Coast Rail Coordinating Council Meeting Report

April 25, 2008, San Carlos, CA
Report and Commentary by Russ Jackson

“I cannot make a statement that there will be no train-offs,” said Amtrak’s Jonathan Hutchison in reply to a question from this reporter. “But,” he added, “I cannot say there will be train-offs, either.”

A “train-off” is the discontinuance of an existing train from the schedule. Jonathan’s report to the CRCC about Amtrak’s financial status, which he described as unsettled, means another summer of uncertainty for the railroad. Until Amtrak knows how much money the Congress will give it, planning for next fiscal year continues to cause rumors. As for the California rail corridors, he said Amtrak doesn’t have any idea what they will charge this state or any other state. Fuel costs have gone up, estimated at $160 million nationally next year. Amtrak has asked Congress for funds above its requested allocation to cover that fuel increase and $114 million for the additional costs mandated by the settlement of the labor contracts. Historically, Jonathan said, Congress gives Amtrak less than it requests so covering additional mandated expenses must come “from somewhere.” So, here we go again: In his printed remarks Hutchison said the amounts the Administration proposed for FY08, $800 million plus $100 million in federal capital matching, “are insufficient to maintain national operations.”

As for the FRA’s “Capital Matching Program,” ($30 million available to states on a 50-50% matching basis which are not managed by Amtrak), applications are being accepted. Caltrans is reported to be asking for $5 million for the Kings Park project on the San Joaquin route, and the Alameda Corridor is submitting a request. Projects must be ready to go, and yes, states in the Northeast Corridor are eligible to apply for funds from this small federal largesse.

“No date is now set for the re-launch of the Coast Starlight”, according to Hutchison, although RailPAC hears now it won’t be until June. All of Amtrak’s trains are showing increased revenue and ridership, except for the Starlight, of course, which is suffering from the mudslide problems since January in Oregon. The rest of the CRCC meeting concerned state issues, including its primary interest the proposed Coast Daylight train from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The three key issues to advance the train’s startup are, as SLOCOG’s Peter Rodgers said, (in order of priority and importance):

1) Completing track access negotiations and capital improvements (with UP, Caltrain, Metrolink). Caltrans has submitted an agreement to the UP to identify and engineer the needed capital projects. Caltrans has $25 million Prop 1b funds for track and signal improvements which were approved by the California Transportation Commission on February 14.
2) Securing train equipment. The current State Budget includes $150 million that will allow purchase of new equipment, which is expected to arrive no sooner that 2011 IF a Request for Proposals can be released soon. Caltrans and the Department of Finance must come to agreement on release of funds, and in Phase 1 of that negotiation DOF maintained additional equipment is unnecessary based on an audit they did on Labor Day Weekend on the Capitol Corridor, when travel was light. Phase 2 of the negotiations is done and corrects much of the mis-information, so funds could be released in FY 09. The new cars will be standard Surfliner 2’s, with a minimum of changes from the current cars so as to minimize maintenance mis-matches. Rodgers stated that “If track access can be secured sooner than new equipment is ready, Amtrak or Caltrans may have other equipment available for lease.” (Do we say “Amfleet”?)
3) Securing operating funds. If the above issues are resolved, Mr. Rodgers said, “securing operating funds will probably be the last step.” CRCC has generated many resolutions of support from local jurisdictions, and local legislators will be requested to assist. The current target date for implementation of the new train is April 2011, and Caltrans must request these funds in August 2010.

Good news was the apparent resolution of the ongoing dispute with the Department of Justice’s proposed requirement that passenger train platforms be 15 inches above top of rail while most railroads only require 8 inches. Jonathan Hutchison told the CRCC to “go ahead with the 8″ standard;” Amtrak said rigidity is beginning to soften. RailPAC’s Art Lloyd, also representing Caltrain at the meeting, said “APTA will come out with an 8″ policy statement.” The AAR is going along with 8″. That means the 8″ platform constructed in the double tracking project at the Hanford station and has held up the use of it can now be used, and that platform is now open. In addition to Mr. Lloyd, RailPAC was represented at the meeting by Director Bruce Jenkins, Associate Director Mike Barnbaum, and this writer.

The State Budget for rail for FY 08/09 is flat for intercity rail, except to accommodate anticipated increases from Amtrak for fuel and the wage settlement and an additional $8 million has been included for that. If Amtrak sends a bill for more than that (what’s the chance of that?) adjustments must be made. This year Amtrak has swallowed the increased costs of fuel in its agreement. “The long term picture is not pretty,” Pete Rodgers said. And after listening to the “Bill and Gene” show (Bronte and Skoropowski) at the RailPAC meeting on April 19, we have been warned. “The result of not adequately funding the rail infrastructure projects is a slow deterioration of system performance – similar to ‘deferred maintenance’ on highways, streets and road systems,” Rodgers continued, “If on-time performance and reliability worsen, ridership numbers will drop. To effectively run and gradually grow the system, a stable $80 million is needed per year, with periodic boosts for large capital upgrades. The CRCC should join the other rail corridors in the state in urging continued rail operations and capital funding.” RailPAC’s board agrees, and supports the CRCC efforts to start the Coast Daylight asap. As Art Lloyd says, “Let’s get the train going!”

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