More details will be posted soon on this website…
Download the pdf of Steel Wheels magazine, 3rd quarter 2020 by clicking here.
In this issue:
- RailPAC and Steel Wheels Coalition to Amtrak: “Daily is Minimum Acceptable Standard for Long Distance Trains”, and Amtrak’s reply, with Russ Jackson’s reply to Amtrak, Paul Dyson response.
- High Speed Rail update
- Tri Weekly and the Heartland Flyer
- Orange County developments
- Arizona news
- and more!
On Wednesday September 2nd, a group of former colleagues gathered to join RailPAC’s Vice President, South, Paul Dyson, Vice President Long Distance Trains James Smith, and RailPAC member Mark Ehrhardt to commemorate Rick Peterson’s retirement. Rick’s career at Amtrak spanned 44 years, but he is best known for his work in establishing and managing the Thruway bus network. Because of the Pandemic Rick, like many other retirees, was unable to enjoy a celebration with his colleagues, so we hope that RailPAC helped to fill that gap. Many messages were received from around California and the country from friends who were unable to attend. Congratulations Rick, you will be missed by a lot of people.
Download the pdf version of Steel Wheels, 2nd Quarter 2020 by clicking here.
In this issue:
- RailPAC President’s Commentary on COVID-19 and passenger rail
- California High Speed Rail Update
- Amtrak pandemic “Lessons Learned” commentary
- RailPAC recommendations for Nevada State Rail Plan
- RailPAC’s recommended priority rail investments for California
- California company makes progress with zero-emissions locomotives
- Dick Spotswood commentary on SMART
- Arizona News
- “From the Real Platform” – Editor’s Column
- LA Union Station – looking for a lower cost solution
Amtrak has recently requested additional funds to cover operating costs and reduced revenue because of the Covid-19 pandemic. A corollary to this request is a plan to reduce long distance service from daily (in most cases) to three or four times a week.
RailPAC President Steve Roberts replies:
Amtrak’s request for funds – How should advocates respond?
Identifying and defining the costs will be critical. Advocates should start first by strictly defining the assumptions and timeframe. The time frame Amtrak says it is addressing is a 9-12 month period (FY21) where overall travel demand remains substantially lower than normal and discretionary travel is dramatically less than has been seen historically. Ridership on the trains will average about 50% of historic norms. Assuming the roll-out of a vaccine or more consistent social protections and the slow continuation of an economic rebound in late winter/spring of 2021, there should be a steady growth in ridership by Summer of 2021. In short, we are looking at a one year event.
On the cost side there is a reason why this is important. It means the estimates of cost savings need to focus on short-term avoidable costs without allocated additives. (Additives are added to direct costs to account for overheads directly link with an activity, i.e. the cost of crew base management shared by many routes accounted for with an additive on for example a conductors salary cost, a specific known cost). When you make a change for only a year you save the cost of the conductor’s salary but the cost of the crew base remains. Any proposal to reduce service needs to focus on short-term avoidable costs – fuel, on-train wages, train supplies, turn around maintenance, etc. The decision should not be made based on fully allocate costs, i.e. backbone costs, that are allocated to train routes as part of the accounting process (A perfectly fine academic accounting exercise but totally useless for deciding tri-weekly vs daily).
Two revenue areas that are important.
The first is connections. It varies by route, but looking at arrivals at the major hubs around 30% of the riders are connecting to other trains. Many are connecting to corridor trains but many are also connecting to other long-distance trains. It is impossible to have all the long-distance trains operate tri-weekly and still have connectivity in Washington, Chicago, LA and Seattle. So that is a big loss in revenue from breaking those schedules. Only daily service can maintain the utility of the National Network.
The second is what is called “claw-back”. Claw back is the percentage of riders who will shift their travel date to match a tri-weekly schedule. Longer distance vacation/leisure travelers are those where the greatest percentage of riders will shift their travel days. For those traveling strictly for transportation, a lower percentage will shift. Sleeping car riders are more likely to shift, 300 to 500 mile coach travelers are the riders least likely to shift but will choose another mode. The key difference driving these differences is that leisure travelers are making longer duration trips with more options for layover days. Shorter distance travelers are making shorter duration trips where adding a day to match a train schedule can add 30% or more to the trip duration. Because there have been numerous instances of LD trains moving from daily to tri-weekly and then daily again Amtrak has data to correctly calculate “claw-back” should it choose to use it.
