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.
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.
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.
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?
The interview of Art Leahy, Metrolink CEO, by Dan Weikel was revealing. (LA Times, June 30th) The revelation is that there is no long term movement to make Metrolink a vibrant, relevant mobility option for large numbers of citizens. Nothing that Leahy said indicated a desire to do anything more than business as usual, except with better execution, and no doubt that is the direction he has been given by his Board. One would like to think that there is a desire among decision makers in Southern California to have something better than sporadically scheduled diesel powered trains carrying a miniscule number of commuters on weekdays and little else, but there is precious little sign of it.
After gaining momentum as a substitute for the automobile post the 1994 Northridge earthquake the system was allowed to atrophy. The Glendale accident (unfortunate, unavoidable) followed by Chatsworth (probably avoidable) set the agency back and led to a lack of confidence among would be patrons. Key investments, such as the SCRIP tracks at Union Station, the Van Nuys new platform, and double track to Sylmar and Chatsworth, are still not complete, although they are finally in the pipeline, a decade late. The result is today that patronage is static or declining, with barely one tenth of one percent of the five county population choosing the train for their transportation needs each weekday.
After more than twenty years of service it is still not possible to travel by Metrolink train between the San Fernando Valley and Orange County without changing trains, and the connections are poor to non-existent, even on weekdays. At weekends the Orange County line and the Antelope Valley run round trips, but most don’t connect with each other at Union Station, so the market between northern Los Angeles County and Orange County attractions is simply not served. Why is Metrolink even thinking about service to San Diego, Palm Springs and other places when the journey opportunities on existing lines within the five-county area are so poor?
Southern California as a whole has three agencies providing regional passenger rail service. The services are familiarly known as Coaster, Surfliner and Metrolink. By any definition they are boutique operations, with combined daily ridership barely exceeding 60,000, about the same as the Caltrain route between San Jose and San Francisco. Each has its own administration, marketing, customer service, ticketing, procurement and maintenance facilities. The trains do not connect, delays are frequent. The system maps look impressive but the ability to travel is limited by the lack of consistent schedules. How many agencies should we have?
One hesitates to use the word failure, but clearly the current patronage reflects the fact that passenger rail is not meeting the needs of the vast majority of people. We need some vision here. We need to start with a plan, and an organization that can execute it. This plan needs to include all of the agencies in Southern California, be they bus, transit rail or regional rail. The objective should be half hourly service at every station, all day, every day, with timed local transit connections providing door to door service. Switzerland began this process in the 1990s and today, with a single integrated fare structure the system is in place and working. And Switzerland, a country which could fit between Palm Springs and Santa Barbara, has just as many geographic and institutional challenges as we do here in the Southland.
I had hoped that the High Speed rail project would have acted as a catalyst to jump start a modernization program, initially between the San Fernando Valley and southern Orange County. Electric regional trains would share tracks with Intercity (High Speed) trains between the end of the High Speed line, Union Station and a southern terminus at Mission Viejo. Electrification can later be extended to Chatsworth and San Bernardino. The current Metrolink Board is not interested and probably thinks that the High Speed Rail project will not succeed. Time will tell.
An integrated system will take time and money to implement. Most of all it will require institutional changes that subordinate some local concerns to the regional good. It will require its own source of funds since clearly the Counties have neither the will nor the means. But surely we must do better than today. The three passenger railroads receive $180 million a year in operating subsidies, plus capital grants. Are we getting value for money or can we deploy these resources in a more cost effective way, building on service integration to give Southern Californians an alternative to the automobile? Not only do I believe that we can do better, but that we must if we are to enhance mobility and clean the air.
Paul Dyson is President of the Rail Passenger Association of California, a non- profit volunteer advocacy group and is recently retired after 46 years in the railroad industry on both sides of the Atlantic.