San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee (SJVRC)

Bakersfield — Reported by Russ Jackson — Some facts and figures picked up here and there on Thursday:

  • The UP still has 22 minutes of slow orders between Sacramento and Stockton on a line the state has spent $36 million to improve, and the UP has NO plans to upgrade at this time.
  • The BNSF, however, has only 3 minutes of slow orders between Stockton and Bakersfield and those will be removed when the blitz is done (see below).
  • The UP has 3 ½ HOURS of slow orders between Portland and Sacramento, affecting the Cascades and Coast Starlight, and they have NO plans to upgrade at this time.
  • The UP has an on time performance of 1% on ITS OWN “hotshot” freight trains.
  • The Coast Starlight now has the worst OTP for Amtrak since October 1, falling below the Sunset Limited.

It’s the “getting there” that can be the most enjoyable when attending a rail meeting, as we all would agree. For this meeting in Bakersfield this writer traveled via Amtrak California “motorcoach,” and San Joaquin trains 702 and 717. Actually, more of the motorcoach than the train than I would have liked, but the date coincided with the BNSF’s maintenance “blitz” between Stockton and Fresno, and while it is being done overnight it affects (only) 702 and 711 in the morning. Therefore, after riding the bus (short for motorcoach) from Davis to Sacramento, and meeting RailPAC Executive Director Richard Silver who had a stack of “Reviews” hot off the press to give to meeting participants, I boarded 702 for the short ride to Stockton. The train, delayed enroute by UP slow orders (see above) and the move onto the BNSF main line from the UP beyond Stockton ACE station, turned into a bus ride from the Stockton Amtrak station to Fresno. While the new buses, provided by new contractor Silverado Stages from San Luis Obispo but carrying Wyoming license plates, are very comfortable it just “ain’t” the same.

At Fresno we boarded a trainset which had been the northbound 711, whose passengers had been bused to Stockton to board our 702 trainset for the rest of their trip to the Bay Area, and resumed our trip to Bakersfield. Only three of us had been on the train/bus out of Sacramento: Amtrak General Superintendent Joe Deely, the BNSF’s Asst. Director of Passenger Train Operations Rick Depler (from Ft. Worth) and this writer. We were joined in Fresno by a large contingent from the north who converged there, including Art Lloyd, Bruce Jenkins, Howard Abelson and Mike Snyder along with many officials from that part of the Valley. Interestingly, several people from the Bay Area chose to FLY TO BURBANK and rent a car to drive back to Bakersfield. Some were a bit embarrassed to admit that, but they did have a shorter day than we did. Because of the track work, the heavy tule fog in the Valley, etc., San Joaquin trains ran over an hour late all day, and while the turnaround was accomplished efficiently train 717, due to depart Bakersfield at 3:45, did not do so until 4:55. A long day. All that leads up to the meeting:

  1. Before the group could be “welcomed” by Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall, an angry SJVRC Chairman Bob Waterston, a Fresno County Supervisor, opened the meeting noting it was an hour late, blasting the on time performance of the trains and the inconvenience that affected not just meeting participants but all riders. He did not blame the participants, he went after the railroads for allowing such poor service. While many officials present tried to show how that day was an anomaly, he spoke to the communication problem of informing people of the potential delays. The BNSF had notified Amtrak and Caltrans and they had published statements saying there would be delays, etc., including a note in the meeting agenda that our trains would be affected, but Chairman Waterston still called for the group to write a letter protesting the lateness of these trains.
  2. The BNSF’s Depler then spoke about the project, saying much of what he told the group in November (see our report on about replacing 60,000 ties through Escalon, etc., and while the UP is doing a winter project similar to theirs it will affect freight operations in the Valley until the end of February. When all this work is done the railroad will be in top shape. This writer noted on the return train trip that much of that territory is already a super smooth ride.
  3. Three informative presentations were made by guest speakers:
    1. Mayor Leland Bergstrom from the city of Kingsburg spoke eloquently about the need for passenger service using the UP tracks through Valley cities that are bypassed by the current service, not to move that service to the UP but to use those lines also because of the congestion that is resulting from the increased population of the Valley and the subsequent usage of US99. He noted the increase in accidents during tule fog days on the highways and the consequent blockage of transportation. He called on the Committee to “Join us in figuring out how to get service. We are moving ahead with legal steps to get this underway.” Mayor Bergstrom rode train 702 from Fresno to the meeting.
    2. Carrie Pourvahidi from the CA High Speed Rail Authority spoke of that project’s current status, noting that the Governor’s big bond issue that was released that week also called for another indefinite delay in approving the bonds for the high speed train project. She showed a chart of how the various skip-stop plans would affect intermediate cities along their route. They still have much environmental as well as route planning to do. Chairman Waterston spoke of the need to enhance the present rail system in the meantime. Member Larry Miller asked if there had been any polls of the public regarding HSR since the last one was done three years ago, and the answer was there have been none.
    3. Phillip Denny, Field Director for “Go21” (Growth Options for the 21st Century) spoke of his non-profit group’s efforts on behalf of the freight railroads to build public support nationally for freight transportation alternatives. It is funded by the AAR, shippers and railroaders. He noted that by the year 2020 there is predicted to be a 67% increase in freight nationwide, and double that in California. They want to see projects like the Alameda Corridor built everywhere. Chairman Waterston spoke of the need to get more trucks off the highways. Mr. Denny reported he had spoken with many groups, including RailPAC’s Richard Silver who emphasized, as did many SJVRC members, that the term “passenger” does not appear in this group’s paperwork. Mr. Silver said it made sense for us to support improvements to the freight railroads routes, but only those that carry passenger trains. The SJVRC will look into this group and will discuss support of its efforts at the next meeting.
  4. The SJVRC then returned to San Joaquin business with a marketing report by Caltrans’ Eric Schatmeier and Steve Roberts. The marketing plans are continuing according to schedule. California does 4 times the research of any Amtrak area in the country. It was noted that Caltrans has traffic counts for highways, but does not know destinations, while rail research shows that for planning purposes. Rail’s share of “trips” in CA is 3%, but research shows awareness of the services is high. The new bus between Merced and Monterey is doing better than expected, and 19 of the 20 bus routes in the state continue to exceed their financial requirements for success. Steve Shelton reported on a Security training session they held with bomb-sniffing dogs on the trains where a C4 explosive spot was placed in a rail car. The dogs picked it up immediately.
  5. Patrick Merrill, representing Caltrans Rail Chief Bill Bronte, reported that Proposition 42 funds will return to transportation use in the new budget proposals, and the Public Transportation Account will have more funds this year. All the proposed bond issues contain money for intercity rail. In the Governor’s bond issue $500 million of rail projects to be funded are specified and the #1 priority is $125 million for the purchase of new rail cars and locomotives. Mr. Merrill said that amounts to two new trainsets for each of the three corridors in CA, but when that amount is divided up there appears to be a discrepancy and there’s more money than for just 6 sets. We’ll have to find that out, and it should come up at the RailPAC meeting January 28 at the Rail Museum in Sacramento. (P.S. This writer gave that meeting a plug.) The reason the Valley did not have more specific projects in the Governor’s plan is there is already $40 million in projects currently underway. The Coast Line, however, was shut out because there are no “adopted” projects that could make the list this time.
  6. Amtrak’s Liz O’Donoghue invited members to come to the reception at the State Capitol on January 26 which will be attended by Amtrak Acting President/CEO, David Hughes. She forgot to mention that RailPAC will be providing the refreshments that day.

The next SJVRC meeting is March 9, 2006, in Fresno.

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