Monthly Archives

October 2012


Rail Improvements in California over the Next 5-7 Years

Story and Photos by Noel T. Braymer

With all the talk about High Speed Rail and 130 miles of new construction in the San Joaquin Valley by 2018, what can we expect between Los Angeles and San Diego? The projects we can be sure of have been in the works for years. In San Diego County there are about 60 miles of passenger railroad of which over half is now double tracked. By 2018 we can expect at least 8 miles of additional double tracking making 2/3’s of the railroad in San Diego County double tracked.

There is 1.4 miles of double tracking now under construction in Sorrento Valley that should be finished in 2013. By 2015 an additional 1.1 mile should be built in Sorrento Valley as well as 4.2 miles at San Onofre in Camp Pendleton. By 2016 1.5 miles of double tracking will be built in Encinitas. Station improvements  at Oceanside with a third platform and track will increase track capacity with a track to park commuter trains between runs off of the main double tracks by 2014.  A pedestrian tunnel at the Poinsettia Coaster Station to replace the current at grade crossing between tracks will allow 2 trains to use that station at a time increasing track capacity and reduce running times also by 2014.

Construction this summer in Sorrento Valley in San Diego for double tracking

View from the train of a new double tracked bridge to replace the 1916 bridge over the Santa Margarita River in Camp Pendleton

In Orange County by 2014 the plan is to extend double tracking 1.7 miles from the Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo Station to just outside of San Juan Capistrano. In addition by 2017 there will be 8 miles of triple track in Irvine which will increase the track capacity of the corridor and allow express trains to pass slower local trains. Also by 2014 Anaheim plans to open its new ARTIC Transportation Center to replace the current trains station. By 2018 they hope to have Streetcars connecting ARTIC with the area around Disneyland. Most of the other improvements will be for grade separations in Orange County. This could allow faster running times in the county in the future.

Triple Tracking starts here at Fullerton and is being built for 15 more miles towards Los Angeles

In Los Angeles County by 2016 we should see  the completion of 15 miles of triple track between Fullerton and the City of Commerce . A major part of this work are grade separations in this region. There are 7 grade crossings left in Los Angeles County on this segment that need grade separating. There are 2 grade separations under construction now; Passon Blvd in Pico Rivera which will be finished in 2012 and Valley View Ave at the border of La Mirada and Santa Fe Springs finishing in 2014. The rail right of way and grade separations are wide enough to handle 4 tracks. Not only will a grade separated triple track railroad handle more rail traffic without disruption of road traffic but will make it easier to add a fourth track in the near future. With 4 tracks it will be possible to run passenger trains faster on their own 2 tracks than mixed with the slower freight trains.

Recent construction for the new grade separation at Valley View Ave.

Caltran’s graphic of the Valley View Ave. construction

One local project in Los Angeles that will effect Union Station is the Regional Connector now starting construction and scheduled to be finished by 2019. This will be a new rail transit tunnel in downtown which will extend the Blue Line from Long Beach to Little Tokyo, Union Station , Pasadena and the San Gabriell Valley. The Expo Line will also be extended to Little Tokyo and East Los Angeles with same platform transfers to Union Station.

Tracks 13 and 14 have been rebuilt and added at LAUS to make possible closing tracks in the future to build run through tracks

The big project in Los Angeles are the run-through tracks at Union Station. This is a complicated project which now includes 8 run-through tracks out of 12 station passenger tracks with additional bridges on the Los Angeles River to allow through running by any train on all the train routes serving LAUS. By 2017 LA Metro is planning to have this project done which will greatly change LAUS. This should also take 5 to 10 minutes out of the running times for most trains using the station and allow more direct service in the region. This will be critical for future high speed rail service.

Close up view from a graphic from LA Metro of their plans for the LAUS run through tracks

What is less clear but we should be hearing more of in the near future are track improvements north of Los Angeles up as far as Palmdale and Lancaster. These improvements will be needed for faster Metrolink service in the area and for future high speed intercity passenger rail service.  Between Santa Clarita and Palmdale the rail line has steep grades and sharp curves which hold speeds to 35 miles per hour or less for much of the route. A future high speed alignment will likely need a new tunnel roughly following Highway 14 which would bypass the Santa Clarita area. In the near future track improvements should be able to reduce the running times on this route.

This is the recently upgraded siding at Lang on the Antelope Valley Metrolink Line from Los Angeles to Lancaster

So what can be done with these track improvements? With track improvements in the San Joaquin Valley and new faster equipment at least an hour in running time can be pulled out of the running times of the San Joaquins. With track improvements and run-through tracks at LAUS running times should be greatly reduced between San Diego and Los Angeles. Also with run-through tracks it will be possible to run more trains during rush hours. This will allow more intercity trains to run during rush hours without interfering with commuter trains. With new trains on both the San Joaquins and Pacific Surfliners connected by a bus bridge at Santa Clarita it will be possible to offer rail service from Southern California to the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area in less time than it takes to drive. This expanded service would be able to give one day travel mostly by rail by 2018 during the morning, midday and evening peaks. Travelers would be able to leave either the Bay Area or Southern California in the early morning and arrive in Southern California or the Bay Area by mid-day and still return home that night. With expanded service on the ACE route to San Jose via the Altamont Pass either dedicated connections or even direct new San Joaquin service from Bakersfield to San Jose and even San Francisco is possible. Expanded service to Sacramento is desirable but is subject to the approval and the conditions of the agreement of the UP for passenger service between Stockton and Sacramento.

