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Commentary, Issues

Comet Car Access problem?  A RailPAC solution.

First Published June 2013

As Noel Braymer has previously reported there is some discontent on the part of the San Joaquin rail board at being allocated two consists of the refurbished “Comet” cars.

The two bones of contention?  The age of the cars, as which date back to the 70s, and the access via steps and a narrow gangway.

The interiors have been nicely done and, just as with a hotel for example, the building can be old but as long as the bed is new and the plumbing works it really doesn’t matter.

But access does matter, for wheelchairs, bicycles, and just for those of us who are not as nimble as we used to be.  A train consisting entirely of Comet cars plus a Horizon café car and a “cabbage” locomotive for baggage and bikes offers no alternative but to climb those steps, and this will inevitably require longer dwell times at stations, and equipment for loading wheelchairs.

We have a suggestion.  On storage tracks around southern California reside the first generation of Metrolink cars, bi-levels built by Bombardier and now replaced by the Rotem fleet. These cars meet all current safety standards and have low level boarding, just like the California cars.  And like the Comet cars, they were built for commuter service and have seating to match.  Our suggestion is a mixed consist of 3 Comet and 2 Bombardier cars, the latter internally refitted with intercity seating, wifi etc. on the upper levels.  The lower levels would have either bicycle space or wheelchair space, or a combination of the two.

Bombardier Comet mixed consist Richard Suggs 2010

Mixed consist on Metrolink at Covina, March 22nd, 2010.  Photo by Richard Sugg

As the picture shows, these cars have already worked together in mixed consists, but with commuter seating.  The internal refurbishment could be done by Alstom at their Mare Island, California shop, keeping the jobs and the dollars in California.  The Comet cars cost about $1 million each to upgrade, and I’d guess the Bombardier cars would be a little more.

Our proposal demonstrates a couple of points.  One is that a passenger car is a hull which can be configured many different ways.  We need to be creative if we have rolling stock surplus from one service and shortages elsewhere.  Second, why don’t we have a state rolling stock plan that identifies these opportunities and makes equipment available so that we can support the growing demand for both existing and new services?

Unacceptable:  Results of the February 24th grade crossing collision east of Oxnard.
Commentary, Issues

Metrolink to Withdraw Cab Cars from Service

Yesterday evening the Board of SCRRA (Metrolink) held a closed session meeting described as pursuant to public safety threat (or words to that effect.  The notice is no longer on their website).  The real purpose of the meeting was to inform the Board that the NTSB had requested that the Rotem cab cars be withdrawn from service.  As a result of inquiries resulting from the Oxnard accident NTSB has reason to believe that the plows are badly designed and may have been the reason the train derailed after hitting the truck on the tracks.
I wrote to SCRRA Chair Nelson with my concerns about the accident and also contacted the LA Times.  Metrolink was quick to say that the crash Energy management had saved lives!  I think that CEM is designed for train to train collisions but when the object is at a low level the coupling will still override that object and make the train unstable.
Metrolink is leasing 58 locomotives from BNSF and will run the trains with locomotives at both ends pending a determination by NTSB.

SJJPA MTG 8/21/15

It seemed more of a “HIP HIP HOORAY” congratulatory celebration. Very well attended, (standing room only in the fairly large Modesto Council Chambers) . Assembly Member Adam Gray chaired the meeting. Welcome was delivered by Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh followed by statements from Legislative Members e.g. Senators Cathleen Galgiani (Stockton),  Anthony Cannella (Ceres) and Assembly Member Kristin Olsen (Modesto). All of these speakers made issue of the merits of increased passenger rail would have on reducing auto travel and the improvement of air quality which is a large problem in the central valley. The planned Mid Route early morning departure of north and south trains out of Modesto which would ease and enhance commuter travel to the Bay Area, Sacramento and Los Angeles was enthusiastically touted.

John Pedrozo chair of the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (SJJPA) and Dan Leavitt Manager of Regional Initiatives (SJJPA) spoke on background, funding needs and expansion plans e.g. Mid Route Departure pointing out the ongoing negotiations with the Host Railroad and Amtrak concerning lay over facilities etc. Start date for this service may be a year or a year and a half from now.
Bob Johnson chair of the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission (SJRRC) and Stacey Mortensen Executive Director (SJRRC) Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) spoke of the planned extended ACE service to Merced.

