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Brian Yanity

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President’s Commentary – Key RailPAC priorities for 2020

By Steve Roberts – RailPAC President

[Originally published in Steel Wheels, 1st Quarter 2020]

Greetings!

In early January, members of the RailPAC Board developed options and came to a consensus on RailPAC’s policy priorities for 2020.  The two major ground rules were that the priorities had to be focused and actionable in 2020.  A list of about a dozen initiatives was consolidated and prioritized into four key priorities with two additional initiatives RailPAC will be following, but don’t appear to require RailPAC to take the lead.  RailPAC can offer support if the opportunity arises.

The four key 2020 RailPAC priorities are:

Surfliner Service Crisis and Vision – The recent collapse of the cliff at Del Mar clearly shows the threat of rising sea levels and more intense storms to Surfliner/Coaster service.  There is no future for the Surfliner/Coaster route at its current location.  Given the magnitude of relocation project, it needs to start now.  And the collapse of the cliff at Del Mar is not the only threat. The route is also threatened by the same forces at San Clemente.  In addition, the Surfliner route has not developed an expansive vision that would deal with both the climate change issue along with dramatically re-imaging the rail line as an faster, electrified, high-frequency, high capacity service that would incent transit oriented development, generate maximum ridership and contribute to enhancing travel capacity within the Southern California megaregion. Southern California RailPAC’s members are focused on calling attention to the immediate threat to the route as well as championing the development of a robust long-term vision of an interconnected high-performance auto competitive passenger rail system. 

California High Speed Rail Funding Strategy – Even though this initiative is one to watch rather than take the lead, Board members clearly felt it had high importance because of the magnitude of the HSR program. This initiative is both complex and challenging.  It is challenging because, unlike most discussions which often take place at the staff level (which RailPAC can influence with information), the high-speed rail funding discussion is taking place at the highest levels of the Newsom administration and legislature.  Add in the attempted “claw back” of funds from the administration in Washington and as they say “this is way above my pay grade”.  It is complex because all of the discussions and the power plays are happening legislator to legislator with only flashes of light as legislators on both sides make their cases or work behind the scenes for a compromise.  RailPAC will keep members updated and stand ready to weigh in on this issue at the appropriate time.

Daily Sunset Campaign – One thing I think all RailPAC members can agree on is tri-weekly service for a long-distance train route generates sub-par ridership and ticket revenue results.  So not surprisingly, this initiative was identified as a key priority for RailPAC in 2020.  Building on the grassroots outreach over the past few years by advocates along the I-10 corridor, 2020 will see a new phase of the daily Sunset Limited campaign.  Details are outlined in an article on page XX of this issue of Steel Wheels.                

SCORE/Metrolink Vision – SCORE, Southern California Optimized Rail Expansion program, is a $10 billion capital program that will upgrade the Metrolink system, adding additional tracks, grade separations, signal work and investments to facilitate zero-emissions operations.  Currently Metrolink is working on rail operations modeling; development of design alternatives, identifying and prioritizing proposed capacity improvements, undertaking preliminary engineering and the environmental assessment for the proposed projects.  SCORE service goals would deliver faster, more reliable service with greater frequencies system wide and high frequencies within the core network.  This initiative will be being championed by RailPAC’s Southern California members who are especially focused on developing a robust long-term vision of an interconnected high-performance auto competitive transit system.  Near-term goals for these members is advocating for the timely completion of the third main track Hobart to Fullerton including the Fullerton interlocking project, double tracking of the Antelope Valley and Ventura lines and a new station at Pacoima.

Initiatives being monitored:

Several initiatives proposed as 2020 priorities were not rated as highly as the others listed above but they still are important.  These are:

Dumbarton Transportation Corridor (Dumbarton Bridge) – The Dumbarton Transportation Corridor is a critical connection linking San Joaquin Valley and East Bay housing to job centers in southern San Mateo County and northern Santa Clara County.  The current highway bridge is at or near capacity with job growth continuing.  Building a replacement rail line and bridge utilizing the current rail right-of-way would add substantial cross bay capacity to this corridor while facilitating connections and/or direct service from several existing high-capacity transit operators – Bay Rapid Transit District (BART), Caltrain, Capitol Corridor and Altamont Commuter Rail (ACE).  From the transit perspective the lack of service on this corridor represents a critical gap in network connectivity.  Because of these connectivity benefits, RailPAC considers this an important priority.  Currently the project is undergoing the Environmental Review Process so advocacy opportunities are limited until the report draft is completed.  RailPAC’s Northern California members will be monitoring this project.