Even on just a local level these track improvements in Southern California will allow additional frequencies and faster running times. With greater coordination faster express trains could run  with fewer stops between San Diego and Los Angeles. These express trains could still connect to other cities with connecting Coaster and Metrolink trains at Oceanside, Irvine, Anaheim and at Los Angeles. These express trains should continue pass Los Angeles for a larger market toward Santa Barbara and San Francisco as well as to Santa Clarita for a bus bridge to the San Joaquin and going as far as Palmdale. The infrastructure work that will be built in the next 5-7 years will make these services possible. The Question is will this level of service be available in 5 years or so able to take advantage of these track improvements?


eNewsletter for October 22, 2012

Amtrak snack bars lost $84.5 million last year; $833 million in 10 years Washington Examiner-Oct 16, 2012 Federal spending over the past 20 years has surged 71 percent faster than inflation, much of it on bloated and wasteful programs and services, …The use of Fully Allocated Accounting by Amtrak opens it to these misleading headlines. The snack bars didn’t lose millions of dollars and cutting out the Cafe Cars wouldn’t save millions. The problem with Fully Allocated Accounting is every segment is charged a share of the total overhead for Amtrak. The problem is Amtrak has more overhead than sources of revenue . For Amtrak to be profitable it needs to expand to bring in the revenue to cover its overhead. To bring in more revenue it needs more equipment, better connections and more trains to serve more markets without greatly increasing its overhead. Cutting back service cuts revenues and makes things worse. NB

October 22, 2012 Part 1  October 22, 2012 Part 2

The above copy of this enewletter is on a PDF file and you will not be able to click on to the links in blue. If you would like an emailed copy of this enewsletter or to subscribe to it email

Rail Photos

PHOTOS of the Month: October, 2012

5 new Rail PHOTOS taken by RailPAC Photographers!


Amtrak’s Capitol Limited arrives at Cumberland, Maryland, on September 28, 2012. Lots of CSX trackwork in the area caused 90 minute delays, but the tracks are much smoother. Photo by Mike Palmer.


The Galloping Goose is now running on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic in northern New Mexico. These cars were used in the late 1940’s for mail, a few passengers, and light freight on this line. Carrying 27 passengers, it will depart at 4:00 PM and return at Midnight after a ribeye dinner at Osier. Many photo stops and run-bys on the very scenic trip. Photo by Robert Snow.


Ben and Jerry’s ice cream stand in Los Angeles Union Station was officially dedicated October 9-13, 2012 with free scoops in the afternoon. Co-founder Ben Cohen was on hand for the dedication. Photo by Russ Jackson.


Interior of the Pacific Parlour Car on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight. Photo by Alexander Friedman.


Platform 7, Los Angeles Union Station, with the newly constructed tracks 13 and 14 for Amtrak and Metrolink. Construction completion and official dedication took place in October, 2012 Photo by Noel Braymer.


Caltrain Modernization Program

Report by Bruce Jenkins, RailPAC Director

Caltrain is the commuter railroad operating on it’s own Right of Way (RoW) from San Francisco to San Jose with a limited six train service further south to Gilroy on Union Pacific RoW. The San Francisco/San Jose leg has been a rail commuter line since 1863 and was known as the San Francisco San Jose Railroad Company. Caltrain is owned and operated by the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board (PCJPB),formed in 1992 and is made up of three representatives from each of the three counties served, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara. SAMTRANS of San Mateo is the managing agency, providing administration and the oversight of the operating contract.

Caltrain does not have a dedicated source of funding, which for years has caused a chronic fiscal crisis. The results are a budget that starts out short of funds every year and has to be balanced with one-time-only funds. In an ongoing effort , Caltrain is working with local, regional, state and federal partners to solve the the chronic fiscal crisis.

Caltrain Statistics:

    Passengers: 14.1 million annually
    Trains: 92 weekday, 68 weekend
    Stations 32
    Track Miles: 50 Caltrain, 27 UP

Modernization Project:

The California Transportation Commission (CTC) in September 2012 voted to fund Caltrain $39.8 million to jump start the modernization of the Caltrain system which will include several interrelated projects that will upgrade performance, efficiency, capacity, safety and stability of the financial posture of Caltrain. The program will help prepare the corridor to eventually accommodate High Speed Rail (HSR). Caltrain and HSR will share Caltrain’s tracks, operating on a “Blended System”. Completion of the program is scheduled in 2019.

Funding (millions)

    Prop 1A California HSR Authority $600
    Federal 500
    Caltrain Member Contributions and Local Funds 196
    Prop 1A Connectivity Funds 106
    Other State and Regional 55
    Total $1456

System improvements include:

  • Electrification of the existing corridor between San Jose and San Francisco. Completion is expected by 2019.
  • Replacement of the diesel fleet of locomotives with high performance electric trains (EMU).
  • Installation of an advanced signal system including federally mandated safety improvements.
  • Representation of a Bombardier doubledeck EMU, which Caltrain may buy.