Testimonials for the San Joaquin and ACE Improvement and Expansion were made by numerous valley Supervisors, Presidents and CEO’s extolling the numerous advantages of the increased passenger rail service would bring e.g. ridership could possibly increase up to 70,000 per day, air quality would vastly improve , commuters could reach Silicon Valley and the Bay Area and an increase in business growth and development to the Central Valley would be a very positive result.

Public Comment was more of the same , very positive.


Amtrak at 44:  “Happy Birthday” to the Southwest Chief and Sunset Limited

It is no secret that for 44 years Amtrak’s long distance trains have had a target firmly placed upon them.  From the nitpicking of the Congress to the war against growth within Amtrak, we have to ask who is standing up for these trains besides us in the rail advocacy community?   If it weren’t for us could those trains have disappeared long ago?

Apparently the crisis of the past few years to retain the Southwest Chief on its historic route in Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico has been resolved, but was it necessary to go through all the hassle?  That train is a national system train.  Always has been.  Why was it necessary for the states to have to go through the political process of trying to “save” it with local money?  That exercise did call attention to the state of disrepair the BNSF line had become in those states, but Amtrak’s whole effort seemed to be directed toward telling the states that if they didn’t come up with the cash they would lose the train, and they were 44 year masters at the psychology of fear.  With the decision deadline coming at the end of this year, the states were jumping through hoops to try to comply.  Colorado took the lead and with ColoRail’s efforts was able to secure a response from their legislature. which insisted on rerouting the train by way of Pueblo.  Kansas, with Colorado, secured a Federal grant for track repair, which is underway.  New Mexico was unable to secure money, as their Governor felt the same as this writer that it was a national responsibility.  Now, Colorado’s funding has fallen through, as it didn’t pass through their Budget Committee, and the Pueblo reroute is off.

BUT, good news came at the end of March, 2015, as Amtrak announced it was no longer considering moving the Southwest Chief to the BNSF Transcon line via Amarillo.  Marc Magliari, Amtrak’s spokesman said, “There are no immediate plans that would result in a cutoff of service to the existing stops.  The Southwest Chief is on the right route.”  Amtrak is still urging the states to acquire federal grants to help pay for track maintenance, and they must be confident they will get it, but they have withdrawn the threats.

Meanwhile, the train keeps running daily taking mostly satisfied passengers where they want to go.    How is the Southwest Chief doing these days?  Not bad.  Like all the trains, the winter was a challenge, but at the end of April this train which arrived EARLY at Los Angeles Union Station on April 30 showed that it “could do it.”  (chart courtesy Amtrak Status Maps)

* Train 3 of 04/28/2015.
* Southwest Chief
* CHI  *  *     1  300P  *     300P  Departed:  On time.
* NPV  *  *     1  335P  *     335P  Departed:  On time.
* MDT  *  *     1  424P  *     428P  Departed:  4 minutes late.
* PCT  *  *     1  446P  *     450P  Departed:  4 minutes late.
* GBB  *  *     1  538P  *     546P  Departed:  8 minutes late.
* FMD  *  *     1  642P  *     647P  Departed:  5 minutes late.
* LAP  *  *     1  751P  *     803P  Departed:  12 minutes late.
* KCY  1  1011P 1  1045P 1010P 1045P Departed:  On time.
* LRC  *  *     1  1152P *     1152P Departed:  On time.
* TOP  *  *     2  1229A *     1231A Departed:  2 minutes late.
* NEW  *  *     2  245A  *     245A  Departed:  On time.
* HUT  *  *     2  320A  *     322A  Departed:  2 minutes late.
* DDG  2  519A  2  525A  508A  525A  Departed:  On time.
* GCK  *  *     2  621A  *     621A  Departed:  On time.
* LMR  *  *     2  659A  *     725A  Departed:  26 minutes late.
* LAJ  2  815A  2  830A  826A  834A  Departed:  4 minutes late.
* TRI  *  *     2  950A  *     950A  Departed:  On time.
* RAT  *  *     2  1056A *     1056A Departed:  On time.
* LSV  *  *     2  1238P *     1238P Departed:  On time.
* LMY  *  *     2  224P  *     244P  Departed:  20 minutes late.
* ABQ  2  355P  2  445P  410P  446P  Departed:  1 minute late.
* GLP  *  *     2  708P  *     708P  Departed:  On time.
* WLO  *  *     2  750P  *     750P  Departed:  On time.
* FLG  2  851P  2  857P  847P  858P  Departed:  1 minute late.
* WMJ  *  *     2  933P  *     935P  Departed:  2 minutes late.
* KNG  *  *     2  1146P *     1214A Departed:  28 minutes late.
* NDL  *  *     3  1249A *     113A  Departed:  24 minutes late.
* BAR  *  *     3  339A  *     345A  Departed:  6 minutes late.
* VRV  *  *     3  418A  *     423A  Departed:  5 minutes late.
* SNB  *  *     3  532A  *     532A  Departed:  On time.
* RIV  *  *     3  553A  *     601A  Departed:  8 minutes late.
* FUL  *  *     3  634A  *     656A  Departed:  22 minutes late.
* LAX  3  815A  *  *     738A  *     Arrived:  37 minutes early.

