Monthly Archives

March 2012


Building High Speed Rail while making friends and not enemies

Opinion by Noel T. Braymer

Transportation is a very political issue since it usually depends on public monies. But rarely is it a partisan issue. This is because everyone needs  good transportation. In a disaster if transportation is cut off most stores will run out of inventory in a week or less. Most gas station have less than a 2 days supply of fuel. The growing demand for transportation is so great that there a general consensus that building more roads and airports  won’t meet our future needs. There is growing acceptance that more rail passenger service is needed. Despite this the California High Speed Rail Project has run into heavy opposition. The problem isn’t that people don’t want more, faster and better rail passenger service. It is that the planning for this project has succeeded in making enemies of land owners and local communities because of the level of land condemnation and impacts from the proposed construction for a project  many people feel they won’t use.

About 3 years ago plans for High Speed Rail in Los Angeles and Orange Counties were presented to the agencies in the region and they were not pleased. Billions of dollars of spending was being proposed for an all new railroad for High Speed Trains going no faster than 125 miles per hour between Anaheim and Sylmar. There were no plans to share any of the new construction for use by Metrolink or the Pacific Surfliner trains even when sharing the same right of ways. It was clear that these plans would have major problems both because of their high costs competing for limited funding for rail passenger service and the impacts from condemned land for parts of the project as proposed. The local Southern California agencies went to work and created their own plan that was cheaper, used little condemned land and was more likely to get built that shared the improvements with Metrolink and Pacific Surfliner Trains. The trains would stay on the existing right of way between Los Angeles and Fullerton but with 2 additional tracks for High Speed, Metrolink and Surfliner Trains.  From Fullerton to Anaheim the existing tracks with grade crossing would be used with upgrades for High Speed Rail trains. The High Speed Rail Authority didn’t like the plan of the local agencies but they didn’t have a choice. The local agencies’ plan became the accepted plan for Southern California.

Much the same thing over a longer period of time happened on the the San Francisco Bay Peninsula. Again the High Speed Rail Authority was planning to build separate tracks for high speed trains for a top speed of 125 miles per hour. This too would require condemning land to widen a right of way which generally was wide enough for a 4 track railroad. Soon there was local opposition to the impacts of the plans for High Speed Rail and very little of sharing costs for improvements for both High Speed Rail and Caltrain services. Recently there has been agreement to build a “blended system” with both services sharing tracks and electrification which would much less expensive and have fewer impacts on the local communities.

The Brown Administration soon found that when they took over the High Speed Rail Project just how troubled it was and how much opposition there was to what was being proposed. Successful politicians know that to get a bill passed or a project built you need to have more friends than enemies. Politicians usually ask what is in it for them and their constituents when asked to support anything. By embracing a blended or shared use of tracks with local services which would lead to funding to improve local as well as High Speed Rail many local leader had more reasons to support  High Speed Rail. But is this the right way to build High Speed Rail, has this been tried before? Actually this this quiet common in most places with High Speed Rail, but the best example is in France which is widely considered a leader in High Speed Rail Passenger service.

The French National Railroad, the SNCF as of 2010 ran over 800 TGV trains a day. But this should be seen in context of the 12,000 to 14,00 trains a day the SNCF also ran as commuter, regional, long distance conventional and freight trains in France over an 18,000 route mile system in a county almost the size of the State of Texas. Almost as important as the TGV trains are the LGV ‘s  which are initials in French for High Speed Line. The LGV’s are the lines where the TGV’s can run up to 200 miles per hour and by-pass populated areas. The TGV’s serve around 230 cities in Europe, most of them in France. But the LGV’s don’t go through cities. In urban areas where it would be very expensive to build new high speed lines the TGV uses existing commuter, regional and other conventional rail lines. Top speeds on commuter rail lines in France is 75 miles per hour which the TGV follows in Paris. In many places the older conventional railroad have been upgraded to allow speed up to 137 miles per hour that are also used by the TGV. The 8 LGV lines make up 1,175 miles of the total route miles for the TGV ‘s as of 2010 and another 1,250 miles are under construction.

The big difference between California and France is we still have a long way to go upgrading many of our existing rail lines to be part of a greater high speed network. Building tracks between Los Angeles and San Francisco for train travel in under 2 hours and 40 minutes seem absurd if we don’t at least reduce running times between Los Angeles and San Diego from 2 hours and 40 minutes to under 2 hours at the same time. The reason for this is as a high speed network is created it needs links to feed traffic to it. There are long range plans to build High Speed between Los Angeles and San Diego via Riverside but this will be very expensive and some time in the future. A likely first stage High Speed Rail service would run from Los Angeles to Merced. But to make this work it will need connections to San Diego, the Inland Empire, the Bay Area and Sacramento.This could be done with connections to the Surfliners, San Joaquins, Metrolink and ACE. The way the TGV would do this would be to run trains from day one from San Diego to Oakland and San Bernardino to San Jose. It wouldn’t be high speed all the way but it would be faster and more direct than what is available now. And yes the TGV uses diesel locomotives on non-electrified lines in France. But beyond this there is the need for a larger  State wide feeder system using buses to trains stations where rail service is not available for High Speed Rail. This doesn’t only increase ridership and revenues, but it increases support for High Speed Rail service and reduces the opposition to it from areas of the State that sees their tax dollars being spent for something they won’t be able to use.