    Design is now in progress of a Communications Based Overlay Signal System (CBOSS) which includes Positive Train Control (PTC) which will vastly improve safety at grade crossings and performance along the entire corridor, reduce run time, increase number of trains per hour (with electrification), prevent train to train collisions , enforces speed restrictions, allows schedule to be maintained during construction and safety of workers along the RoW and allows interoperability with freight trains and will be compatible with High Speed Rail (Blended System). This system will meet the federal mandate to install PTC by 2015. The Blended System will require additional infrastructure beyond this modernization . Those improvements will be limited to only what is needed to support the Blended System that will operate primarily on two tracks within the existing corridor.

    Ridership and Regional Benefits:

      Service and Ridership

    1. reduce travel time up to 13%
    2. more frequent service, more stations and more riders
    3. increase ridership up to 55%
    4. restore service to Broadway and Atherton
    5. reduce train noise


    1. Positve Train Control (PTC) safety improvements
    2. enhanced safety at vehicular and pedestrian crossings
    3. onboard safety enhancements


    1. reduce locomotive emissions by 90%
    2. increase capacity to meet growing demand reduces traffic congestion thereby improving air quality

      Economic Contributions

    1. creates 9000 job years of new employment
    2. reduced travel times of commuters creates potentially $370 million in economic value
    3. increases real estate values in proximity of Caltrain stations

      Caltrain Budget

    1. increases ridership and revenue
    2. reduced operating costs
    3. reduces operating subsidy by half
    4. frees up funding for local bus and light rail

    All in all, this project is a very sound investment who’s time has finally arrived. Many RailPAC, Bay Rail Alliance and Sierra Club members who for many years have pushed for Electrification are elated that finally “we can see the light at the end of the tunnel”.

    Visuals courtesy Caltrain


    Where I Would Like to Go by Train; but Can’t

    By Noel T. Braymer 

    The best places to go to by train are those with lots of traffic, congestion and expensive parking. One place like that which is hard in California to go to by train are airports. There are several California airports with transit connections to train stations. The last time I tried to take the Coaster to the San Diego Airport I had to be at the airport to catch my flight before the first morning train arrived in San Diego.

    When I got back to San Diego the last train to take me to my home of the night had left before 9 PM about the time I was getting my checked bag at the still busy airport. The good news is the San Diego Airport plans to build a train station plus a new terminal near the tracks with connections to the existing terminals. This is much better than the slow transit bus one needs to catch now 3 miles away from the downtown train station. But without rail service running at times the airport has flights it won’t be used by people that would need it for flying.

    We see much the same thing at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank which has one train station already and is building a second one at a different rail line next to the airport. More trains will be needed at Burbank with service to most of Los Angeles County to get to the airport to catch planes on time and get home after you land. San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is near Caltrain. But Caltrain passengers have to transfer to some of the BART trains at Millbrae which stops only at the International Terminal.To reach flights at any other terminal requires a long walk or transfer to the airport people mover. A better solution would be to extend the people mover to the Millbrae BART/Caltrain stations which would allow passengers on all BART trains and Caltrain to get to SFO. LAX is suppose to get rail transit in the near future. But the are no plans to have direct connections by rail from LAX to LA Union Station or any Metrolink station. Shuttle bus connection to airports from train stations can work well when trains run when people fly which will be needed at LAX without decent rail connections.

    Near most busy airports are major business centers. Near airports there are large hotels, commercial building and major businesses. LAX is like a second downtown and SFO isn’t much different. A major employment center is anchored in Orange County near John Wayne Airport which is also near near UCI. But these activity centers are largely ignored in planning for future rail service. We can’t build new tracks in most cases where there are none now. But connecting services to these activity centers with heavy traffic is needed. For now this will mean bus service as shuttles or as part of a larger network to these busy activity centers.

    Another overlooked activity center are large universities. Many universities have student bodies as large as small cities. Also not only do many people work at universities but many people work at stores and businesses near universities. A good example of this is Stanford University in Palo Alto. Silicon Valley is where it is because of Stanford. Stanford has one of the oldest and most respected Department of Electronic Engineering. Two early graduates of Stanford’s Electronic Engineering program were Dave Packard and Bill Hewitt. You may know their company as HP. Westwood in Los Angeles has UCLA and is a busy activity center. But there is no direct connections to Westwood by rail. Sometime In the future there should be a subway from Westwood to Union Station. But we could have a bus from the Van Nuys Station on I-405 serving Westwood and LAX now also serving Fullerton.

    In San Diego the largest employment center is not downtown but in the area around UCSD. Not just at UCSD but also at nearby Torry Pines, University Towne Centre and Sorrento Valley. The Sorrento Valley Coaster Station is the busiest Coaster Station and it depends on feeder buses to take commuters to and from work. The San Diego Trolley is planning to extend service north of Old Town to UCSD and University Towne Centre (UTC). But the Trolley has no plans to build a transfer station with the Coaster let alone the Surfliners anywhere near UTC even though they will share right of way. The best chance now is in the future for a joint station at UTC which will require several miles of tunneling for commuter and intercity trains. Such a tunnel will reduce running times for Coaster and intercity trains even with with a stop at UTC but this isn’t likely to be funded before 2050.

