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Paul Dyson

Commentary, Issues

Ventura – Santa Barbara “Commuter ” Service off to rocky start – the punctuality problem

LOSSAN retimed the morning train (761) from LAUS to San Luis Obispo to make it a “commuter” train from Ventura County to Santa Barbara and Goleta.  (See Surfliner schedule effective 4.1.18).

Various efforts were made to try and stop the last train to Goleta at Oxnard and start the morning train from there but none of these options was found to be practical.  So 759 starts from LAUS at 0400 in order to depart Oxnard at 0558 and Ventura at 0612, with a Santa Barbara arrival at 0647, Goleta at 0716.  This is not what Santa Barbara wanted by the way, they asked for a later arrival but I guess that could not be reconciled with Metrolink 106 and Amtrak 768.

Monday April 2nd, 2018

I joined the train at Burbank Airport on time with a couple of other people.  It seems that a number of students returning from Easter visits chose the early start rather than going back to school Sunday evening.  Things were going well except for a slight delay at Hassen siding E of Simi where we met M100 which must have been a few minutes late out of Moorpark.  Then the fun started.  UP dispatch put us on the wrong track at Camarillo. (There’s a long story about why Camarillo station is dysfunctional and usually only one platform is operative).  So we sat for a few minutes while a crowd of confused Metrolink passengers milled about, then reversed out of the station, and then entered track 2.  We then had to wait for M102 to pass before heading for Oxnard.  We arrived Oxnard about 26 minutes late and lost another minute while we passed M104.

Thus far you can put all the delay down to UP dispatch.  Having left Ventura at 0639 the dilemma then is A768, which 759 is supposed to meet at Santa Barbara.  With no siding between Seacliff and East Santa Barbara, UP dispatch decided to run 768, and we took the siding.  We eventually arrived Santa Barbara 57 minutes late.  No argument about UP’s decision, 768 has a lot of meets on the way in to LA.

Other points:  My estimate is that somewhere between 50 and 70 people tried the new service.  Considering the number of free tickets given out that doesn’t seem like much.  There was a surprising number, about 70, already on the train at Burbank although I think this was a one time only with the students.

Looking closely at the timetable, it should work, but requires everything to be on time to make the necessary meets.  Any snag and the edifice comes tumbling down.  Dennis Story was at Ventura and I sent him updates so that he could share info with the waiting passengers.  A disappointing day for Dennis, but this should drive the point home that if Santa Barbara County wants an effective train service they have to build the required sidings, NIMBYs or no.

I won’t even begin to tell you about the train home, including a loose horse at Chatsworth….(see below)

Tuesday April 3rd, 2018

Train departed Los Angeles about 30 minutes late due to a “mechanical” issue.  Arrived Santa Barbara 55 minutes late.  Dennis Story tells me of the 35 – 40 the passengers waiting at Ventura  about 10 abandoned ship and went back to their cars.


At the LOSSAN Board meeting March 29 I once again took up the issue of punctuality, and the current performance of the Surfliners.  68% on time, with all the recovery time built in and the UPS grace period of 10 or minutes is absolutely unacceptable.  There was very little reaction from the Board except from San Diego alternate Ed Gallo, who first didn’t know which trains I was talking about (such is the level of engagement of some of these people) and then suggested extending the schedules even more.

I think that there is a lack of operating discipline, and a lack of any sense of urgency among the train crews.  They are so used to being treated as second class citizens by UP, Metrolink, BNSF and NCTD dispatchers that they have become cynical about punctuality and their morale is low.  Add to that the Uniform Performance Standard, (“UPS”) which covers up endemic delays and gives a misleading picture to the Board and staff, (not to mention being blatantly dishonest to customers) and you have the recipe for late trains.

A case in point was my train home from Santa Barbara on Monday 2nd, train 774.  The train arrived 5 minutes late at Santa Barbara from Goleta.  Although 759 was nearly an hour late there was still an hour to turn the train.  The schedule offers 3 minutes station time at Santa Barbara and there were about 40 joining the train, not a huge crowd.  We departed 7 minutes late.   I see no reason for losing a further two minutes, or indeed why we did not pick up a minute.  At Carpinteria we were 8 minutes late, and Ventura 9 minutes.  At Ventura I started timing the station stops. Ventura took 2 minutes and thirty seconds for a handful of people.  We had a slow order for a grade crossing problem at Lemon and were 13 minutes late at Oxnard.  We met 763 at Camarillo and had to reverse to get into the platform, leaving Camarillo 17 minutes late.  Without a Moorpark stop we made Simi in good time and departed there 13 minutes late, but of course delayed 14 at Hassen for at least 10 minutes.

