Browsing Category

Reports

Art Lloyd
Reports

Caltrain Board Honors Art Lloyd for 26 Years of Service

Art Lloyd Retirement On April 3, RailPAC’s Vice President Art Lloyd was commended for his 26 years of service on the Caltrain Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board.He will remain involved with “Emeritus” status as a consultant and for his vast railroad historical knowledge.

We at RailPAC can only echo the sentiments expressed therein and add our congratulations and acknowledgement of your service to that organization.  Without a thorough knowledge of the past, and the decisions that were made which created the circumstances of the present, it is not possible to make good decisions about the future.  Your passion for the subject and the determination to bring improvements to mobility and the quality of life that public transportation can bring combines with that knowledge to make a unique contribution that has benefited the community, state and nation.

Heartiest congratulations! Continue Reading

Reports

Amtrak opens the Los Angeles Metropolitan Lounge

Report by Paul J. Dyson, RailPAC President
Los Angeles, December 19, 2013

Today I attended the opening ceremony of the new Amtrak lounge for sleeping car and Business class passengers. In spite of being Amtrak’s 5th busiest, Los Angeles Union Station has never had a facility of this kind and it is much to be welcomed.

SONY DSC
View of the new Metropolitan Lounge on dedication day. Pictured on the right are Mike Dwyer, Route Director for the Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief, left, and Jack Rich from Amtrak Planning in Washington DC. (Photo by RailPAC member Alex Gillman)

The project was managed by Marcos Gonzalez, assistant Superintendent, and Peter Zavala, project manager, engineering. Passengers can enjoy Internet access, newspapers, a conference room, and comfortable seating in a quiet setting. In addition, ticketing assistance is available and priority boarding via Red Cap service. The lounge offers complimentary beverages.

Original train-themed art work is displayed, including a number of pieces by Assistant Superintendent Road Operations, Eric Smith. Eric’s work is on the cover of the 2014 Amtrak timetable. Amtrak VP Operations D.J. Stadtler performed the ribbon cutting together with L.A. City Council member Tom LaBonge. Also in attendance was Art Leahy, CEO of Metro, owner of LAUS. The lounge will be open from 5.00am to 10.00pm daily.

Editorials, Reports

San Joaquin JPA; a trip and meeting report

Reported, with an editorial, by Paul Dyson, RailPAC President

I traveled to Fresno Friday 26th July for the San Joaquin JPA meeting, the third of this newly formed corridor agency. Travel both ways from Burbank Airport via Thruway bus and San Joaquin train was on time and uneventful. The trains were well loaded, about 95% in my coach both ways, and the buses about 50% northbound (including 8 from Burbank!) and 33% southbound. Both modes deployed clean equipment and courteous and helpful crews.

At the meeting the BNSF’s D.J. Mitchell and Rick Depler gave an informational presentation to the Board about BNSF’s role in the corridor, how they cope with emergencies and incidents, as well as their modelling and review process for capital projects.

The key action item on the agenda was the staff report on the appointment of a managing agency for the corridor. Following the model of the Capitol Corridor an agency with some experience of operations and service development, and perhaps most importantly contract negotiations, will be appointed to “run” the corridor. This will fulfill the current role of Caltrans Division of Rail. There were only two candidates, the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission which operates ACE, and BART which manages the Capitol Corridor. Both were rated highly by the selection committee but SJRCC won out based mostly on local knowledge and geographic relevance, being based in Stockton. Vice Chair Steve Cohn of Sacramento and also a member of the CapCor Board pointed out the specific experience of BART with intercity service. It was clear that he did not have the votes and the SJRRC was unanimously chosen, subject to contract terms.

The next item concerned the deployment of the “Comet Cars” which will soon be available for service. Board member Perea in particular had previously expressed reservations about these cars, and demanding that they should be replaced at the first opportunity with the new bi-level cars now being built at Rochelle IL. I spoke in public comment reminding the board of the delay between the passage of 1B in 2006 and the start of manufacture of the next generation of cars. The Comet car program was the only alternative to continued overcrowding. Furthermore I pointed out that once the bi-level program was under way there would likely be ongoing demand not only from the California corridors but from other states and even from Amtrak for the long distance trains. Since $28 million of taxpayers money had already been invested in the Comets it was incumbent on all concerned to make them work. I then went on to briefly describe our idea for deploying mixed consists of Comets and Bombardier bi-levels (see my story at www.railpac.org) which would provide low level boarding on alternate cars, plus ADA and bicycle accommodation.