So why is this important? The answer is who is going to be traveling in FY 21? Will it be seniors taking long circle trips in sleeping cars around America or will it be coach passengers traveling between 300-500 miles on the long-distance trains, strictly for essential transportation, to handle personal business, a medical treatment, to help elderly parents, etc. The level of service required for this type of market in FY 21 is daily service. A tri-weekly train is exactly the wrong kind of service for the market in FY21.
Steve Roberts – RailPAC President
Click here for Metrolink May 29, 2020 meet agenda link showing the Item 8, draft recovery plan.
May 28, 2020
Chair Brian Humphries and Board
Southern California Regional Rail Authority
Los Angeles, CA
SPECIAL BOARD MEETING FRIDAY 29 MAY, 2020 PUBLIC COMMENT
RailPAC, the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada has been a consistent supporter of regional rail service since 1978. We particularly welcomed the SCORE program, although we would rather have seen begun it in 1995 . We believe that CEO. Wiggins has put together a strong team capable of finally making Metrolink into a powerful regional transportation service, only to be frustrated and blown off course by Covid 19. But now is not the time to give up. The region still needs mobility and we cannot go back to the 60s.
We support the draft recovery plan in in general and would like to suggest a few additional points.
Health and safety – Consider the removal of some seat rows, b ot h to provide for greater physical separation between passengers and to off er more legroom. As load factors will be down there is no need for the cramped seating we currently “enjoy ”. RailPAC has received many complaints, especially about the Rotem cars, for longer journeys. Making the cars more comfortable will help win back passengers as well as improving separation.
Service coordination – Metrolink’s objective should be to squeeze as much productivity as possible out of every train mile. To accomplish this, we need improvements in coordination between agencies to reduce service overlap and to increase the service available to prospective passengers. This includes coordination with LOSSAN and Amtrak on the coast route, and NCTD Coaster connections at Oceanside.
Increasing service options- One of the big failings of Metrolink is the lack of connections at Los Angeles Union Station (“LAUS”). The necessary reduction in service can be an opportunity to expand the number of stations served from each origin point by timing trains to connect at LAUS, or by combining routes and offering through trains. The same train miles can thus be more productive. The statistics quoted in the recovery plan confirm that Metrolink cannot rely on its “classic” commute patrons alone. The market in Southern California is “everywhere to everywhere”, and Metrolink must start to use its network to better serve the region.
Vice President, Southern California.
May 28, 2020
Honorable Vito Chiesa, Chair
San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority
949 East Channel Street
Stockton, CA 95202
May 29, 2020 SJJPA Board Meeting Agenda Item 7, Thruway Bus Network Changes
Dear Chair Chiesa and Board Members.
At this difficult time the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada recognizes that with the reduction in ticket revenues those managing the San Joaquin service face tough challenges in keeping the operation solvent. Maintaining the service while balancing cost reductions while maintaining ridership and ticket revenues will represent a major endeavor. And needless to say, after years working to get SB742 passed shrinkage of the Thruway Bus Network is disheartening.
While it is critical to reduce expenses near term, at some point the country and economy will recover. These Thruway bus service reductions should be seen as temporary. As the market regrows the cities that temporarily lose service should still be seen as part of the San Joaquin franchise. Service may take another form than today, but the SJJPA should still keep its broad “border to border” perspective.
RailPAC has reviewed the Thruway Bus Network write-up and has the following comments and recommendations. The overall comments/recommendations are:
- A major shortfall of the report is the lack of financial analysis. What are the estimates of the cost savings from this initiative, the ticket revenue losses?
