What Should We Expect For Rail In The Near Future?

Editorial by Noel T. Braymer

With record amounts of funding being authorized for passenger rail service improvement by the Federal Government, we should expect major service improvements in the near future. The question is given the way things usually work; can we expect real improvements in the near future?

In California the project with the highest priority is the long awaited Coast Daylight service between Los Angeles and San Francisco. What is needed now to make this train a reality is one additional trainset in California. Amtrak has the funding now to rehab equipment to start this train. The big hold up is California is expected to pay more money to Amtrak to extend service from San Luis Obispo to San Francisco. However the budget problems in Sacramento will delay this projects a few more years to 2011.

It is in Amtrak’s interest to run the train and give California a break on operation charges for the Daylight. The Coast Daylight will be a very successful train if done right. One thing that will be needed is better connections to the Daylight. Amtrak train 799 is the morning departure out of Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo. It leaves Los Angeles at 7:30 AM and doesn’t have a connection with a Surfliner train from San Diego. Ridership on the 799 could be better. It makes better sense to run the Daylight from Los Angles at 9 AM. The 763 is the first Surfliner to arrive in Los Angeles from San Diego at 8:50AM. The 763 now continues to Santa Barbara. It would make sense to run service all the way from San Diego to San Francisco. The problem is neither city has a maintenance base to service the train. There have been plans to build an Amtrak maintenance facility just south of San Diego for some time. It would be nice to give this project priority so it can be used for the Daylight. By changing the 799 into a Santa Barbara train and having it leave earlier it can serve the commuter market for Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara County has funding available for such service.

The Daylight should depart both Los Angeles and San Francisco around 9AM. This avoids the commuter train traffic congestion for both Caltrain and Metrolink and improves connections with other services. Another good reason for 9AM departures is this allows the Daylight to be used as a “sweeper train” for the Coast Starlight. The Daylight leaving Los Angels before the Starlight and making more stops than the Starlight can collect passengers which can transfer at San Jose to the Starlight for points north. Southbound the Starlight should arrive at San Jose before the Daylight and passenger can transfer to get home on the Daylight. The Daylight used this way will free up space on the Starlight for the more profitable longer distance passengers and collect long distance passengers at more stations and feed them to the Starlight. This is in Amtrak’s best interest.

Another high priority service is a daily Sunset. Simply running the Sunset daily to San Antonio and marketing the connection with the Eagle will make a substantial improvement to Amtrak’s cash flow. A joint daily Sunset/Eagle serves major cities like Los Angeles, San Antonio, Fort Worth, Dallas, St. Louis and Chicago. Daily Sunset service will explode ridership for both trains. Amtrak has 39 Superliner cars that can be repaired and brought back into service. A daily Sunset to New Orleans will require two additional trainsets or at least 18 or more Superliner cars. More equipment will be needed to extend the Sunset back to Orlando as a daily trains. Those 39 Superliner cars will go fast. The train the City of New Orleans spends over 20 hours between runs in New Orleans. Modest adjustments to the schedule would allow the City to meet with the Sunset and continue on to Florida. This would provide a connection to Florida for the Sunset, improve the train’s utilization and create a Chicago-Florida service. Ideally the Sunset should have through cars on an extended City of New Orleans to Florida. Again is Amtrak up to the challenge or have the equipment to do this?

The question of equipment keeps coming up as the limiting factor in expanding service. In California there are plans to run service from Sacramento to Redding, to Reno/Sparks, from Los Angeles to Palm Springs and additional trains on the Coast Line from Southern California to San Francisco. Currently more equipment is needed to just to meet growth on existing services. With more equipment there could be service extended from Palm Springs to Arizona as far as Tucson, but also to Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. With rail traffic down, this would be a perfect time to push for extending the San Joaquin south of Bakersfield to Southern California and running a section of the Southwest Chief from the Bay Area down the San Joaquin Valley to Barstow. These are just some of the projects we should be expecting soon which would improve Amtrak’s bottom line. The question is can we expect them any time soon?