A runaway horse on the track at Chatsworth caused further delay and put us 19 minutes behind.  A failed Metrolink train at Burbank resulted in a request to stop at Northridge, so we were still 19 late at Van Nuys, and at my stop, Burbank.  If anyone had bus (or plane) connections they would have been inconvenienced.

Here’s the rub.  With the generous recovery time between Glendale and LAUS 774 arrived at Union Station only 8 minutes late.  Which under UPS is on time.  Better yet, since the train had a good midday run to San Diego, arriving there a few minutes early, no problems, right?  Everyone happy, mark that one up as an on time train.  Except it wasn’t.  Not to mention the delays to 14 and 763, which may or may not have made up the time later.

This sort of thing happens every day, with people waiting at intermediate stations with no information, and people on the train arriving late at stations before the end points with a negative impression of the service.

In my opinion UPS is a big part of the problem, as is excessive recovery time.  It leads to slackness.  We’ll get there when we get there, and we’ll probably be on time because mangement chooses to count it that way.  Another problem is host railroad dispatching.  This is a statewide issue and needs to be taken up by Calsta and the PUC.  If the train crews see that the dispatching problem is being addressed, and that someone is on their side, maybe they will smarten up and pay attention to those minutes at stations.

My observation on Monday was that a lot of delay on the platforms is incurred by the confusion between Coach and Business class doors, and in some cases insufficient doors being opened.  Clear announcements, especially from the Business Class attendant getting off the car directing passengers, would help enormously.

Much needs to be done, and it’s an accumulation of problems and bad habits that management needs to address.  The answer is certainly not to further extend journey times!

Comments welcome,


Editorials, Issues

RailPAC Responds to LOSSAN Business Plan 2018

One of RailPAC’s missions is to respond to the Business Plans of the State Rail Corridors.  We have concerns about many of the policies adopted and hope that our experience is useful in pointing these Boards in the right direction.  The reality is that RailPAC has a longer history of attendance at these meetings, and knows the issues better, than almost all of the Board members.  And it seems that Board members are rotated on and off the Boards more and more frequently by their member agencies.

The LOSSAN Board meeting is today, we’ll see if there is any response.

15th March, 2018

Hon. Bryan MacDonald And Board Members LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency

2018 Business Plan –  Punctuality, Additional Trains, Rolling Stock

Dear Chair MacDonald and Board members:

RailPAC is a volunteer non-profit group of advocates, many with professional experience in the railroad industry.  Since 1978 we have attempted, through constructive criticism, and through advocacy at local, state and national levels to bring about a modern passenger railroad system in California and the west.

We have reviewed the draft of the 2018 business plan and would request your careful review of our comments on three particular, and related issues.

Punctuality:  Table 2.4 of the draft indicates that On Time performance (“OTP”) at 68.8% for 2017 is the worst it has been in well over a decade.  Add to that the Uniform Performance Standard (“UPS”) which counts trains that are up to 10 or 15 minutes late as on time and it is clear that fully a third of your customers are likely to be delayed or inconvenienced by this appallingly bad performance.

The draft makes comforting statements about working with host railroads, monitoring performance and so on, but this has been going on since before the agency was formed and the problem is worsening.  We see at least three problems here.  First, the primary source for information about delays comes from the Amtrak conductor’s reports.  These tell only a small part of the story.  Passenger trains run according to a schedule so any reference to “passenger train interference” as a cause of delay is fundamentally flawed.  One train delays another if one or both are running out of course.  The question is why was that train running late? The conductors’ reports do not have that information, and so you must dig deeper.  An in-depth analysis of at least a large sample of a day’s operations is required to root out where the problems are occurring and to formulate an action plan.

