland: 16 Capitol trains
Oakland-San Jose: 7 Capitol trains
Oakland/San Jose-Central Coast: 5 buses
Sacramento-Bakersfield: 4 buses to Stockton + 2 San Joaquin trains
Hanford-Central Coast: 2 buses

In addition to the Amtrak California services noted above, the California Zephyr serves Colfax (not Auburn) to Oakland (Emeryville) and the Coast Starlight serves Sacramento to the Central Coast. Sounds impressive until the segments that do not connect in a reasonable manner start to be eliminated. (Is this the “unmatrix” theory?)

For Central Coast travel the Amtrak long distance trains can be immediately eliminated because they mis-connect by about 16 hours and would require an overnight stay enroute. The California Zephyr mis-connects to the afternoon coastal bus by three hours at Oakland or requires a five hour layover for the all-night red-eye bus south.

The only train out of Auburn leaves at 6:35AM and mis-connects to the Starlight by an hour in Sacramento. It mis-connects by 40 minutes to the thru train to San Jose, which then requires an hour and a quarter layover for coastal connections. It would be timed perfectly to make the 11:25AM bus connection to the coast at San Jose, but that train terminates at Oakland so misses that opportunity completely. It does make a 20 minute connection to the Stockton bus to San Joaquin 712, which connects at Hanford to the morning coastal bus to Grover Beach. That routing still requires three transfers, but is a very reliable connection that I have personally used from time to time. It is not shown in the computer, it cannot be booked through Guest Rewards without a long discussion and two redemptions, and reservations agents do not recognize it for booking. As a result, nobody from the general public will ever find out about or use this very useful early morning routing to the Valley or coastal points.

The morning bus leaves Auburn at 10:35AM and makes direct connections with Capitol 537 at Sacramento. 537 makes direct connections to the coastal bus in San Jose. This is the ONLY option shown in the Amtrak computer for public booking and it happened to be the best fit for my travel needs for the trip just reported.

The early afternoon bus leaves Auburn at 2:00PM and makes direct connections with Capitol 543 to San Jose. Unfortunately there is no coastal connection available. If one is willing to make an hour and a half layover in Sacramento, there is a connection to San Joaquin train 704, which connects to the evening coastal bus at Hanford for a midnight arrival in Grover Beach. This option has one less bus segment and transfer, but since it is not shown in the Amtrak computer as a recognized routing the chance that a member of the general public will ever find or book it is near zero. This exact connection from Auburn to Fresno and other San Joaquin destinations is shown as a recognized routing, however, so it is just the connection to coastal points that is missing from the Amtrak computer.

The late afternoon bus leaves Auburn at 5:10PM. This schedule mis-connects to San Joaquin 704 and the last coastal connection by an hour and a half. Connecting train 549 only goes as far as Oakland, and requires an hour and a half layover at either Sacramento or Oakland to connect to the overnight coastal bus which takes six and a half hours to reach Grover Beach at 4:30AM. Although this combination is theoretically possible, the circumstances to book it would have to be extreme and I don’t blame Amtrak for not showing it as a viable option in the computer.

The last bus of the day leaves Auburn at 7:35PM and connects with Capitol 553 in Sacramento, which mis-connects with the overnight coastal bus by an hour at Oakland. The only option here is a six hour midnight layover for a five and a half hour bus ride to Grover Beach the next morning. This option can also be realistically eliminated for thru travel.

So, out of five Auburn departures, sixteen Capitol Corridor trains, five coastal connections and two long distance trains that could potentially serve Auburn and Grover Beach there is only one thru connection that is carded for sale. Two others via the San Joaquin routing can be constructed by those who are timetable-savvy and are willing to bypass computers and reservations agents who will insist that it is not possible. One of these alternatives is a close but very reliable connection in Sacramento and the other adds an extra hour and a half layover enroute. Every alternative involves more bus travel than train travel (some substantially more) and all require multiple transfers and waiting time for connections. Thru service on the otherwise exemplary Capitol Corridor presents itself as complex and quite unattractive to most potential travelers.