Other agenda items included review of a joint policy statement with the High Speed Rail Authority and Caltrans. Also discussed was the April Sacramento Rail Forum and a meeting with the other state rail board chairs to discuss common principles and policies.

Editorial: This Board has a steep learning curve ahead of it, plus a difficult task of managing expectations. As long as Amtrak continues to maintain the rolling stock to current standards, the train crews give the excellent service that I witnessed and enjoyed, and if BNSF dispatches the railroad and runs the trains on time then there is little that “local control” can do to make a major improvement. We wish Stacy Mortensen and Dan Leavitt well as managers of SJRCC in their expanded role and we look forward to working with them to expand service.

Reports

The (Almost) Perfect Trip from Auburn to Bakersfield

Trip Report and Comments by Ralph James, RailPAC member
Photos by the author.

From time to time I have need to travel from our home east of Auburn and Colfax to points in the southern San Joaquin Valley. With no early departures out of Colfax, the best that can be done is to catch the weekday train 529 out of Auburn at 0635. This train arrives Sacramento at approximately 0730 in plenty of time to make the 20 minute connection to the San Joaquin 712 bus to Stockton at 0750. This combination gets the traveler to Bakersfield a little after 1330 with most of the afternoon still available.

Early morning at the Auburn originating station.  The equipment is stored overnight on the stub track.

Early morning at the Auburn originating station. The equipment is stored overnight on the stub track.

The only problem with this very reliable connection is that Amtrak does not show it in their computer, reservations agents will not ticket it and it cannot be purchased with Guest Reward points as a single trip. Thus, anyone in previous years who went to the Amtrak website or reservation center to check the options for such a trip would be told that the earliest possibility would be the 1030 bus out of Auburn, an almost two hour layover in Sacramento and connections to a second bus to Stockton for train 716 with Bakersfield arrival near 1930, about six hours later than is actually possible and with no time left in the day at the destination.

This Auburn station shot shows the switch lined onto Main Track 2 of the UP Roseville Sub for the trip to Sacramento and the Bay Area.

This Auburn station shot shows the switch lined onto Main Track 2 of the UP Roseville Sub for the trip to Sacramento and the Bay Area.

After several phone and e-mail communications with both Amtrak and the Capitol Corridor spread over a couple of years I was still unable to convince either agency that the early connection was reliable and should be shown in the computer with a backup connection to the train 714 bus for the rare occasion when train 529 might be delayed enough to miss the train 712 bus connection. An alternative was reached, however, to show train 529 connecting directly to train 714 at Martinez with no bus transfers and a two and a quarter hour layover. The connection direct to train 712 at Martinez is missed by about twenty minutes. Against all logic, the fare structure is additive for the longer distance via Martinez, resulting in a cost that is about 50% higher than it would be with a Sacramento bus connection, but at least the earlier option is now available with a Bakersfield arrival about 1600 vs. 1930. For the following trip I used Guest Rewards points so the cost was the same regardless of the routing details.

Train 529 was brought out of the overnight storage track at Auburn about ten minutes before scheduled departure and was moving toward Sacramento on the minute of 0635. Good crowds boarded at Auburn, Rocklin and Roseville. Arrival at Sacramento was five minutes early despite fairly slow running through the Newcastle crossover and down old Main 1 to Rocklin and it would have been easy to walk to the train 712 bus in plenty of time for the connection to Bakersfield.

Train #6, the California Zephyr, is loading at the four-track Martinez station.  The foreground shows a bit of the former passenger platform that was replaced by the modern platforms in the distance.

Train #6, the California Zephyr, is loading at the four-track Martinez station. The foreground shows a bit of the former passenger platform that was replaced by the modern platforms in the distance.

