San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee

Fresno — Reported by Russ Jackson

  1. HOT RUMORS in Washington DC are that Norman Mineta will resign as DOT Secretary “in the next 30 days,” and Congressman Bill Thomas, (R-Bakersfield) who announced his retirement this month, will become the next Secretary of the Treasury if Secretary Snow resigns. No speculation about a replacement for Secretary Mineta if the rumor is correct. (NOTE: As of the posting of this report after April 1 neither rumor had been confirmed.)
  2. SAN JOAQUIN TRAIN 712 that many of us rode to the meeting arrived in Fresno 6 minutes EARLY. Excellent dispatching. However, train 715 that brought us back north was delayed 45 minutes at the Fresno station because the BNSF had a minor derailment a mile north of the station. Committee Chairman, Fresno County Supervisor Bob Waterston, opened the meeting by recognizing the 712’s early arrival, saying, “People are paying attention to us, and we are all focused on the same thing” of providing service to the Valley.
  3. RailPAC PRESIDENT, PAUL DYSON, spoke to the meeting introducing himself and commented not only on RailPAC but he spoke about how “we have a lot to crow about; rail is finally on the agenda” all over the state as well as the Valley and across the nation. “We can do more by thinking up alternatives to promote mobility.” It must be a “service.” He went on to describe the growth that has taken place in the railroad industry in the past 5 to 10 years, which “makes it harder to accomplish goals for passenger rail.” We must “figure out how to make it work.” In response to committee member questions, Mr. Dyson pointed out what the philosophy was at British Rail, where he learned the business, which is to be “expeditious and punctual.” The public-private partnership is vital to the future, and while we must “play the hand we’re dealt,” the future looks good. Chairman Waterston thanked Mr. Dyson for his remarks, following up by pointing out that “capacity is a big issue. We (passenger rail) seem to be on the back burner, I am encouraged, but it can’t all be on state money.”
  4. This being the COMMITTEE’S ANNUAL MEETING, the election of a Chairman and Vice Chairman for the next year was held. Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall is the new Chairman, and Merced County Supervisor John Pedrozo will be Vice Chairman. Mayor Hall took the gavel.

