Pacific Surfliner – A failing service

Commentary by Paul Dyson, RailPAC President
24 November, 2007


The omissions from these documents are as significant as the content.

As I have mentioned before to the LOSSAN TAC and to the LOSSAN Board, there is no such thing as “interference” from another train as a cause of delay to a scheduled passenger train. If you are truly concerned about establishing the root causes of delay and attempting to bring about improvements then you have to understand how a railroad works.

On a single-track section of railroad, passenger trains are scheduled to pass each other at predetermined points, either double track sections or sidings. If a train is running late then that “meet” may take place at a non-scheduled location and one or both trains may suffer a delay as a result. The cause of the delay however is whatever made the delayed train late in the first instance. Therefore the objective of the ad-hoc committee should be primarily to go after these root causes. We all know that single-track railroads are inherently prone to secondary delays once a chain of late running has started, but that requires long-term solutions and investment. However, we should be looking for short-term solutions to this problem as well.

Here are some questions that should have been asked:

How bad is the problem? A review of the Amtrak supplied statistics only reveals a part of the answer. Our first issue is with the use of Endpoint Schedule Tolerance. In our view this is commercially unacceptable. If Amtrak published a schedule with an arrival time and the train arrives 10 or 15 minutes after that then the train is late. The punctuality problem is worse than the statistics convey.

How much recovery time is there in the schedules? A schedule is made up of running time, station dwell time, meets, and recovery time. A review of the schedules for Amtrak and Metrolink trains between Oxnard and Los Angeles reveals a wide range of timings for the same journey. Some of this is caused by scheduled meets, (and it is clear that Amtrak trains are given low priority by the schedulers as compared to Metrolink), but there is additional time in some schedules which cannot be accounted for by meets. For example, Amtrak 774 is allowed 31 minutes over the double track section between Glendale and LAUS. Since 768 is allowed 15 minutes we conclude that this is the “normal” schedule, so there are 16 minutes of recovery time for 774. In addition Amtrak wants 15 minutes “Tolerance” for “routine operational issues” to quote Mr. Hutchison. This of course is double dipping, and if 774 still doesn’t run on time then there is a very serious problem. Furthermore, if trains are given generous amounts of recovery time, especially between the last two stations, this covers up major delays en route and passengers to intermediate stations can be seriously inconvenienced without this showing up in the statistics.

Table of Scheduled timings between LAUS and Oxnard, Amtrak and Metrolink trains.
Odd numbers northbound, even numbers southbound.

Train Number Minutes in Schedule Comments
M113 89 9 intermediate stops
M115 89
M119 94
A799 110
A763 95 6 intermediate stops
A14 (Coast Starlight) 110 Only two intermediate stops
A769 96
A775 98
A785 88
M102 90
M104 90
M106 89
A768 108
A774* 118 31min Glendale-LAUS
A784 118
A792 140 30mph!
A798 116
A11 (Coast Starlight) 112

*Takes 90 minutes Burbank Airport to Fullerton.

As can be seen the fastest trains on the railroad are the Metrolink commuter trains, which make at least 3 more stops than the so-called inter city Surfliners, and are still 10 – 20 minutes faster, or more!

How often are passenger trains delayed by “non-clearing” freight trains? A non-clearing train is one that is too long to fit in the sidings on the single-track section of the route and so has a greater tendency to cause delays. Southern Pacific started this practice with the OALBT, which repositioned empty container cars from the Bay Area to Southern California for reloading. The tonnage is light so it saved crews by running one long train instead of two. SP also started to run a “sweeper” train of empty boxcars and lumber flats from Southern California to Eugene bypassing the switching yard at Colton. This DOEUM (Dolores Yard to Eugene Manifest) was also often a non-clearing train because of the light tonnage and pressure to reduce crew starts. Union Pacific has continued these practices even though the number of passenger trains has increased and the number of sidings available has been reduced. When UP took over SP they were quite aware of the density of passenger traffic on the Coast line and still have an obligation to give priority to passenger trains under their contracts with Amtrak, Metrolink, and under 49 USC 24308 (c). If these trains cannot be dispatched without delays to passenger trains then the onus should be on UP to provide longer sidings or to split the trains into two sections.

Is the goal reasonable? We say that the goal of 85% on time should be easily attainable, if the railroad is operated efficiently, and in fact the goal should be higher given the recovery time and Endpoint Tolerance. But if the goal is repeatedly missed then we have to search deeper for problems. These may include:

Poor rolling stock maintenance.
Priority consistently given to other operators’ trains.
Inoperable schedule.
Too many trains for the current level of infrastructure.

I have written previously suggesting a fundamental rework of the timetables for Surfliner, Coaster and Metrolink. We believe the public, travelers and taxpayers alike, would be better served with an integrated passenger train service that offers regular, reliable and appropriately scheduled running times for inter city and local service. The combined resources of Coaster and Metrolink should provide all day local service to all stations in the corridor, at least as far as Ventura County, and the Surfliner sets should provide a faster, limited stop service with timings more competitive with the private automobile.

RailPAC believes that the individuals whose job it is to operate the railroad are doing the best they can with the resources available. What’s missing is coordinated management of mainline passenger rail services in Southern California. It’s obvious that the Surfliner service is a low priority for the railroad owners, both in scheduling and in dispatching. The numbers speak for themselves. Poor punctuality, indifferent schedules, mediocre reliability have led to flat ridership, boosted only by the Rail-to-Rail program. Many member agencies fail to attend meetings and are busy spending their available funds on branch line projects rather than modernizing the main line. It’s a sorry situation, and a far cry from the optimistic hopes of the 1980s.

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