Passenger Rail and the CA State budget crisis

Commentary on a vital current issue by Paul J. Dyson, RailPAC President REVISED 5/25/09.
Well, the party’s over for the United States and especially for California.

From now on, instead of running up debt, we’re going to have to pay for what we consume or go without. This is the harsh reality of our current situation, and intercity rail will not be exempt from the painful cuts coming soon.

At the national level we are almost certain to see increased operating deficits at Amtrak, driven by the reduction in high fare paying passengers on the NEC as a result of the recession on Wall Street. Only the overnight trains seem to be holding their own. In spite of the additional capital money for Amtrak, most of which is going to fix NEC infrastructure, I think there will soon be pressure for reduced operating expenses. We can all guess where the axe will fall! The decades of propaganda denigrating the western trains will surely make them the first targets of “economizing” by our friends in DC.

How should RailPAC and NARP react? Should we picket the state capitol at Sacramento and demand that we keep our trains? Should we lobby Washington for a bigger subsidy? It seems to me that we cannot demand the retention of passenger rail programs at the expense of such items as health care and education, even though we know that there is bureaucratic waste that could be eliminated in all government programs. We need to find an alternative strategy; we need to think.

What do we do now? We should be constantly seeking farebox recovery, not increased subsidy! In spite of the recession there is still disposable income being spent by the majority of the population. A good rail passenger product can be sold even in this climate. We have 35 million people in California. We need about 10,000 more people per day to spend $30 on train fares to make $100,000,000 additional revenue per year. That’s about the level of state support for the intercity program. Do you think we can do it? What would it take?

We need the immediate formation of a task force to review the schedules of passenger and commuter trains, especially where those services overlap or share routes, to ensure optimum connectivity and productivity. The current abominable schedules of trains 798/799 are a case in point. If that is a passenger’s first impression of passenger rail, how can we hope for repeat business? I believe we can generate a lot more revenue with connections between e.g. the Metrolink Antelope Valley service and the Surfliners, or between BART and the Capital Corridor, and with the use of weekend family tickets and other such promotions. There is no excuse for the current state of affairs. NARP and RailPAC should be demanding more of Amtrak and commuter rail management from existing resources; better coordination, better maintenance practices, better marketing, customer friendly personnel.

The next thing we need is more seats to sell. We can probably put another 100 people on most of the trains that run on most days, but that is less than half of the 10,000 target. We need cars so that we can put more backsides on seats. Division of Rail has a plan to put single level cars on the San Joaquins and free up California Cars to strengthen the other corridors. This should be a matter of urgency. Further, we need to concentrate these assets on the longer haul passenger market, including starting the Coast Daylight as soon as possible. This means reducing Amtrak service between San Diego and Los Angeles and filling the gaps with a combined Metrolink/Coaster schedule. Many of these trains carry large numbers of “Rail to Rail” passengers generating $2 revenue per passenger to Amtrak. This is a luxury we can no longer afford.

Next, we can play the money game by demanding that Amtrak charge less for the state supported trains. How they can possibly justify the current level of charges when they have been given the trains by the taxpayers of California and pay very little for the right of way? It’s time for a detailed accounting! At the same time an independent auditor should be tasked with finding out the true cost of operating the long distance trains.

We should not be downhearted. We have to use this crisis as an opportunity to demonstrate that passenger rail operations should not be a major drain on the public purse but can, if run in a commercial fashion, be largely self supporting and therefore deserving of capital investment.

These are my thoughts. I’ve revised them since first published 21st Many thanks to some excellent feedback from members. E-mail me at with your opinions.

Paul Dyson
RailPAC President,
Division Leader, SW. NARP.

* attr. Ernest Rutherford, New Zealand scientist.

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