The whole point of construction of rail service is to provide a good service people will want and ride, not to break speed records. The cost of gasoline and transportation are major issues that people want alternatives for. Air travel is not getting faster it is getting slower and more expensive. The fixation on building a 220 miles per hour railroad has created most of the problems for the California High Speed Rail Project and the massive opposition to it. Building a fast railroad is expensive which is why the TGV has high speed only in areas with low populations and low construction costs. The goal of 2 hour 40 minute or less service between Los Angeles and San Francisco can and should be a long term goal. Transportation planning often have goals up to 50 years in the future. These long term goals are based on priority and availability of funding. We need to build a faster State wide rail passenger network first before worrying about breaking speed records. The final service will need a LGV type bypass route that can be built with few or no stations for speeds over 150 miles per hour. The I-5 in the San Joaquin Valley would be a logical place for a LGV type of rail line. But before that that is done the railroads in the San Joaquin Valley should be greatly improved for less money that is being proposed for 220 mile operation for speeds well over 100 miles per hour to serve the most populated area of the Valley.


eNewsletter for March 26, 2012

STOCKTON, Calif. (KCRA) — A spokesman with the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission, which runs the Altamont Commuter Express, said legislation is in the works to take over the San Joaquin’s Amtrak line…The Joint Powers Authority would be the governing board, made up of 11 members from the counties where the Amtrak line currently runs. This would include officials from Kern County to San Joaquin Valley to Sacramento and parts of the East Bay….

To read more of the March 26th eNewsletter click date in blue below

March 26, 2012

The above copy of this enewletter is on a PDF file and  you will not be able to click on to the links in blue. If you would like an emailed copy of this enewsletter or to subscribe to it email

Rail Photos, Reports

The Sunset Route: What’s happening there? A photo report.

Report and Comments by Russ Jackson, RailPAC, Dallas. PHOTOS by Richard Strandberg, Mike Palmer, Russ Jackson. Maps from the Amtrak timetable.

This article is not only about Amtrak’s Sunset Limited and the recent developments regarding this train. We will be pointing out the highlights of the improvements that are taking place along that line through the work of the Union Pacific Railroad and local agencies. Hanging ominously over this article, however, is Amtrak’s failure to obtain daily service for trains #1 and 2 as they planned to do, and their dragging their feet about restoring service along their authorized CSX route from New Orleans to Florida.

In one case the host railroad, the UP, is fighting the improvement by demanding $700 million from Amtrak, which has rightfully rejected it but with little effort to negotiate, resulting in the newly published May 7 schedule nearly restoring the pre-2005 still tri-weekly schedule. In the other case the CSX railroad approved restoring the train to Florida following its line reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina, but Amtrak declined to do so. Strong efforts to correct both situations are cranking up, one led by RailPAC and the western-oriented Steel Wheels Coalition, the other by the eastern-oriented National Association of Railroad Passengers.

Now to the Sunset Route, moving from west to east state by state.

Amtrak's Sunset Limited arrives at Pomona, CA station May 15, 2009

The Sunset Route of the Union Pacific extends from Los Angeles to New Orleans

California. The Union Pacific has been involved in extensive multi-billion dollar physical plant improvements along this line for some time, with the goal of double tracking all of the Sunset Route corridor from Colton to El Paso. In California full double tracking extends now to east of Thermal in the Coachella Valley. Work from that point to Yuma has been delayed by the economic slowdown, but is resuming. The huge UP flyover of the BNSF at Colton Junction has been observed as being under construction. Meanwhile, the Sunset Limited continues to operate tri-weekly using the Alhambra branch of the UP into and out of LA Union Station, but can use Metrolink’s parallel line when needed.

Wellton-Roll rail bridge, still standing, once carried the Sunset Limited on its route to Phoenix, Arizona

Arizona. There are no current plans for a new double track bridge across the Colorado River at Yuma, but double tracking is evident on much of the route from Yuma through Maricopa to Tucson that was also delayed by the slowdown. There are no plans for restoration of the West Phoenix line from Wellton, across the Roll bridge, into Phoenix, once used by the Sunset Limited. The UP has announced plans for a $9.2 million 48-mile upgrade of part of that line from downtown Phoenix to just past the Palo Verde Nuclear station. The rails are still in place between Roll and Buckeye, but have not been used since 1996 and plans to restore it have all fallen through.

New UP construction East of Tucson. The original SP line curves off to the right.