- The implementation of changes authorized by SB742 should be accelerated. This period provides an opportunity to develop multiple partnerships, new markets and an expanded bus network;
- There are suggestions that there are opportunities for local transit agencies operating parallel routes being able to undertake replacement service. But these agencies are most likely undertaking similar service reductions to save expenses. Some of these service reductions may be routes suggested as Thruway Bus alternatives;
- SJJPA staff should undertake a review after 6-months to evaluate the impact of these changes and the success or failure in expanding SB742 to additional routes, developing partnerships with local transit agencies and Greyhound;
- At the 6-month review point, an outline of the timeline and strategy for returning full train and restoring Thruway bus service (where partnerships have not been developed) based on the information available at that time regarding the pandemic.
The comments and recommendations on the specific routes are:
• Route 7 – Elimination of stops at Rio Del-Scotia, Leggett and Laytonville; it is not clear how the elimination of these stops save any costs. All are located on two-lane stretches of US 101 which should facilitate stopping with limited time penalty. Also one of the talking points for SB742 was service to rural areas such as these towns. Finally, shouldn’t these stops remain while the Greyhound partnership is negotiated?
• Route 1b – Elimination of service to Long Beach and San Pedro; an interline agreement with LA Metro for its Silver Line and eventually the Blue Line would appear to offer a large expansion in connectivity to replace the bus route. Would it be possible to originate a Silver Line trip at the LAUS bus bays? Otherwise passengers would have to be provided detailed information on the Union Station stops and Silver Line stops. Major cities (i.e. Long Beach) could be shown in the Amtrak reservation system.
• Route 19 – Elimination of service to Hemet/Indio; these discontinuances would leave a large part of the Inland Empire without service. Many communities along the route are underserved from the transportation perspective. Recommend that this change be postponed until a service plan in conjunction with RCTC is developed. In addition an interline agreement Metrolink for the Indio branch is exactly the market opportunity that SB742 was designed to facilitate.
• Route 9 – Elimination of Las Vegas route; this would seem to be an opportunity to develop an interline service with Greyhound; direct Bakersfield to Las Vegas or via Los Angeles. Greyhound already has an interline agreement with Amtrak and one schedule currently stops at LA Union Station.
• Route 12 – Elimination of Victorville route; RailPAC recommends an effort to reengage with Kern Transit to retain Palmdale and Lancaster ridership.
• Routes 10, 18a and 18b Elimination of service to Santa Barbara and the Central Coast; RailPAC is concerned that the combination of these two initiatives eliminates service to the fast growing Central Coast reducing the San Joaquin franchise. Also there may be ramifications on the political side. RailPAC recommends revisiting doing the combination of both of these initiatives. Which route change saves the most in costs?
As was noted earlier RailPAC understands the challenges that staff faces and we hope our comments are productive. Let me know if you have any questions.
Steve Roberts, President Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada
cc: Dan Leavitt, SJRRC, RailPAC Board members
California High Speed Rail Authority’s Draft 2020 Business Plan was issued February 12, 2020.
RailPAC’s submitted public comment letter is below:
California High-Speed Rail Authority
770 L Street, Suite 620
Sacramento, CA 95814
May 21, 2020
Dear CHSRA Board Members:
After review of the 2020 California High Speed Rail Business Plan and the proposed Interim Operating Plan, the Rail Passenger Association of California (RailPAC) recommends the Board adopt both the 2020 Business Plan and proposed Interim Operating Plan at its June Board Meeting. RailPAC compliments CHSRA on their continued focus on delivering a broad integrated California transportation network with high-speed rail service as its core link.
RailPAC applauds the statewide reach of the proposed network and the increase in frequencies that will make the rail mode more competitive with the automobile. The improved and expanded ACE/San Joaquin/HSR network will reach all of California and leverage substantial synergies beyond the current individual systems. This network also creates the most financially viable option for increased service reducing the required operating subsidy compared to the current standalone ACE and San Joaquin services.
In addition, the Interim Operating Plan brings true high-speed service to California sooner than any alternative option. It also demonstrates the potential of high-speed rail while facilitating early testing of equipment and operating systems speeding future expansion of service as future segments are constructed. Finally, the construction and operation of high-speed rail Merced to Bakersfield will greatly benefit communities and cities in the San Joaquin Valley and allow them to move forward on re-visioning themselves as city center focused transit oriented cityscapes.