    Rail has some bright spots serving major attractions such as sporting events. You can get to Hollywood from Union Station by subway. It is also possible by subway to get to Universal Studios through I doubt many tourists use it since the station isn’t close to the main gate of Universal Studios. It seems odd that San Diego which depends greatly on tourism yet except for package deals has no direct connections at train stations to Sea World or the San Diego Zoo. Orange County is very busy creating connections to its Metrolink Stations to insure the majority of its residents can use local expanded Orange County Metrolink service for travel in the County. A good example of this is the new ARTIC Transportation Center now under construction in Anaheim. The new train station will continue to serve the California Angel’s Baseball Stadium and will also serve the nearby Honda Center which is home of the Mighty Ducks. As part of ARTIC there are plans to construct a streetcar line to serve Disneyland and many of the attractions near it. Orange County has or is planning connecting shuttle bus services at all of its Metrolink Stations. Another major project is a streetcar planned for the Santa Ana Transportation Center which will connect downtown Santa Ana to the Transportation Center and continue up a preserved former Pacific Electric Right of Way to Garden Grove. There is discussion of extending this up busy Harbor Blvd to connect at Anaheim to the ARTIC Streetcar line.

    It is important to serve major activity centers by rail if it is to be a useful service. Some rail service can be expanded with new stations and new tracks. But in many places having connections from rail by rail transit and bus service are the only viable option. Just as important as having stations and connections is having rail service besides just during commuter hours to serve airports and entertainment venues at times people want or need to travel.


    eNewsletter for October 15, 2012

    The diner was operated by a crew of four—two chefs and two waitresses, who, fortunately for the passengers who had paid thousands of dollars for the privilege of riding, worked their tails off to feed everyone. (That is not an exaggeration—the last bedrooms sold for the astonishing price of $1,478 on top of the rail fare, and roomettes were offered at an equally astonishing $661.) And still #4 was full—literally every coach seat occupied for substantial parts of the trip, and the sleepers almost completely occupied.

    October 15, 2012 Part 1  October 15, 2012 Part 2

    The above copy of this enewletter is on a PDF file and you will not be able to click on to the links in blue. If you would like an emailed copy of this enewsletter or to subscribe to it email


    The Texas Eagle in Illinois and the San Joaquins in California

    Commentary by Ralph James, RailPAC contributor

    On October 2, 2012, the Railway Age “blog” contained an article by Lyndon Henry, “Texas Eagle highlights passenger train success,” which was included in the October 8 RailPAC weekly e-newsletter. In that article a statement is made that the Chicago-St. Louis upgrades on the Union Pacific will not affect the Eagle’s schedule or connection problems at Chicago. I do not see how the upgrade cannot but help the Eagle and improve at least some of the Chicago connections, although it is evident that not ALL connections in both directions could be made without making a few fairly major adjustments to the Chicago departure and/or the E/B schedules of the Builder and Zephyr.

    The current schedule time of just under six hours N/B for 284 miles calculates out to just over 47 mph including stops and recovery time of approximately 30 minutes. The S/B schedule has less recovery time and calculates out to about 51 mph including stops. Similar distances for the San Joaquins with maximum track speed of 79 mph between Stockton and Bakersfield range between 56 and 59 mph including stops, with variations affected by time of day and number of meets on single track.

    Making some rough assumptions that the CHI-STL upgrade includes not only 110 mph track speed for the local service equipment but also significantly improves the slowest segments in congested areas for all trains (approach to St. Louis for example), the Eagle should be able to run at 90 mph (or possibly slightly higher depending on Superliner design speed) between stations. Making another rough assumption that the longer dwell time and slower acceleration of the Eagle will offset the time gained through higher track speed it would be reasonable to expect the Eagle to maintain an average speed including stops at 90 mph track speed similar to the San Joaquins at 79 mph track speed. The Chicago-St. Louis route is approximately 50 miles longer and has one less intermediate stop than Stockton-Bakersfield so there will be less starion dwell and more time at full track speed vs.the San Joaquins.

    If the above assumptions are anywhere close to accurate, an average speed N/B CHI-STL of 56 mph vs. 47 mph over 284 miles translates to a time saving of approximately one hour. If 59 mph average can be achieved the time saving is approximately an hour and a quarter. With less recovery time the S/B run presently done at 51 mph would be approximately one half to three quarters of an hour faster.

    There are six connections mentioned to/from the Empire Builder, California Zephyr and Southwest Chief. A look at each shows the following:

  • Builder from N/B Eagle: Presently 23 minutes NO CONNECTION becomes an hour and 23 minutes–GOOD CONNECTION.
  • Builder to S/B Eagle: Presently misses by 2:10 still would miss by approximately an hour and three quarters–NO CONNECTION.
  • Zephyr from N/B Eagle: Presently 8 minutes NO CONNECTION becomes an hour and 8 minutes–GOOD CONNECTION.
  • Zephyr to S/B Eagle: Presently misses by 1:05 still would miss by a half hour–NO CONNECTION.
  • Chief from N/B Eagle: Presently 1:08 GOOD CONNECTION becomes more than two hour GOOD CONNECTION.
  • Chief to S/B Eagle: Presently misses by 1:30 still would miss by approximately an hour, but can use Missouri Service from Kansas City to connect.
  • Conclusions: Upgrade can add two Western connections from N/B Eagle and makes one Western connection from Zephyr to S/B Eagle reasonable to consider. Builder W/B to Eagle S/B is the only connection that cannot reasonably be made or considered after upgrade.