One of the most interesting projects along the line is under construction, however. East of Tucson the original Southern Pacific route had many curves, and when Interstate 10 was built in the 1950’s an undercrossing of the railroad was built which still stands today. That undercrossing has been the despair of the trucking industry, as high load vehicles must detour around that spot adding time and cost to their trips. While not on the UP’s list of projects as detailed by Fred Frailey in the November, 2007 list in Trains Magazine, a new rail line is under construction to eliminate that undercrossing and to straighten the line. The state of Arizona is paying for much of that job!

New Deming, NM "station" with Interstate 10 in the background.

New Mexico. In recent years this writer has been critical of the so-called “stations” for the Sunset Limited at Benson, Arizona, and Lordsburg and Deming, New Mexico, and we have published photos of the two benches that were chained to a fence location in Deming which have been finally replaced by a shelter and now one of Amtrak’s grey and blue station signs has been added, improving the situation there. However, the location of the Deming “station” at a crossing, off a one-way off-ramp of Interstate 10 and in a restricted UP maintenance of way yard is still not something the town should be proud of.

Of greater interest is the start of construction of a new fueling, inspection, and eastbound block-swapping yard at Santa Teresa, about at milepost 1280, west of El Paso. Extensive earthmoving work can be seen at this location only a short distance from the border with Mexico. Double tracking past this location is complete.

Texas. Slow moving into and out of the El Paso station continues for all trains. Improvements have been made east of the El Paso Amtrak station, but it is still single track from there east to Sierra Blanca.

Sierra Blanca, Texas, UP junction

The UP has three routes to choose from out of El Paso, the Golden State Route up to Tucumcari, then at Sierra Blanca junction trains can use the former Texas and Pacific through Midland to Ft. Worth, or the Sunset Route continues to San Antonio and New Orleans. Each of those are single track lines, but there are plans by the UP to eventually double track the line from El Paso to Sierra Blanca. Sometimes unusual cars are observed on freight trains:

Flat cars on westbound UP freight at Wendell siding, Texas. Harnesses hold the extra long blades for windmills.

We have been told by observers that the UP is mostly directional, with freights westbound on the Sunset Route west of San Antonio, and eastbound trains on the T&P line west of Ft. Worth. Amtrak weaves its way through those westbound freight trains at the whim of the UP Omaha dispatchers, but cooperation there has been high according to our observers. Alpine, Texas has built a new platform for the Sunset Limited’s 4400 annual riders. It is a crew-change point and meeting point for trains 1 and 2.

Sanderson, Texas, once a crew change point for the SP, is now a flag stop for the Sunset Limited for about 350 riders a year.

Alpine, Texas new platform for the Sunset Limited

Unfortunately, despite some local improvements in San Antonio the Texas Eagle which departs there every morning at 7 AM must still do a two-mile backup move through some hand-thrown switches and wait for dispatcher clearance to move onto the former MKT line around the east side of the city instead of being able to go forward out of the Amtrak station and then onto its north track to Austin. Thirty years ago RailPAC and URPA were calling for construction of a 1/4 mile connector so this time consuming move would not be necessary. Amtrak and the SP, then, and UP now, have forgotten this project, content to do what they always have done and not spend the money.

The route of the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans was on CSX tracks.

New Orleans to Florida. Since the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Amtrak has kept the extension of the Sunset Limited to Orlando “suspended,” and “future service has not been determined,” but kept it listed in the timetables. With the CSX resuming freight service on the line, and having said that it was all right with them to resume Amtrak service on their reconstructed line, Amtrak’s attitude has been hard to fathom just like so many other things at the company are.

Tallahassee, Florida, historic but vacant Amtrak station.

The intervening seven years without transcontinental service have fostered a feeling of weariness among rail advocates and local officials along the route, but finally an optimistic movement has begun by organizers such as the Tallahassee Mayor complete with rallies and petitions. That city’s classic 1858 train station remains in place, vacant, even with the schedule board showing arrival and departure days and times for the Sunset Limited. They are drumming up local support for restoration of the route, which was part of the “national system,” but Amtrak appears to be waiting for the states to make it a state-supported corridor, and if the states wait long enough that may be the only result that will restore service. The 2008 PRII Act required Amtrak to submit a plan to restore passenger service on the line, and in 2009 Amtrak said it would cost about $33 million and have an annual “loss” of $5 million, but Amtrak has not implemented anything. Will Amtrak respond positively or is the optimism unfounded?


eNewsletter for March 12, 2012

At the end of February and start of March there were confusing headlines about the California High Speed Rail Project. Based on a memo by the chief counsel of the California High Speed Rail Authority Thomas Fellenz, there were headlines saying start of construction was being delayed from this Summer until Spring 2013 in the San Joaquin Valley. But construction would still be finished by 2017 to qualify for Federal Funding. Then the Authority’s chief executive Roelof van Ark announced the opening of bidding for start of construction this year.

March 12, 2012

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Commentary, Issues

Amtrak changes the Sunset Limited schedule: Positives, Negatives, and they agreed to WHAT?