Outlined below are a few comments on plan details:
• Page 64, third bullet, as part of system connectivity at Merced and Bakersfield also note connectivity at the Kings-Tulare HSR station to the Central Coast and eastern San Joaquin cities such as Visalia via the future Cross Valley Corridor plan;
• Page 72, top column title, should be Memoranda not Memorandums;
• Page 84, Faster Bay Area Initiative, given the recent pull-back this should be deleted or rewritten into a more generic “Future Funding via Local Initiatives” discussion.
The Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada is a two-state organization with membership throughout California and Nevada. RailPAC is a strong advocate for an expanded comprehensive public transportation network serving the entire state of California as well as Nevada.. RailPAC is an all-volunteer non-profit passenger rail advocacy group, founded in 1978.
President Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada
cc: Brian Kelly, CEO California High-Speed Rail Authority
Stacey Mortensen, Executive Director San Joaquin Regional Rail Authority
Dan Levitt, Manager of Regional Initiatives San Joaquin Regional Rail Authority
May 14, 2020
Dear Mayor Breed,
This letter comes from groups committed to the idea that that getting Caltrain connected to 10 other rail lines and over 40 bus lines in downtown San Francisco would be a major move toward seamless transit and therefore deserving of a high priority. The attached report discusses opportunities to productively reduce capital costs…..thereby increasing the chances of obtaining the public and private funding needed to build the project. Your help in focusing attention on these cost cutting opportunities, which would neither delay the project nor adversely affect future rail service, would be much appreciated.
Co-Founder and President
Bay Area Transportation Working Group
Steve Roberts, President of RailPAC
David Schonbrunn, President of TRAC
Bob Feinbaum, President of SaveMuni
Subject: Streamlining the Caltrain Extension Project
During these difficult times of shutdowns and reduced resources, it is both necessary and prudent to conserve transit resources wherever and whenever possible.
With that in mind the Bay Area Transportation Working Group (BATWG) has updated its previous statements about the DTX project. There appear to be opportunities to significantly reduce costs without cutting into or otherwise undermining the passenger rail service into the Sales Force Transit Center. We are joined in these recommendations by the two preeminent rail advocacy organizations of California; namely, RailPAC and the Train Riders Association of California as well as by TRANSDEF, SaveMuni and other DTX supporters. These opportunities relate to the 4th and King Station, the proposed Pennsylvania Avenue subway extension, the Tunnel Plug and the subway under Second Street:
1.) The Fourth and King Station: In places where there are busy streets and sidewalks and no private land available, it is usually necessary to create an intermediate fare collection level between street grade and the train level. However in the case of the Fourth and King Station, there is a generous amount of at-grade space including an attractive at-grade existing terminal available between King and Townsend Streets. In this situation it would not be difficult to route people through fare gates and then to an escalator or stairway leading directly to the train level. To access the west end of the station there could be one or more entries along Townsend Street frontage where travelers would pass through fare gates and then descend to train level. Since the first vertical 30 feet of air space at the site between King and Townsend is under Caltrain control, arranging this should not be difficult to arrange. This change would save an estimated $300,000,000.
2.) The Pennsylvania Avenue Subway Extension: At the February 7, 2020 meeting of the Caltrain Joint Powers Board one of the individuals testifying questioned the need for a two-mile long, “$2 billion+” Caltrain subway under a PennsylvaniaAvenue alignment. As the caller implied it would be much cheaper to depress 16th Street and perhaps also Mission Bay Blvd under the existing tracks than dig two additional miles of parallel subway and tunnel.
The SF Department of City Planning’s 4.5 year long RAB study was completed late in 2018. In the early years the RAB planners were loudly critical of all aspects of the TJPA’s design. However, their proposals were discredited one-by-one, and eventually virtually all of them were quietly dropped.
Reportedly intent on showing a positive result for its effort, the RAB team latched onto parochial demands that 16th Street remain at grade and therefore proposed that the existing Caltrain surface alignment be shifted from its current location under the elevated I-280 freeway to a new subway alignment under Pennsylvania Avenue. In an effort to justify this odd decision, the RAB group claimed that the 16th Street underpass would have to be 60′ deep and over 3/4 of a mile long. When asked why the underpass couldn’t be 25 feet deep and 1/4 mile long as most underpasses are, RAB’s Project Manager made a vague reference to sewers in the street, but refused to elaborate. Subsequent written questions and comments on the subject were ignored. The official price put on RAB’s subway extension was “$2+ billion”. An auto underpass at 16th would provide the necessary grade separation without the need of building an entirely new two-mile long rail subway. Building the underpass, with elevated pedestrian/bicycle paths separated from traffic, would allow the surface mainline Caltrain and future high speed rail alignment to remain at grade.. Estimated savings: $1,800,000,000+.