The tri-weekly Sunset Limited is the other train facing the constant 44 year hassle.  On February 28, 2012, Amtrak and the Union Pacific agreed in writing to implement the current departure time schedule, and for two years Amtrak agreed they would not make a request to the UP to increase the frequency (daily service), or ask the UP to add any trains or make any other changes on the Sunset Route.  Those two years were up over a year ago, yet the agreement appears to have continued.  It is understood that the UP’s extensive Sunset Route double tracking project is not completed, and daily service would not be totally feasible until it is done.  In April, 2015, reader Ralph James saw extensive  progress on the line east of Niland into Arizona, but there is much left to be done there by the UP.

Going back 44 years to 1971, Anthony Haswell, who was there at the formation, remembers “Revision of the final Amtrak maps to include key Southern Pacific routes was a mixed blessing, as it preserved the 3 day a week Sunset.  I am (still) firmly opposed to operation of any year-round train on less-than-daily frequency.”   Mark Murphy, Amtrak’s current General Manager for Long-Distance Services told a 2015 meeting that “Three times a week is not sufficient,” but his job is to “reduce Amtrak’s financial footprint.”  He could add capacity “if he or his department could find a creative way to do it.”  Here’s the answer to that:  add cars to meet the demand in time to fill them.  See what I mean about the war on growth?  That’s an example right there.  According to Trains Magazine’s Don Phillips, Amtrak CEO Joe Boardman “cut off discussions and publicly criticized his marketing department” for advocating improving service on the Sunset Route.  How can you fight that if you are an employee who sees what can be done?  The Sunset Limited’s on time performance has been pretty good through the winter.  Here’s the train that arrived at Los Angeles Union Station on Friday, May 1, Amtrak’s birthday:  (chart courtesy Amtrak Status Maps)

* Train 1 of 04/29/2015.
* Sunset Limited
* NOL  *  *     1  900A  *     900A  Departed:  On time.
* SCH  *  *     1  1030A *     1031A Departed:  1 minute late.
* NIB  *  *     1  1156A *     1200P Departed:  4 minutes late.
* LFT  *  *     1  1224P *     1235P Departed:  11 minutes late.
* LCH  *  *     1  155P  *     200P  Departed:  5 minutes late.
* BMT  *  *     1  348P  *     355P  Departed:  7 minutes late.
* HOS  1  618P  1  655P  601P  655P  Departed:  On time.
* SAS  2  1205A 2  245A  102A  246A  Departed:  1 minute late.
* DRT  *  *     2  549A  *     549A  Departed:  On time.
* SND  *  *     2  824A  *     824A  Departed:  On time.
* ALP  *  *     2  1038A *     1040A Departed:  2 minutes late.
* ELP  2  122P  2  147P  136P  204P  Departed:  17 minutes late.
* DEM  *  *     2  318P  *     346P  Departed:  28 minutes late.
LDB  *  *     2  413P              MT
* BEN  *  *     2  518P  *     532P  Departed:  14 minutes late.
* TUS  2  645P  2  735P  650P  735P  Departed:  On time.
* MRC  2  852P  2  902P  847P  909P  Departed:  7 minutes late.
* YUM  *  *     2  1149P *     1159P Departed:  10 minutes late.
* PSN  *  *     3  202A  *     207A  Departed:  5 minutes late.
* ONA  *  *     3  354A  *     331A  Departed:  23 minutes early.
* POS  *  *     3  404A  *     340A  Departed:  24 minutes early.
* LAX  3  535A  *  *     424A  *     Arrived:  1 hour, 11 minutes early.

