Reply to RailPAC letter re Coast Starlight suspension, from Amtrak’s Kummant

NOTE: The original letter from Mr. Dyson appears in the next post below this one.

January 28, 2008
Mr. Paul J. Dyson
Rail Passenger Association of California

1008 – 10th Street, Suite 217
Sacramento, CA 95814

Dear Mr. Dyson:

Thank you for your letter of January 22 regarding your concerns with the temporary cessation of the Coast Starlight service. As you are aware, the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) mainline across the Cascade Range has been closed because of a significant landslide at Coyote Mountain, which is between Chemult and Eugene, Oregon.

The Coast Starlight is one of our premiere services and ranks highly among our long-distance services in terms of ridership and revenue. That said, this time of year, late January and February, is in relative terms the seasonal low point for ridership on this train. When the landslide at Coyote Mountain occurred on January 19, it was difficult to obtain from UPRR a reliable estimate of the extent of the damage and the duration of track closure, for reasons outlined below. In fact, the duration of track closure is still unclear at this time.

Initial reports from UPRR on January 19 indicated that an area about 0.8 miles in length was covered with 4-10 feet of debris, but that the line might reopen within two or three days. We immediately instituted a bus bridge between Klamath Falls and Portland to accommodate passengers who already were enroute. On January 19, this resulted in a 9 hour delay for northbound passengers and a nearly 6 hour delay for southbound passengers, though delays caused by the bus bridge were reduced over the following days.

Late in the day on January 20, UPRR provided Amtrak with an updated track repair estimate of two or three weeks. The damage report was more significant that earlier reported, covering parts of a segment 14 miles in length, with areas of track buried in 15 feet of debris, and with continued movement of the soil in the area. The location is in a very remote, steeply sloped area with minimal road access. On January 21, the bus bridge resulted in a 1 hour delay for northbound passengers and a 19 minute delay for southbound passengers. We decided to continue the bus bridge for three more days (January 22, 23 and 24), but then annul the Coast Starlight in its entirety, including the bus bridge, through February 1.

This decision was made after careful consideration of projected passenger counts and revenues, compared to bus bridge costs and added employee-related expenses, particularly, the relocation of mechanical forces to Klamath Falls to turn and service the train set that would terminate there is service continued to operate during this extended track outage. The bus bridge costs are not insignificant, approximately $12,000-$15,000 a day. We also considered that, as stated above, usage of the Coast Starlight in late January is less than at other times of year, and the challenges presented by running stub trains and bus bridges, especially in winter.

We carefully evaluated all of these factors and looked at every opportunity available to us, including talking to BNSF Railway, which has a potential detour route via Wishram, Washington, and Bend, Oregon. This detour route proved not to be practical due to its 49-mph top speeds and the many UPRR freights already diverted to it because of the track outage.

After this evaluation process, we came to the decision of annulling the train through the area for two weeks in order to give the UPRR a chance to give us an informed timetable for reopening the line, which then would allow us to go back and determine what future steps we can take, and when we can take them. In the end, the cost of running stub trains and a bus bridge far outweighed the revenue benefits of running the train during these firs two weeks of the track outage.

We also considered whether to operate stub trains on the northern and southern extreme of the route. Again, given the season and other factors, we found that running the stub trains made no sense for the period through February 1. In the north, parallel Cascades service has ample space this time of year to carry additional passengers. Also, the northbound Coast Starlight carries no local passengers north of Eugene.

In the south, we found that ridership on the Coast Starlight that is local to the Los Angeles-Sacramento segment is light during this season and could be diverted temporarily to the State’s network of corridor trains and thruway buses for the period through February 1. For example, there is the Pacific Surfliner service from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo and the Capitol Corridor service from San Jose to Sacramento, also connected by thruway bus service. Also, passengers to and from Los Angeles can use connecting thruway bus and the San Joaquin train service via Bakersfield. During this current two-week period, we will have the chance to talk with Caltrans about other bussing options to bridge parts of this route. You raised a number of arguments in favor of marketing a stub train along the coast route within California. However, keeping in mind that our decision was made on January 21 with a hope of restoring service early in February, a process of prudent planning and analysis of the sort of service that you have suggested would likely have taken as long as the service outage lasted.

That said, UPRR has not yet given us a firm indication of when the line in Oregon will reopen. February is a relatively weaker period for the Coast Starlight, but ridership historically increases heading into March and April. You can be assured that we want to reinstitute the service as quickly as possible. Given the information available to us, we believe that the decision we made was the correct one. We expect within the next two weeks, the service options available to us will become clearer, and that a more definite path to full recovery will be found. We will keep the public informed as we make any such determinations.

Alex Kummant
President and Chief Executive Officer
(via fax on Amtrak letterhead)

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