Why Not Lease the Coast Line? December 15th, 2012
Opinion and Photos by Noel T. Braymer
Amtrak is leasing for at least the next 25 years 95 miles of railroad from the CSX of the Empire Corridor in upstate New York. The reasons for doing this are so Amtrak can dispatch their train to improve their on-time performance and have a free hand in installing up to 191 million dollars in track improvements mostly from Federal Grant monies. Why can’t California get a deal like this? Where such an arrangement is most needed in California is on the roughly 360 miles of the Coast Line between Ventura County and San Jose. There is a large potential market along the coast of California for more Rail Passenger service but progress expanding service has been very slow. The root of the problem stems from resistance from the owner; the Union Pacific Railroad which has made it clear its management isn’t interested in Rail Passenger service.
Why would leasing the Coast Line be in the best interest of the UP? Clearly the UP has no interest to sell the Coast Line or any part of its system. Railroads use their rights of way for more than running trains. Rail rights of way are also used for fiber optic cables, pipelines and other utilities. Ownership of land next to the railroad generates revenue for the railroads. Also holding on to rights of way which are irreplaceable gives the railroads potential capacity for future growth. By leasing, not selling the Coast Line the UP would hold on to the long term value of their asset. Also by leasing the railroads can let the government deal the headaches of maintenance, legal liability, emergency repairs from disasters etc. Also getting a check every month from the government for lease payments wouldn’t hurt either.
The Coast Line is a secondary freight carrier, it always has been. It has always been primarily a passenger carrier with the San Joaquin Line the primary freight hauler. It is available to relieve the San Joaquin Line when needed due to congestion, but most of the time the UP doesn’t have much traffic on it. The Coast Line is in much better shape under the UP than it was under the SP 30 years ago. Still it is an expensive line to maintain. Much of it is wedged between the ocean and cliffs. Erosion is a constant problem with the ocean undermining the tracks and there is the threat of landslides from nearby cliffs and hillsides. Recent history has seen an increase in violent storms which creates much damage to infrastructure, particularly in low lying areas near water such as in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties where the Coast Line runs.
So why should government want to lease the Coast Line: because it is much cheaper to lease and fix up an existing railroad than to build a new one or a new freeway. Government is responsible for most infrastructure and emergency services. The primary transportation corridors in the state are the I-5/99 corridor and the 101 corridor. Both are already busy and demand for future transportation continues to grow. In a major emergency either or both corridors could shut downs for days or longer. A major problem in an emergency is when transportation is shut down in the affected area help can’t be brought in and or people evacuated to get out. Creating a viable alternative to the 101 Highway along the Coast is needed and doable using the Coast Line. But the Coast Line will have to be upgraded and improved to be less vulnerable to floods and landslides.
What kind of service should we have on the Coast Line? The Coast Line is considered a future High Speed Rail Corridor by the Federal Railroad Administration. No one would go 200 miles per hour on it, but speeds up to 125 miles per hour are viable on much of the route. With extensive double tracking and improved signaling regular local and express service would provide a high capacity passenger rail service with enough capacity still available for freight service. In addition to almost hourly service and the current Coast Starlight an overnight train to the Bay Area could either be an extension of the California Zephyr or a new train that transfers cars to the Zephyr. As part of the lease deal we should also get a second frequency of the Starlight leaving Los Angeles in the afternoon and arriving in the day. Leasing would also improve local service including commuter service in the Santa Barbara region and expanded service between Ventura County and Los Angeles.
So who should lease the Coast Line from the UP? It could be Amtrak, or the State of California with Caltrans or a new body to administer it. What is important is not so much who runs it but how it is run. Even leasing and operating a railroad is expensive. With any successful capital intensive enterprise the key to success is getting as much use out of your capital as possible. That means running as many trains as the line is capable of that produce revenue. By leasing the Coast Line there is an incentive to run more service with connections to increase revenue passenger miles to pay the bills. This would encourage expanding all services including more Caltrain and Capitol Corridor trains south of San Jose to Gilroy and Salinas with connections to Monterey.