Arrival at Martinez was on time at 0840. Part of the plan for the 2+ hour layover was to walk to a local restaurant for a real sit-down breakfast before boarding the San Joaquin and I found a decent place not far from the Martinez station to do just that. Train 714 arrived on time at 1054 and maintained time within a few minutes at all intermediate stations. Fresno arrival was early and we had a few extra minutes to wait for an on-time departure. We met 713 at Merced on time and should have met 715 near Hanford and 717 near Wasco, but neither northbound train was seen. Arrival at the Amtrak lead at the Bakersfield station was ten minutes early, but there we sat a hundred yards from the platform while crews finished shuffling the apparently disabled consist of train 715 to combine it with the regular consist of train 717 for a late combined departure northbound. After a half hour we had a clear platform track and completed the journey twenty minutes late–not perfect but nearly so until the very last. BNSF freight traffic had also been noticeably absent for most of the trip and it was not until the evening news that I learned that a BNSF train had rear-ended a UP train near the Loop on Tehachapi and all thru freight traffic was blocked until the following day.

Reports

Comet Cars not seen in a glowing light by newly formed San Joaquin Joint Powers Board

Report by Bill Kerby, RailPAC Treasurer

The author of the May 24th meeting of a newly formed joint powers board wishes to submit a revised version of that meeting. The presentation made by Dan Leavitt was mischaracterized in the report. Agency names were not fully provided and this oversight is corrected in the following revision. The author regrets any inconvenience that may have been caused by these errors.

The San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (SJJPA)… met in the City of Sacramento’s old city hall May 24th. New members of the recently formed JPA governing board were sworn in, Sacramento Assemblyman Roger Dickinson received an award for supporting intercity passenger rail through the JPA process, and several action items were voted for and approved. Fred Strong, representing the Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor Agency (LOSSAN), expressed satisfaction with the prospect of coordinating service with the San Joaquin corridor. The SJJPA bound itself to a short time line to choose a managing agency for the new SJJPA. Process for the selection of the Managing Agency on behalf of the Authority requires the winning bidder to be responsible for management, administration, financial and legal matters coming before the SJJPA for three years. Final selection is slated for the next meeting of the SJJPA on July 26th in Fresno.

When the new management agency starts negotiation with Caltrans on an Interagency Transfer Agreement, the negotiators could find that the task “may prove somewhat challenging immediately as the SJJPA has no independent source of funding at the present time.” The Managing Agency and a Managing Director will be hired and located within the region served by the San Joaquin Corridor. Assuming that the Managing Agency takes shape during mid-year 2013, the JPA intends to harmonize the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s (CAHSRA) Business Plan with the SJJPA’s business plan. The staff report on this issue states”…it remains a possibility that the CHSRA may not need to do, or desire to run conventional intercity rail services on their first construction segment.” To demonstrate that the high-speed rail project from Madera to Bakersfield is operational at some level before full build out of the initial operating segment (between Merced and Southern California) of the California High Speed Rail project, Stacey Mortensen stated that the CHSRA could ask manufacturers in countries like China, Japan, Switzerland, Germany or France to demonstrate high-speed train sets running on the 130 mile test section.

At present, California has no electrified railroad line in passenger or freight service. In accord with Mortesen, RailPAC would prefer to see electrification continue beyond the Caltrain project. Once completed, experience gained on the San Francisco Peninsula could be employed in the 130 mile Central Valley project and thereby gain economies of scale.

If readers agree with electrification of the test track, let RailPAC and the SJJPA know of your agreement. Send comments to
info@railpac.org or http://www.acerail.com/ContactACE.aspx

