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Commentary

Arturo Leonard Lloyd, Jr.

May 21, 1925 – December 4, 2016

Art LloydOn Sunday, December 4, Arthur Lloyd left this world with dignity and grace, surrounded by his children, grandchildren and caregivers in the living room of his home in Menlo Park. He was a powerful presence in our lives even as a series of strokes diminished his ability to move around and communicate. To the end, he expressed love for his family and gratitude for his care.

A sixth-generation Californian, Arthur was born and raised in San Francisco. When Arthur was about to start his sophomore year at the newly-opened Lincoln High School, his father moved his dental practice from downtown San Francisco to Napa. Dismayed by life in what was then a sleepy small town, Arthur accelerated his high school career by taking courses at the local community college, allowing him to matriculate at U.C. Berkeley in 1942, at the age of 17. Not long after his 18th birthday, he enlisted in the army and was sent to Fort Benning, GA, for basic training, and then to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, where he served in the Medical Corps until the war ended in 1945. Continue Reading

Commentary

Bye Bye Joe; Welcome to Wick

Here it is the first of September, 2016, and a new Amtrak era begins at the top of the ladder.  Wick Moorman, 64, until last year the CEO of the Norfolk Southern Railway and a 40 year career there, has taken the reins of the leaderless horse called Amtrak and been given a list of incentives that he can earn.  The Amtrak Board of Directors will pay Moorman $1 a year, and if he accomplishes that list of incentives he can earn up to $500,000.  Isn’t it interesting that as of this date no one has reported what is on that list?  We can only guess, and as everyone reading this knows, rail advocates are quick with lists of their own as to what should be on it. Continue Reading

Commentary

Steel Wheels: July – September 2016

Dear members:
By now you will have received your latest Steel Wheels magazine.  In the rush to meet the deadline for mailing the conference registration a few errors crept in, for which I apologize.  Andy Selden’s excellent account  was spoiled somewhat by missing captions.  Andy took the photos which are in order of appearance Denver Union Station trackside, El Paso depot, and the Huey Long bridge.  I suppose I could have made a competition of that!  Also on the front cover mention is made of the SCRIP project, which story is on the cutting room floor to use local Burbank parlance.  That story will appear in the fourth quarter issue.

Continue Reading

Commentary

Bullet Train will Start in the Bay Area

The Rail Passenger Association of California welcomes the decision of the CHSRA to construct north from Bakersfield to link with an electrified Caltrain at San Jose.  At the same time money will be spent on the long overdue modernization of Los Angeles Union Station, especially permitting through services between the north and south of the region.  Coupled with the removal of the capacity choking bottlenecks that prevent Metrolink and Surfliner from reaching their potential, in effect what will be created is two regional mobility systems which should tie together the planned and existing investments in subway, light rail and BART to create better choices for citizens in the most populated areas of the state.
In an ideal world we would like to see simultaneous construction of the link between the San Fernando Valley and Bakersfield.  This could be a private enterprise project put out to the industry for proposals, perhaps for a “toll” railroad or some other form of joint venture.  Absent that I have no doubt that southern California politicians will soon find a way to fund the missing link once they see how the “northerners” enjoy the benefits of swift, electric powered transportation.
Commentary, Issues

Amtrak Long Distance News in the New Year … the good, some bad, and the expected “ugly”

Let’s start with the ugly status of the Dining car removal from the Silver Star train, since it’s the hottest news.  On January 28, just as this is being written, URPA learned that Amtrak employees were told the day before that the Star’s dining car is PERMANENTLY gone.  As predicted here since this “experiment” was first announced last summer, there was no doubt it was going to be a permanent discontinuance.  Continue Reading

Commentary

Western Long Distance Trains at the End of 2015: A Positive Report

Here we are, Christmastime 2015, and lo and behold the Amtrak long distance trains continue to roll and to some extent thrive despite the negative publicity that they are “money losers.”  In recent posts this writer has talked about the positives that are being accomplished on the Coast Starlight, and the opposite effects that are creating heartburn on other trains like the east coast Silver Star which has lost its dining car.  In this article we will look at the other western routes that operate in and out of Los Angeles headed east, and what the imminent retirement of CEO Joe Boardman can bring to the future. Continue Reading

Commentary, Reports

The Coast Starlight:  Paso Robles to Eugene; not endpoint travel!  What about the food?