Some Short and Long Term Improvement Possibilities

The problems with thru travel over the Capitol Corridor are obviously not due to lack of frequency, but rather lack of connectivity, multiple transfers, long cumulative transfer times and long bus rides relative to train travel. Lack of appropriate marketing of available service options also keeps customers away.

Marketing should be addressed immediately as a zero cost improvement that takes advantage of every reasonable travel option that is already available, several of which are not listed in the Amtrak computer. Specific examples include:

1. Auburn early morning train 529 connecting to San Joaquin 712 bus in Sacramento for all Valley and Coastal destinations.
2. Auburn early afternoon bus connecting to Coastal destinations via San Joaquin 704 at Sacramento (currently only Valley destinations are listed)
3. Re-evaluate and adjust interline fare structure with San Joaquin route to align incentives with reality.
4. Yield management should place a premium on filling always-empty seats out of Auburn rather than penalize travelers who endure more than a two hour layover at Martinez by using train 529 to San Joaquin 714 instead of the later bus ($55 to Fresno vs. $31 for the much shorter bus trip)
5. Allow optional routing to San Joaquin via rail-to-rail transfer at Martinez or rail-to-bus-to-rail double transfer at Sacramento and Stockton at uniform lower thru fare (train 529 to San Joaquin 714 bus until connection to 712 bus is recognized).

Short to medium term improvements should be undertaken by making a serious effort to coordinate schedules between the Capitol, San Joaquin and Surfliner corridors. In effect, the entire distance from Reno to Sacramento to San Jose to Santa Barbara to Los Angeles to San Diego is a single travel corridor with a lightly-populated center section. With one exception, the specifics are much too complex to address here, but with many mis-connects being only about an hour there are certainly a number of other possibilities to explore.

1. Extend train 529 to San Jose instead of train 527. The difference is only 40 minutes, but this change would open the entire Capitol route to morning service from Auburn in addition to providing a four hour earlier coastal connection and currently the only possible thru service to the Central Coast requiring only a single transfer.
2. Medium to long term improvements should consider the following as a starting point: Add earlier morning departure from Auburn to connect with both the Coast Starlight and San Joaquin 702. Such a schedule in isolation would be problematic at present, but if implemented as an overnight departure from Reno could open reasonable markets not now served. It would also be possible to use thru equipment to/from San Joaquin 702 and 703 to open single-seat travel from Reno and the foothills to Bakersfield in addition to the Starlight connections both ways. This is a potentially large market that is not reasonably served at all by today’s schedules.
3. Extend the California Zephyr to Los Angeles overnight. This extension has long been on the RailPac wish list and would provide a single-seat ride from the foothills to the Central Coast, although at awkward early-morning hours for points short of Santa Barbara.
4. Craft additional planned Auburn service with thru connections in mind to both Valley and Coastal destinations, not just the Sacramento commuter market.
5. Once convenient travel options are implemented, market to the foothills to fill empty seats at the fringe and generate higher passenger-mile trips.

This Foothills Perspective is presented to highlight the difficulty that exists when attempting travel that starts or ends outside of the corridor core, despite copious service in the mid-section, and to suggest both simple and complex options to improve thru travel. The longer-term improvements suggested are, of course, highly speculative given today’s funding conditions and access issues to Union Pacific tracks.


eNewsletter for November 7, 2011

 I have it on good authority that Boardman, in discussions with his top aides, defines Amtrak’s priorities toward train service as Northeast Corridor first, state-supported short-distance trains second, and long-distance trains a distant third. Were I in his shoes, I’d do the same thing. There was also a defining moment in a Senate hearing this year, when asked by Susan Collins, R-Maine, why Amtrak’s deficit for 2011 was rising despite increased ridership, that Boardman blurted in response, “It’s the long-distance trains!”… Is Amtrak considering another round of cut backs on Long Distance Trains in the face of  Congress likely turning down their full subsidy request? Every time Amtrak has cut Long Distance Trains they end up with a deeper deficit.