    Connections N/B from the Eagle to all three Western trains should be possible after CHI-STL upgrade without any additional schedule adjustments.
    Connections S/B from Builder would require an approximate three hour combined schedule adjustment, probably not reasonable under current conditions.
    Connections S/B from Zephyr would require an approximate hour and a half combined schedule adjustment, REASONABLE to consider.
    Connections S/B from Chief would require an approximate two hour combined schedule adjustment, probably not reasonable, but connection to Eagle and all intermediate points CHI-STL can be made using Missouri Service from Kansas City as at present.

    The above analysis is a high-level overview only, but shows that it is reasonable to expect some measurable benefits to the Eagle from the CHI-STL upgrade.


    YES, Long-Distance Amtrak Trains are Crowded!

    Trip Report on the Southwest Chief and the Empire Builder
    Commentary by Andrew C. Selden, MinnARP, Minneapolis

    Recently I rode Los Angeles-Chicago on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief #4 over a weekend and it was jammed the entire way. There were two sleepers and just two coaches, which the crew—conductor and service crew alike—reported was a standard seasonal move only rarely supplanted with a single-trip appearance of a third coach. Thanks to there being only two coaches, there was only one coach attendant, who spent part of her day barking at passengers in the lounge car to pick up after themselves and throw all their trash away, evidently so that she wouldn’t have to pick up any of it, as she unilaterally closed the lounge car and evicted all the paying passengers at Mendota, 90 minutes out from Chicago; not just closing the service bar—the lounge guy did that—but closing the CAR. Amtrak has clearly lost control of the service environment on board their own trains.

    The Southwest Chief diner was operated by a crew of four—two chefs and two waitresses, who worked their tails off to feed everyone, fortunately for the passengers who had paid thousands of dollars for the privilege of riding. That is not an exaggeration—the last bedrooms sold for the astonishing price of $1,478 on top of the rail fare, and roomettes were offered at an equally astonishing $661. And still #4 was full—literally every coach seat occupied for substantial parts of the trip, and the sleepers almost completely occupied. Amtrak, one suspects, chose not to operate a third sleeper or a third coach in order to avoid the costs associated with the incremental car attendants, an extra waiter, and the wheelage costs. Yet THIS is where the money is to be made in this business.

    The Southwest Chief often misconnects even with the Kansas City-St. Louis train, and connections to St. Louis are not referenced in the timetable. We saw the Denver bus waiting at Raton. On several occasions, we saw BNSF dispatchers using their best efforts to expedite movement of the Southwest Chief, even at the cost of halting their own (numerous) doublestack trains. The best example was at Dalies Junction, west of Belen, NM, where the “new” Transcon diverges towards Belen and the old main heads northeast to Albuquerque. As our No. 4 approached on the southerly track at full track speed, we saw three eastbound stack trains stopped more or less on each other’s markers on the northerly track so we could cross over in front of them to the line to ABQ. At the junction, we saw two westbounds also stopped, waiting for us to pass. BNSF obviously cares about meeting their obligation to keep the passenger trains moving. By the end of the trip, we arrived at Chicago 25 minutes early, which says more about the timetable than it does Amtrak’s train operations.

    So, here’s my question-of-the-day:
    Why does the official Amtrak timecard for the Southwest Chief show every bus that comes near the route, and even the New Mexico RailRunner, but offers no mention, hint, or clue that one can connect at KC to and from the Missouri River Runner service to St. Louis, and it’s even a legal connection both ways as far as I can tell? And, for extra credit, why does the bus to Denver connect at Raton instead of Trinidad?

    The Empire Builder is not what it was even four years ago. Crews have been downsized even more, especially the practice of short-turning one diner waiter from train #8 to #7 in Wisconsin (with 8 always late, it goes short a waiter during lunch on its last day into Chicago, and 7 is short a waiter during dinner coming west out of Milwaukee). The use of a summer-season “upstairs guy” in the lounge car Chicago-Whitefish was discontinued. That position didn’t do enough sales to be worth the cost, and they never figured out how to have the upstairs attendant spell the downstairs one for breaks to keep the car always open due to cash-handling responsibilities. The dedicated assignment of the newest cars to Route 25 is now only a theory, not a practice. Food quality is inconsistent. Seattle-based crews are still the norm, but quality still varies noticeably. And timekeeping is really bad not always Amtrak’s fault, of course, with track issues in North Dakota, and the occasional BNSF wreck in single-track, no-detour route, territory. So, is the Empire Builder worth the premium fare? Just barely, and not anywhere as much as it was a few years ago.

    On the plus side: the mid-day sleeper passenger wine-tasting during the middle day in Montana is a huge success. Everyone loves that, even the sleeper attendants who staff it. The new business at Williston and Stanley, ND is a mixed blessing, as these are mostly oilfield roughnecks who fill otherwise empty coach seats, but have caused management issues for the crews as they are not always the best-behaved passengers on the train. And, the Empire Builder has NO additional capacity in sleepers where the money is to be made, and have had only the seasonal Chicago-Minneapolis local coach, train #807/808, which is quite helpful as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough west to help with the new crowding in North Dakota.


    Highway or No Way: the Need for Transportation Alternatives

    Article and Photos By Noel T. Braymer

    Man: An argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.