Report and Commentary by Russ Jackson with Ralph James

Amtrak likes to tout its end points and the volume of traffic it gets between those departures and destinations on all of its routes, but while some passengers do that it is the intermediate station travel that fills up the trains.  Can you imagine, as RailPAC President Paul Dyson says, if you could only travel between endpoints on the interstate highway system?  Amtrak is usually surprised when someone wants to travel from, say, Paso Robles, CA, to Eugene, OR.  They might not be able to collect as much money from that passenger, but they can still sell that seat on either side of those two locations.  Here is an instance of that exact travel pair as reported to us by RailPAC member Ralph James.  He recommended to a friend that he take the his Thanksgiving trip on the Coast Starlight from Paso Robles to Eugene.  The  friend was dreading the long drive.  “With the necessary tinge of reservation,” Ralph says, “I suggested he look into Amtrak since his origin and destination were right at stops for the Starlight.”  He did so, and sent Ralph a trip report of the first half of his trip, as an “assessment,” giving Amtrak numeric grades for what he experienced with comparisons to airline travel: Continue Reading

San Bernardino CA Metrolink  power Freericks
Commentary

Metrolink in a Tail Spin: Is there a way out?

San Bernardino CA Metrolink  power FreericksNapoleon used to say that he liked his generals to be lucky. Presumably he would not have employed the first CEOs of Metrolink, who suffered considerably from ill fortune, particularly the Glendale accident. But bad luck is only one small part of the picture that has brought about the near collapse of Metrolink. After 23 years in being, consider that: Metrolink’s daily patronage is a little over 40,000 trips, or 20,000 customers. The annual operating subsidy is about $6,000 per customer, soon to be increased by another $1,000 (see below), in a population base of about 15 million people.

Metrolink’s locomotive fleet has a high failure rate, and is being prematurely replaced with over $300 million of new locomotives, paid for by 1A High Speed Rail funds (!) and SCAQMD funds, the so-called Carl Moyer program. Metrolink’s peak hour oriented service pattern, with most locomotives enjoying a weekend off, allows for plenty of time for them to be properly maintained yet by their own admission key service and rebuild intervals have been ignored.

There are still severe operating constraints, limitations to capacity caused by lack of investment to remove bottlenecks. Operationally, small delays can expand to major disruption as trains wait for meets on single track sections. Key markets, such as between northern Los Angeles County and Orange County, cannot be addressed because of the time taken to reverse at LAUS.

Since the February Oxnard collision with a stray truck at a grade crossing there has been a cone of silence over the Rotem Cab Cars. At the SCRRA Board meeting of Friday 25th September 2015 the Board voted, with minimal public discussion, to authorize a lease of 40 freight locomotives for a year at a total net cost of $M19.125, or nearly $1,000 per customer. (Just before going to press this amount was increased to over $23M, but was referred back to the member agencies for their approval. They have to find the money.) These locomotives are to be placed on the train ahead of the cab car so that each train will have a Metrolink locomotive with only the HEP operative, the passenger cars including the cab car, and the freight locomotive providing the motive power. Such deliberations as there were, including any discussion as to where this extra money is to come from, was held in closed session under the rubric “anticipated litigation”. We await the NTSB decision on the results of the Oxnard accident, but has SCRRA been forewarned that the cab cars may be found to be inadequate protection for the engineer and passengers? Another theory is that this is a pretext for bringing in locomotives to make the trains more reliable as Metrolink’s own fleet is at a crisis point.

We await the NTSB report about Oxnard with interest. We also await the “anticipated litigation”. Who might sue whom? In the meanwhile operating people familiar with the situation are concerned about the additional difficulties these added locomotives might cause. In some instances, e.g. Lancaster, overnight train storage is so constrained that there is insufficient room to add a locomotive without reducing the number of cars, or storing one train elsewhere. This might require a deadhead move from Los Angeles, shortening trains, or the reduction of service. Furthermore, with two locomotives on each train, both requiring fuel and service, operations at the maintenance facilities become more complex and time consuming, with the likelihood of delays. There is also the issue of whether these freight locomotives, normally having a lower maximum speed, will be able to make passenger schedules.

