What Could go Wrong for California’s Intercity Trains September 9th, 2012
Opinion By Noel T. Braymer
Legislation is in the works to create Joint Power Authorities for local control of the planning and administration of both the Pacific Surfliner and San Joaquin Trains. This is modeled after the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority or CCJPA which has successfully managed the Capitol Corridor Trains. Some of the advantages of local management are the ability to lobby for service improvements and funding while being able to concentrate on local issues of rail passenger service. Caltrans Rail Division now administers the Pacific Surfliner and San Joaquin Trains. Unlike a JPA as a state government agency Caltrans cannot lobby for funding and must be non-partisan on issues. Also as a State-wide agency it is stretched thin serving the whole State with shrinking budget.
There are many bright spots for future California intercity rail service. There are both more passenger cars and locomotives soon to go to bid which was an accomplishment of Caltrans working with other States and the Federal Government. Funding has recently been approved as part of High Speed Rail for many projects to improve existing railroads used by commuter and intercity trains for higher speeds and greater capacity. The groundwork has been laid for more and faster passenger trains in the State. The challenge to making all of this work and serve most of the State economically is getting the many different government transportation agencies all working together. Each of the 3 JPA’s if they are created will have as members several local agencies. It is difficult just to get the agencies within one JPA working together. With 3 JPA’s the problems of getting all the JPA’s to coordinate their efforts will be even more difficult.
Why is coordinating the services of these 3 regions so important? In a word connections. For people in California to be able to get around the entire State by rail the trains must be scheduled with good connections to each other. A major part of the connectivity of the existing State Rail Passenger network are with connecting buses. Buses play a major role in connecting the Pacific Surfliners with both the San Joaquin and Capitol Corridor trains. Creating the connecting bus system and coordinating the 3 State Rail Corridor has been handled by Caltrans from the beginning. Currently there is no other way to travel between these trains without bus connections. In many cases buses allow greater frequencies on a route where rail service doesn’t go all the way such as connecting by train south of Los Angeles with buses to cities north of Los Angeles. These buses not only increase ridership but also revenues. The Ambuses of California run at a profit or they are cancelled. The money from these profits goes to the State Rail Program. By nature someone travelling with a bus connection is traveling much further than most passengers. Because of this bus connecting passengers are more profitable and pay more to ride the trains than your average passenger. Driving away this traffic will drive away business at a time the State Intercity Rail Services need to improve their economic performance in the face of reduced operating subsidies.
There are many concerns about the future of the San Joaquin Trains with the construction of the of High Speed Rail south of Merced all the way to at least Palmdale. Counties in the southern San Joaquin Valley such as Kern and Kings County are worried there are efforts to stop the San Joaquin Trains at Merced in the future and have the trains serve only the northern part of the Valley. Some people in the southern San Joaquin Valley have expressed fear that this would end passenger rail service to Corcoran and Wasco and direct service on the San Joaquin Trains at Fresno, Hanford and Bakersfield. With conflicting reports it is unsure exactly what is being planned. There is nothing so far in the High Speed Rail Planning about how the southern Valley will be served except by automobiles outside of Fresno, Hanford and Bakersfield. Ridership of successful transportation services depend on a network of connecting services. Airlines are not interested in flying small propeller airplanes from Bakersfield to LAX or Fresno to SFO per se. They do it for the transferring passenger going onwards to places like New York or London. The same should be true of rail service in California. Check any airline schedule and all flight connect with each other at many levels with many ways to get between 2 cities with different connections. For Rail service to grow and be economical a high level of connectivity serving the maximum number or markets is crucial.
This won’t just happen, this has to be planned and is hard work. Usually it is best to have an independent and neutral overseer to work through and referee the conflicts of interest of different agencies. High Speed Rail will not eliminate the need for buses or local rail services. It will change the nature of these services. Considering the massive number of riders a High Speed Rail service can handle, a system of feeders and distributors will be needed to fill up these trains. This won’t be done if we reduce services in the State or ignore area without connections now to rail passenger service.