  5. Although it took a request for information by Kings County Committee member Dick Hauck toward the end of the meeting, the subject of THE DEBACLE INVOLVING TRAIN 704 BEING STUCK OVERNIGHT on a siding at the Turlock/Denair station on February 23 (the photo above shows train 712 at that station on March 9) while carrying a group of students from Corcoran Elementary school was discussed as was expected. In what Caltrans’ Bill Bronte described as “a colossal example of Murphy’s Law repeating itself all night,” fault cannot be placed at any one spot. Starting with whoever placed tie plates on the UP tracks just north of Stockton that ruptured the fuel tank on the train where there was no bus availability, the difficulty of the three railroads (UP, BNSF, and Amtrak) to move the train where passengers could be transferred with it ending up being required to go to the UP Stockton yard, the fortuitous placing of an Amtrak trainset at the Stockton station because of the tie replacement project, the extra time it took to make all the moves transferring the passengers to the new train, the failure to arrive before the BNSF’s construction window opened and which was not to expire until 2 AM but closed early by direction of the railroad management, the unavailability of buses that evening from anywhere nearby, the Amtrak crew on the replacement train going up on their allowable hours when they reached Turlock/Denair, the inability to find a replacement crew in time, (an Amtrak conductor was found but no engineer), the donated BNSF engineer who said he was “not qualified on the Amtrak equipment” after he arrived at the scene, and the usual lack of prompt notification of the passengers and the school in Corcoran. Is that enough? The end result was the train did not depart Turlock/Denair until dawn, 12 hours late. Several Amtrak managers, some who were involved that night, were present at the meeting to say their side of this unfortunate story. The Oakland CNOC did everything it could to help this situation, but one bad event led to another that night. The BNSF’s Rick Depler personally intervened during the night to allow their engineer to be sent to the scene and to get the construction window closed early. Amtrak provided food to the passengers, the power remained on, the kids communicated with their parents by their own cell phones, and Amtrak Acting President Hughes called the school to apologize. Needless to say all fares were refunded. A thorough review of procedures is underway. Mr. Hauck said he had learned what he needed to know.
  6. A RESOLUTION was introduced by Tulare County member Ty Holscher which called for initiating a “commuter” rail service on the UP’s main line in the Valley. That route serves communities that the current service on the BNSF misses. Mr. Holscher made an passionate plea, saying it should be a service like Metrolink or ACE, and cover the Merced-Fresno-Bakersfield corridor. “It’s time for it to become a reality,” he said, “This is the first step. Reality says it won’t be easy. We are underserved, and the affected counties are supportive.” He emphasized that he is not calling for moving the existing Amtrak service to the UP line, that this is a new service. Committee Facilitator, Arthur Lloyd, pointed out that Amtrak cannot by law run a “commuter” service, only one designated as “intercity.” They can only contract with another agency to run one, so the counties will have to form a plan for such service and secure funding. Supervisor Alene Taylor from Kings County asked whether “we should beat our heads on a project that may not have a high priority.” Fresno member Larry Miller said “it would be better to do projects incrementally to benefit the UP as well as Amtrak service.” Amtrak’s Liz O’Donoghue reminded the group that “funding is a very important issue, as costs can fall on the counties through which the trains pass.” Other speakers were supportive of the idea, and the Committee voted to send the resolution to its Technical Advisory sub-committee for more work.
  7. RICK DEPLER, FROM THE BNSF’s PASSENGER DEPARTMENT in Ft. Worth spoke in response to some criticism spoken earlier, saying his railroad “cares.” His job is “only taking care of passenger rail. We want to work as a partner.” As for On Time Performance of the trains, he noted that in February the Southwest Chief that runs on the BNSF was “on time 89.3%,” which they are very proud of. The San Joaquins in February, however, were still being affected by the tie replacement project in the Valley (they fell to 36.3%), and the UP was also doing track work on both sides of their line which affected the trains. The BNSF’s new dispatch system is on line and trains are doing much better. They see a retirement of veteran dispatchers, and the resulting inexperience of new hires. A new safety system to prevent collisions, detect broken rails, etc., by use of GPS is being tested. Other railroads including Amtrak are looking at the BNSF system, and it could “revolutionize the way railroads are run.”
  8. ON THE MARKETING FRONT, Committee member Stacey Mortensen, who also heads ACE, reported on the startup of their 4th train. Eric Schatmeier from Caltrans reported that this is a “partnership expansion,” as this train will “replace a current Amtrak feeder bus from Stockton to San Jose,” making all-rail travel from destinations on the San Joaquins (except for the shuttle from Stockton ACE to the Stockton Amtrak station). It will start on July 1. Mr. Schatmeier also reported record ridership in February, up 21% over last year despite the tie replacement project. The big news from Amtrak was that “ is now available in Spanish!” New promotion partnerships include Radio Disney with a train trip on May 6 Fresno to Sacramento with Disney characters on board, and with participating Applebees restaurants offering two for one coupons on the San Joaquins as well as on the Surfliners.
  9. CALTRANS DIVISON OF RAIL CHIEF, BILL BRONTE, said that in the US Senate, bill S 1615, may not be heard this year. Senator Lott (R-MS) has requested floor time to consider it, but that bill must get in line with others. The current three priorities, of course, are “Iraq, Homeland Security, and everything else.” The latter category is not going to get increases, but, Mr. Bronte says, Amtrak is in a better position this year than last as it’s “easier to get to last year’s 1.3 billion from 900 million than it is to get there from zero.” He went on to emphasize that California expects other states to pay their share in the future (the NEC, he meant) and that California will be paying on the basis of “fully allocated costs” next year so is expecting a larger bill from Amtrak. Mr. Bronte is “already working on the 2008 budget, so has written to Amtrak to get the figures he needs.” He was astounded to learn that the 50-plus California Congressional delegation has been characterized as not knowing much about the state rail program, so his office is preparing a presentation for them. Liz O’Donoghue spoke about state funding, and discussed the bond issue legislation that was under consideration in Sacramento that day. (By now the finished product is out, so this writer won’t outline it here.) When legislators are approached about supporting passenger rail one of the first questions asked is “will it affect air quality.” We all know the answer to that: “positively,” particularly as newer locomotives are introduced.

The next meeting of the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee will be on May 11, probably in Merced if it can be arranged.

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