To add insult to injury the Positive Train Control mandate has proven to be costly and technically complex to meet. I sometimes wonder if the politicians were told that the process would be no more than installing a “Garmin” in every cab, but clearly this is not the case. The area of the greatest long term concern is the turnaround time at terminals, especially LAUS. I have been told that 25 minutes is the minimum required to reverse a train, and indeed Amtrak now schedules 30 minute dwell time at LAUS for through Surfliner trains. The San Bernardino service seems to be the first to reflect this new reality. Billed as a “service enhancement” the number of peak hour morning trains is reduced from roughly 20 minute intervals to 30 minutes between L.A. bound trains.

The eastbound afternoon departures are similarly reduced, although there is at least a clockface rationale to the new offering. And when oh when will we get rid of this nonsense of trains that “may leave up to 5 minutes ahead of schedule”? As far as I know this absurdity is unique to Metrolink. Anyone know otherwise?

I’m hoping that the technical experts responsible for PTC will come up with a fix for this turnaround issue. With a captive fleet operating over limited track miles one would think that most of the data can be stored on board and all that would be required would be for the engineer to select a train number. Otherwise the possibility of adding service at LAUS must be almost zero until the run-through tracks are complete. In the meanwhile punctuality, whether caused by PTC problems, locomotive failures or other issues, has deteriorated. Today (10/2/15) I see 20, 30 and 45 minute delays on the Antelope Valley line. How long will the remaining customers stick with the service? Where do we go from here? We have to accept that Metrolink was built and implemented on the cheap. From the first day the system suffered from capacity constraints and bottlenecks that were an unfortunate fact of life in 1994, but by 2015 should have been fixed. These include the LAUS run through tracks, double track on the Ventura and Antelope Valley lines in the San Fernando Valley, the I-10 single track through Alhambra, and the BNSF Transcon from Redondo Junction to Fullerton and beyond. Instead of making incremental investments over time to permit more reliable and frequent service the counties, Los Angeles County in particular wasted two decades before Metro CEO Art Leahy initiated a program of investment. We are two to three years away from reaping the benefits from those expenditures.

Similarly we are at least two years from delivery of a significant number of the new EMD locomotives, and let’s hope that these units do not suffer from any reliability problems common with brand new equipment.

So how should Metrolink proceed during this 2 to 3 year period with the assets that are available? One of the alternatives suggested by the staff report on the proposed BNSF locomotive lease was to decline to increase the operating budget and not go ahead with the lease. Staff stated that this would result in a major reduction in trains run, up to 50%. As I commented to the Board, this alternative should be seriously considered.

Given the time taken to take delivery, prepare and deploy the BNSF locomotives, and given the ongoing issues with PTC, it may well be the most prudent action to curtail the current service to a level which can be reliably operated. With a Metrolink locomotive on each end of the train, additional cars could be added to the trains that do run, so that at least the number of seats available is not reduced by 50%. Furthermore the train sets that are available could work trains throughout the day, providing more travel opportunities.

Let’s take this a step further. What if service were abandoned completely on some lines with the remaining train sets deployed to all day service on a core system? This would most likely consist of the Antelope Valley, San Bernardino and IE-OC trains. A sensible bargain could be struck with the LOSSAN Board to contract for space on a reconfigured Surfliner service to provide basic commuter schedules on the Ventura and Orange County lines. Perhaps also NCTD could be induced to extend service from Oceanside to Fullerton.

This may seem like radical surgery. Indeed it is. Would the patient survive? There is a risk that Metrolink may lose the political support that it has if the daily passenger count goes down to 25,000 or less. On the other hand there would be considerable operating savings which should be devoted to locomotive maintenance and PTC installation and problem solving, as well as the ticket machines and revenue collection. By 2020 Metrolink will have a new fleet of locomotives, double track in the critical areas of the San Fernando Valley, LAUS run through tracks and other track improvements around the system, and PTC operating smoothly. That will be the time to relaunch the service, preferably with a new brand, to consist of all day, seven days a week through services between the Counties passing through Union Station, and providing cross platform transfers. By 2020 the local transit operators will have had time to plan connecting feeder buses and to integrate fare collection systems.