When additional stops were introduced in San Diego County at the behest of NCTD we were informed that their performance would be reviewed.  Amtrak maintained that the additional stops could be accommodated within the schedule.  What they did not make clear was that stops would take away and recovery time, meaning that an early morning delay would cascade through the schedule for the rest of the day.  RailPAC recommends that the morning northbound stops at Carlsbad Village and Sorrento Valley be removed from the schedule. Likewise, any southbound evening stops on a train that has a return northbound trip should be eliminated.

The UPS, permitting late trains to be counted as on time, further obfuscates the problem.  Minutes may be lost at stations with passenger boarding but these seemingly minor problems can accumulate to a ten-minute delay, which goes unrecorded in the statistics.  Yet this train running ten minutes late can negatively impact a train in the opposite direction and cause a cascade of late running for the rest of the day.  We recommend the elimination of the UPS “grace period” in evaluating and analyzing on-time performance and request that train statistics for Board reporting purposes be based on the actual recorded time against the scheduled time, i.e. that on time means on time, not ten minutes late.  Only then will you have a clear picture of the service that your customers are enjoying.

Additional trains:  The draft Business Plan calls for an additional round trip between San Diego and San Luis Obispo.  There is no reference in the document to any significant infrastructure improvements that will permit the efficient running of additional trains.  We know some improvements are taking place but there will still be significant bottlenecks that make the schedule fragile at best.  Indeed, the current projects are barely adequate to support the current level of traffic without further straining the system.  We have tried to point out that, since the introduction of commuter services on the Corridor, there are too many trains scheduled on weekdays to enable the operation of a consistently reliable service.  The punctuality statistics prove our point.  We recommend that there should be no additional trains scheduled until significant projects such as RaymerBernson double track, and the Rosecrans-Marquardt grade separation are complete.

Rolling Stock:  There is no way to put a gloss on this. The State agencies have made a complete mess of passenger rolling stock procurement since the passage of 1B in 2004.  In addition, CALSTA is trying to force California to adopt a high-level boarding standard twenty-five years after massive investments have been made in low-level boarding stations and rolling stock for both intercity, commuter and mixed-use stations throughout the state.  I have no doubt that there are advantages to high level boarding, but there is no appetite and no funds for wholesale reconstruction of our one hundred plus passenger stations.  We have to play the hand we have been dealt. The decision by Calsta to abandon construction of bi-level coaches and order single level cars should therefore be opposed by LOSSAN and the other corridors.

Reference is also made to the possible acquisition of Chicago type gallery commuter cars from Great Lakes Railway.   This idea should be immediately abandoned.  These gallery cars are the worst passenger cars in North America, if not the world.  Boarding is via steep stairs and the upper level is reached via a narrow staircase.  The cars were designed for the convenience of conductors checking tickets, and are noisy, uncomfortable and totally unacceptable for service in this corridor.  Staff should be directed to cease any attempt to acquire these cars.

RailPAC have previously recommended the interim use of mixed consists of Horizon/Comet and Bombardier cars (See Photo at end of text).  Bombardier continues to manufacture these cars and they can be equipped with intercity seats, as bicycle cars, ADA and escort accommodation etc.  This can be a stop gap while the bi-level
procurement program is revived and put in the hands of professional management.  We also understand that some former ATSF cars, an early version of the Superliner, may be available and this option needs to be explored.

Bombardier Comet mixed consist Richard Suggs 2010

Photo by Richard Sugg, RailPAC member.

The sensible approach for LOSSAN is to focus on the rolling stock and punctuality issues for the next two years.  If Surfliner compatible cars can be acquired, then existing trains can be augmented.  New locomotives should improve reliability and to some extent train performance.  Any idea of adding trains to the schedule should be put on a back burner until On Time Performance is radically improved.  The focus of the Board should be to persuade their member agencies to allocate funds for double track and other improvements in the right of way, and to ensure that these funds are spent once they are available.

RailPAC congratulates the LOSSAN staff for its efforts to better market the Surfliner service under difficult conditions.  We trust that the Board will set realistic objectives and at the same time set out a vision for a modern passenger rail corridor that will meet the needs of Southern California.