A heated debate erupted among the board members on the matter of accepting the refurbished Comet cars, originally built as electric multiple unit cars for New Jersey Transit. The question is should the rebuilt cars be substituted for Superliner cars with two of the four train sets currently in service on the corridor. Mortensen estimated a net gain of approximately 175-200 seats with the substitution, leading to potential revenue increases if the seats are filled. The downside of the swap attracted the most intense discussion. Vice Chair Perea questioned whether the SJJPA was legally required to accept the 14 cars, which are part of a $20 million contract. Worry about reimbursing the State of California for the Comet car share of $20 million through fare box recovery was also expressed by the Board. Other members focused on how ADA compliance would be achieved if less abled passengers had to climb up three steps into the Comets from station platforms. None of the Comet cars feature remote controlled doors, so some doors would remain closed at many stations and an extra car attendant might be needed to operate usable doors. Stanislaus County member Vito Chiesa offered a brief history of the Comet order. The lack of any used inventory of Amtrak certified cars and the inability of current manufacturers to fill small orders prompted Caltrans to select the Comets to gain needed seats. He noted further, this equipment order for purchase and refurbishment of cars nearly 40 years old should not be a surprise since Division of Rail’s Director briefed the San Joaquin Rail Committee numerous times over the last four years. As an advocate for strengthening rail service to the state’s capitol city, Sacramento Councilman Steve Cohn opined that he’d like to see obtain more equipment to add to Sacramento’s two daily trains between Stockton and Sacramento; however, he was not necessarily in favor of using Comet cars. Among the benefits of the Comet Cars is a good riding experience. Once a passenger is seated in the car, the rider will see a bright interior equipped with comfortable intercity seats and enjoy a smoother ride with the air suspension on the new trucks. Find the agenda document with Comet Car details at
http://www.acerail.com/Home/AboutUs/SJJPA.aspx

RailPAC hopes the optimism shown by the pledge to work with the San Joaquin JPA by Fred Strong, LOSSAN corridor board member, and Roger Dickinson’s affirmation of support from the state, counties, and other support groups could unify a diverse group of interests meeting on the common ground of building a connected rail passenger system.

Issues, Reports

The complicated history of the Sprinter

Report and Photo by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC e-newsletter Editor

The Sprinter started out as a simple project to serve the 22 miles between Oceanside and Escondido. The original proposal by RailPAC’s Byron Nordberg back in the 1980’s was to rebuild the existing single tracked short line railroad between these 2 cities for about 70-80 million dollars. Inexpensive, self-propelled diesel rail cars, proven and in production, would be used. The idea was to finish it in 1988, which was the centennial of these two cities and of the construction of this short line. After that things got complicated. The budget went up and opening day got pushed back to 2000 then 2005, 2007 and it finally opened in March 2008. By then the construction budget was almost half a billion dollars!

Sprinter at Oceanside

A major factor in the inceased cost and delays of this project was the decision to build a largely elevated connection off of the existing rail line for the Sprinter to the new campus of the California State University at San Marcos. This station is used when school is in session but is often quiet the rest of the time. The station is a long walk to the main campus, and shuttle bus service is included. The added cost and delays meant that money that had been budgeted to upgrade the Amtrak/Coaster Line in San Diego County was diverted to finish the Sprinter.

Just days before the planned celebration of the 5th Anniversary of the opening of the Sprinter in the first week of March, 2013, it was discovered that the center truck brake rotors on the cars had excessive wear. This center brake was not in the original design of this diesel powered rail car developed in Germany, but to meet California Public Utility Commission (PUC) regulations for braking for a Light Rail Vehicle a third brake was added to the center truck where the railcar was articulated. The rotor and brake parts for the central truck brakes were not the same as for the other trucks. The rotors are not in production and replacements would require a special order.

The discovery by the PUC that the center brake rotors had excessive wear was basically by accident; the PUC was following up on another brake issue for the Sprinters. The PUC had for over 5 years inspected the Sprinter 50 times, but many of the inspections were of the records, including maintenance records, but rarely physical inspections. The maintenance records recorded what work was done but didn’t include specific information on the condition of the parts such as the rotors. Such information had not been required by the PUC. It was shortly discovered that the North County Transportation District (NCTD) Engineer-in-charge of oversight of maintenance of the Sprinters knew about the excessive wear of the the rotors since 2009, just a year after the service began. This was also known in 2009 by the mechanics for the Sprinter who were employees of Bombardier, which had the maintenance contract for the Sprinter. By 2009 this NCTD Engineer, Richard Berk, was requesting quotes from manufacturers for replacement rotors. He got a reply 3 years later in 2012 and was told delivery would take 44 weeks. Mr. Berk “resigned” his position with the NCTD on March 1 of this year, the same day that the PUC discovered the problem with the rotors.

The issue of how and when the excessive wear was discovered on the rotors of some Sprinter brakes brings up several disturbing questions.