Can the SCRRA Board rise to the occasion and use this difficult period to take a bold step for the future? In 1994, after the Northridge earthquake, Metrolink seized the opportunity to prove that rail can be part of the solution to our mobility needs. Rather than band aid the present service and essentially continue the poor performance and mediocrity, let’s hope that there are those on the Board with the vision to turn Metrolink into true REGIONAL RAIL.

Commentary

The Eagle, the Sunset, the Star, a Trip Report, and a rowdy car

Whenever a passenger is ready to travel by Amtrak, has a ticket in hand and is ready to go to the station to board the train the first anxiety is always whether the train will be on time or be running late (in many cases hours late).  For this trip let’s get the on time performance out of the way by saying that Amtrak’s October 5 Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited we boarded in Ft. Worth was nearly on time all the way.  There were no major delay incidents.  Since it takes upwards of 45 to 50 minutes on a good travel day for us to reach the Ft. Worth station it was good to know the status, and while “Amtrak Julie” is the best source, so are Amtrak Status Maps and the other sources of information.  We arrived at FTW just as the train was arriving from Dallas.  Great timing.  Bad track sections in Texas still need work, particularly Temple to Taylor.

This report will cover mostly the westbound trip.  Veteran readers know this reporter and spouse have been traveling Amtrak long distance trains since 1971, traveled on the AT&SF before that, with reports like this one having appeared in RailPAC publications since 1990.  Train travel is our preferred means of travel, for those of you first time readers, and while we don’t do it as often anymore, we enjoy seeing how Amtrak train travel changes or doesn’t change from trip to trip.  Meeting interesting people on board is a pleasant experience, and on this trip we met a couple from Waco traveling on Amtrak for the first time and also going to Los Angeles.

On the Texas Eagle trains from Chicago, arrival in San Antonio is scheduled for approximately 10 PM.  On our train a full sized Dining car replaced the usual Cafe-Diner.  Off-season staffing is two employees upstairs and two downstairs in the galley.  The LSA upstairs also waits tables.  Only one half of the car was used, approximately the same size as the Cafe-Diner.  When the call for dinner reservations came there were only going to be two seatings, at 5:00 and 5:30.  When asked, the LSA crisply replied that there couldn’t be any after that “on days we go to San Antonio.”  Perplexed, I did not continue the discussion.  When we arrived for our 5:00 seating we were pleased to find us sitting across from the Waco folks, and were able to answer most of their questions.  They were sharing a Roomette.  We ordered dinner, and this writer swears the steak was the best one ever in all our trips.  The service crew was excellent, but it still is curious why they thought they couldn’t have scheduled a few later seatings.

Usually on the Eagle there is conductor chatter on the PA, but this crew was nearly silent.  Our sleeping car attendant was very cooperative and helpful.  Our car, #32079, is one that has not been fully updated and has the old carpeted walls that now look quite shabby and dirty.  One new touch is they now post the dining car and lounge car menus on the wall, which helped new travelers to make decisions before entering the Diner.  Why did it take this long to do that simple “marketing” idea?

At breakfast on the Sunset Limited after leaving Del Rio, we found a new crew that was not quite as good as the one on the Eagle but still very competent.  Breakfast was first-come-first-served, and the scrambled egg meals were excellent.  Lunch and dinner would be by reservations, and there would be multiple seatings for both.  We were pleased we could share breakfast with the Waco folks again, and anxiously awaited their comments about the long stay in San Antonio and the overnight ride west of SAS to Del Rio.  When the Eagle cars are transferred to the Sunset Limited in SAS the noise and jolting can be quite annoying, and for those folks it definitely was, as the full speed travel and rough track nearly bounced them out of bed.  They thought they might be able to upgrade to a Bedroom, after seeing ours, but changed their minds when told what it would cost.

