Opinion by Noel T. Braymer
With a Congressionally mandated fee increase for millions of dollars of coming this October to the Surfliners; now would be a good time to explore other options for intercity rail passenger service between Los Angeles and San Diego. The State is already paying a high price for Amtrak operations for the State supported trains. Other rail operators charge less to run commuter trains than Amtrak changes for Intercity trains. At the very least LOSSAN and the State could ask for bids from these rail operators to compare their bids to what Amtrak is charging for trains between Los Angeles and San Diego.
It is impossible in such a short time to replace Amtrak on all the Surfliners. The biggest issues are finding replacement equipment and getting an operating agreement with the railroads. Between Los Angeles and San Diego Metrolink and Coaster control most of the route and their resources will be needed if a service change over is needed in a short time. A new operating agreement will be needed with the BNSF between Fullerton and Los Angeles. Since Metrolink already runs service on the BNSF a new agreement shouldn’t be too difficult to reach as long as there are no additional trains involved. For no more than 6 replacement round trips of the Surfliners just between San Diego and Los Angeles 3 trains sets would be needed with some spare cars for a total of between 18 and 20 cars. Locomotives might be borrowed from Metrolink and Coaster services and a few additions units could be leased.
Metrolink has surplus older cars that could be used for this service. These cars will need servicing and remodeling. This would include new paint with seats removed from some cars to create food service cars and enhanced handicap services. Seats could also be removed and new plusher seat cushions put in coach cars to improve comfort. All new seating would be needed for a first class bilevel car. Another option would be to lease suitable existing low level cars for First Class. Metrolink no longer uses the cab control cars of their old bilevel cars as a reaction to the 2008 Chatsworth crash. However Coaster still uses these same cab control cars on this route to San Diego. Coaster has never had a serious accident on this route which has had before 2008 Automatic Train Stop in most of San Diego County. The level of signal protection on the full route is greatly improved since 2008. If the cab cars are not used the locomotives could be wyed which is cheaper and faster than wyeing an entire train.
If LOSSAN contracts up to 6 round trips to a new operator what changes could we see from Amtrak on the Surfliners. This would free up Surfliner equipment which means more cars could be added to the remaining Amtrak trains which include all the trains north of Los Angeles. The low level equipment would no longer be needed on the Surfliners which would improve the Surfliners on time performance. This would be an opportunity for Amtrak to increase ridership and revenue on these longer distance trains and improve the cost recovery of them. This would be a good time to improve the maintenance of the Surfliner locomotive fleet with more time for overhauls.This will reduce breakdowns and improve on time performance for these trains. The next thing would be to see reduced running times with shorter station stops to attract more ridership and improve the productivity of these trains from San Diego that run north of Los Angeles.
There are many things that could happen before October. In the interests of the passengers and taxpayers it is the responsibility of our leaders to look at every cost effective alternative to improve service and reduce unnecessary costs. For years Amtrak’s Accounting has been a mystery of how and what Amtrak charges to different States for local rail service. California has been very generous to Amtrak picking up costs that in many places Amtrak would have to carry the entire cost. Amtrak doesn’t own stations in California where here local government does which is a major cost saving compared to many places particularly in the East. California has bought most of the equipment used for local service and paid to build a maintenance facility for Amtrak’s use. Much of the railroad Amtrak run on in California is owned and maintained by local government unlike the NEC which Amtrak owns and all Federal Taxpayers get to help pay to maintain.
Since 1996 Amtrak has spent $200 million dollars in capital improvements in Southern California. During this same time the Federal Government has granted 24 million dollars. However the State has spent 1 billion dollars and the LOSSAN counties an additional 600 million to increase rail traffic and to reduce running times for passenger trains with more spending planned in the future. Yet running times on Amtrak between Los Angeles and San Diego are still slower today than they were in 1979. Of Amtrak’s 623 million dollars for capital funding from Federal Dollars in the 2012 budget, most of that has gone to the Northeast and that rate of spending of Federal Tax dollars is expected to continue for several years. What Amtrak charges California for rail service has jumped from a few million in 1990 to now about 100 million with little improved service. So now Congress is ordering Amtrak to charge even more?