November 7, 2011

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Amtrak long-distance trains: the kinda good, the pretty bad, the really ugly

Commentary by Russ Jackson

We passenger rail advocates prefer traveling cross-country on one or more of Amtrak’s long-distance trains whenever possible. We do it because we love it. We do it because we want them to be a part of the continuing heritage of this great country. We do it because we want that transportation alternative. We expect Amtrak to preserve that picture for us, and for the generations that follow us. What kind of job are they doing to help us in that regard?

The kinda good…
Well, for one thing, until this summer Amtrak had done an above average job of on time performance for the western long-distance trains. Thanks to the weather in various parts of the country that fell apart, with the California Zephyr taking the biggest hit, down to 25% in August compared to 66% OT a year ago. Miraculously passengers kept on coming to ride it and the other similarly affected trains, although the ridership was somewhat lower. The crews, the food, the ambiance of these trains, the customer’s enjoyment of their trips, and their willingness to shell out big bucks to ride yielded a new system record of over 30 million riders in FY 2010. For many small communities the long distance trains were their only “ticket out” and are a lifeline of transportation for taxpayers there and wherever Amtrak has a presence.

Amtrak's Sunset Limited arrives in Maricopa, Arizona

Financially, Amtrak has had good luck squeezing money out of Uncle Sam to keep the system going. Congressional support for Amtrak has been steady, going back even to the Reagan era when his budget every year was “zero” for Amtrak. State Governors and other officials do not want “their” trains cut, and to do so Amtrak would face opposition to their Northeast Corridor. But, can that support be counted on in this era of budget cutting at all levels of government? Can Amtrak claim it deserves more money than other necessary items? No, they will have to take their fair (or maybe unfair) share of the country’s burden. The legitimate question is what will they do with what they get? Amtrak will continue to exist, but with a company that begs for federal funds while it earns almost 70% of its income from ticket sales, amounting to $1.9 billion last year, is the correct answer to hack away only at the long-distance trains? What about the corporate structure, now at 17 Vice Presidents?

The pretty bad…
For over twenty years this writer has agonized in print about the various recurring traumas that Amtrak seems to have every year. While that is good fodder for a journalist, it is getting very tiring having to continuously write about the problems Amtrak seems to acquire, many of which are self-inflicted wounds due to their lack of foresight, non-aggressive pursuit of non-governmental income, and a no-growth attitude outside the Northeast Corridor unless paid for by the states. On October 29 Trains Magazine writer Fred Frailey wrote on his blog, “When push comes to shove, what Amtrak will axe.” If ever there was a wakeup call for long-distance train advocates, that article is it, because according to Frailey, Amtrak and its President, Joe Boardman, have established its three priorities as: the Northeast Corridor #1, the state-supported trains #2, and the long-distance trains a distant #3. What Frailey calls the “defining moment” was in a Senate hearing this year, “when asked by Susan Collins, R-Maine, why Amtrak’s deficit for 2011 was rising despite increased ridership, that Boardman blurted in response, “It’s the long-distance trains.”