  • 1) Why did the PUC approve the Maintenance of the Sprinters largely without physical inspections of the the trains for over 5 years?
  • 2) How could management of NCTD be unaware of these problems with the rotors going back to 2009?
  • 3) How could a senior engineer go about looking for quotes for new rotors long before these rotors should need replacing without the knowledge of his supervisors?

Such an expense would require approval and justification from supervision sooner or later. Most disturbing of all is that in over four years no attempt seemingly was made to discover the cause of this abnormal wear or find a solution before replacing these very expensive and hard to replace rotors with new ones which would likely need to be replaced long before they should be.

NOTE: From an April 9 NCTD Press Release: “North County Transit District placed an order yesterday for a complete set of split disc rotors for the entire SPRINTER fleet. The replacement rotors are scheduled to be delivered from the European manufacturer by the end of April. Originally, NCTD anticipated the order would be placed in May however; the repair and testing process is proceeding ahead of schedule. While the repair process is moving swiftly and efficiently, NCTD still cannot set a date to resume SPRINTER service due to vagaries in manufacturing and shipping times, extensive testing requirements, and other variables. Once the complete set of rotors has arrived in Oceanside the agency will set and announce a re-launch date for the SPRINTER.”

Reports

Report of the First Ever San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority


Report by Mike Barnbaum, Associate Director of the Rail Passenger Association of California & Nevada, on Sunday 24 March 2013

The New San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, created by legislation from Cathleen Galgiani (AB 1779) and signed into law by Governor Edmund G. Jerry Brown on September 29, 2012, held its first meeting on March 22, 2013 in the City Council Chambers of the City of Merced. The meeting was called to order shortly after 1:30 P.M. After new member introductions and the pledge of allegiance, the historic Swearing In of New Members took place and the election of officers. A discussion took place regarding geographic region the three top officers are from so that to ensure that along the San Joaquin Valley Rail Corridor (Bakersfield to Sacramento/Oakland) had one member covering the Southern Portion of the Corridor, Central Portion of the Corridor, and Northern Portion of the Corridor. After the discussion took place, the new SJJPA Board Members agreed that they have accomplished that goal. With that being said, the new S.J.J.P.A. Officers are as follows:

  • Chair – Supervisor John Pedrozo of Merced County (Central)
  • 1st Vice Chair – Supervisor Henry Perea of Fresno County (South)
  • 2nd Vice Chair – Sacramento City Councilmember Steve Cohn and appointed to the S.J.J.P.A. by the Sacramento Regional Transit District Board

The legislation that created the S.J.J.P.A. and the coming together of the first meeting ever was work done behind the scenes by eleven astute people that made up Ad Hoc Staff Working Group including but not limited to Mike Wiley and Jeffrey Damon of the Sacramento Regional Transit District. All eleven of these people were publicly recognized during the first meeting.

Following the recognition of the eleven Ad Hoc Staff Working Group Members, the SJJPA took public comments. This writer was last, out of courtesy of other in attendance. Many public comments came from students of the new U.C. Merced as well as transportation professionals. Tom Richards, Vice-Chair of the California High Speed Rail Authority testified to the new members as to how the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority served as a great model over the years as to why the new S.J.J.P.A. was needed and ultimately created through state legislation. This writer talked about goal setting, particularly setting one critical goal of “Closing The Gap” that has been much talked about at the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee by the Treasurer of the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada (RailPAC) Bill Kerby. The “Closing the Gap” refers to eliminating bus service in favor of providing rail service between Bakersfield and California’s Busiest Rail Station, Los Angeles Union Station. Los Angeles County is the largest County in the United States of America in terms of population and is the second busiest Amtrak Station in the United States of America in terms of passengers. The last this writer, from Sacramento, had checked, Sacramento is the second busiest Amtrak Station in California and the seventh busiest Amtrak Station in the United States of America.

