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.

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