How Fast can the Surfliners go? August 3rd, 2012
Opinion by Noel T. Braymer
For over 30 years the goal has been to run rail passenger service the 128 miles between Los Angeles and San Diego through Orange County in under 2 hours. To do this will require speeds of 110 miles per hour with PTC signalling as well as run-through tracks at Los Angeles Union Station, 4 tracks to separate passenger and freight trains between Los Angeles and Fullerton plus full double tracking everywhere else with tunnels costing billions under San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente and Del Mar. Back in 2000 shortly after the introduction of the then new Surfliner equipment Amtrak said 34 minutes could be pulled out of the running time between Los Angeles and San Diego which would be a running time of about 2 hours and 11 minutes by 2005. A major factor in this potential time savings was the Surfliner equipment which was built for faster loading and unloading at stations the the low level equipment it was to replace. This also assumed that by 2005 there would be run through tracks at LAUS, triple tracking from LA to Fullerton and double tracking for most of Orange and San Diego Counties. In a few years we will finally have this trackage projected in 2000 to be built by 2005. Will we then see 34 minutes pulled from the Surfliners between LA and San Diego?
What is needed to reduce running time on a train schedule? Running trains faster with better acceleration is one way. Just as important is not stopping any more or longer than necessary. Double tracking eliminates the need for a train to stop at sidings. This becomes more critical when a train has to wait at a siding for a late train. Another reason trains may not move is equipment problems with the train, tracks or signaling. There is also the time spent at the stations. The less time spent at the station is time that a trains can be moving. Compared to the railroad between LA and San Diego of 1988 when most of the line was bolted rail over 40 years old and mostly single tracked, we have come a long way. So what is holding us back? A common problem with the Surfliners is equipment failures, often with the locomotives. The problem isn’t there’s not enough locomotives, but that there aren’t enough that run. Locomotives often sit idle for days waiting to be repaired . What is missing is basic preventive maintenance . Currently 9 trainsets are used to run the Surfliners. There are 49 Surfliner Cars which in theory would be enough for 10 trainsets of 5 car each (with one additional Superliner Car). That would give 9 working trainsets with one spare to be out for maintenance. However most Surfliners run now with 6 cars with each set having at least one Superliner Coach. The morning departure and evening arrival trains to and from San Luis Obispo often run with up to 10 cars. Currently of the 9 trainsets are used on the Surfliner trains; 7 trainsets have Surfliner and Superliner cars and the other 2 are low level car trainsets.
It takes one trainset a day just to run the morning train out of Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo and then for it to return to LA and end the night in San Diego. The second low level trainset is the one left in San Diego the night before and used for the morning “Express” train. It returns to San Diego in the early afternoon then turns around and ends the day in the late afternoon in Los Angeles for servicing to be ready to go to San Luis Obispo in the morning. Given the availability of equipment this is a good rotation. The good news is the more productive trains, the trains to Santa Barbara and the other San Luis Obispo trains usually have Surfliner equipment. The morning “Express” train on time performance is below that of other Surfliner trains. A factor for that is likely the use of low level equipment which take more time to load and unload than the Surfliners. Among many regular riders of the Surfliners there is dread whenever low level equipment arrives because of problems with running on time. LOSSAN is not happy that the experiment with running a faster train as an express is often late. But eliminating stops to run faster rarely works to increase ridership or revenues. What increases ridership is extending trains and serving more stations. The more markets you serve the more passengers you will have. Running longer distance trains in less time both increased the productivity of trains as well as improve demand to ride them.
Let’s compare passenger trains here to those of Hokkaido, Japan a story about which was written by Scott Lothes and published in the August issue of Trains. Hokkaido is the northern most large Japanese Island as well as the most rural and least densely populated. It is the only major Island not yet served by High Speed Shinkansen trains which are scheduled to begin service by 2016. All of the Island is served by narrow gauge, mostly single track railroads and much of the terrain is mountainous with many curves. Rail service is very popular with the larger cities stations combining transit, local and express rail services connecting to other cities with a hub and spoke arrangement. Station stops are short with 30 seconds the norm even for intercity trains headed to Tokyo. There is a system of express trains which are DMU powered tilt trains with a top speed of 80 miles per hour. Tilting makes it possible raise speeds on 56 miles per hour curves up to 76 miles per hour. For service between Sapporo and Obihiro the trains makes 10 intermediate stops over 215 miles in less than 4 hours. Compare this to the 232 miles between San Diego and Santa Barbara now scheduled in 5 hours and 35 minutes or the 222 miles between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo in 5 hours and 30 minutes. While the Japanese equipment at Hokkaido wouldn’t be what is needed here it does show what can be done even with limited resources with the right equipment and a well run service.