Yours sincerely, Paul Dyson President


Amtrak determined to starve itself to death – Paul Dyson

This is a brief posting as I am working on the next issue of Steel Wheels.  In the last two days Bob Johnston of Trains magazine has reported on Amtrak’s reduction of consists on the long distance trains.  RailPAC’s James Smith tells me that his daughter has been unable to reserve a seat on the “Chief” from Kansas to Chicago for a number of days because the train is showing “sold out”.  SOLD OUT!!  In March!!!  This is absurd.  The Southwest Chief is down to two coach cars while Superliners are parked.  I would not be surprised if their next idea is to add seats to the Superliners rather than add cars to the train.  Let’s reduce train travel to airline standards.

Today we hear that Amtrak is alienating another group of loyal (and influential) patrons, see below.

At the same time there are consistent rumors from 60 Mass Ave that Amtrak management is once again looking at thrice weekly long distance trains and “corridors” to reduce costs.  So Amtrak and the new genius CEO has the formula, keep cutting until we make a profit.  How many times since 1971 have we seen this tried, and failed.  And after every attempt at starving the patient we emerge with a smaller, frailer network with zero new investment.

Most interesting of these recent activities is the silence from top Amtrak officials.  There used to be official and unofficial channels of information, call them leaks if you like, whereby we advocates had a rough idea of what was happening and could at least attempt to react and prevent the worst of disasters.  Well, 60 Mass these days is watertight.  Anderson and the flyboys don’t care about the advocates and don’t want us to know what they have planned.

RailPAC will continue to do its best to keep you up to date and to act on your behalf to maintain the national network.  Your support, and most of all your membership of RailPAC, is appreciated, and more vital than ever.

Comments and updates to



High Speed Rail Still Supported by Californians

While this post has already been widely circulated I think that it is worth repeating here, if for no other reason than as a historical marker.  It’s easy to be against something, especially a massive long term project, lacking in instant gratification.  Kudos to those Californians who understand the long term need for a modern passenger railway to radically improve our mobility.

Majority of Californians Still Support HSR

Despite overruns and non-stop pillorying in the press, new poll shows most still want the train built

The majority of Californians still support the state’s high-speed rail project, with 53 percent in favor, and 43 percent opposed, according to a new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). That’s up from 48 percent in favor when the survey was conducted last year, despite revelations that costs have risen substantially.

Support remains especially strong in the Bay Area, with 61 percent in favor.

It’s amazing that support for the project remains strong, considering the beating it continues to take in the press.

CALmatters columnist Dan Walters, in “Bullet train is a solution in search of a problem,” and the Bay Area News Group’s Daniel Borenstein, with “Jerry Brown’s embarrassing bullet-train bragging to Trump,” were just two of many writers who once again pilloried the project. “The bullet train, however enticing, is not a wise use of tens of billions of transportation dollars. It wasn’t when voters passed Proposition 1A in 2008, and the situation is worse today,” wrote Borenstein in his piece.

The Garces Viaduct in Kern County started construction this month--just the latest piece of HSR to start construction. Photo: CaHSRA The Garces Viaduct in Kern County started construction this month–just the latest piece of HSR to start construction. Photo: CaHSRA

Long-time opponents, such as Borenstein and Walters, started their recent editorials against the program ostensibly because costs have risen, but then lapse into making the same points they did before the voters approved HSR in 2008. “California has no shortage of transportation problems, but traveling between San Francisco and Los Angeles isn’t one of them,” writes Walters in his recent piece (has he ever traveled between S.F. and L.A.?).

It’s also worth noting that the Los Angeles Times wrote about the PPIC poll as it applies to political candidates, but once again conspicuously failed to mention the results of the HSR question. As Streetsblog has pointed out before, the Times deliberately omits positive news and information about HSR.

“Nothing much has changed when it comes to attacking rail in America,” wrote Andy Kunz, President and CEO of the US High Speed Rail Association. “If you dig behind the surface of this, it is always the same–the ongoing influence of the auto/highway/oil lobby in America. They’ve been saying the same things, doing the same things, etc. for decades.”

As Kunz sees it, the continued popularity of the project, despite the media bias and the incessant and often false attacks against it, are an indication that Californians are probably traveling to Europe and Asia and experiencing high-speed rail first hand. They take bullet trains between Paris and London, Tokyo and Osaka, Beijing and Shanghai, and ride top-notch connecting services, and then wonder why traveling around California has to be so slow, frustrating, and unreliable. You can’t keep telling people that HSR will never work to make their lives better and their travels easier when they’ve experienced it first hand overseas.