Which trains are in the most jeopardy? You can probably guess correctly that the “tri-weakly” Sunset Limited and Cardinal top the list, followed by Silver Star, Crescent, and the Southwest Chief. We have known for too many years, and Amtrak finally acknowledged to the RailPAC meeting in Los Angeles this year, that if the Sunset Limited were daily its financial performance would skyrocket. Critics have jumped unfairly on the huge “loss per passenger” of that train and now that idea is in concrete and quoted at will. As RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, correctly observes, Mr. Frailey did “no questioning of the numbers, no comment that cutting the l/d trains dumps more overhead onto what is left, and how can anyone swallow that the short distance trains do better than l/ds unless they count the state subsidies as revenue?” When Amtrak cut the Pioneer, the Desert Wind, and before that other trains, they found and now some will admit that it did not help the bottom line. There was no effect on the fixed costs of the company. When the tri-weekly Texas Eagle was “saved” and run daily it became one of Amtrak’s most successful trains. Can Amtrak’s loss figures be believed? That is a topic we have discussed for too many years, and privately knowledgeable people now concur that Amtrak’s accounting process is highly suspect, something we have known since 1984. Frankly, it’s the no-growth attitude of the past ten to fifteen years that has caused the most trouble. Evidence of that is the purchase of no cars that will spur the growth of revenue from the long-distance trains in the West as has been detailed in RailPAC and URPA publications.

The really ugly…
When identifying the negatives at Amtrak, none can be more important than its relationship with the freight “host” railroads that carry these long-distance trains. In the past the BNSF could be counted on to be the most cooperative, while the others were hostile in varying degrees. When Gene Skoropowski was head of California’s Capitol Corridor he and his deputy and successor, David Kutrosky, through very hard dedicated work developed a good relationship with the Union Pacific which continues to this day.

There now is justifiable suspicion that opposition to Amtrak’s long-distance trains has hardened at all their “host” railroads, frustrating those at Amtrak who are working to improve the current service. The Union Pacific has continued its rejection of the Amtrak plan for a daily Sunset Limited unless it is paid $700 million for improvements, has rejected technical improvements of the 3-day schedule, and even improvements to the Texas Eagle-Sunset Limited schedule that would reduce the train’s long layover at San Antonio, which they instigated when they had problems a few years ago. They have been rejecting schedule improvements for the Coast Starlight. Needless to say in California the UP has been stretching out the approval process for the Coast Daylight. The CSX railroad has dug in its heels about several improvements back east. The Norfolk Southern has said no to Amtrak’s request to improve the Crescent at Atlanta and the Capitol Limited connection at Pittsburg, PA. Now even the BNSF is into the rejection mode, denying Amtrak’s request to reroute the Sunset Limited onto their tracks via Fullerton, some of which is publicly owned. The Southwest Chief is likely on Amtrak’s “hit list” above not totally because of its financial performance, but also because of the dispute developing over maintaining the BNSF line through Raton Pass and across Kansas, resulting in a possible reroute onto its Transcon line through Amarillo and Wichita or possible elimination. If Amtrak throws in the towel on the Chief, that would cause the smaller communities along the historic route of the train to lose important transportation. Those communities have now awakened to that possibility. When this writer visited the officials in Las Vegas, NM, last year they were surprised to learn that there was a chance of being without the train. They all know it now, and a meeting will be held on November 10 in La Junta, CO calling for a “Southwest Chief Coalition” dedicated to securing funding for the needed track improvements to keep the train on its historic route that these communities depend on.

There are few good, some bad, and many ugly days ahead. All rail passenger advocates like us must be aware of what is likely to be coming from Amtrak in the next few months. They have already said there would be “schedule adjustments” in January. Those decisions may already have been made, and they will be Amtrak internal decisions, not Congressional mandates. Can we count on having the travel opportunities on the long-distance trains we have had and expect? Don’t count on it.
Photo by Richard Strandberg


What’s it like to ride the train?

Commentary and Trip Report by Dana Hawkes

I am taking the train from LA to Houston. It is nearly universal that people are surprised, they have never taken a long distance train ride, and they are very curious about what it is like, and when they learn it takes longer than a plane they wonder what you do with all that time.

So I thought I would give you a description of my ride thus far today on the Sunset Limited Amtrak train.

The train left from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. I got there by taking the local Pacific Surfliner train from Oceanside. Union Station is a historic, beautiful landmark that was built in the late 1930’s at the height of train travel in America. I came by train to Los Angeles with my parents in the early 1940’s and actually arrived in Union Station. People say, “why didn’t you fly?” Easy to answer: the airlines had not been invented yet!

