Dear Passenger Rail Supporter:
RailPAC has endeavored over the past thirty eight years to advocate investment in and the greater use of passenger in California, Nevada and the west. The campaign continues with publications, online news briefings, visits to Sacramento and DC, and with local officials. We believe that we have made a difference, and we continue to do so.
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.
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.
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:
A well-informed source has told RailPAC that Pacific Parlour Car service will be missing from the Coast Starlight in the coming weeks because the FRA has some concerns about the glazing. Apparently one car has already been fixed and Amtrak is awaiting delivery of material for the rest of the fleet. Unfortunately we cannot offer a schedule of which dates may be affected but we’ll do our best to keep you informed.
As the Parlour Cars are cycled through the shops they will be temporarily replaced by Superliner lounge cars. We are assured there is no intent to end the service.
Napoleon 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.
Every few weeks or so the Los Angeles Times publishes stories by Ralph Vartabedian which are highly speculative, thinly researched and critical of the California High Speed Rail Project. The worst time for the media is when the news is boring. So for as long as there has been stories, spinning a story has been common to create drama and attract attention. For this the Vartabedian’s sensational stories have been very successful. Here we see pack journalism at work, as other media outlets republish these Times stories and creates follow up stories on the same meme. This reminds me of when I’ve glanced at tabloid publications at the supermarket. I often see headlines proclaiming again that some famous person has only weeks to live. Yet many of these folks often are still very much alive years later.
The October 8, 2015 Los Angeles Times edition had the headline “California bullet train project is attracting interest — but not funding”.This story by Ralph Vartabedian implied that the companies planning to bid for work on the California High Speed Rail Project, had no wish to provide financing for the project. Yet central to the planning for this project is private financing. Yet it appears that in Mr. Vartabedian’s research, none of the potential bidders were asked directly about this in his story. Yet this question was brought up by Sacramento Bee reporter Ted Bizjak in his article “Siemens Aims to Make Sacramento a Hub for Bullet Train” of October 19, 2015. Mr. Bizjak reported “A recent request by the rail authority for private companies to declare their interest in partnering on the project and to offer ideas on how to build the system drew three dozen responses, including from Siemens, but none of the companies offered to bring in private financing, rail officials said. Michael Cahill, president of Siemens Industry Inc.’s mobility division, said his company didn’t propose private financing because the state’s request wasn’t specifically set up for a financial proposal. But, he said, Siemens could be interested in making a financing pitch at some point.”
The recent contacts and discussions with rail contractors and operators by the California High Speed Rail Authority (CHSRA) may have already had an effect on the project. It is no secret that the operators of High Speed Rail services have wanted the initial service of High Speed Rail to serve Los Angeles from the start. Los Angeles is after the largest travel market in California and critical to ridership high enough to operate profitably. Yet current plans for the first segment of passenger service are from Merced to Burbank by 2022. Burbank is close but still 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Although not getting any media attention, it was recently discussed at the October Los Angeles Metro Board Meeting that the California High Speed Rail Authority had asked LA Metro to allow them to bring in High Speed Trains into Los Angeles Union Station by 2024, which is 5 years sooner than originally planned. Instead of using an underground station near LAUS as was being planned. The CHSRA now wants to bring their trains directly onto stations tracks in the middle of the station. This will be much cheaper than an underground station, quicker to build and have faster connections for passengers transferring by local trains and buses. The LA Metro Board approved the request to move directly into Union Station by the CHSRA.