“The evidence is all around the world, EVERY country that has invested in HSR has benefited enormously, and continues to benefit, while America continues to get worse (in terms of oil dependency, congestion, highway deaths, sluggish economy from sluggish transportation),” added Kunz. “It’s quite amazing how they have kept America stuck in a sort of time-warp of the 1950s, while the rest of the world has bolted into the 21st century.”

Chart: PPIC survey Chart from the PPIC survey

Of course, many, including the mostly Republican opposition to HSR and writers such as Borenstein, are crying for a redo of the only high-speed rail poll that really matters: the November 2008 vote to approve the project. The argument goes that voters deserve another chance because they were “lied to” about construction costs.

They might have a point–if the PPIC poll had shown public support cratering. By it’s now widely known that costs are higher than original assumptions (in fact, that information was included in the PPIC polling question) and yet there’s been little change in support. That said, Dan Richard, Chairman of the California High-Speed Rail Authority Board, reportedly said that he would not oppose a re-vote on the project in 2020. That may simply be because a second voter affirmation would be a powerful tool to hush opponents (plus the 2020 presidential election is expected to bring out oodles of progressive voters). It would be a risky proposition for HSR, since the PPIC poll also shows that a majority of “likely voters” oppose the project, so everything would hinge on voter turnout.

The PPIC survey conducted interviews with 1,706 adults, including 1,193 on cell phones and 513 on landline telephones. Phone numbers were picked using computer-generated random samplings.


RailPAC response to CHSRA 2018 Business Plan

Steve Roberts, Vice President, Policy and Research.

March 2018

The Rail Passenger Association of California since 1978 has supported a modern passenger railroad system for the State of California and the West.  We campaigned actively for the passage of 1A, the High Speed Rail bond measure.  While frustrated and dissatisfied with progress to date we still support the project overall.  However, at this point we are concerned that there is no deliverable alternative that will meet the mobility needs of a growing population and economy.

The California High Speed Rail Authority has a new Chief Executive Officer and has just published the 2018 Business Plan.  This document is available on the CHSRA website:

Our comments are as follows:

  1. The new Business Plan is a more realistic assessment of the current situation.  The negative trends, most specifically the lack of any follow-on Federal funding, were apparent in 2016 but the Authority adjusted by shifting to a Northern California focus.  The question is, can the Authority delivery its latest plan.
  2. Compared to the 2016 Business Plan the physical gap in the 2018 Business Plan (Chowchilla to Gilroy) is highlighted.  In 2016 the gaps were Wasco to Bakersfield and San Jose to San Francisco.  The problem was a San Jose to Wasco route would not generate a positive cash flow (after expenses) meaning the Early Train Operator would have had to finance the shortfall in ticket revenues.  The 2016 Business Plan had a vague discussion of closing the gaps.  As information, a Bakersfield to San Francisco route is forecast to be cash flow positive (after expenses) from year 1 of operation.  So it is vital that the Gilroy gap be closed.
  3. The CHSRA urgently needs to develop a credible funding plan for financing full service between San Francisco, Merced and Bakersfield. There is a Legislative HSR update scheduled for Spring of 2019.   RailPAC challenges the Authority to develop a detailed plan for closing the Chowchilla – Gilroy gap by that hearing.  With additional information such as the EIS documents for the other route segments, with some approved, with construction further advanced and with substantial pre-engineering analysis on the Chowchilla – Gilroy route RailPAC feels making this “stretch” goal is not unreasonable.
  4. This goal is also important because closing the new Chowchilla –Gilroy gap offers significant leverage by unleashing a large cash flow and is very attractive politically.




  1. 6.RailPAC also supports the prioritization of investments that generate near-term benefits;

–          Extending the HSR line to Bakersfield means the San Joaquins will not face any BNSF slot issues on the south end of the route if they are shifted to HSR.  There is construction taking place between Madera and Stockton on the BNSF to increase track capacity which will allow an increase in San Joaquin frequencies on that segment of the route.  Marry that capacity with an HSR routing means a large potential increase in frequencies along the entire route.  That said, RailPAC supports full San Francisco – Bakersfield HSR service, not this fallback position.