Mental Health/Homelessness/Security – For riders on intercity and commuter rail their “final mile” is most likely on transit and/or walking.  In addition to being concerned about this as a social justice issue, RailPAC members are also concerned about how mental health and homelessness impacts the perception of security both on-board and around transit stations.  This perception results in lower ridership and thus reduces the community benefits from the large investments in transit systems.  There appear to be several initiatives underway in Sacramento in an attempt to address these issues.  While RailPAC has no expertise to offer solutions to mental health and homelessness, RailPAC can comment on the impacts of failing to address these issues.  RailPAC will stand ready to support any legislative action around these issues.

Freight Rail Carrier Cost Shifting – This priority focuses on actual and proposed changes in rail freight operations, long-mega trains and single person operator freight trains that potentially have significant negative public impacts.  The issue is not so much the changes to operations, but the implementation of these changes without the investments by the freight railroads to mitigate the potential public impacts of these changes; i.e. blocked crossings and delays to passenger trains.  In effect the freight railroads are shifting the costs of these operational changes, which should be internal and borne by the carriers, to the general public.  While RailPAC has no expertise in the specifics of rail freight operations and investments to mitigate the negative impact of these operational changes, RailPAC can attest to the public costs of these changes.  RailPAC will stand ready to support any legislative action around these issues.

 

CA Rail Statistics, Commentary, High Speed Rail, Issues, Rail Technology, Reports

RailPAC submits comment letter on Connect SoCal – The 2020-2045 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy

The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) regional transportation plan is nearing completion. As described by SCAG’s Connect SoCal website:

“Connect SoCal – The 2020-2045 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy is a long-range visioning plan that balances future mobility and housing needs with economic, environmental and public health goals. Connect SoCal embodies a collective vision for the region’s future and is developed with input from local governments, county transportation commissions (CTCs), tribal governments, non-profit organizations, businesses and local stakeholders within the counties of Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura.

What is at the heart of Connect SoCal are over 4,000 transportation projects—ranging from highway improvements, railroad grade separations, bicycle lanes, new transit hubs and replacement bridges. These future investments were included in county plans developed by the six CTCs and seek to reduce traffic bottlenecks, improve the efficiency of the region’s network and expand mobility choices for everyone.

Connect SoCal is an important planning document for the region, allowing project sponsors to qualify for federal funding. The plan takes into account operations and maintenance costs, to ensure reliability, longevity and cost effectiveness.”

As part of SCAG’s public comment process on the Draft Connect SoCal plan in January, RailPAC submitted the following letter (click here for pdf version) in response to the draft version of the plan’s Passenger Rail report.

January 18, 2020

Draft Connect SoCal Plan Comments
Attn: Connect SoCal Team
Southern California Association of Governments
900 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 1700
Los Angeles, CA 90017
Re: Connect SoCal 2020 RTP/SCS, Passenger Rail Technical Report

Dear Connect SoCal Team:

The Rail Passengers Association of California & Nevada (RailPAC) welcomes the opportunity to provide input to the Connect SoCal 2020 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy. The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) is in a unique position to encourage the state, county and local governments to work together to improve passenger rail service in Southern California.

RailPAC offers the below comments on the Connect SoCal Passenger Rail report.

The Passenger Rail report’s Vision and Purpose (p. 2) sets a very positive tone for passenger rail in the SCAG region over the next few decades, with goals to grow ridership and provide more frequent, and new, rail services.

RailPAC has always focused on intercity passenger service and regional rail. While it is important to move large numbers of people short distances by transit, it is equally beneficial to the community to move smaller numbers of passengers over relatively longer distances. An intercity train journey of 70 miles or more is the equivalent to 13 transit journeys in terms of vehicle miles avoided. Investment in Intercity and Regional Rail in the SCAG region has been totally inadequate for the past three decades. We still are trying to operate a modern service with many miles of single-track railroad. The approach to Los Angeles Union Station, the hub of the network, is circuitous and serpentine, unnecessarily adding 5 to 10 minutes to every journey. A bypass track is needed to avoid the near sea level alignment through San Clemente, a serious capacity constraint on the key route between California’s two largest cities.

Detailed comments:

Metrolink SCORE (pgs. 34-41)-

The Metrolink SCORE program is a welcome and long overdue step forward. It can transform Metrolink from a commuter-oriented system (focused on rush hour service to Downtown LA and Irvine) to a truly regional rail system with frequent service in all directions, 7 days a week, from early in the morning to late at night.

