Commentary

RailPAC President writes Caltrans about the Surfliners becoming Coasters

NOTE: This letter from Paul Dyson and Noel Braymer’s article below express the RailPAC opinions on this subject.
8th April, 2013
Mr. William D. Bronte,
Chief, Division of Rail
Department of Transportation
1120 N Street MS 74
Sacramento, CA 95814
Surfliner: Degrading Intercity Schedules to cover gaps in Commuter Service a bad policy and contrary to State Rail Plan
Dear Mr. Bronte:

RailPAC has campaigned for 30 years for improved intercity passenger rail service in California, and our history began with the Los Angeles to San Diego route. Back in 1980 the schedule for a “San Diegan” was 2 hours and 35 minutes end to end. It has always been the objective to reduce this running time, based on the nationally and internationally proven premise that reduced journey time results in increased patronage. Since 1990 commuter rail agencies have been formed and more trains crowded onto a stressed network. And these commuter rail Boards have viewed the intercity service as a source of cheap seats to fill in the gaps in their own operations. Having just taken out the additional stops in Orange County that were used, unsuccessfully, to cover gaps in Metrolink service we now have a deal in place, negotiated behind closed doors without notice to the LOSSAN Board, and now published in the Amtrak timetable (although not on the Coaster timetable!) to use intercity trains to supplement “Coaster” service. While this may seem superficially to be an attractive idea it is flawed on many counts.

Punctuality and Reliability:
The new schedule results in an increase in journey time to 2 hours and 55 minutes or more for the trains in question, and a total of 13 intermediate stops between Los Angeles and San Diego on an “intercity” train. It may be that one or more of the trains in question are already stopping at one of these stations for a meet. It cannot be that all the trains are now stopping at all the stations for this reason. In any case that should be treated as an indication that the schedule needs to be reviewed and possibly adjusted. We understand that some recovery time can be eliminated. We also know that Amtrak gives themselves 10 minutes grace so that a train arriving at its destination up to 10 minutes late is counted as on time. Amtrak managers may therefore have been able to convince themselves that they can “lose” these delays and pretend that the additional stops will have no impact on the high fare paying Surfliner passenger. We disagree.

While Surfliner punctuality has improved over the past few months (and we congratulate all concerned on the improved performance), 90% on time, given the combination of grace time and recovery time, is still not stellar. Eliminating the opportunity to regain lost time by adding 4 stops on certain trains can only result in reduced reliability and worsening of the consequences of an incident on the line.

Revenue and Lost Revenue:
NCTD and its consultant claims that these additional stops will result in increased revenue to Amtrak. Apparently Amtrak will be paid $4.28 per Coaster passenger boarding. We doubt that these changes will result in a net contribution to the bottom line based on the cost of the stopping and starting a heavy train, and the likely further loss of high fare paying Surfliner passengers. The current published round trip fare between Los Angeles and San Diego is $37, or about 9 Coaster passengers, 12 if Business Class. The consultant claims that Coaster will attract 158 passengers per train presumably based on average loadings of the existing Coaster service. Even if we believe their number, which is dubious given the timing and direction of the Amtrak trains in the program, it would take only 13 more business class passengers to yield the same revenue. Put it another way, you’d need only 115 more coach round trips per day on the whole service, only 5 more Los Angeles – San Diego round trip passengers per train, to yield the same revenue. Study after study both within the USA and overseas has demonstrated the correlation between improved speed and patronage. This proposal reduces speed and decreases reliability and punctuality, and will drive away the business and end point to end point passenger.

Additional Operating Costs:
Our industry technical resources have a computer simulation which indicates a minimum of 5 gallons of additional fuel consumption for each stop/start cycle based on a single locomotive and 6 car trains. In addition there is more brake shoe and door mechanism wear with every stop. Overall they estimate $50 to $100 cost per stop, $200 to $400 per train.

Converting taxpayer funded intercity service to commuter service
The rolling stock and locomotives for the Surfliner were purchased with funds both from the federal government and voter approved bonds for intercity service. This is also true of the cars ordered under proposition 1B to be delivered in the next few years. This new rolling stock is specified to operate at up to 125mph, with business and café cars. Both the existing and new build cars are neither designed nor appropriate for multiple stop commuter service. It could be argued that this proposal represents a misuse and possible illegal diversion of funds from state intercity service to a local commuter agency.

Conformity with State Rail Plan 2013 (Draft)
The proposal goes against the policy for continuous improvement of intercity passenger rail services as expounded in the Draft State Rail Plan (2013). The plan states (p200): The key objectives of the capital investments include….“Improving rail operations by reducing travel times”.

“Me Too” Demands: Orange County, Burbank
This proposal is the camel’s nose in the tent. It’s all too easy for a commuter agency to feel that they can divert resources from an intercity service to provide more options for “their” passengers. What argument can be presented to Orange County and Los Angeles County should they wish to have a similar program? Burbank has a downtown station with parking available and is the hub for more than a dozen bus routes. Why not stop there? Can we imagine Amtrak allowing the Acela to make extra stops to help out New Jersey Transit?

RailPAC’s Recommendation
The future for the Surfliner is with the longer distance passenger. As soon as the San Diegans were extended to Santa Barbara and the average length of journey and fare per passenger increased, so the farebox recovery improved radically. What the Surfliner service needs is a long period of punctual, reliable service, together with low cost route and station specific advertising to maximize high fare patronage. This needs to be followed by continued incremental improvements that reduce journey times. One of the biggest complaints I hear from people who have tried the Surfliner once but don’t want to go again is the number of stops and the overall journey time. We must hold the line and not permit any further deterioration in the competitiveness of the product.
Yours faithfully,
Paul J Dyson
President
Cc: LOSSAN Board, Interested Parties

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