Analysis and Commentary by Russ Jackson, RailPAC

From out of the blue, so to speak, on March 13 came an Amtrak News Release from New Orleans, not Washington DC, saying a new schedule for the Sunset Limited would take effect on May 7, 2012. This new schedule will have major impacts all along its route, affecting the travel plans for riders. Those who already have summer reservations are in for a surprise, but will be notified of the changes. Amtrak says these changes “are expected to increase ridership and revenue, and reduce crew layover costs.” We shall see. Oh, daily service? Forget that. It’s still tri-weekly, just as it has been since the Southern Pacific converted it from daily in the 1960’s, and Amtrak has continued it since 1971. Does this new schedule look familiar? It should, it’s basically the same one that existed before 2005 with the departure of #2 from Los Angeles at 10 PM, and #1 from New Orleans moved back to 9 AM.

The Positives. 1) Connectivity. RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, reminds us that it has been a long time goal of the organization to improve connectivity for all trains, but particularly to restore the connection from the southbound Coast Starlight to the eastbound Sunset Limited at Los Angeles. This schedule change does that, and we commend Amtrak for finally accomplishing it. They must have confidence that the Starlight will arrive at Los Angeles Union Station close to on time. In February and March, 2012, train #11 has arrived at LAUS later than the 9 PM scheduled arrival time only 4 times. Three of those were later than 10:00 (one didn’t arrive until the next morning), and all the others arrived early, in the 8:00 hour. Remember, though, that this has been a relatively mild winter on the West Coast. What Amtrak doesn’t say is the new schedule also restores reliable connectivity to eastbound train #2 from the Los Angeles arrivals of San Joaquin train/buses 702, 712, and 714. More on that in a separate article by writer Ralph James. Connectivity to the northbound Coast Starlight or San Joaquins is unchanged, as current times have been acceptable.

2) Equipment utilization. By changing the departure day for westbound train #1 from New Orleans from Friday to Saturday one less trainset will be necessary to operate the route. That means an arrival in Los Angeles on Monday morning rather than Sunday, while all other arrival and departure days at both ends remain as they now are. The question is, what will they do with the now available “saved” cars? Andrew C. Selden comments that “The cars ‘saved’ from the Sunset pool sound like one set. Those aren’t enough cars to add even one car-line to any long-distance train, so those cars will either go into a daily regional train like the Heartland Flyer or a KC-STL train, or be put into reserve service as bad-order protection cars. The Empire Builder, for example, on the current pattern of turning 7 to 8 on the same day at Seattle, requires five sets, so adding a single car-line requires at least five and maybe six identical cars (say, sleepers, with the sixth car for protection, or as a maintenance cycle deal) just to add one car to each train. The Sunset’s “saved” cars don’t add up to enough to do even that. Maybe someone figured out to add a Chicago-Denver sleeper to 5 and 6, but that’s about all you could do with those cars. Paul Dyson was dead on when he said we need a thousand cars; my point is simply that a thousand cars is a start, not a program.” Gene Poon says, “The problem is that Amtrak needs those cars just to keep running in place, with what they ran last summer. So much for growth.”

3) “Improvement” at San Antonio. Amtrak says “the change will significantly reduce the layover for through passengers (on the Texas Eagle) at San Antonio by more than seven hours for eastbound passengers and three hours for westbound passengers when railcars are exchanged between the Sunset Limited and the Texas Eagle.” There are no changes in the arrival or departure times of the Texas Eagle there, so westbound passengers in the Eagle Sleeper and Coach will now wait from 10:00 PM (or earlier as often happens) until 2:45 AM, five hour of sleepless waiting while the cars are shuffled unmercifully from one train to the other, and northbound Eagle passengers will wait from 4:50 AM until train #21 departs at 7:00. That is a seven hour improvement, but is it enough time to do the “shuffle” if the incoming Sunset is late? Sunset Limited #1 will now arrive from New Orleans at Midnight, and depart at the bad time of 2:45 AM, and #2 will depart San Antonio for New Orleans at 6:25 AM, a very reasonable time and better than the current Midnight. A mixed bag. If only we could have had those SP/UP track improvements that would have eliminated the 2-mile backup movement and hand-thrown switches when departing that station.

The Negatives. 1) The early morning arrival of westbound train #1 into Los Angeles Union Station. Is 5:35 AM too early? Some say it isn’t, based on historic patterns of airline departures, and the train’s historic arrival times prior to 2005. What is disturbing is the extra schedule padding that could put the train into LAUS at 4:30 AM if it is “on time,” as it has been frequently. In February and March, 2012, the train has been early five times. Amtrak says, “Arriving Train #1 sleeping car passengers at Los Angeles will be invited to remain aboard the train until 6:30 AM.” We hope they convince the crews that this will happen.

