2018 has become a critical year for passenger rail in California. The threat to the interstate network trains, California Zephyr, Sunset Limited, Southwest Chief and Coast Starlight, puts them on the brink of fading into history barring radical action by Amtrak management and the Federal government. Two decades of under-investment would have been enough to doom these overnight sleeper trains without the deliberate destruction by Amtrak’s new management team. Amtrak CEO Anderson stated in April at the Los Angeles summit that “they are not viable” and he means to replace them. Well, that’s a plain enough statement for me. Perhaps from his standpoint its a reasonable position to take. Anderson was not at the helm during the decades of neglect and channeling of of the majority of available funds to the NEC. Nor is he responsible for the repeated calls from past Presidents and the Congress for the elimination of Amtrak, based on dubious data from Amtrak themselves. But as CEO he is responsible for ensuring that he has good data on which to base his decisions. He should understand the value of a connected 500 station network, and he should know the value of the cash flow from these trains. When you stop selling a product, the first thing that you lose is the revenue. How much of the allocated costs end at the same time?
Let’s not fool ourselves. “Saving” the Southwest Chief is not just about maintaining the present operation with some cooperation from the FRA regarding Positive Train Control. Saving the National Network, especially the “Superliner” trains in the west will require a huge capital investment. Locomotives and cars do not come cheap. Indeed they are made more expensive by another Amtrak management failure, the lack of consistent orders for replacement and additional cars which could have formed the basis of an ongoing, low volume production line. This would have retained the skills and tools needed, rather than trying to start from scratch with the “lowest bidder”. Nippon Sharyo is now closing their factory in Rochelle, IL, having failed to produce a bi-level car. We’re in danger of the passenger rail manufacturing business becoming like halloween shops, the pop up economy.
Siemens is selling passenger locomotives at $7 million a copy, and passenger cars can be had for about $3 million each. It doesn’t take long to run up a $2 billion tab at that rate, and that’s without refurbishing the best of the existing fleet. But then, $2 billion pales in comparison with the $150 billion I’ve heard quoted to maintain and modernize the Northwest Corridor. Let’s not be afraid of large numbers. And let’s not forget that $2 billion represents a lot of skilled work hours from a number of suppliers around the country. It also represent the continuation of work opportunities for train crews, station staff and maintenance personnel. In my view it’s an investment that we can afford, and that is well justified.
Here in California, with a new Governor taking office in January, questions will inevitably raised about the High Speed Rail project. Even the most ardent supporter has to be disappointed in the lack of progress since 2008. Rather than rehash all the reasons for the current situation, RailPAC will be looking at ways to exploit the work done so far and make recommendations based on what can realistically be delivered in the next decade. That will be the debate that we will have in Sacramento, and continuing into the New Year.
Speaking of disappointment, what real progress have we seen with the state corridors? In 2018 it still takes most of three hours to travel by train between Los Angeles and San Diego, about the same as 1971. And how about an hour and ten minutes for 50 miles between Oakland and San Jose? RailPAC’s early campaigns were about using existing routes and making incremental improvements, and that was OK for the first decade or so. But the low hanging fruit has long since been harvested, and the boards that now govern the state corridors had better wake up to the fact. Single track railroads along the beach may be picturesque but they don’t move people quickly or efficiently. Both LOSSAN and CapCor need major capital investments if they are to have real impact on our mobility needs. Yes, we’re talking billions again.
This is why we have an annual conference, and this is why it’s more important than ever that you attend. National Network, State Corridors, High Speed Rail are all at a turning point and in need of very large investments if they are to continue and prosper. This is your chance to meet industry experts and RailPAC leaders and tell us your ideas and where we should focus our efforts. REGISTER TODAY!
Paul Dyson, RailPAC President