Following public comments was the adoption of the consent calendar. The consent calendar was adopted unanimously, including the meeting schedule for the remainder of Calendar Year 2013 and the location of the next regularly scheduled meeting of the S.J.J.P.A. This writer addressed the group in regards to the date of the next meeting proposed for the Friday that comes on the heels of a major three day weekend. After brief conversation, the board decided to proceed with that date and the remaining dates on the 2013 meeting calendar. The next meeting of the S.J.J.P.A. will occur on Friday 24 May 2013 at New Sacramento City Hall Council Chambers from 1:00 P.M. to 4:00 P.M. so that new Board Members in the San Joaquin Valley will have the ability to ride Train 701 directly to Sacramento arriving at 12:25 P.M. and back on Train 704 directly from Sacramento departing at 4:55 P.M. This is the only way for San Joaquin County Board Members and participants to attend a S.J.J.P.A. Meeting in Sacramento so as to not have a run-in with Peratta’s Law. This was a law writted and signed into law year’s ago by former State Senate President Pro-Tem Don Peratta which prohibits exclusive Amtrak Bus travel when using Amtrak to do a roundtrip in their itinerary. The law, in plain English states that when using Amtrak on an itinerary, a segment traveled by train must be included somewhere in that passenger’s itinerary or the travel can not be sold by Amtrak under any circumstance.

With that being said, the following will be the meeting schedule for the remainder of 2013 set for the Fourth Friday of Each Month as Follows:

  • May 24, 2013 at New Sacramento City Hall from 1:00 P.M. to 4:00 P.M. (Train 701 to Sacramento & Train 704 to San Joaquin Valley)
  • July 26, 2013
  • September 27, 2013
  • November 22, 2013 (This is the Friday “Before” Thanksgiving Day)

Members are also being polled by the Ad Hoc Staff Working Group for a special meeting for June 28th and/or another date in June, not yet known, to come to agreement on final selection of managing agency. The Managing Agency currently in place for the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority is the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District, headquartered in Oakland, California.

As the meeting proceeded a presentation was made about Intercity Passenger Rail Lobby Days in Sacramento that will be held over a 2-Day period on April 10 & 11. Caution was made into who would go from the new SJJPA Board so as to not hve a “quorum” present in the halls of the Capitol. If this occurred, a meeting would have to be noticed under California’s Open Meetings Act known as the Brown Act.

An Oral presentation was made regarding the selection process and criteria for selection of a Managing Agency and their Criteria. Staff of Agencies that have expressed interest in being the Managing Agency exempted themselves from speaking or presenting on this item. The item did allow for public comment of which this writer took full advantage as as transit rider, of promoting why the Sacramento Regional Transit District needs to be the Managing Agency of the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority. Among other things, the Sacramento Regional Transit District has completed a quarter of a century of operating Light Rail Service to the people of the Sacramento Region in 2012 and that on Monday 1 April 2013, the Sacramento Regional Transit District will turn 40. The comments made by this writer was to demonstarte to the Board Members and the independent presenter of the item that the Sacramento Regional Transit District is not new, and that the Sacramento Regional Transit District has a “track” record – no pun intended – of rail operations that is well established in the marketplace of the San Joaquin Valley for those Counties between Kern and Sacramento.

Reports

San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee meeting report

Report by Bruce Jenkins
I attended the SJVRC Meeting on Thursday, 2/28 in Fresno. Some of the more important items are as follows:

Caltrans Division of Rail Chief, Bill Bronte reported :

  • a) The San Joaquin trains are sporting a 64.5% Fare Box Recovery, the highest in the country.
  • b) On Time Performance for February, 2013, was 91.7%. He gave kudos to BNSF and UP for this time keeping.
  • c) The San Joaquins had the highest increase in ridership thruout the country.
  • d) 14 (reconditioned) Horizon Cars will arrive here from Beach Grove the end of March and will most likely be assigned as trains #711 & 718.
  • e) Coast Daylight and Coachella Valley trains are in the new California Rail Plan.
  • f) Up to six trains of the SJVR will be retained after HSR is operational. Bus service is most important, feeding 50% of the ridership to the trains and will definitely be retained.
  • In January Amtrak named Jay Commer as its General Manager, State Supported Services. He will be based in Oakland. Jay was general manager for the Calif, Corridor product line and superintendent of commuter operations for Caltrain, among other roles.

