Interesting news, FOOD CARTS, and a new menu for the San Joaquins

March 27, 2008, Fresno
Meeting Report by Russ Jackson
and Bruce Jenkins

Photos by Russ Jackson
What a day it was! The trip to SJVRC meetings on a San Joaquin train is always a treat, and today was no exception. Train 712 was on time to Fresno, which always is a bonus, but what was really exciting was finding a rolling snack cart going through the train with an attendant selling drinks and snacks.

march-2008-003.jpg Attendant Matthew King with cart in the rebuilt Superliner Coach on 712
What a great throwback to the days of the City of Los Angeles, the City of San Francisco, and other great trains of yesteryear! The success of this experiment, part of an Amtrak/Caltrans “Collaborative Approach to Route Level Service Improvements” undertaken by Amtrak’s Marketing and Product Management Department, is bringing new initiatives to services on board the San Joaquin trains. After Amtrak’s project manager Martin Yurth’s presentation to the SJVRC RailPAC rushed to invite him to speak to our April 19 meeting in Sacramento. The Committee sat in rapt attention. Take our word for it, this initiative is important news for all rail travelers and advocates. Note: A full report of his presentation by Bill Kerby follows this report as the next post on this site. Also on the train we found colorful new menus with new items. A copy of both sides of that menu is at the end of this report.

Other news we learned today: Unfortunately the Merced to Monterey Thruway bus route has not been doing well and will be discontinued in May. The Coast Starlight’s new upgraded service may have to be delayed until the full route can be utilized and there is no date for resuming service, but the RailPAC supported plan to run the train to Klamath Falls with a bus bridge to Eugene is under active consideration. New fares will be effective starting April 15 (meaning increases), but as part of the “initiative” above new variable fare “buckets” are in effect on the San Joaquins. A new advertising campaign in both English and Spanish will run starting this Spring on radio and television in the Valley. Caltrans has a team working on redesign of timetables. A new integrated timetable (Surfliner/San Joaquin) will be out May 12.

When the meeting began before a large Fresno crowd the passing of the “gavel” from Committee Chairman Harvey Hall, Mayor of Bakersfield, (second from left, next to RailPAC VP North Art Lloyd,) to Merced County Supervisor John Pedrozo took place. The very popular Mayor Hall was thanked for his two year service as Chairman and presented with a model train plaque in appreciation. Mariposa County Supervisor Dianne Fritz will be the Vice Chair.

RailPAC President, Paul Dyson, spoke to the Committee, saying the six RailPAC board members present represented over 200 years of railroad and rail advocacy experience. Mr. Dyson spoke of the importance of incremental improvements in growing the San Joaquin train service and the need to concentrate on those improvements before starting something new, as desirable as those ideas might be. He ended with an invitation for members to attend our Annual Meeting in Sacramento April 19.

The next order of business was a Resolution for high speed/intercity/commuter connections offered by Fresno County’s Larry Miller. This resolution contains three parts: 1) support for California’s High Speed Rail Project, 2) a recommendation that Amtrak and HSR share a maximal integration of services, infrastructure, management and planning and that it be extended to other passenger rail services, 3) a recommendation that the current San Joaquin train service be moved from the BNSF corridor to the UP corridor between Bakersfield and Merced, while HSR occupies the BNSF corridor, because of the greater under-served population base on the UP in cities like Tulare and Visalia. A spirited discussion, including noting the lack of a cost estimate for the resolution, resulted in the motion being tabled for further study.

The 25 Year San Joaquin Corridor Strategic Business Plan which has been under preparation for some time was presented by Caltrans’ Robin Owen. The Plan, “Looks at cost effectiveness and concentrates on immediate needs first.” The objective is to “develop a set of strategies for meeting the needs of the San Joaquin Corridor while laying out a plan to guide improvements in the corridor over time.” Included are such ideas as fostering better communication and understanding among stakeholders at all levels, develop a menu of options that can be deployed to enhance safety and reduce delays to trains as a result of accidents, evaluate the potential market and operational feasibility for scheduling additional train frequencies (7 round trips by 2012, 10 by 2032) The big one: “Compare alternatives for possible extensions of train service to Wheeler Ridge (near the Grapevine) and/or overnight trains across Tehachapi Pass. It points out that today the San Joaquin Corridor “boasts the fifth highest ridership of any Amtrak service.

Fresno Council of Governments spokesman, Clark Thompson, commented on the Strategic Plan, endorsing the provision of direct train service to Los Angeles and said the proposed service on the UP Corridor from Bakersfield to Merced is not in the current plan. Mr. Thompson said, “Why wait, we know the Valley is going to experience dramatic population growth,” and facing that, the possibility of High Speed Rail, and the increases in gas prices and the science of global warning need to be addressed. “They aren’t in the Plan.”

A major concern of the SJVRC continues to be the availability of information to the large Spanish speaking population, now almost 50% of the Valley. The Committee heard from Yolanda Mentz, Amtrak’s Director of the Reservation Call Center in Riverside, who emphasized the responsiveness to bilingual concerns has a high priority there. There are 600 employees now at the Riverside Center, and two shifts each day have eleven Spanish speakers on duty and each must be qualified to speak “perfect Spanish.” The “Julie” automated voice recognition center was upgraded in 2007, and now includes a “prompt” for Spanish speakers. The Committee had complained that the “prompt” was too far down in the initial message, which would discourage callers, and Amtrak will run a “pilot project” starting April 17 in San Joaquin Valley area codes moving it “up front.” Amtrak.com is also available in Spanish.

Caltrans Rail Chief Bill Bronte reported their budget will be the same as last year, $16.6M + 3.3M for overhaul car maintenance. “On the operation side all is OK, on the capital side we’re in trouble,” Bronte said. “The Department of Finance says no new $$ for transit, however, there is $$ for current programs. DoF’s attitude that we don’t require any new rolling stock is very disturbing to all.” Amtrak’s Jonathan Hutchison reported Amtrak’s fuel costs are up 10.8%. For the San Joaquins revenue is up 11.4% and ridership up 4% in Feb ’08. Once again both the BNSF and the UP were represented at the meeting. The BNSF’s Rick Depler had news: “We have a new chief of engineering. There will be no more “blitz” projects on the right-of-way. All maintenance-of-way will be done at night on an on-going basis. No more service interruptions to Amtrak and to BNSF. Depler’s report was SO positive that it drew spontaneous applause. The UP’s Tom Mulligan talked about tie replacement near Martinez, etc. and work they’re doing which will improve On Time Performance. Does this mean an improvement in the UP’s attitude too?

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