2) Palm Springs will be a big loser, as the arrival time eastbound will become 12:35 AM instead of 5:35 PM, and the westbound schedule shows 2:02 AM instead of 4:54 AM. Historic timetables, including the SP days, had the westbound train arriving in the Coachella Valley in the 3 or 4 AM hours. Will riders who are now used to the current schedule accept going back to those days? Paul Dyson says, “The effective loss of service (at reasonable hours) to Palm Springs is a big negative but could go either way. We should use this to galvanize support for a corridor train to Indio or beyond to start in 2014, which is probably as soon as it could get done.” The newly instituted bus-train service connecting with the north and southbound Pacific Surfliners at Fullerton will become the primary intercity service out there. As Trainweb’s Steve Grande says, “All I know is that these time changes still don’t allow any way for me to come out to Palm Springs for the day, even trying to use this schedule in combination with the new bus connection. None of this is really useful for getting tourists to Coachella Valley until there is some way to get out to Palm Springs or the casinos in the morning and then get back to Los Angeles / Orange County in the evening.” Bruce Richardson says, “All this means is they are going back to historic schedules, which Amtrak departed from to intentionally break connections and not have to pay passengers for missed connections.”

3) The new Tucson and Phoenix (Maricopa) times “make possible an attractive next morning arrival” to/from Los Angeles, with the westbound #1 Tucson departures of 7:30 PM and Maricopa at 9:02 PM. The eastbound schedule has #2 departing Maricopa at 5:40 AM and Tucson at 8:15 AM. Wait a minute, that means Phoenix riders will have to travel the 30-some miles to Maricopa that early and that’s an improvement? Tucson is definitely helped, but according to a recent rider, conductors were telling passengers that they were on a full train arriving into Tucson and Maricopa with many passengers getting off, and would be departing both cities with all seats occupied by new riders. And Amtrak says one of its goals is to improve ridership to those cities? Nothing will be improved there unless additional capacity, more cars, are added to the tri-weekly trains, and we know that won’t happen. Perhaps they are counting on fewer passengers wanting to travel to/from California in the middle of the night?

And they agreed to WHAT? Although it isn’t in the Amtrak News Release, Trains magazine’s Bob Johnston reported that in the agreement with the Union Pacific to change the schedule, “Amtrak would not pursue a daily Sunset or propose any non-state supported trains on UP trackage for two years.” RailPAC has confirmed this is true, but the ban only applies to the Sunset Route. While details of that bombshell are still not confirmed, Paul Dyson says “it seems to indicate possibilities after the 2 years are up and we all know that you can’t do anything in less than 2 years!” The Sunset Limited saga continues.
To see the new May 7 schedule, go here and click on the News Release.


Traveling by Amtrak from Sacramento to Tucson before and after the May 7 Schedule Change

Commentary by Ralph James, RailPAC

My wife left on the morning of March 15 for a flight out of Sacramento to Tucson AZ for several days to visit our daughter. The Sunset Limited schedule was something we had discussed in passing during the planning since she prefers rail travel to flying as long as it is reasonably convenient. Because of the 3 PM Los Angeles departure eastbound we knew the only reasonable connection from Sacramento was via San Joaquin 702 and the bus trip over the Grapevine. Before going any further, this option was vetoed because, short of national emergency, she refuses to travel via the Bakersfield bus connections any longer. Although the Amtrak buses are fairly nice as buses go and we have used them from time to time in the past, she has just had enough of the extra luggage transfers, the long walk at LAUS and 2-3 hours in an uncomfortable bus seat, especially when traveling alone. We did not get to the point of even checking fares or the specific days of operation.

Given the restoration of normal thru connections after the May 7 schedule adjustment, I decided to check the actual details of Amtrak travel both before and after the change just for information. It quickly became evident that the Yield Management team had been working overtime and the common sense team had been on vacation, at least for part of the information available on the Amtrak website.

From the common sense perspective, the explanation for days of operation east of Los Angeles was completely lacking on the reservations screens. As an experienced Amtrak traveler it still took me several passes through the reservation process to figure out that the computer interprets the requested departure date from Sacramento as the absolute governing factor (as opposed to suggesting the next day’s travel date) and thus shows the only possible connection to the next day’s Sunset as being the Capitol Corridor evening departure, the red-eye overnight bus to Santa Barbara and the Pacific Surfliner to Los Angeles with a 5 1/2 hour layover to the Sunset departure at 3 PM. This combination is patently ridiculous for nearly all travelers, and there is no mention of the fact that the Sunset only operates on certain days and that the logical connection is San Joaquin 702 at 6:40 the next morning with a 30 minute connection to the Sunset in LA. Such is the difference between a computer and a real person using common sense designing an itinerary.

Also in the unnecessarily complex and useless category of computer thinking, is it really necessary to show two completely separate itineraries from Tucson to Sacramento depending on which of the two buses one takes between Stockton and Sacramento? This difference is not a real choice since the drivers sort passengers to the best bus before boarding and the blitz of information would be modestly reduced without it.