3.) The Tunnel Plug: A few years ago it was decided to add $100,000,000 to the DTX budget to make things easier and less costly if the Pennsylvania alignment were ever built. In the event that it were determined that the Pennsylvania Avenue subway was not necessary the Tunnel Plug could be deleted for an additional savings of $100,000,000.
4.) Subway under Second Street: Second Street is not a particularly busy or fast- moving street, certainly not as jammed with traffic as First and Fremont are. Even so the plan has always been to tunnel most of the Second Street subway. However at the north end of the line where the tracks turn right into the six-track train terminal, the width of the trackway gradually increases to 165 feet. It would be extremely expensive and risky to attempt to tunnel this short section leading into the Sales Force Transit Center. It is estimated that cut and cover excavation at this location could be staged in a manner requiring that only half the street be closed at any one time…and then only until temporary street decking could be put in place. It is estimated that using cut-and-cover methods to excavate this northerly section of Second, as well as the section immediately to the east of the Fourth and King Station where it is too shallow to tunnel, would drop the cost by another $200,000,000.
It goes without saying that the more cost-effective the project the better the chances of attracting the capital needed to build it. We urge you to explore these possibilities.
RailPAC has been urging LA Metro and Metrolink to double truck the line between Burbank and Santa Clarita for more than two decades. We finally have a down payment from the State, with some matching funds from other sources. Why am I less than excited by this news? Two and a half decades have passed since the start of Antelope Valley service after the Northridge earthquake, during which time hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into widening Interstate 5 and State Route 14. This weekend (April 25) Burbank Boulevard is closed while the bridge over I-5 is demolished for the second time to accommodate two more freeway lanes. Meanwhile Metrolink has struggled for over twenty years with a predominantly single track railroad with consequent lack of capacity to build a robust, reliable service.
The 2020 Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program (TIRCP) award still leaves single track between Sheldon Street and San Fernando/Sylmar station. Between Van Nuys Boulevard and San Fernando Metro intends to build the East Valley light rail in the Metrolink right of way, and I am very concerned that they will use this as an excuse to defer this last bottleneck indefinitely. In my view the Light Rail route is a mistake and a high risk idea, given that the route also hosts 15,000 ton Union Pacific rock trains from Little Rock on the Palmdale cutoff. No doubt the consultants have demonstrated that it is possible, in theory, to run a certain number of frequencies over that single track, just as they have with Raymer Bernson on the Coast route through the San Fernando Valley. The problem is that Metrolink has demonstrated that it is almost impossible to run an on time service in an urban area with poorly protected grade crossings and unreliable equipment. Thus an early delay to the service will result in late trains all day.
In the report presented to the Metro Board in 2019, the route is broken up into sections for costing purposes. The two gaps in double track that will be left after this round of construction are priced as follows:
Sheldon to Van Nuys Blvd.: $67 million.
Sylmar to Van Nuys Blvd. including Sylmar station: $47 million
It’s a lot of money for a little over 5 miles of track with no property acquisition. One certainly wonders if it would be less if the contract were to be let as a single project from Burbank to Sylmar now, rather than break it into segments and then come back in a few years to bridge the gap. I can only guess at the mobilization, demobilization and general overhead costs of multiple stages versus a continuous program.
But still, it’s a step forward. It’s hard to believe that it has been 25 years since Mike McGinley and his team threw up some “instant” stations and bootstrapped a service while Caltrans rebuilt the 5/14 interchange. These 25 years have been wasted, the agencies failing to capitalize on growing rail traffic and instead continuing the failed policy of investing in more lanes on the parallel freeway. Let’s hope this investment will be successful in growing the passenger count, and not be too little, too late.
Vice President, South, RailPAC