–          Transforming Los Angeles Union Station into a run-through facility;

–          The extension of Caltrain electrification to Gilroy will generate significant ridership growth.  The plan seems to be suggesting a blended system but does not mention that specifically or what would happen to the four intermediate stops Tamien to Gilroy.  RailPAC is very interested in the reviewing the details of this important service expansion.

  1. The HSR 2018 Business Plan clearly indicates that the LAUS run-through tracks (LINKUS) is the Southern California priority.  HSR funding for the project is already committed in the Southern California Memorandum of Understanding (MOU.  However, RailPAC feels LA METRO and other political entities in Southern California seem to work to promote projects they champion, rather than LINKUS.   LINKUS seems to be viewed as an outside project with no one championing it.  While RailPAC will closely monitor MOU priorities on the LA Urban Mobility Corridor to make sure the funds don’t get spent on other projects, RailPAC requests the Authority and its Board’s assistance to keep the focus on LINKUS.

In summary, RailPAC feels the project’s key long-term benefits, the reasoning behind the High Speed Rail, remain the same:

  1. California is the sixth largest economy in the world.  Economic growth and job growth have been steady and with all of California’s inherent strengths this growth is forecast to continue;
  2. California is the second largest intercity travel market in the U.S. and easily in the top ten travel markets in the world;
  3. The only other transportation projects underway in California are the completion of a third lane on CA 99 and some HOT lanes on the connecting urban Interstates.  There is no alternative to high-speed rail being planned.  As we have seen, the planning and implementation of any major transportation project is a 30 to 40-year process;
  4. Any alternative transportation project would undoubtedly face the same cost pressures from inflation, delays due to litigation, changes in scope due to mitigation, etc.  In short HSR is still the least expensive option because any other option would have seen its cost rise in concert with those of the HSR project;


  5. The “No Build” option is a false choice since it would bring gridlock, worsen the quality of life and stifle economic growth;

One final challenge, if the Texas Central Railway can be privately financed, then one would think an 80-mile gap, with an approved EIS, an in place ROW, partial state funding and the fact that closing the gap leverages large market and revenue growth, could be financed.


Questions regarding RailPAC policy should be directed to




Steel Wheels: July – September 2016

Dear members:
By now you will have received your latest Steel Wheels magazine.  In the rush to meet the deadline for mailing the conference registration a few errors crept in, for which I apologize.  Andy Selden’s excellent account  was spoiled somewhat by missing captions.  Andy took the photos which are in order of appearance Denver Union Station trackside, El Paso depot, and the Huey Long bridge.  I suppose I could have made a competition of that!  Also on the front cover mention is made of the SCRIP project, which story is on the cutting room floor to use local Burbank parlance.  That story will appear in the fourth quarter issue.

Continue Reading


Important message from the RailPAC Board

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. Continue Reading


Bullet Train will Start in the Bay Area

The Rail Passenger Association of California welcomes the decision of the CHSRA to construct north from Bakersfield to link with an electrified Caltrain at San Jose.  At the same time money will be spent on the long overdue modernization of Los Angeles Union Station, especially permitting through services between the north and south of the region.  Coupled with the removal of the capacity choking bottlenecks that prevent Metrolink and Surfliner from reaching their potential, in effect what will be created is two regional mobility systems which should tie together the planned and existing investments in subway, light rail and BART to create better choices for citizens in the most populated areas of the state.
In an ideal world we would like to see simultaneous construction of the link between the San Fernando Valley and Bakersfield.  This could be a private enterprise project put out to the industry for proposals, perhaps for a “toll” railroad or some other form of joint venture.  Absent that I have no doubt that southern California politicians will soon find a way to fund the missing link once they see how the “northerners” enjoy the benefits of swift, electric powered transportation.
Coast Starlight
Issues, Tracking Rail News

Pacific Parlour Car Temporary Withdrawal

Coast StarlightA 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.

San Bernardino CA Metrolink  power Freericks

Metrolink in a Tail Spin: Is there a way out?

San Bernardino CA Metrolink  power FreericksNapoleon 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.