Compared to a near low end air fare of $413 round trip with one plane change, Amtrak coach fares ranged from just over $200 to over $300 for the round trip with some significant bus-train-bus transfers required north of Los Angeles on some options. The Starlight connection was reasonably priced for the dates checked and directions it was available. The vast array of pricing points was a bit intimidating and it was obvious that the Eagle coach seats were more precious than the Sunset coach seats on the common portion of the route as they were consistently offered at a significantly higher price. Here again, common sense would suggest that the seat inventory be held off-line with the lower priced seats being offered first instead of creating clutter with a completely separate itinerary block of more expensive identical seats that nobody would ever choose. Pricing for a roomette ranged from $96 to $287 and many points in between. The lower-end pricing is doable if available but the upper end pricing puts train travel out of the running compared to flying.

Compared to the airline fare structures which are also stepped on yield management, figuring an Amtrak trip after the May schedule change was vastly more complicated, particularly if booking a roomette on the overnight portion. As just one example, several third-party websites show convenient airline listings by price where it was very easy to see how much savings accrued from a 5 AM departure vs. a 7 AM departure vs. a noon departure. The price disparity can be significant, but we settled on the 7 AM penalty of only $9 as being worth an extra two hours of sleep. That being said, it was possible to set up a hypothetical Amtrak itinerary a couple of months out that included travel via the Starlight both ways and a roomette east of Los Angeles using Senior fares for only slightly more cost than the air travel that was used on this trip, and this option will be considered in the future. Travel time is a full day longer in each direction, but with only one reasonably direct transfer in Los Angeles each way the extra time would not normally be a problem and the stop at Benson rather than Tucson would cut nearly an hour off the pickup time required for our actual destination. Station times in Arizona will also be much more reasonable after the May schedule change and compare very favorably to the pre-dawn checkin required to obtain reasonable air fares.


eNewsletter for March 5, 2012

Express train 599 is suppose to run from San Diego to Los Angeles in 2 hours and 28 minutes with 4 intermediate stops. The first Amtrak train out of San Diego the 763 is scheduled to get to Los Angeles in 2 hours 40 minutes with 7 intermediate stops. What is really pathetic is that back in 1978 the Amtrak schedule between San Diego and Los Angeles was 2 hours and 35 minutes with 5 intermediate stops. That was without push-pull equipment, well over a billion dollars in track improvements since 1978 or Surfliner cars with low-level loading and wide power operated doors for fast loading and unloading.

March 5, 2012

The above copy of this enewletter is on a PDF file and  you will not be able to click on to the links in blue. If you would like an emailed copy of this enewsletter or to subscribe to it email


Latest episode of the California High Speed Rail Soap Opera.

Opinion by Noel T. Braymer

At the end of February and start of March there were confusing headlines about the California High Speed Rail Project. Based on a memo by the chief counsel of the California High Speed Rail Authority Thomas Fellenz, there were headlines saying start of construction was being delayed from this Summer until Spring 2013 in the San Joaquin Valley. But construction would still be finished by 2017 to qualify for Federal Funding. Then the Authority’s chief executive Roelof van Ark announced the opening of bidding for start of construction this year.

What it boiled down to besides terrible messaging was that most construction of the 130 mile route between Bakersfield and Merced would be delayed. The hope was that construction would begin on the 29 mile segment this year between Fresno and Madera. Then there was the story that Dan Richard, the chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority saying that use of Highway 99 was a possibility for High Speed Rail in the San Joaquin Valley. The California High Speed Rail Authority has been around since 1996.The justification for giving California the largest share of Federal High Speed Rail funding was that California’s planning for High Speed Rail was much closer to construction than that of other States. But here we are just months before the deadline for the start of construction and much of the project may have to be redesigned. So what did we get after paying over 800 million dollars for planning over the last 16 years? The good news at least is the Brown Administration had the common sense to admit that the project as proposed wasn’t going anywhere.

What doomed the original plans for High Speed Rail in the San Joaquin Valley was the opposition by large land owners to having their land condemned. For many people using the right of way of Highway 99 for High Speed Rail would seem to be a dream solution. First it would use a publicly owned right of way so no private land would be needed. Second Highway 99 was generally built next to the old Southern Pacific Railroad in the San Joaquin Valley. Since the SP was built first in the best location much of the development and population of the Valley is centered near the SP line compared to the Santa Fe Railroad in the San Joaquin Valley. So what could go wrong? What created most of the problems for the Authority were from trying to build a railroad for speeds over 200 miles an hour. Even with long segments shared with the BNSF there were segments where curves were too tight for 200 mph operations.But building new right of way off the BNSF in populated areas would greatly increase construction costs for the High Speed Project. The solution proposed by the consultants for the Authority was to go through “cheap” farm land. Well we know now how that worked out. Get on a service like Google Maps and take a close look at Highway 99 in the San Joaquin Valley. You will notice that it has many tight curves. These often happens as a highway goes through a town. If you look at a satellite image of the nearby railroad now own by the UP you will see the railroad is straighter than the highway. In the open country there is generally a median in Highway 99 which could be used for building a railroad at grade which is the least expensive way to build. In many areas the right of way for the highway looks wide enough that 99 could be widen to fit a railroad in a highway median. But look at the 99 in urban areas and there is little room left to put in a railroad. That would mean miles of elevated construction and or new alignments off of the highway likely on surface streets such as planned for the new alignment in downtown Fresno.