    Other Man: It is NOT    

    Man: YES It Is…  

    The Argument by Monty Python

    What is missing at the national level for transportation is the middle ground where most people are. The choices from some politicians seem to be between only very expensive rail projects or trying to build our way out of congestion with more roads. Neither “choice” is a viable option. Our road and highway system is suffering from almost 40 years of deferred maintenance. Current spending isn’t keeping up with required maintenance for traffic demand now let alone future growth. There isn’t enough money to build every project the backers of these projects  want. Rising energy and transportation costs are effecting almost everyone by reducing their disposable income which holds back economic growth. We need to look at a mix of economical alternatives to keep people and the economy moving.

    Economically today things are more like they were a 100 years ago then the 1990’s. More people are sharing housing such as grown children staying with their parents. More people are moving to urban areas to be closer to jobs and services to save money on driving. People are walking, biking and using public transportation more to live within their means. There is a shortage of land to build new roads and more parking in urban areas. Moving people to rural areas creates problems over water and loss of farmland. Plus without jobs no one will stay the rural areas which usually have high unemployment. This is all understood by most local leaders in urban areas that the local road system can’t be enlarged enough to handle current demand and in rural areas that  better transportation  is needed to create jobs with economic growth.

    The problem in this country with public transportation is that often not enough people ride it to make it economical. The reason for this is often it doesn’t take people where and when they want to go or is near where they live or work. In the 1960’s and 70’s attempts to increase use of Public Transportation concentrated on expanding transit bus service to as many places as possible. The result was expensive with lots of nearly empty buses running regularly in the suburbs. At the same time there were crowded buses running in the city. In San Diego County, North County Transit has recently in the face of tight budgets and a weak economy was able to expand service on its Coaster trains and transit buses while lowering fares and increasing revenues. Central to this is they have been adding service on their busy bus lines and trains which increased ridership. At the same time they have cut back service on some of their weaker bus lines. In some cases bus lines have been replaced with Dial-a~Ride services which pick people up and drop the off from home to where they want to go.

    Central to seeing public transportation thrive in all its forms: Transit, Commuter, and Intercity trains and buses is serving markets well and carrying enough passengers to produce enough revenue to justify the service. Comparing American rail passenger service to that of most of the world ours carry very few people. Transit in general and rail in particular has very high overhead. It takes a lot of passengers traveling many miles to justify the overhead for rail service. When we look at rail service in much of the world there are many more rail cars, trains and passengers per route mile than in this country. To make rail passenger service viable we need more equipment to carry more passengers more places and further than we are now.

    The area around the San Diego train station in the early 1990’s

    Transportation is central to a healthy economy. Major cities are always transportation hubs. Good rail passenger service is an economical way to revitalize the economy of any town or region. It is not an issue of a technology like subways or High Speed Rail. It is rather about creating a system that works together of several parts. Take downtown San Diego for example. Back in the mid-1970s downtown San Diego had a few bright spots and some impressive new buildings. But like most downtowns it had its share of rundown areas. One such area was around the old train station the Santa Fe Depot. With only 3 round trips a day the station wasn’t very busy. Starting around 1976 extra trains where added with new equipment supported by the State of California and things started to change. It was during the late 70’s that planning began for “Light Rail” to run on downtown city streets and an abandoned railroad to the Mexican border. Like many cities San Diego had before this brought in consultants who proposed expensive “hi-tech” rapid transit systems which never got built because of the cost and local opposition. During the debate to build Light Rail the opponents called the project the “Tijuana Trolley” and the name stuck. This was the origins of the San Diego Trolley. During the planning there was disagreement about where to terminate the Trolley downtown. Some of the planners opposed building the Trolley to the train station thinking it was too expensive and wouldn’t get many riders. By 1980 3 round trips had grown to 7 round trips between San Diego and Los Angeles with ridership more than tripling to over a million riders a year. In 1981 when the Trolley opened the train station stop quickly became one of the busiest for the Trolley.

    The San Diego Trolley at the downtown train station in the ealry 1980’s

    The impact of the Trolley in San Diego can be seen all over the city. In several locations new Trolley stations built on open land have become mixed housing and shopping areas. The most spectacular example of the Trolley’s effect on downtown was the construction of the new baseball stadium downtown. The location for the stadium was in the heart of skid row. It is near the junction of two Trolley Lines and 3 Trolley Stations. When the baseball stadium was proposed there were objections that there wasn’t enough parking and traffic would be a nightmare during games days. The results were that the Trolley is a popular way to get to baseball games and parking and traffic haven’t been a problem at the stadium. As part of the stadium project the area around it has seen redevelopment with new shops and housings and improvements for the Trolley which brings in more people to visit the area. The most visible impact of new rail service in San Diego is around the train station. Today up to 11 Amtrak Trains, some with service to Santa Barbara and even San Luis Obispo serve San Diego. In addition Trolley service has been greatly expanded with 3 lines serving the trains station and Coaster commuter train service has been running since 1995 from Oceanside. The area around the station, the Santa Fe Depot as recently as the 1990’s was largely open land for parking lots and for a short time a driving range next to the station. Today along the right of way to the station is a canyon of new skyscrapers. Several are office buildings but many are high priced condos. There are 4 tall condos in a row just along the west side of the right of way near the train station. If they weren’t full no one would have built a second. Not only that but more high rise condos are being built in the area. While many places may have a housing gut in this county and in California, there is demand for new housing in downtown San Diego.

    Recent view of the railroad tracks leading into the downtown train station in San Diego.