The Los Angeles Times also had another recent Vartabedian story with the headline.”$68-billion California bullet train project likely to overshoot budget … Los Angeles Times–Oct 24, 2015“. This story assumes that the CHSRA is hiding costs that will sooner or later leave the taxpayer with massive debt. After the voters approved almost 10 billion dollars towards construction of High Speed Rail in late 2008, the estimated cost of the project did jumped from $32 Billion dollars to almost a $100 billion by 2011. It was at about this time that the Brown administration inherited the High Speed Rail Project. One of Governor Brown’s first acts was to appoint Dan Richard, his long time friend and adviser as Chair of the High Speed Rail Authority. Mr. Richard has done a great deal to turn the High Speed Rail Project around. One of his first challenges in 2011 was the 2012 Business Plan and getting the approval of the California High Speed Rail Peer Group which was created by the Legislature to advise it on High Speed Rail. This group is made up of experts in transportation, finance, construction, engineering and rail operations. This Group is made up of all unpaid volunteer professionals. The original Chair of this group was the widely respected Will Kempton, former head of Caltrans during the Schwarzenegger Administration. An original member of the Peer Review Group and current Chair is Louis Thompson. After a successful career at the Federal Rail Administration, he then moved to the World Bank to oversee rail development around the world. The Peer Review Group rejected the original CHSRA 2012 Business Plan. Under the direction of the Peer Review Group a largely rewritten Business Plan was adopted and is the basis of much of the current planning. The Peer Review Group was largely responsible for the current estimate of roughly $68 Billion dollars for the 520 route miles of High Speed Rail between Anaheim and San Francisco. Roughly half of this cost is to be paid with government funding and the rest privately financed to be serviced by revenues from the operation of High Speed Rail. Such Public,Private Partnerships are common around the world and are often used to build High Speed Rail. Future extensions to Sacramento and San Diego will depend on financing paid with revenue from the 520 miles of finished service.
Since the 2012 Business Plan, the High Speed Rail Authority has been able to stick to it’s original estimate of around $31 Billion dollars for the Initial 300 miles of construction between Merced and Burbank. This is almost all of the taxpayer’s money that is planned to be spent for California High Speed Rail. This is a fact usually ignored in the doomsday forecasts by High Speed Rail critics. Since the first major contracts have been signed and construction started, the bids so far have come in under budget.It is always difficult to estimate costs far into the future. But there are reasonable expectations that constructions costs shouldn’t spiral out of control in the near future. One of the major factors that in the last 40 to 50 years made long term cost estimates difficult has been inflation. But since 2008, despite many warnings to the contrary, inflation remains fairly low. In fact for many Central Banks the bigger fear remains the possibility of deflation. With this low level of inflation we continue to see historic low prime rates for borrowing money. This makes it a good time to borrow money at very low rates to build a great deal of major projects such as High Speed Rail. Another major driver of inflation is the cost of energy, particularly the cost of oil. Right now there is glut of oil. This is a result of lack of growing demand for oil around the world. We are also seeing renewable energy costs continue to go down, replacing the use of fossil fuels while keeping the cost of energy from rising.
Mr. Vartabedian can’t claim impartiality on the issue of California High Speed Rail. In one of his stories at the end of the 2014 Governor’s race he openly lamented that High Speed Rail hadn’t become a major political issue against Governor Brown. There has been a constant attempt by some Republican politicians to play partisan politics using the High Speed Rail project as a whipping boy. This hasn’t gotten these partisan politicians anywhere. Despite several calls to pass petitions to shut down the High Speed Rail Project, none have had enough signatures to even get on the ballot. The reality is that High Speed Rail is and always has been a non-partisan issue. Republican Governor Pete Wilson signed the legislation creating the California High Speed Rail Authority. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger placed the Prop 1A measure on the ballot in 2008 which gave voter approval for California High Speed Rail. Republican strongholds in the San Joaquin Valley such as Fresno, Merced and Visalia are major supporters of High Speed Rail. The same is true in conservative Palmdale. The California Chamber of Commerce supports High Speed Rail. The reason is simple, transportation is central to economic growth and local prosperity.
While there will always be uncertainties about the future, there rarely has been a better time to build than now. There are plenty of contractors looking for work and willing to bid low in efforts to find work. Energy costs and interest rates are at a historic low and major cost increases are not likely short of a major increase in demand. California is a big transportation market, and we need alternatives to the I-5 and 101 which will increasingly be subject to closures due to bad weather and traffic accidents. Many transportation experts around the world realize that California is a potential major High Speed Rail market. California is the key to major expansion of rail passenger service to most of the United States. Several countries are eager to see High Speed Rail service built in California and they want the contract for it. This will lead to one heck of a good deal from the competition for the final California High Speed Rail contract.