These SCORE projects need to expedited, and funding needs to be clearly identified:
• Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo Siding (OCTA)
• Raymer to Bernson Double Track (LA Metro)
• Brighton to Roxford Double Track (LA Metro)
• Doran Street Grade Separation (LA Metro)
• Lone Hill to White Double Track (LA Metro)
• Placentia Metrolink Station (OCTA)

LOSSAN Corridor Rail Service (pg. 28), San Diego to Orange County market:

SCORE needs to be integrated with LOSSAN and Surfliner. Due to the huge amount of traffic exchanged between SCAG and SANDAG every day, there should be a pooled Coaster/Metrolink additional service San Diego to Fullerton (stopping at Fullerton avoids the frequency conflict on the BNSF with the 91 line slots). The pool trains would connect to the Metrolink 91 and Orange County line trains at Fullerton, on continue to LA Union Station. SCAG and the LOSSAN agency should actively encourage this pooling of Metrolink and Coaster rolling stock and services, and start a working group on it with NCTD or SANDAG. Such a working group would figure out technical issues such as equipment compatibility between Coaster and Metrolink, voltage of hotel power, position of wheelchair ramps, position of locomotive on the train, etc.

New passenger rail services (pgs. 27-28)-

• Los Angeles to Coachella Valley-
This service is long overdue. There is an urgent need to start discussions with UP on the infrastructure upgrades needed. For the distance involved and the kind of traffic an intercity service similar to Surfliner is appropriate, rather than Metrolink regional rail.

• Victorville to Las Vegas/High Desert Corridor-
SCAG should work with Los Angeles County, San Bernardino County, and Virgin Trains USA to connect the Victorville-Las Vegas train to the Palmdale station via the proposed High Desert Corridor.

• Coast Daylight/ Coast Rail Coordinating Council (CRCC)
RailPAC supports restoration of the Coast Daylight if a competitive transit time can be
achieved.

• Southwest High-Speed Rail Network (pgs. 28-30)
The 2014 study recommended a CA-AZ-NV volunteer passenger rail policy and planning group, and a ‘blue ribbon commission’ to study a Phoenix-Southern California Corridor. RailPAC would like to participate in this, if such a commission is created to start implementing an LA-Phoenix service (and not just another study).

Amtrak-

Pg. 8-
Exhibit 1 Amtrak services – Why not show Amtrak stations on the map?

Pg. 9-
Needs updating after passage of SB742 re Thruway buses.
The report does not explain the extensive State role in LOSSAN and refers to the service as “Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner”.

Pg. 22-

Pacific Surfliner On-Time-Performance (OTP):

The Surfliner OTP statistics need tighter metrics than 10 minutes or 15 minutes off of schedule.

The Metrolink OTP standard (pgs. 22-23) is 6 minutes off schedule.

Not surprisingly, the report makes no mention of the pitifully small market share of both intercity or commuter rail, nor does it mention the lack of connectivity between Metrolink routes at LA Union Station. 3 million a year is about 4100 round trips a day, 8200 single rides, in a population catchment of at least 16 million. That’s not even a rounding error 0.06%). 46 mph and 69% OTP factor in.

Metrolink’s story on pgs. 22 and 23 is similar, a tiny percentage of journeys in the region. Also, the definition of commuter rail (pg. 11) is completely out of date with modern travel patterns and needs to be updated to a definition of “regional rail”.
Hollywood Burbank North Station (pg.24) – the airport no longer provides a shuttle to meet every train, on demand only. The station will not be used by HSR and will most likely be demolished hen the second track is added.

California High Speed Rail (pgs. 12-15)-

SCAG should press for completion of the Southern California tunnels as soon as possible. First priority is Antelope Valley to San Fernando Valley which will initiate high speed regional service.

Los Angeles to San Diego – this Phase Two section needs to be accelerated, especially in light of the ongoing erosion of the Del Mar bluffs. In addition, the existing LOSSAN route needs a bypass track to take the line away from the near sea level section at San Clemente. This single track is both vulnerable to sea level rise and is a serious capacity bottle neck.

Locomotives-

The paragraph ‘Tier 4 Locomotives and Electrification’ (pg. 12) implies that the 40 diesel F125 locomotives purchased recently will be the only locomotives that Metrolink will operate for the next 30 years. However the quantity of 40 locomotives is not nearly enough for the level of service increases that Metrolink is proposing over the next 10 years. Metrolink is expecting rapid growth in its train frequency, under its SCORE funding plan the Orange county line currently at less than 1 train per hour (13 trains per day), will have minimum frequencies of 2 trains per hour in 2025 and 4 trains per hour by the 2028 Olympics, for example. The existing fleet of several dozen diesel locomotives is not enough to support this growth. Even if Metrolink had the amount of diesel locomotives needed, it still doesn’t justify delaying electrification. Continuing to run a 100% diesel fleet for the next two decades will not be environmentally or socially acceptable. At the very least a hybrid solution of a battery locomotive supplementing a diesel will help meet air quality and carbon goals.