The Eagle sleeper and coach are the last cars on the westbound Eagle and Sunset, but on the Eagle the diner is only steps away while on the Sunset in both directions the Eagle passengers must pass through three Coaches and the Lounge car to get there.  For younger travelers that’s not a big deal, but older folks (ok, geezers) it can be a chore.  There must be a better way to position the cars as they do on the eastbound train where out of San Antonio the Eagle sleeper is placed at the head end just behind the transition sleeper and just ahead of the Diner.

When we arrived in the Sunset’s Diner for lunch going west things fell apart quickly.  We had neglected to tell the Waco folks when we were going, so we were seated at a table and waited for new folks to arrive to sit on the other side.  A young couple from the Eagle Coach arrived, who had experienced what was quickly called the “rowdy car” overnight, and they were involved in a “spirited” (loud) discussion with all the crew. There are no crew members on board while the train waits for the Sunset connection in San Antonio, so the overnight stay in San Antonio had erupted into quite an uproar in their Coach, which they had joined into apparently, and there were accusations of theft and drunken behavior being shouted.  This turn of events was not conducive to a pleasant lunch meal experience for us.  The crew was not really helpful in calming things down, and we quickly left the car without finishing our cheeseburgers (the best thing on the menu by far).  We chose not to go there for dinner, forfeiting that paid-for meal.  Instead we ordered some snacks from the Lounge, which our attendant brought us.  That in-car service is important, and all four attendants on our round trip cheerfully helped us.  It seems these days that there is always one “rowdy car” on a train, but thankfully that was not the case on our return trip.

At Alpine, Texas, there was the usual “smoking” stop, as well as passenger boardings and a crew change.  Out of curiosity we asked the new conductor standing on the platform (we had recovery time) if he thought there would be a daily train on this route instead of the tri-weekly as it is now.  His laugh could have been heard in El Paso.  “I’ve been here for 27 years,” he said, “I’ve heard it was going to happen all the time, with nothing happening.”  That reply was not unexpected, of course.  He went on, however, to say there is no equipment for daily service yet.  That’s the company line and the employees are stuck with it.

The trip progressed nicely, without further major incidents, up to and including the early arrival at Los  Angeles Union Station.  Some Sunset Limiteds arrive as early as 4:30, but ours pulled in at 5:05.  That has been a controversial situation, with Amtrak putting in writing that sleeping car passengers “are welcome to occupy their accommodations until 6:30.”  Not so anymore.  The crews are intent on going home, so Amtrak changed the rule by opening the Metropolitan Lounge at 5:00 in LAUS.  We were told that we could take our time, but the trainset would be “going to the yard at5:30.”  We had to wait until Hertz opened at 7:00, so we and the Waco folks trudged up to the Lounge.

Update:  All this brings up the long distance service “experiment” taking place on the East Coast on the Silver Star, which has had its dining car removed and sleeping car fares reduced to see what the effect will be on ridership and revenues until January.  NARP finally opposed this move, as did the rest of us, as it sets a dangerous precedent.  NARP Chairman Bob Stewart reported that station agents have received many complaints, Lounge car attendants say they have had long lines for service, and some passengers reported they had purchased tickets at the old price but were not offered any adjustment.  But, on the final day of the NARP annual fall meeting an Amtrak executive was asked how passengers on the Silver Star were responding to the no-dining-car experiment.  He said it seemed clear that people were willing to give up dining car meals in exchange for lower fares.  This writer has said all along that this is not an “experiment” but will be a permanent change as to do otherwise would mean Amtrak would have to admit they were wrong.  In concrete?  Oh, yes, and look for other long distance trains that only travel over one night to get the same treatment if this “experiment” is allowed to stand.

Andrew Selden writes that “The way Amtrak’s internal cost accounting works, it is impossible to know the results of this (Silver Star) ‘experiment’ in financial terms, because the financial results of everything they do are reported as allocations of category aggregates.  Individual trains’ actual results are evaporated into averages and algorithms.  Only months-later analysis of ridership on that one train reflecting re-purchase after a bad experience will show anything, and then only after those numbers have been normalized to the performance of similar trains with either normal or enhanced food service.  Amtrak is too cheap to commission an expensive objective consumer survey.”  Bye bye Dining Cars?  Don’t be surprised.