    Near the San Diego train station this billboard as of October 2012 makes clear expensive condos are selling near transportation.

    Rail service won’t eliminate the car. But rail service for less money and using less land than roads can reduce congestion in busy areas. This has been the story with several new downtown sports stadiums around the county. This has been true in San Diego where sports fans travel to baseball games on both the Trolley and Coaster trains to downtown. While the Coaster runs mostly during rush hours and seems a small part of the total travel on the I-5 corridor, it has the effect of adding one additional lane to the freeway during rush hour. The Coaster was less expensive to start than building additional lanes. The difference at rush hour between freer flowing traffic and congestion is is often the ridership of the Coaster getting people to work on the I-5 corridor. Recent proposals to widen I-5 in northern San Diego County met with a great deal of resistance when it meant that many homes would be lost in the proposed construction. There was popular support to expand Coaster service instead of widening the freeway. Finally it was agreed to limit the freeway expansion to Car Pool lanes and to double track the railroad in San Diego County and expand Coaster service. There are plans to in the future to run the Coaster several times an hour all day 7 days a week as track improvements are made. Also proposed is extended service to Fullerton in Orange County. There are many trips between San Diego County County and Orange County that current rail service doesn’t serve. The longer trips will also improve the economic performance of the Coaster. Metrolink service will also be expand between San Diego and Fullerton with the first trains planned to run by 2014.

    Rail service as this picture of the Coaster shows can carry many people during rush hour and take a major strain off of the roads.

    It we wanted an example of many of the problems of building rail service, BART the Bay Area Rapid Transit service would be poster child for that. BART was very ambitious and expensive to build. Construction was way over budget, well behind schedule, had many problems when it first opened, construction had many negative impacts particularly the subway construction under Market Street in San Francisco and it was not an overnight success. Even though it is called Bay Area Rapid Transit it was mostly intended to bring commuter into downtown San Francisco and to a lesser degree to Oakland and Berkeley. Many of the suburban stations were in the middle of nowhere with large parking lots that didn’t serve the local communities. But what BART did achieve was a major change in downtown San Francisco and major construction downtown along Market Street. San Francisco was able to grow as a job center in the Bay Area without additional freeway construction which San Francisco was physically too small to handle. When the big earthquake hit the Bay Area during the World Series of 1989 BART was proven critical to the Bay Area. Because of the earthquake the Bay Bridge was closed for many months. BART was jammed but went a long way along with additional ferry service to keep the Bay Area functioning. Today travel on the Bay Bridge and BART is roughly equal between San Francisco and Oakland. Today the Bay Area would not function without BART.

    We can’t afford to replicate BART all over the county let alone in California. But we need to spend money to keep our transportation system working. When there is good transportation there is a healthy economy. If you want to see poverty, just get off the beaten path and go to the middle of nowhere. We can’t build everything. But we need to fix our roads and improve them. Connections to airports are important since it is difficult to build more of them and rail can be a short distance feeder allowing airlines to expand flights for more profitable longer distance travel. We can use existing rights of way to add more rail service economically. The California High Speed Rail Project will only get built if it shares improved existing passenger railroad particularly in the urban areas. Tilt trains are useful for providing faster rail passenger service without the major expense or disruption of building all new rail lines everywhere. Rail service can’t go everywhere, but can connect with everyplace with good bus connections and parking lots. Smaller towns need long distance trains to connect to the big cities.Train stations in rural area have a strong positive economic effect. Urban areas need rail service to control congestion and support mixed development and affordable housing so people can use rail service near where they live, shop and work. Cars, buses, bikes and walking along with trains can all work together for better, more economical and less congested travel. There is a growing awareness and consensus that a mix of transportation and development is the way to go control congestion and grow the economy. What is missing is getting Washington to get the message.

    Rail Photos, Reports

    To Sacramento by way of the Sunset Limited-Texas Eagle

    Photo and Trip Report in newly rebuilt Superliner cars by Russ Jackson, RailPAC

    “It isn’t the destination it’s the journey.” That’s what the retired doctor sitting across from us in the Sunset Limited dining car said about train travel. He was the personification of that statement, as his trip started in Seattle on the Coast Starlight, joined us on the Sunset Limited on our return journey to Ft. Worth from attending the RailPAC Steel Wheels Conference in Sacramento, and stayed on the Texas Eagle to Chicago where he would board the Empire Builder for his trip home. That’s a veteran train traveler, and the type who is willing to spend to enjoy his trips. We all were satisfied travelers, pleased with our journey and the opportunities to see the country close up. There was a full train-load of passengers both ways, with “on’s” and “off’s” at every station.

    Free enterprise at work: the “burrito lady” selling $2 home made burritos to Sunset Limited passengers and crew at the El Paso, Texas station.

    Let’s back up and start our journey. Getting a reservation from Ft. Worth to Los Angeles and return was a two-step procedure. The first attempt showed nothing available when we wanted to go, but a wait of a few weeks into July yielded our reservation in sleeping car 32059 on train 421 which would get us into Los Angeles on September 14 so we could get to Sacramento in time for the meeting the next day. The return reservation was in sleeping car 32032. We were delighted to discover that both cars were recent rebuilds out of the Beech Grove Amtrak shops, with the new easier-to-clean wall panels replacing the carpeted walls that had become so shabby.

    Superliner easy-to-clean panels.

    New sinks and the non-splash faucets.

