Notes on the February 1st RailPAC/NARP Conference in Los Angeles February 2nd, 2014
By Noel T. Braymer
On my way to Los Angeles on the train I could see much progress recently on the railroad. It looks like the long delayed bridge over the Santa Margarita River in Camp Pendleton is now almost finished. I recently rode the train to San Diego and found the new mile of double tracking south of Sorrento Valley also seems to be in service. I remember over 30 years ago trains to San Diego use to back out of LAUS and take a 15 mile an hour curve near the LA River crossing. This was a mostly single tracked railroad on bolted rail. Slowly but surely the tracks are being improved. The Surfliners today were generally on time though no faster than trains 30 years ago. It was odd when we arrived at LAUS that the Starlight was not sharing the platform with our train for passengers to make connections. It wouldn’t have helped anyway because connecting passenger now need to enter the station to get a boarding pass before going back to the platform to get on the Starlight.
Kicking off the conference was Los Angeles City Council member Tom La Bonge who welcomed all to Los Angeles. He talked about his past efforts to extend the LA subway west of Western Ave on Wilshire years ago before it was popular. The secret to his success if you can call it that, was “It is all about relationships”. That ought to be the theme for the rest of the conference.
The first session was headed by Mark Murphy, Amtrak General Manager: Long Distance Service. Flanking him at the table were Mike Dwyer in charge of the Starlight and Chief as well as Joy Smith of Amtrak. Mr. Murphy presented a power point presentation with lots of great sounding pronouncements about Amtrak’s recent reorganization. These included. ” We’re not trying to chop our way to success.” or ” Optimize operation margin for the Long Distance Business Line”. There are plans to increase coach capacity, improve Host Railroad relations and improve on time performance. There was talk about how Amtrak is now at 89% of covering operating costs and plan to cover 100 %. There was talk of increasing ridership and revenues as well as an interest in expanding routes. When asked if this included projects previously worked on by Brian Rosenwald, the answer was yes.
There were little in the way of specifics in this presentation. RailPAC Vice- President James Smith pointed out that the coach cars on the Starlight and Chief are often sold out in winter. But that’s often because they only have 2 or 3 couches per train. If the trains had more cars they could sell more tickets. There was no mention in the presentation about sleeping cars. One bit of good news from Mike Dwyer was that the Palour cars are not going away on the Starlight. Some will be out of service for maintenance to get them in good shape for summer. So some trains this winter will likely not have a Palour Car.
The next presentation was about construction plans for track improvement in Los Angeles County for commuter and intercity rail service, from Don Sepulveda of LA Metro. Much of this work is planned to be finished by 2022 to connect with the first leg of High Speed Rail service in the San Fernando Valley. Among these projects LA Metro is working on is additional double tracking in the San Fernando Valley on both the Ventura County and Antelope Valley Metrolink lines, a second platform at the Van Nuys Station, a second Bob Hope Airport Station on the Antelope Valley Line connected by a shuttle to the existing airport station. A new bridge is planned between this existing Bob Hope Airport train station and the new transportation center at the airport. A badly need grade separation at Doran Ave in the Sand Fernando Valley is planned. There is also additional double tracking planned in Los Angeles County on the Metrolink San Bernardino Line. But the really big project is SCRIP, or Southern California Regional Interconnector Project, which use to be called the run-through tracks at Los Angeles Union Station.
The next session was about the transition of LOSSAN ongoing this year from an agency to an authority. The panel included Jackie Bacharach who was a board member from the beginning of LOSSAN in the mid-1980′s up through last year. There was also Jennifer Bergener of Orange County Transportation Authority which is taking over administration of LOSSAN. Also on the panel was Fred Strong Chair of LOSSAN and Vice Chair Dave Golonski.