So I spent the hour and a half that I waited for my train to depart, touring this beautiful building and the well manicured grounds that surround it.

By 2pm the train was ready to board in anticipation of a 3pm departure. Since the trip will last two nights and one and one half days, I chose to book a sleeper rather than coach (the only way to go on a long distance train). The sleeper cars are large two story affairs. The upper story has two types of accommodations; the bedroom, which is larger and has its own bath, and the roomette which I am riding in which is smaller and uses common restroom and shower facilities. The room itself is 6 feet 6 inches long and 3 feet 6 inches wide. There are two facing seats which are about 2 times the size of an airline seat. The room is enclosed and has a sliding glass door that can be closed for privacy. Curtains can be pulled to cover the inside and outside windows, and the door. Real cozy. It is air conditioned, the seats recline and at night they fold together to make about a twin sized bed; an upper bunk that pulls down for a second person if needed. The porter comes at night and makes up the bed which is complete with sheets, pillows and blankets, washcloths and towels. There are reading lights, a small closet, 120 ac power for running computers and charging phones, a small fold out table that is being used to hold the computer on which I am typing this, and the entire wall to the outside is a large picture window. There is room under the seat for my small carry on (I checked my other bags that I will need in Houston). The room is comfortable, cozy and private. The ride is smooth and quiet; punctuated with the romantic wail of the engine’s whistle, blown at crossings.

Leaving Los Angeles you do encounter some of the seamier, graffiti emblazoned neighborhoods, but over all those account for less than 5 % of the total trip.

Soon we moved through the suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley toward the more rural areas approaching Palm Springs. I am not sure how to explain my fascination with traveling by train. Perhaps it is the motion; perhaps it is the size of the window; perhaps it is the connection to history; perhaps it is that usually when I drive…I drive! Even when I ride, mentally I still drive. But in the train I truly ride. I feel that I am a part of the landscape; a moving, ever-changing landscape.

When on a train, especially a cross country one, mostly what you see is landscape; beautiful, uncluttered and expansive, fascinating and intriguing countryside…we DO have a beautiful country! The photo shows the crossing high above the Pecos River in Texas. I know it sounds mystical, but truly it feeds my soul; I sense the majesty of God because I know He created it all; I feel my horizons are enlarged and magnified. I have traveled every Amtrak long distance train except one, The City of New Orleans; most of them more than once, and have been on the Canadian across Canada. In the hundreds of hours of train travel there is one emotion I have never experienced…boredom! Not that I am against flying, it is different. Flying is transportation; a way to get quickly from point A to point B. Traveling by train is genuinely travel; it is a way to enjoy the journey.

Well, shortly after departure from LA the dining room steward came around to take reservations for dinner. I ate at six with three delightful people from Las Cruces New Mexico; stimulating conversation. Had the opportunity to share with them what I had been doing in China.

After a restful sleep, rocked by the motion of the train, I opened the curtain to the outside. It was still dark, but perfectly framed in the window was the Big Dipper; its outer rim pointing directly at the North Star. Of course at that time I was in the New Mexico desert, and the sky was awash with millions of stars. Nice.

Well, off to breakfast; but that gives you a little slice of train life. I don’t think it is the only way to travel, but it is a desirable and valuable alternative that needs to be supported.

Mr. Hawkes is a retired Professor of Communications at Palomar College, San Marcos, CA. (Photos by Russ Jackson)


Enewsletter for October 31, 2011

What will the future hold for Palmdale? Metrolink is studying running trains at speeds over 100 miles per hours to Palmdale. The Las Vegas High Speed Train to Victorville is closer to starting construction next year: a connection to Palmdale make sense for that service. It looks more likely that future Higher Speed Rail service in the immediate future will have to use more improved existing rail lines than originally thought.

October 31, 2011

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