    Touch-type lighting controls.

    When we discussed this with Amtrak’s Brian Rosenwald at the Sacramento meeting we talked about our approval of the new interiors, new sinks, non-splash faucets, and restroom-shower design. He spoke of how he was working on new mattresses, new lighting wattage, and expressed concern when we told him there were no soap bars, no sink cups, no hooks to hang clothes on, the air conditioning was too cold and is still not adjustable. On our return trip car 32032 had soap bars and cups, but not the new mattresses or hooks, had the bright new LED lighting with touch-type switches, and the temperatures were bearable. Those newly rebuilt sleeping cars are comfortable, and we dare say “healthier” to travel in even if the door between bedrooms still rattles and the PA in our 422 car did not work.

    Private varnish “Patron Tequilla Express” on the rear of the Sunset Limited at Alpine, Texas station.

    How did Amtrak and the BNSF-UP handle our trips? Our train 421 had been held on the UP at Alton, IL, the day before “because a truck with a propane tank was parked too close to the tracks,” according to our attendant Reggie, and “that was scary.” The usual bang-bang-bang of moving the through cars between the Texas Eagle and the Sunset Limited at San Antonio was loudly accomplished, but there was a private car on the westbound Sunset that had to be set aside first so it could be placed back behind the Amtrak through-sleeper and coach. Amtrak on time performance was nearly perfect both ways, with UP and BNSF freights standing by on sidings. There could have been a significant delay departing Los Angeles on 422 because the connecting Coast Starlight was running 5 hours late due to a bicycle rider fatality near Eugene, but passengers either rode the San Joaquin from Sacramento or were on buses on the Coast Line, and they arrived in time for our 10 PM departure! As for the sleeping car attendants, Reggie and the others were friendly. efficient, and responsive. They confirmed there is a plan for them to ride the entire length of the Chicago to LA trip, and Reggie was looking forward to seeing California for the first time when that happens. Jesus told us he was 67, had worked for Amtrak since 2005 and would work until he was 70.

    Sunset Limited cheeseburger lunch.

    Coast Starlight salad lunch.

    How were the food and beverages and the dining car service? We were satisfied customers! In the article, “What did I learn from listening to Amtrak’s Brian Rosenwald,” published on and printed in the Steel Wheels newsletter we discussed the food and beverage situation and that Mr. Rosenwald had seen our previous article about having 24 hour service in the dining car, which would have made it possible to sell more of those great Angus cheeseburgers, salads and other menu items and more beverages, to passengers who board at the intermediate stations many times at strange hours, eliminating the “reservation” system for the limited hours of service now. Look at how many hours of unproductive use there is in those dining cars today. We heard after our return that Amtrak cut back the dining car staffing on the Sunset Limited ostensibly because of the “end of the season.” You’d never know it from the full trains in September. There is NO doubt that an added Superliner sleeping car and/or coach would also have sold out and put NO added burden on our dining car crews.

    Passengers visiting on the platform at Alpine, Texas, a crew change-smoking break-wait for departure time location.

    The passengers we meet in the dining cars add to the journey enjoyment, like the retired doctor mentioned above, and the couple from Arkansas who had driven to Oklahoma City, rode the Heartland Flyer to Ft. Worth, then were on our trains to Los Angeles where they would transfer to the Coast Starlight for the trip to Klamath Falls. They were going to vacation on the Oregon coast, then drive to Eureka, and fly home via Sacramento, Denver, and Oklahoma City before driving home. It was their first Amtrak trip and they were loving it, even making plans for another journey. Another couple was traveling round trip between Virginia and Los Angeles on the Crescent and Sunset, and did so every six months for business reasons. There was the breakfast with a young couple who were going from Vancouver, Canada, to Tucson and would visit the Grand Canyon, who had plenty of time to eat before the arrival at Tucson, as the delay at Maricopa, AZ, still lasts up to more than a half hour. See a pattern of what the long-distance train traveler is?

    Traffic backed up from the SR 347 crossing next to the Maricopa, AZ train station on a Saturday morning waiting for the Sunset Limited to depart.

    Then, there’s the problem for “law enforcement.” Amtrak has a hard rule of “no smoking” anywhere on trains. Sometimes individuals choose to not obey or wait for the designated smoking stops. Amtrak and local law enforcement agencies cooperate to enforce the rule as well as deal with unruly passengers who, shall we say, drink too much. Amtrak conductors make their threats on the PA system, but there’s always someone who doesn’t believe them. The clue is when an attendant will call for a conductor to come to a coach car for “assistance.” Westbound, a man was removed at a crossing just east of Tucson and handed to the Pima County Sheriffs Office after he had sipped too much from two bottles of gin he was carrying. He told the conductor that it was ok as he had a “prescription” for gin. Yeah, well, off he went. Another unruly passenger went to the Casa Grande, AZ, police who took custody. On the return trip, two young “smokers” carrying backpacks had their journey end with the Willcox, AZ police. Neither Casa Grande or Willcox are scheduled stops. Then in the middle of the night, the U.S. Border Patrol boarded at Del Rio, TX, with a drug-sniffing dog. Coach passengers were told to “keep your feet out of the aisle or the dog might bite.”

    Add in the great views, and how is that for an interesting journey that eventually reached its destinations?

    Photos by the author; salad photo by Alexander Friedman!