    Concerning the “Sequestration” debacle, Amtrak has not received guidance from Congress or the Administration on how sequestration will be implemented. Amtrak is planning to take actions to allow it to withstand a funding cut and not cut service.
    (NOTE: This meeting took place before Amtrak issued a notice to its employees:
    “From: Employee Communications, Sent: Thursday, February 28, 2013 2:30 PM, Subject: Special Employee Advisory – Sequestration. A Message from Joe Boardman, Dear Co-workers, You have probably been hearing about sequestration discussions in Washington and some of you are wondering if it will impact our service. Congress and the Administration have to agree on how to resolve these across the board cuts that will impact our federal funding. I want to assure you that we’ve been planning for this reduction in our operating and capital budgets and do not anticipate immediate cuts to service. We will continue to tighten our belts and focus on the bottom line. Hopefully, the sequestration debate will not last long. The continued lack of predictable federal appropriations does makes proper budgeting and future planning extremely difficult for us. I will let you know if our situation should change. Thank you for everything you do for Amtrak.”)

    D.J.Mitchell from the BNSF reported that PTC installation on the valley route was completed and will be operational when Amtrak gets the computers installed in their locomotives. Several members of the committee gave words of appreciation to BNSF and said they were glad to have BNSF “on the team”.

    Stacey Mortensen was absent, so there was no discussion concerning the JPA.

    Editorials, Reports

    Pro’s and Con’s of Replacing Amtrak

    Analysis by Noel T. Braymer

    With changes coming this October to the billing for State supported trains run by Amtrak, California and the other States supporting Amtrak Trains are getting sticker shock. Congress which is forcing Amtrak to raise its prices is also considering allowing private companies to take over some of these Amtrak trains. This would be similar to many commuter trains run by a private company under contract to a government agency.

    What are the Pro’s of replacing Amtrak with a private company? The private company will have lower operating costs to run trains than Amtrak. The States would pay less to have short distance trains than it costs with Amtrak under the new mandated billing. The money saved would cut the criticism of subsidizing these services and may free up money for capital projects to improve local rail service.

    So what are the Con’s to replacing Amtrak? Amtrak has the legal right to run on all major railroads in this country. States using private operators would have to negotiate a new contract with the railroads that now have Amtrak service. Amtrak already has liability insurance to run on these railroads. The railroads will want any operator to assume liability before using their tracks. The railroads will also be interested in the new operator paying more to run trains using their tracks than what Amtrak pays.

    Another big issue is equipment. Most States use Amtrak cars and locomotives for their State supported trains. Some States like Washington, Oregon, California and North Carolina own equipment. California owns all the equipment for the Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin Trains. But most of the equipment for the Pacific Surfliners is owned by Amtrak. Will Amtrak be willing to sell or lease their equipment to the States for use by private operators if Amtrak loses the contract to run these train? If so will the States have the money to buy or lease the equipment? So where will the equipment be serviced if the States get the equipment to keep running their trains? It takes time and money to build new facilities and the deadline is this October. Would Amtrak be forced to continue servicing their old equipment after selling or leasing it?

    These are some of the issues the States need answers too now. It can take years to set up a new rail operation and the States are working on their budgets now for next fiscal year. The possibility that Congress will make changes in the law in the future to make things less expensive doesn’t balance a State’s budget this year.

    So will Amtrak be better off without these short-haul trains which “lose” so much money? No. Amtrak doesn’t have a problem running too many money losing trains. Instead it needs to run more trains to bring in enough money to cover its overhead. These short-haul trains don’t make money or even cover their operating expenses in many cases. But Amtrak comes out ahead from running these train now with the money the States pay Amtrak.

    Amtrak needs to overhaul its accounting system because it  hides problems and opportunities. The reason the States pay as much as they do to Amtrak are because of “Avoidable Costs” for these trains. Congress has ordered Amtrak to charge the States 100% of a train’s Avoidable Costs starting this October. The term avoidable implies that if these trains are eliminated Amtrak would save money. But when Amtrak has eliminated trains in the past based on their Avoidable Costs it has always resulted in increased losses due to reduced revenue and little reduction in costs. Avoidable Cost accounting at Amtrak hides much of its fixed overhead costs by charging them to trains instead of identifying them.

