The Good News about Passenger Trains August 24th, 2012
Opinion and photos by Noel T. Braymer
The Good News is that more towns across America are discovering the economic value of rail service and of having a train station in their communities. In the news are stories of towns along the Gulf Coast banding together to work towards restarting rail passenger service between New Orleans and Florida which was “temporarily” suspended in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. You have towns along the route of the Southwest Chief from New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas raising money to lobby and find funding to insure the the Chief can continue to run through the Raton Pass at passenger train speeds. Between Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas there are ongoing efforts to get the Heartland Flyer extended into Kansas with possible service to Kansas City, Mo and possible connections to more passenger trains. Can these efforts pay off? One need only look at the Empire Builder. The Empire Builder is already a major transportation artery in the upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Business and traffic along the Empire Builder route has been growing just in the last few years. Local weather has not been kind to to the Builder and flooding last year cast doubts if the historic route could be saved through Devils Lake and Minot in North Dakota. But local efforts of the towns on the existing route and the State of North Dakota lobbying the Federal Government has secured funding to raise the tracks and keep the Empire Builder on the existing route and less likely to be washed out by future flooding.
Where did this movement to upgrade the local rail station to energize local economies get its start? In Oceanside, California. Back around 1970, before the creation of Amtrak, Byron Nordberg convinced fellow members of the local Chamber of Commerce that building a Transportation Center at the old train station site which would serve Greyhound Buses, Santa Fe passenger trains and local transit buses would increase ridership for all these services and boost the local economy. A major part of this plan was the new Transportation Center along with moving the rail freight yard out of downtown Oceanside to encourage tourism at the local beach in Oceanside and construct future resort hotels as well as shops and attractions. This didn’t happen overnight. The Oceanside Transportation Center opened in 1984 which was the first new train station at least in California since the end of World War II. Starting in the 1970′s increased rail service between San Diego and Los Angeles with funding from the State of California greatly increase ridership along the stations along the route. This increased the interest of the local towns in their stations. Santa Ana was the next city to build a Transportation Center not long after Oceanside, while Fullerton improved their historic station and added local transit service. The City of Irvine lobbied hard and was able to build a brand new Transportation Center/Train Station and Amtrak during the 1980′s opened a station in Anaheim.
It was also during this time that there was an effort to build a “bullet train” between Los Angeles Union Station/LAX and San Diego. At roughly the same time in the 1980′s Amtrak experimented with the San Diegan Metroliner which skipped several of the towns along the route between Los Angeles and San Diego to reduce running times. During this time then Oceanside City Councilman Walt Gilbert started networking with citycouncil members of other cities with stations between Los Angeles and San Diego. There were concerns about losing rail service among these towns with the proposed bullet trains and anger with Amtrak by imposing the Metroliner without input from effected towns on the route. To help with technical advice about trains Councilman Gilbert relied on a then Oceanside Transportation Commissioner Byron Nordberg. The bullet train died a natural death from lack of funding and the San Diegan Metroliner proved to be a flop which RailPAC had predicted. Out of this networking of city officials was created the Joint Powers Agency known as LOSSAN which originally stood for Los Angeles-San Diego Rail Corridor. One the first achievements of LOSSAN was the creation of a first class passenger car for all the San Diegan trains then called Custom Class.
Getting organized and working together is a proven way to get things done. It has worked in California and is showing promise around the country. When towns have and own the train station they have a vested interest in keeping and improving rail passenger service. To make this work the cities need to have a realistic business plan for the rail service at their station. For a station to attract riders it needs a good location, security, adequate parking and connections to other forms of transportation. Also the station needs to be clean and attractive with services such as places to eat, shopping for sundries, lodging and so on. The secret for ridership is rail service which serves the maximum number of markets. A problem with express and corridor trains are by themselves they serve a rather limited number of stations. Extending trains and adding stations on the route increases markets and ridership. These has been demonstrated by extending trains from San Diego past Los Angeles first to Santa Barbara and now even to San Luis Obsipo. Just as important is connecting trains together at a station. The primary purpose of the original Santa Fe San Diegans was to connect to the Long Distance Santa Fe Trains at Los Angeles. Even today the Surfliners feed many riders to the long distance trains in Los Angeles like the Coast Starlight, Southwest Chief and Sunset trains. As rail service has grown in California since 1971 many new stations and local services has been created.
Looking at the developments around the country, what kind of services are promoted is even more important than asking for service. For example along the Gulf Coast simply asking to bring back the Sunset to Orlando is not enough. The new schedule of the Sunset not longer has the equipment sitting idle that was used to run to Florida 3 days a week. An additional trainset would be needed now to extend the Sunset to Florida. What would be better is to extend the City of New Orleans with an additional trainset to Florida daily. Including a scheduled connection with the Sunset at New Orleans as well would be like having your cake and eating it too. Not only would this serve markets in the Southwest and West Coast but also the entire Midwest. Extending the Homeland Flyer north of Oklahoma City is a step in the right direction. Extending it to connect in both directions with the Southwest Chief is even better. The towns in Texas, Okalhoma and Kansas should work together with the towns working to keep the Chief on the Raton Pass in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico. The more friends the better. Such a connection between the Chief and the Flyer will help both trains and the towns in all of those states wanting rail service. It will be important for local communities to push for more cars to run longer trains to carry more passengers and more markets for their trains. Having a section of the Southwest Chief to Denver serving passengers from both the east and west will benefit the states trying to keep the Chief where it is and states wanting to extend the Flyer. In the long run adding a section of the Chief to the San Joaquin Valley and Bay Area will add many markets to stations all over the country if they all connect.