Sprinter Inauguration – December 28, 2007

I was delighted to receive an invitation from NCTD to represent RailPAC at these ceremonies in Escondido this past Friday. It’s been nearly 27 years since a group of us, including the late Byron Nordberg and Adrian Herzog, and the very much alive Russ Jackson and Noel Braymer, met at Oceanside and discussed the possibilities of the then freight only A.T. & S.F. Escondido Branch. Byron had the vision of frequent inter city and commuter trains on the “Main Line” to and from Los Angeles, with the Escondido branch providing local and feeder services. I was proud to see the engraved stone at the Oceanside T.C. dedicated to Byron’s work.

Sprinter Inauguration

I met up with Art Brown, Chairman of LOSSAN, and Richard Elgenson, camera at the ready, of Trainweb, and we rode the Sprinter dmu from Oceanside to Escondido. Also on board were Joe Kellejian who represents SANDAG on the LOSSAN Board, is Mayor of Solana Beach and has been a major champion of the Sprinter, and a number of other public and elected officials. I have to confess a prejudice against diesel multiple units. They are a utilitarian solution for lines such as this, but whether in a restored 1930’s Great Western “Flying Banana”, a 1960’s British Railways DMU (Diesel Multiple Unit) of the kind that took me to work at Paddington Station or the latest iteration in this case from Siemens, you can’t get away from that buzzing under your feet. In this case the experience was enhanced by squealing from flange contact over considerable distances, and some very loud brake valve (?) noises during those oh-so-slow approaches to stations.

The line is tortuous and climbs over 700 feet from Oceanside to San Marcos, and includes new construction to link UC San Marcos. (It cries out for electrification and regenerative braking!) This, and such issues as handicap access platforms while maintaining freight operations has led to a total cost of close to $500 million dollars, or 8 times the original estimates. It’s a frighteningly large sum for someone raised in an era when a million dollars was a lot of money. And there is more expenditure to come; a maintenance yard at Oceanside and a wheel lathe are both needed. All that flange noise has to a cost, either turning the wheels or lubricators.

Back to my prejudice against DMUs, not so much as a species but as an exotic species. It seems that every new rail system built or proposed has to have a different technology, or at least a different car type. Different car types mean exclusive repair shops, parts inventories, crew and repair staff training, which offset to a large degree the theoretical operating savings that the sales person has told you his wunder train has to offer. Speaking as a former operations manager I am perhaps overly disposed to thinking that the best piece of rolling stock to use is the one that the guy next door is using, so that at a pinch you can borrow his trains, buy spares in bulk, share a maintenance shop, and generally enjoy the convenience of standardization. NCTD (Coaster) and Metrolink already operate Bombardier bi-levels and locomotives. Would it have been such a disadvantage to use the same system?

To be fair to all concerned, I have to say that my operating, sales and finance background have never required me to conceive and manage a project of this nature and I always admire those that have the fortitude to see it through to the ribbon cutting. It’s become almost impossible to lay track anywhere in this state, even along existing rights of way. So I’d like to express our congratulations to NCTD for adding 22 miles to the California rail map.

Now I’d like to address some issues of networking, connectivity, convenience of use and so on that are close to my heart. The focus at the ceremony was local; on how convenient this service will be for workers, students, shoppers and so on. While this is true, the line will have far greater utility in terms of automobile mileage reduction if riders can be attracted to rail for long distance trips. Crack open your atlases and you’ll see that the line runs roughly WNW from Escondido to Oceanside. The Coaster and Amtrak to San Diego run thence SSE, and the rail mileage from Escondido to San Diego is more than double the highway mileage. The MTS Express bus from Escondido takes about 70 minutes to San Diego so only rail fans and those with a morning to kill will ride the train in that direction. But look the other way and you’ll note that Amtrak and Metrolink run NW to Orange County and Los Angeles, almost a continuation of the line from Escondido. Here’s a market to be tapped, wouldn’t you think?

Unfortunately we hit an institutional barrier. The Sprinter (NCTD) map also includes the Coaster (NCTD) route, and while acknowledging the existence of Amtrak and Metrolink northbound from Oceanside there is no further information on the travel opportunities available in that direction. There are a dozen Amtrak trains to Los Angeles and beyond, and 8 Metrolink trains to Orange County, and some to Los Angeles. Can you buy a through ticket? No. Can you get a route plan on a single website? No. Can you get home in the evening? No. The last Sprinter train from Oceanside will depart at 8.33 pm to Escondido. Metrolink 608, 6.30pm from Los Angeles, arrives at 8.28pm. Would you risk that connection? Amtrak 590 weekend train arrives 8.49pm. Let’s hope that the task force that is supposed to be working on coordinating these schedules will prevail upon NCTD to run a later Sprinter to connect with these trains.

I overheard Mayor Kellegian say he’d be pleased with 11,000 riders per day in the first year. Let’s say these folks average 10 miles per trip, so that’s 110,000 trip miles per day, although a lot of these will be former bus riders. What if the service could attract 500 trips per day connecting northbound at Oceanside to Orange County and points north? Those folks will be traveling about 70 miles, or 35,000 trip miles, adding revenue to existing services and saving fuel and emissions. Right now those hardy individuals who want to try such a journey will have to have two tickets and schedules in their pockets, and if they haven’t booked in advance will have to allow extra time to use a ticket machine or the Amtrak agent at Oceanside or risk missing their train. Folks, this is California. This is the state that brought you Silicon Valley, Yahoo, Google, E-Bay and the iPod. Rail and Transit ticketing, information and connectivity is a disgrace and is holding us back from winning a lot of the traffic that should be riding the trains.

Altogether I give the Sprinter a B, with room for improvement. We have to think regional systems, not individual line segments, if we want rail transit to reach its potential.

PD 12/31/07

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