An hour 11 minutes EARLY?…arrived at 4:24 AM?  Amtrak announced recently that train #1 passengers arriving in Los Angeles would no longer be allowed to stay in their rooms until 6:30, but the First Class Lounge at LAUS would open at 5 AM.  May 1, Amtrak’s birthday, was a celebration of that policy for sure.

Has anything positive been done by Amtrak recently?  Well, according to reader Anthony Lee, new connecting Thruway bus service for the Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Texas Eagle and some other routes, has been established in connection with Greyhound, including buses connecting Ft.Worth/ Dallas with Houston, Albuquerque-Las Cruces-El Paso, and faster schedules for the Silver Meteor and Silver Star on the East Coast due to the introduction of new Viewliner cars.  More about the Silver Star in the next post from this writer.

After 30 years of writing these reports nothing much seems to change.  Amtrak birthdays come and go, the trains keep running, riders keep coming, and yet the problems continue; in some cases get worse.

Russ Jackson served on the board of the Rail Passenger Association of California, and was editor-writer of the Western Rail Passenger Review.  He is now retired near grandchildren in Texas.


Could a Grilled Cheese Sandwich Help Save Amtrak’s Food & Beverage Service?

As we say on the radio, “but first….”

Two major Amtrak-related items have occurred this winter.  First was the cutbacks in long distance train consists in January and February.  Second was the U.S. House of Representatives actually passed a bill, and it was one that affected the future of Amtrak and what its customers will find on board that could alter their future travel plans. Continue Reading

Jim Hartnett

Jim Hartnett tapped to head Caltrain agency

Jim HartnettA regional search committee Wednesday selected Jim Hartnett as the new head of the San Mateo County Transit District (SMCTD) effective March 30.

Hartnett, a former Redwood City councilman and board chair of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, will take over as the new general manager and CEO of the Peninsula-based transportation agency in the San Francisco Bay Area.

SMCTD includes under its fold San Mateo County’s bus and paratransit service operator Samtrans, Caltrain commuter rail service and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority.

“This is personal for me,” Hartnett said. “I grew up on the Peninsula. I rode the bus before there was a SamTrans. I rode the train before there was a Caltrain. I believe in what transit can do to make a better life for all of us and to preserve those things we so deeply value and treasure about living and working here. I understand the important role our bus and train systems play in maintaining our quality of life and sustaining the economic vitality of our region.”

Hartnett will replace Michael J. Scanlon, who is retiring after leading the agency for more than 15 years.

The new general manager and CEO steps in as the agency is about to embark on a major electrification project along the Caltrain corridor between San Francisco and San Jose, all in preparation for enhanced commuter rail and future high-speed rail services. With a majority of Caltrain’s route and station stops located along the Peninsula, SMCTD will play a major role in shaping the future of regional and statewide passenger rail service.

Ken Ruben w Noel at JLS 2003

Ken Ruben

It is with great sadness tKen Rubenhat I report the death of longtime RailPAC member and Associate Director Ken Ruben.  Ken suffered a serious stroke on New Year’s Day from which he never recovered.  He died yesterday morning, Thursday 12th March, 2015, aged 72. Continue Reading

Commentary, Issues

Amtrak Statement in Response to the Hoosier Announcement

Indiana is fighting back against the FRA ruling, which is excellent news.  The whole idea of the ruling is ridiculous.  If a State hires a qualified operator to do a job it should not have to become certified to do the job itself.  Boardman is again trying to use PRIIA and now the FRA to force the states into paying their monopoly pricing for service.  This will not win him any friends outside the NEC.  – Paul Dyson Continue Reading