There need to be more federal, state and locally-funded programs that could support zero-emission locomotive research and development (R&D) projects and technology demonstration projects. There are plenty of incentives and R&D programs, at both the state and federal levels, supporting electric cars and trucks. By contrast, public R&D funding opportunities for electric rail technologies are few and far between. Southern California should be a leader in zero-emissions, electric rail technology, and SCAG could be a major advocate for this technology.

Freight Rail Operations (pgs. 16-17)-

It is commendable that SCAG recognizes that freight rail infrastructure investments have great public benefit. RailPAC fully supports expansion of freight rail capacity and new grade separations on shared corridors, as this will reduce potential for congestion conflicts and delays to passenger trains. More capacity also allows more passenger trains to run.

One issue that needs attention is the safety and reliability impacts of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) practices of several of the Class I railroads, notably Union Pacific (UP) in Southern California. UP in particular is adopting so-called PSR to cut costs, running longer and heavier trains, two miles or more in length, which are slower to accelerate. There are several reasons that the longer trains are not in the public interest. First of all, the waiting times for vehicles and pedestrians at the various UP railroad crossings on roads and streets in the SCAG region are getting longer. This inconveniences the public (hundreds of people at a time), creates more pollution from idling vehicles, and harms the flow of local commerce. It also makes it more difficult to share the tracks with passenger trains, which end up running late because of long slow trains taking up so much space on the rails. PSR’s focus on short term profit is a danger to the future of rail transportation, and is leading to corners being cut on safety. Over 100 long freight trains pass through the SCAG region each day.
The use of the term “freight railroads” is inappropriate and misleading. “Common Carrier Class I Railroads” should be used.

Thank you for your consideration.
Sincerely,

Paul Dyson
Vice President, Southern California
Rail Passengers Association of California & Nevada (RailPAC)

Events, Steel Wheels Conference

Fullerton hosts the 2019 Steel Wheel Conference of the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada (RailPAC)

[This post was originally published as an article in the Mid October 2019 edition of the Fullerton Observer newspaper]
Cleve Cleveland of OCTA describing the OC Streetcar project (photo: Brian Yanity)

On September 28th, 2019, over 50 rail transportation advocates from around the state gathered for the annual 2019 Steel Wheels Conference of the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada (RailPAC) at the Fullerton Old Spaghetti Factory (the former Union Pacific depot).

RailPAC promotes the development of a modern, sustainable, environmentally friendly passenger rail system through education of the public and government officials.  Fullerton city council member Ahmad Zahra, whose district includes the train station, welcomed the attendees and described the role of Santa Fe Railway in the establishment of Fullerton.  Zahra said “we are trying to improve public transportation, and part of it is looking at our trains, and our train station… We want to encourage people to ride trains more”.  He emphasized the role of local government in improving the passenger’s experience at the train station with adequate pedestrian infrastructure and connecting bus service.

Carrie Schindler. Director of Transit and Rail at San Bernardino County Transportation Authority, gave a presentation on the ‘Arrow’, a 9-mile passenger rail line under construction between Redlands and San Bernardino, scheduled to start running in 2022. The Arrow will start with three new diesel-powered small ‘multiple-unit’ trains, along with one experimental hydrogen-powered train, made by Swiss manufacturer Stadler Rail.

Rick Meade, Senior Executive Officer – Program Management at the LA Metropolitan Transportation Authority, presented on the 13 large-scale rail transit projects in Los Angeles County planned to be completed before the 2028 Olympics. Cleve Cleveland, Department Manager for Orange County Streetcar Operations for OCTA, spoke about the construction of the OC Streetcar project, which is now under construction between Santa Ana and Garden Grove. Expected to begin operations in 2022, the OC Streetcar will be the first electric rail transit system to run in Orange County since the last Pacific Electric “Red Car” to Santa Ana ran in 1950.

RailPAC president Steve Roberts described efforts by rail passenger advocates in different states collaborating on saving the nation’s long distance trains, such as the Southwest Chief which stops in Fullerton, from cancellation by Amtrak management. Congress continues to provide funding for Amtrak long-distance trains, despite opposition from the Trump administration. Roberts and former RailPAC president Paul Dyson also gave updates on the LOSSAN (or Pacific Surfliner) corridor rail Los Angeles-San Diego services which serve Fullerton. Over the next year, the number of daily Amtrak Surfliner trains which stop in Fullerton will soon increase to 13, up from 12 currently, and several more Fullerton-LA daily trains on Metrolink will be added.