Tracking Rail News


. . . Commentary by Russ Jackson, and PHOTOS by Trainweb’s Carl Morrison and Russ Jackson

August, 2009.

. . . California. . . .
Santa Barbara Train Day photo old car Santa Barbara Train Day photo 09 Santa Barbara’s RailPAC co-sponsored Train Day, delayed because of the May fires, was successfully held on July 18. (left) The “Santa Barbara” was on the private car track west of the station. Many events took place around the historic station.
Santa Barbara Train Day photo Dyson Santa Barbara Train Day Dennis Story
(left) RailPAC President Paul Dyson spoke with reporters, Mr. Dyson and RailPAC Director Dennis Story spoke to the crowd.
For more great color pictures and a full trip report see Carl Morrison’s story on Trainweb’s What’s New page!
. . . By the time you read this the budget fate of the state’s rail program should be known. We hope for only minor cuts not involving service. The program is so highly thought of in the legislature due to years of not asking for operating budget increases while increasing service paid for from higher ticket sales, that despite ridership decreases (see Gene Skoropowski’s monthly report) the service continues to be a factor in the future of the state’s transportation picture as we wait for the high speed rail program to become reality in ten to fifteen years. Wouldn’t it be great if Bill Bronte and Gene were running Amtrak!

May-Graffiti 2007 012 The rebuilt Petaluma NWP station will be a stop for SMART. . . . The Sonoma-Marin (SMART) project selected diesel multiple-unit (DMU) vehicles for the 71-mile rail service in the North Bay Area. For $88 million they will buy 11 “units”, instead of the diesel light rail transit (DLRT) vehicles used on North San Diego County’s “Sprinter.” Only one U.S. manufacturer, Columbus, Ohio-based US Railcar is capable of producing DMU equipment.
May-Graffiti 2007 013 These relics were sitting on the Petaluma station tracks in May, 2007.
Speaking of the North Bay, on June 30 the North Coast Railroad Authority rolled the first freight train on the ex-Northwestern Pacific rail line, originally built all the way to Eureka back in 1914, from Petaluma to Windsor in over 10 years. The line is nearly restored down to the Union Pacific junction south of Napa.

. . . New Mexico, Colorado. With great enthusiasm a plan for a 700 mile high speed corridor from Denver to El Paso along that fast-growing “spine” was announced this month. While the idea was sarcastically received by many eastern folks, it’s an idea that contains such possibilities as the volume of inter-route connections with the Sunset Limited, Southwest Chief, and California Zephyr.
Amtrak’s Southwest Chief at the Albuquerque station in October, 2006. An early study of the matrix implications of interconnecting these routes was done by RailPAC’s Adrian Herzog and Jon Messier some years ago, and found to be very positive. When you factor in the number of major universities, like UNM, NMState, UTEP, the AF Academy, etc., and a potential robust tourist business piggybacking on the successful Railrunner, local trips would be gravy. Meanwhile, the Union Pacific sold 33 miles of track north of Denver to Colorado’s Regional Transportation District which would build commuter rail there. And, the Grand Junction depot for the California Zephyr will get $114 thousand to upgrade its platform and build a wheelchair lift. That classic station, long in need of rebuilding funds, was where RailPAC Director Bruce Jenkins father worked years ago.

