July 1 Meeting Report and comments by Paul Dyson, RailPAC President
In an encouraging sign that LOSSAN and the County transportation executives are getting to grips with the conflicts between the multiple agencies operating railroads in Southern California (Amtrak, BNSF, UP, SCRRA and NCTD) the LOSSAN Board on Wednesday discussed the “Corridor Long Term Vision and Institutional Model”.

This model is the result of collaboration between OCTA, LACMTA, NCTD, Caltrans and SANDAG who collectively hired consulting company Wilbur Smith to report on the subject. (See item 7 of the LOSSAN agenda for 7/1/09 and the accompanying power point presentation).

The presentation reminded us that AB 457 passed in 1996 set up a legal framework whereby the counties, at their option, could form JPAs for the three state rail corridors. Only the Capitol Corridor counties opted to use this and as we have seen they have accomplished major improvements in passenger service. The Capitol Corridor has three major advantages that have helped make it successful. The ownership of the line is less complicated; Union Pacific owns all but a mile of it. The line itself is part of an important freight corridor, which means that both the host railroad and the passenger operation have a common interest in investing in capacity improvements, and the agency has had the benefit of an outstanding individual, Gene Skoropowski, who has succeeded in making the most of the assets available and at the same time building a coalition of interest among the parties concerned.

Meanwhile, in Southern California, intercity passenger service has floundered along, playing third fiddle behind the priorities of the commuter agencies and the host railroads. We have had some increases in frequency but schedules are mediocre at best, and punctuality rarely exceeds 85%, even with padded schedules. The Surfliner attracts about 8,000 riders per day, (roughly 560,000 revenue passenger miles) or about .01% of the population in the vicinity of the line.

The consultant’s report offers two courses of action. The Counties can either create a new LOSSAN JPA specifically to operate the existing intercity passenger corridor, or expand SCRRA as provided for in SB 457 and create a new agency that will be responsible for all passenger rail services (except the Amtrak interstate long distance network trains) in nine southern California counties. The consultant recommends the former, with the intention of integrating Inland Empire and commuter routes later.

There was considerable discussion at the Board regarding how best to proceed. The point was raised as to whether the north part of the corridor had different needs to the south, and whether it requires different treatment. The Board consists mostly of members with considerable experience in local government and I imagine the idea of a super JPA encompassing nine counties is a daunting prospect. However, I pointed out in public comment that the current rail operations, Surfliner, Metrolink and Coaster, are still relatively small. It would be better to integrate these operations now and start enjoying administrative, procurement and operational economies, than to wait until they have grown significantly. Furthermore, delaying the implementation of the super agency means that the biggest problem for intercity, it’s subservience to the other operations, will not be solved.

This is a complicated issue and there are pros and cons on both sides. Trying to get agreement on investment priorities among nine counties would require a level of vision and leadership which is a rare commodity. On the other hand the combined political weight of nine counties representing about 25 million people should be sufficient to ensure that federal and state funds are forthcoming. As LOSSAN Chairman Art Brown pointed out, we need a service that is competitive with the automobile if it is to grow. The current structure, with control split between Amtrak and Caltrans, dependent on 4 different railroad owners for track access and schedules, and an advisory Board that meets quarterly, is just not getting the job done.

I believe, and I will be asking the RailPAC Board to support this policy, that the time is now right to create the regional JPA under the aegis of SB 457. Unlike 1996 the Inland Empire counties now have experience of participation in Metrolink, and there is strong demand for intercity passenger service into eastern Riverside County and the Imperial Valley. RailPAC has always promoted these longer distance intercity routes, such as to Indio and El Centro, as they generate significantly more revenue and more productive use of the equipment. If we don’t seize this opportunity to include these counties in the intercity program it will be many years before they see any service.

I believe we share the same vision as most of the LOSSAN Board members and most of the transportation agencies in Southern California. We can establish an intercity limited stop service, with local trains, scheduled together to provide connections throughout the system. These services would link up transit centers with local bus and light rail connections. Electronic ticketing and information systems will provide seamless journeys. Let’s take the bold step and create an agency that has the power to deliver this vision.

Paul Dyson
4th July, 2009