    Avoidable Cost accounting at Amtrak hides opportunities by hiding progress made by improving rail service. When Amtrak started running 3 round trip trains between Los Angeles and San Diego in the early 1970’s the trains didn’t cover even 40% their operating costs. With service improvements and added service managed for the State by Caltrans these trains by 1988 were recovering just over 100% of operating costs. Strictly speaking this is not a profit because this doesn’t cover all costs including overhead needed for these trains but it was still a major achievement. By 1995 Amtrak starting adding some Avoidable Costs to the bill for these trains. By 1997 these trains were recovering less than 40% of costs under this new billing and the State was paying up to 20 million dollars a year to Amtrak to run these trains. Between 1987 and 1991 California’s cost per year for these trains to Amtrak was usually around 1 million dollars and often less.

    So what are these Avoidable Costs? No one really knows, because they reflects costs for all of Amtrak that are arbitrarily assigned to different trains. When service improvements are proposed no consideration is made from increasing revenues paying down Avoidable Costs. The result is increasing service looks like it will increase losses not reduce them. Amtrak’s high fixed overhead costs often have little to do with these local short distance trains.

    Where is much of this fixed overhead? Amtrak’s management is centralized in the East. Amtrak owns several major train stations mostly on the East Coast as well as Chicago. Stations are very expensive to own unless there is commercial development to help pay for them. Also between 1995 until 2002 Amtrak spent a great deal of money and went heavily into debt to start-up the Acela Trains back east which is still being paid off. It was because of this debt that Amtrak almost ran out of cash in 2002. Amtrak owns most of the railroad between Washington and Boston with some tracks in Michigan.

    In comparison Amtrak doesn’t own tracks or stations in California. The tracks Amtrak shares with commuter trains are owned by the counties in Southern California and mostly managed by the Commuter Train operators. On the East Coast Amtrak owns the railroad and is responsible for operating and maintaining the tracks it shares with many commuter trains. Most stations in California are locally owned and many cities have or are spending money to improve and expand their stations because busy train stations boost local economic growth. In addition California is now paying 100 million dollars to Amtrak to help pay for the State’s 3 corridor trains and that figure will go up in October. If the East Coast was more like California, Amtrak would save a great deal of money.

    A big problem having private operators running trains is how will passengers connect with other trains? If you want an economical rail passenger service you need connections to other trains to increase ridership which should have joint ticketing. For that to happen train schedules have to be coordinated between different trains. Just in California there is much to be done to coordinate service between the Surfliners, Metrolink and Coaster as well as between the Surfliners, San Joaquins and Capitol Corridor Trains. Imagine the problems with 3 different operators and local authorities in charge of each train if they aren’t working together. Imagine the problems with trains all over the country run on the State Level not connecting with the Long Distance Trains or even Trains with neighboring States.

    Using private operators to run passenger trains can save money for many States. But private operators will not cut the high fixed overhead costs that Amtrak has. These costs  for Amtrak will be elinimated by giving local government ownership of the railroad and stations owned by Amtrak. But there will still be the problems of paying for these costs which will still need government to pay for. This still brings up the question which part of the government; local, State or Federal will pay and where will the tax money come from? Paying for many of these costs will be solved by rationally expanding passenger rail service with better connections and service between more cities. Increased commercial development at the stations will increase revenues and cut overhead. But such a rational and economical approach we have yet to see in Washington either from Congress or Amtrak.

    Editorials, Reports

    Planning for Rail Service up to 2030 in the San Joaquin Valley

    Here are some excerpts from a report from October 26, 2012 by Stacey Mortensen and Dan Leavitt of the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission. This report makes very clear that the San Joaquin Trains will continue to run on the BNSF with possible additional stops after 2020  with express trains using the new HSR tracks. It is unclear if there will be joint stations between services at Bakersfield, Hanford, Fresno and Merced after 2020. There is planning  for expanded connecting ACE service and improved direct service to Sacramento  after 2020. Nothing was  said about future improvements for  the feeder bus services to the Valley or faster bus service to connect with express trains. With the updating for the State Rail Plan by Caltrans now underway it is critical to know what is in the works and to insure good connections are planned.

    Cover for the report

    Service in San Joaquin Valley by 2020 with existing San Joaquin Trains and additional faster express service on new Right of Way

     

    Rail Passenger service in the San Joaquin Valley planned for by 2025