A highway is built for vehicles as large as trucks going at most around 70 miles per hour. Even for a conventional railroad the curves and grades of most highways would be difficult for use by a railroad. Remember the plan is to build a railroad for speeds over 3 times faster than motor vehicle traffic. Using the 99 to build a high speed railroad will have major engineering problems. An existing railroad in the San Joaquin Valley such as the BNSF can be upgraded with separate passenger tracks for speeds between 125 to 170 miles per hour with a few slow spots below 125. But to try to rebuilt the BNSF for constant speeds over 200 mph will look just like what the consultants for the Authority proposed which created so much opposition. A question that is never asked is what happens to the San Joaquin trains after High Speed Rail is built. The Authority has so far shown few signs of coordinating with the existing trains in the San Joaquin Valley and seems to want them to go way. If that were to happen many towns in the Valley would lose train service and many people in the Valley would have less rail service with High Speed Rail.The Union Pacific route for passenger would serve more population than the BNSF and many San Joaquin leaders want to move the San Joaquin trains on to the UP. The problem with that is the UP has made it very clear that the answer is no.

The biggest problem with the California High Speed Rail project is the goal to run trains between Los Angeles and San Francisco in under 2 hours and 40 minutes. Not all trains just one an hour in each direction with only 1 intermediate station stop. We could build a heck a good railroad for speeds up to 170 miles per hour for much less money than what is being talked about now, but it wouldn’t get between LA and San Francisco in 2 hours and 40 minutes even only stopping once. The Authority claims that Prop 1A which provides the Bond Money for HSR mandates the 2 hour 40 minute running time . Dan Richard, chairman of the California High Speed Rail Authority has ruled out using I-5 for high speed rail. He claims it would create development along I-5 which would compete for water from farmers in the area . The I-5 has been in the San Joaquin Valley for over 40 years. In that time most of the development in the westside of the Valley has been limited to gas stations, fast food, motels and warehouses for trucking companies at the few off ramps by the freeway . If in 40 years a freeway can’t create new cities, how will a high speed rail line do that if it doesn’t even stop there? The whole point of going over 200 miles an hour is to not stop. On the I-5 there is little reason to stop. Generally I-5 has a broad median that could be used to build a railroad at grade. Avoiding tunnels, elevated structures, stations and having many fewer curves than Highway 99 would make construction much cheaper for a high speed railroad on I-5. You could create connections to I-5 largely using existing rail branch lines to Bakersfield, to Hanford/ Visalia and a connection to Fresno combined with sharing some highway. You would still need to improve existing railroads to run local service in the San Joaquin Valley. We might see more track relocations such as planned for Fresno to move the train station west of the current station on the BNSF. But it will likely prove uneconomical to build a new passenger railroad for 200 plus miles per hour speeds the full distance on Highway 99.

Here are links to some curves on 99
Tulare   Kingsburg    Delano   Bakersfield    Chowchilla

And an overview of 99 and I-5 together


Why The Capitol Corridor Works, and What is Wrong with the Pacific Surfliners

Opinion by Noel T. Braymer

When the Capitol Corridor service began in 1991 it was with 3 round trips between San Jose and Sacramento. On time performance then for the trains was typical of Amtrak corridor service in the plus or minus 70 to 80 percent range. Today there are 16 round trips and these trains have an on-time performance of 95 percent, the highest of any Amtrak trains in the country. When the service started it was under the management of Caltrans until 1999 when the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority was formed. This organization is made up of transportation agencies in the Capitol Corridor service area with BART providing much of the administrative support. Most State supported trains like the Surfliners were expansions of existing Amtrak trains thus Amtrak paid a portion of the subsidy. For the Capitol Corridor trains the State was responsible for the full subsidy from day one because this was a start up service not an expansion of existing Amtrak service. With this came more control of the operation by the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority. In effect the Capitol Corridor trains “belong” to the JPA with Amtrak operating the trains under contract. The JPA has more control over the Capitol Corridor than Caltrans has over the San Joaquins or Pacific Surfliners plus it can lobby for funding and get involved in the politics of operating the service which Caltrans can not. By law all State Supported trains run by Amtrak will have the States picking up the entire subsidy starting next year.

