Why California needs a single statewide rail coordinator

Statement by William Kerby, Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada on AB 1779
NOTE: Mr. Kerby presented this statement to the California Assembly Transportation Committee meeting in April, 2012.
An independent joint powers authority propelled successful growth of Capitol Corridor service and now leaders of the San Joaquin corridor seek similar success with the creation of a joint powers authority (JPA) with Senate Bill 1779.

The creation of a JPA is a move which has been discussed within the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee for more than a decade. Under separate legislation the LOSSAN board is pursuing a similar path with legislation permitting the transfer of intercity rail passenger service on the Surfliner Corridor from Caltrans’ Division of Rail to a joint powers authority. If all three of the state intercity passenger rail corridors transfer authority from Caltrans’ Division of Rail, a gap emerges in the control, coordination and funding of state rail programs.

Although local control of rail service puts decision makers closer to users of rail service and allows more nimble responses than centralized control, attention drifts from the network to the corridor. Another problem also arises, that of harmonizing and publishing schedules among rail operators. Thruway bus service remains the task of the statewide entity…presumably a restructured rail unit under the Secretary of Business and Transportation. Bus operations, which work well, are to remain under statewide control. Paul Dyson, RailPAC’s president, asks if funding decisions are made at a county level, who will take care of those many “off line” counties that are now connected by these buses?

Rail operations, currently under the Division of Rail, need heavy doses of centralized command and control. Rail PAC is concerned that efficiency may suffer from possible struggles over governance of train service at the corridor level. RailPAC greatly regrets the removal of Capitol Corridor service from the state rail timetables which comprises only the Surfliners and San Joaquins. Is it the intent of this fledgling JPA to also withdraw San Joaquins from a statewide time table? If this is so, then the missed transfer connection problem grows. Sacramento resident Natasha M. Flaherty brought examples of the connection problem to the attention of the Rail Passenger Association by enclosing current Capitol Corridor, Caltrain and VTA schedules to RailPAC with this statement: “I do not understand why there aren’t better timed transfers between the two systems (CC and Caltrain).” Neither do we, but we fear that this kind of problem will increase with the increase in JPA’s and the loss of a statewide rail coordinator.

The major question is will the San Joaquin corridor be able to expand with more cost-effective service under a JPA? Ridership and revenue from recent San Joaquin corridor services grew by a third between 2006 and 2011. During the same period, revenue grew even faster, by 43%. Fare box return ratios also increased: from 45% to 54%; for comparison, the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority experienced a 49% fare box recovery last year. Both corridors enjoyed better than 90% on time performance, despite their different governance models. Both corridors benefited from capital improvements administered through the Division of Rail. Equipment purchases dried up after 2006 and all passenger rail needs more cars and engines to handle unmet demand for service, but bidding for federal dollars for intercity service may continue to be best handled at the state level. The case for a JPA rests mainly in future needs, especially for equipment, rather than on deficiencies in the statewide administration of the state rail system.

The past disjointed administration of the high speed rail authority and its lack of proper communication with Caltrans impede the integration of commuter, regional and intercity rail. Links between the JPA and the successor high speed rail operations are planned, but not spelled out in the creation of the San Joaquin JPA. Regional rail systems are the key parts of the blended high speed rail system plans and administration of them needs consolidation. California must preserve connectivity with services outside of the corridor to preserve and expand network benefits. Expansion of the reach of the San Joaquin corridor to Los Angeles, Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area will build ridership through some of these network effects, but the power of a statewide system needs more than an assertion that a corridor transferred to a joint powers board, as stated in Section 2 of the legislation “shall remain as a component of the statewide system of intercity rail corridors”; California rail needs a single statewide service coordinator to preserve the rights of all riders from all counties of California and the rest of the country.

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