There was talk about how much the LOSSAN Corridor has changed since the 80′s. Also about the problems of running a corridor with 7 different owners of the tracks. Of the 351 miles on the LOSSAN Corridor, 55% is owned by the private railroads and 45% by the counties. There are plans to run more trains with a mix of limited stops and all stop locals. There also plans to run overlapping commuter trains by Metrolink and Coaster between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Fred Strong is the Chair of LOSSAN and is from San Luis Obsipo County, spoke of the issue of “closing the gap’ between Northern and Southern California. By this he meant both between Palmdale to Bakersfield and between San Luis Obispo and San Jose. One of the problems beside getting the cooperation the UP is getting the support for the service from Caltrain. Caltrain believes its tracks will be at capacity with both Caltrain, trains and future High Speed Rail trains. Fred Strong spoke of planning by Caltrans to run trains from San Diego to San Jose with connections to both the Capitol Corridor and Caltrain. Mr Strong also spoke of the creation of a new State Senate Special Committee on Rail Passenger service, with a similar Special Committee also planned for the legislature. This project has worked on by RailPAC President Paul Dyson with help from Board Member William Kerby and Bruce Jenkins. The goal of these Special Committees is to pass legislation and funding needed to improve rail passenger service in the State.
After the Lunch Break, Michelle Boehm of the California High Speed Rail Authority spoke. She started by saying that “every day is an adventure” working at the California High Speed Rail Authority. She didn’t dwell on the opposition by those against High Speed Rail. She did have a presentation which pointed out that the Golden Gate Bridge, BART, the California Water Project and the University of California system all had major opposition when they were created and approved by a single vote in the legislature. The rest of her presentation was about the future construction plans for the High Speed Rail Project.
The next speaker was the acting Chief of Caltran’s Division of Rail: Bruce Roberts. He got the job after the retirement of Bill Bronte last November. Earlier it was discussed that the Staff of Division of Rail was recently cut from 14 positions to 4. Mr Roberts acknowledged that the Governor’s goal is to make government as small as possible. But he pointed out that Caltrans still has a major role to play in planning and construction of major track projects in the State, in buying and maintaining the State’s locomotive and passenger car fleet. This included new cars and locomotive on order for delivery by 2016. It also is still in charge of writing the State Rail Plan. Caltrans also manages the Ambus program and is still administering both the Surfliners and San Joaquin for the next year or so as the job is handed over to their respective authorities.
Next Roy Van Winsbergh of Alstom spoke. Alstom has set up shop at Mare Island in Vallejo at a former Naval Base. Alstom has the contract to repair and overhaul the California Cars for the State. He had several before and after pictures of the work on some of the cars and locomotive owned by the State. Alstom also have a contract with San Francisoc Muni to manage their inventory of parts for their rail cars. Alstom buys in such large quantities that they get a better deal from supplies and part of their job is to keep track of Muni’s inventory needs for parts. Alstom is also bidding on other contracts to repair and overhaul rail equipment.
Dave Cook of Energy Conversion talked about his company’s proposal to rebuild existing locomotives for commuter service into Hybrid/ Compressed Natural Gas locomotives. The advantages of this is it is less expensive than buying a new locomotive, while emitting little pollution and using much less fuel but getting much better acceleration. Commuter locomotives spend most of their time accelerating, then braking which is wasteful and doesn’t allow much time spent cruising at top speed. Central to this plan is the use of capacitors. Capacitors can rapidly store and discharge electrical current. This makes them ideal to store power from dynamic brakes, then to rapidly accelerate a train with this recycled power. One possible issue with this idea is the need for a B-Unit to hold enough capacitors to store and recycle the power from stopping a train.
The last speaker of the day was Roger Rudick. He is a friend of Matt Melzer who was the NARP representative who helped planned the joint conference with Paul Dyson. Mr Rudick is an independent journalist and producer. His presentation called “Media Strategy for Rail Advocates”, was about ways to counter the arguments against rail passenger service. He pointed out that most of the anti-rail messaging is coming from “Think Tanks” which are well funded largely by Oil related interests. He said these Think Tanks are actually lobbyists, not neutral academic institutions. Such Think Tanks pay their large staffs of employees well and often hire out of work journalists.
His point was that companies with an interest in future rail passenger service should learn from the Oil companies and copy some of their methods. Also that advocates can push back against inaccurate claim by contacting media with the facts. He pointed out that news outlets such as National Public Radio don’t produce most of their material, instead independent producers like him do. If such producers can get more funding to produce pro-rail stories, then more pro-rail stories can be broadcasted.