The State of California owns passenger rail cars as well as locomotives. All of the equipment for the Capitol Corridor and the San Joaquins is State owned and maintained by Amtrak under contract at a facility in Oakland paid for by the State. Both trains share the same pool of equipment and the equipment rotates between both trains. The JPA has paid staff who are experts on rail equipment overseeing Amtrak’s maintenance of California’s equipment. By comparison most of the cars and all of the locomotives for the Pacific Surfliners are owned and maintained by Amtrak in Los Angeles. Unlike the Capitol Corridor which has on-time performance of 95 percent, the Surfliners run in the typical Amtrak range of 70 to 80 percent. The Capitol Corridor has been able to reduce the running time since 1991 by 20 minutes. Amtrak added a “temporary” 10 minutes to the LA-San Diego running time in 1979 which has never been removed. Back in 2000 when the Pacific Surfliner equipment was new it was expected that running times would soon be reduced between Los Angeles and San Diego from 2 hours and 45 minutes to between 2 hours 15 or 20 minutes.

Why didn’t this happen? Almost 2 billion dollars in taxpayers money has been spent improving the route of the Surfliners to reduce bottlenecks and allow faster operation. The introduction of push-pull operation around 1990 alone saves about 5 minutes in the running time by eliminating a back up movement out of Los Angeles Union Station. The Surfliner equipment has quick loading low level floors and wide doors that are power operated that can open and close at every station stop. The Surfliner equipment should allow for the reduction in dwell time at stations from 4 to 5 minutes needed for the old Amfleet cars to 2 minutes or even less. In spite of these improvements Amtrak runs the Surfliners slower today than the San Diegans did in 1978. Why?

Amtrak and Caltrans have agreed to schedules which often requires one more trainset in the equipment rotation than there were available Surfliner trainsets. In order to rotate the equipment so one trainset is out of service for maintenance Amtrak usually includes an Amfleet trainset in the Surfliner pool. Basically the schedule for all the trains has to be designed around the slowest equipment to run trains on time. Amtrak continues to resist any attempt to speed up service on the Surfliners by reducing dwell time at stations or cutting back on the schedule padding. Any attempt to run a faster schedule would cause Amtrak’s current mediocre on-time performance to crash without the generous padding in the existing schedule.

Amtrak management has long had a fixation to avoid spending money. The problem is Amtrak management is generally clueless on controlling costs or improving productivity. In an attempt to “save” money Amtrak puts off maintenance of its locomotives and passenger cars. The result is Amtrak is often short of available equipment. Amtrak internally publishes daily a list of equipment it needs and has available.  Amtrak often has fewer locomotives available than it needs to operate on any given day ! The result is working locomotives are switched between trains skipping routine serving between runs. Amtrak has enough locomotives, the problem is a large number of them sit idle waiting to be repaired and are not available for service. With the remaining overworked locomotives the results are often breakdowns or poor performance, late or cancelled trains and frustrated passengers who often don’t come back and advise their friends not to ride Amtrak.

Successful businesses aim for maximum productivity of capital investments. If an expensive piece of machinery is idle it isn’t making money. Yet Amtrak thinks they are saving money letting equipment sit rusting instead of repairing it. Shorter running times increase ridership and revenue for passenger trains. But it also means increased productivity since you can carry more passengers by running equipment more miles a day with little additional costs. Shorter running times can mean additional frequencies or route extensions without additional equipment or employee hours. Getting back to the Capitol Corridor, how do they get such good on-time performance? They spend money. The JPA has staff overseeing the work on the State owned equipment to insure it is kept in good shape. The JPA gives incentive payments to the Union Pacific to operate the trains on their tracks on time and additional funding to maintain the railroad to a higher level needed for freight service. The result is the cost recovery for the Capitol Corridor went from 29 percent 20 years ago to 50 percent today. At the same time the level of State Subsidy for the train has seen little growth while expansion of service have increased revenues and covered the additional costs. The Surfliner trains by comparison recover 54 percent of costs. But the Surfliners have 351 miles of route compared to the Capitol Corridor’s 170 and a larger market. Caltrans has learned that the longer distance trains on the Surfliners produce the greatest income. The question is how would the Surflners do with better running times and on-time performance?

We may soon find out. LOSSAN is made up of transportation agencies along the route of the Pacific Surfliners as well as the counties with Metrolink service.  LOSSAN has been studying the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority as a model to reorganize itself along much along the lines of the Capitol Corridor JPA. LOSSAN’s goal is to improve the ridership and cost recovery of the Surfliners and to improve the connectivity of the Surfliners with Metrolink, Coaster and local transit. LOSSAN is interested in taking control of the Surfliners, having paid staff to oversee it and is looking at buying the Surfliner equipment from Amtrak to have control over its maintenance. The requirement that the State pay 100% subsidy after 2013 is a major incentive for local government to have more control over the Surfliner to insure it is more efficiently run.


ENewsletter for February 27, 2012

An engine died in Kansas. So what else is new? Southwest Chief train #3 that departed Chicago on February 20, 2012, arrived in Fullerton 8 hours 10 minutes late, and because of the end-of-run padding it arrived at Los Angeles Union Station 6 hours 58 minutes late..

February 27, 2012

The above copy of this enewletter is on a PDF file and  you will not be able to click on to the links in blue. If you would like an emailed copy of this enewsletter or to subscribe to it email