The Coast Starlight and the Coast Line are Just Coasting

Report and Commentary by Russ Jackson

Amtrak’s Coast Starlight still travels daily between Los Angeles and Seattle. Should we take it for granted? Well, let’s look at its performance lately. From Amtrak’s December 2012 Performance Report, now posted on Amtrak.com, we know the train’s end-point “on time performance” (OTP) for the fiscal year since October 1, 2012, has deteriorated compared to the same period in 2011, from 85.9% to 73.9%. That’s down 12%. The good news is that on February 11, 2013, train 11 arrived at Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS) 3 minutes early having not been later than 51 minutes enroute, which was at Santa Barbara, so the early LA arrival was due largely to using up schedule padding. Train 14 on the same day arrived in Seattle 38 minutes early, not having been late more than 19 minutes at any station enroute.

While that is good news and represents what happens on most days with the Starlight, when there is a bad day it can be really bad. An example is train 14 that departed LAUS on January 24. RailPAC VP South, James Smith, was on board. Everything was great until they were on Vandenberg AFB, where one locomotive conked out because of a coolant problem, and they limped into San Luis Obispo where the Union Pacific attached its two helper engines to get them up Cuesta Grade as far as Santa Margarita. At Oakland Amtrak put on “protect” locomotive 510, a P-32, and it had more problems as the alerter kept going on and off, delaying the train for hours at Redding. James Smith was not unhappy with this totally, as he saw Mt. Shasta from the train in the morning for the first time on his many journeys. At Portland that evening it was time for a full inspection, which delayed the train over an hour with the power shut down on a cold night with passengers on board. They reached Seattle at Midnight rather than the scheduled 8:37 PM. What this shows again is Amtrak has too many problems with its locomotives. On January 31 another train 14 lost an hour at Eugene, Oregon, because a passenger barricaded himself in a sleeping-car restroom and set fire to the paper-towel dispenser. Eugene police forced open the restroom door and arrested the fighting suspect.

How is the Starlight performing at the intermediate stations? Only a few stations on the route are served only by trains 11 and 14. According to Great American Stations, in FY 2012 Chemult, Oregon, had 10,304 passengers who paid $761,216 into Amtrak’s revenue. Klamath Falls, Oregon had 32,881 who paid a whopping $2,202,627. Four stations are served by the Starlight and Amtrak California buses: Paso Robles had 11,728 riders who paid $653,472, Redding had 23,059 for $892,612, and Salinas had 19,879 who paid $1,311,849. Other stations on the route were also served by Surfliner or Cascades trains and the buses. There is more to travel on Amtrak than serving only the end point cities.

Is the Coast Starlight still a great traveling experience? Yes, and No. The Pacific Parlour Car, which was added by Amtrak West’s Gil Mallery and Brian Rosenwald in the 1990s is still there in those 50 year old cars. The trains are largely sold out every day and the dining cars are still serving tasty meals. As USA Today writer Laura Bly said on August 24, 2012, “Amtrak’s Coast Starlight sells the joy of slow travel.” One “railbuff” told Laura Bly that the “Coast Starlight includes three meals a day, comparable to a good Dennys,” in the cost of sleeping-car accommodations. RailPAC’s James Smith says his trip taught him that “the experience” of riding the Starlight which we all celebrated in the beginning is just not the same. “The soul of the train isn’t what it used to be,” Smith says, because there has been so much standardization it is just not as unique. On his trip “the crew did a good job, the food was ok, but chefs don’t have the tools to be creative.” His return trip on # 11 went smoothly, and on time. He noted upon Seattle departure the train was packed with students returning to the many colleges and universities along the route. That shows there should be additional frequencies or more added cars at peak demand times.

What needs to be done on the Coast Line? For one thing, the proposed Coast Daylight train that is supposed to serve downtown San Francisco and close the gap between San Jose and San Luis Obispo with a second frequency on the route needs to get going, since it represents the extension of the present Surfliner trains beyond San Luis Obispo. Meeting after meeting of the Coast Rail Coordinating Council still has not resulted in 1) the Union Pacific agreeing to run the service, saying they need $500 million for upgrades, 2) the arrival of new California owned equipment, which is not due until 2016 although cars are available now, and 3) the state still must allocate operating funds of up to $7.5 million a year. All we know is they continue “working on it.” RailPAC has been told that there are concerns that there would be a negative effect on the Starlight ridership and some don’t want to toy with that, but that’s not what happens when there are additional frequencies on a train route.

Ideas; have we got some ideas for the Coast Line.

1) RailPAC member Bob MacDonald, Oakland, says “Have the California Zephyr ‘make a left turn’ at Oakland, and continue on to Los Angeles as the coastal night train.” He says it would take only one additional trainset to do this, making it “the night train connection between the two regions.” The train’s West Coast terminal would then be Los Angeles, and would move its maintenance base from the very busy Oakland facility to Amtrak’s facility at 8th Street in LA saving money. If this proposal sounds familiar, it is one that RailPAC heavily advocated for some time. The idea of a “rolling overnight hotel” between the north and south has great possibilities, as it did to the Southern Pacific when it ran the Lark. Having the dining car open overnight would lend many attracting features. RailPAC’s Noel Braymer says, “Dr. Adrian Herzog (first) dreamed up this idea maybe 20 years ago. It was floated to Amtrak at the time and many people were interested then, the problem was the Chicago maintenance people objected to moving the base from Chicago to LA, and they found political clout that caused Amtrak to set aside this logical idea. I have no idea whether the UP would agree to extension of this national system train, but,” Braymer says, “I wish it would happen sooner than later.”

2) Up to now 30% of the Surfliner trains are funded as part of the national system, but as RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, says, “This is supposed to go away under PRIIA because these trains run less than 750 miles.” That means 30% more must then be paid by the State of California. “So, let’s extend the Starlight, Sunset Limited, and Southwest Chief to San Diego.” Not by sending the actual trainsets down there, just extend ticketing of the three trains onto Surfliners with passengers changing in Los Angeles. Dyson says, “It’s a way to hold onto 30% national funding for the Surfliners, as long as local travel between LAUS and San Diego is still permitted. This idea retains San Diego as part of the national system.”

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