. . . Arizona, Idaho, Washington, Texas.
November 2007-2 007
Grand Luxe cars on the rear of Amtrak’s California Zephyr at Vacaville, CA, in November, 2007.
The Grand Canyon Railway’s new owner, Phil Anschutz, has purchased the rolling stock of the defunct Grand Luxe, which was also known as the American European Express. And, they have announced that the National Park Service may allow an increase in service to three daily round-trips from the current two. . . . Amtrak has plans to continue to stop the Empire Builder at the Sandpoint, ID, depot, although the long-term plans for the classic station stop are hazy. Local folk fear that if their depot is not preserved the train might no longer stop there. Amtrak has done that to communities in other states. . . . A second Cascade train from Seattle to Vancouver which was scheduled to start with the Winter Olympics next February will begin in August as a seven month “pilot project.” And, the overhaul of the Cascade’s Talgo trainsets has been completed and they will no longer use Superliners (see paragraph 1 for where those cars should go). Speaking of Talgos, the state of Wisconsin will buy two “14-car trains” (with an option for two more) for the Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha Service for $47 million and the establishment of a Talgo manufacturing plant in the state. . . . In Texas, Phase 1 of DART’s newest extension will open September 14. The very successful light rail line’s Green Line will eventually extend from Carrollton through downtown Dallas to Fair Park and the Baylor Medical Center. Construction has begun on Denton County’s “A-Train” which will run 21 miles along the 100-year old M-K-T right-of-way from DART’s Carrolton station north to downtown Denton, but will require a cross-platform transfer between the two. The A-Train will use diesel-powered vehicles when it opens in late 2010.

. . . Is the daily Sunset Limited plan dead? The longer the debate goes on at Amtrak the more many rail advocates are inclined to believe it won’t happen. CEO Joseph Boardman says it’s equipment issues. Well, we know his people were saying the equipment was available as recently as May, so what has changed? There are enough Superliner cars in use on the Heartland Flyer, Pere Marquette, Vancouver Cascades, the non-state owned Superliners running on the California corridors, and with the rebuilds coming out of Beech Grove what’s the problem? The internal disputes at Amtrak are legendary and apparently continue. The Amtrak Board of Directors is supposed to meet on this issue in September, but why does the decision have to wait that long? Maybe some day we’ll get answers. . . . Meanwhile, Amtrak has lost another highly thought-of leader: Don Saunders, the Asst. VP West region, resigned to join Veolia Transportation, the company that operates Metrolink and 150 other rail services, as COO. In June former Amtrak CEO Tom Downs joined Veolia as its rail division Chairman. Who goes next? What’s the next Amtrak “event”? Well, there are three studies of interest: Montana (North Coast Limited), Idaho-Oregon (Pioneer), and the just released Sunset Limited to Florida debacle. Read the commentary in the August Western Rail Passenger Review about that one. It’s great insight into how things go when railroading and politics collide.

. . . On Time Performance. . . . The good old summertime continues to see great results for the western long distance trains. Not only are the passengers flocking to ride them, but they are getting to their destinations very close to on time. Up to July 21, At Los Angeles: Train 3, the Southwest Chief, the average delay per train was one minute!!! despite one very bad day. Train 1, the Sunset Limited, has been arriving regularly as much as an hour early. Train 11, the Coast Starlight, had only two bad days all month. But, it was Train 5, the California Zephyr arriving in Emeryville that had the one big show of lateness this month. On July 15 there were two #5’s going west out of Denver! Rail reporter Gene Poon wrote that the train that departed Chicago on the 13th reported it needed work that “can’t be done anywhere between Chicago and Oakland,” A signal bridge fell down on the train after it struck a car on the tracks, and pushed it into the bridge badly damaging the lead locomotive, baggage, and transition sleeper. One train was turned at Reno, the other went on to Oakland for repairs, and passengers were bussed. On the 15th that train was late into EMY 1330 minutes (22 hours).

. . . Trip Report. “We’ve all seen and commented on the “never again” phenomenon when Amtrak screws up. There’s another dimension to that, when everything goes well. The comment below is copied from an email from my sister, who just used a San Joaquin to get from Martinez to Stockton with her 9-year old. This is the “opportunity cost” of headquarters slighting the western services–building word of mouth, and lifetime family receptivity to rail, even for trips where the car is dominant. And this leads to commercial opportunity. No doubt Amtrak lost money on a straight cash basis on this trip–the sheer cost of ticketing two passengers probably exceeded their $8.25 gross revenue. But this is the same family that bought a Bedroom on # 6 last winter for a Martinez-Chicago trip based on experiences like this one. That trip was solidly profitable for Amtrak, and because it went well built in a reservoir of goodwill that will generate more such sales in the future.” — Andrew C. Selden, Minneapolis.

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