Commentary, Reports

Coalition Building at Steel Wheels Conference

Commentary by Paul Dyson, President

This year at Steel Wheels in California we tried a couple of innovations.  While most of the day consisted of the usual (excellent) presentations by politicians and industry professionals, we also put together a forum of passenger rail advocates from different groups to discuss High Speed Rail, and to attempt to answer the question:  “How to spend the first billion dollars?”  I had a couple of reasons for doing this.  First, however good the speakers might be we needed some variety in the format to keep the audience interested.  Second, and more important in the long run, was the thought that such a free form discussion would reveal that we have more common ground than disagreement among passenger rail advocates and that this could form the basis for united action in the future towards achieving our common goals.

So Steel Wheels was not just a RailPAC and NARP meeting.  We had representatives from Southern California Transit Advocates, the Sierra Club, Californians for High Speed Rail, The Transit Coalition, Train Riders Association of California, Coast Starlight Communities Network, Coastal Rail Now and Southwest Rail Passenger Association, which is one of the most encouraging things to happen in a long time.  We have many members who belong to one or more of these groups, myself included, and it has always been my ambition to at least form a coalition, if not a single organization, to have a louder and more effective voice in communicating our message.

The consensus of the High Speed Rail discussion was that the Los Angeles to Anaheim segment should be enhanced rather than rebuilt, and that the Los Angeles Union Station run through tracks should be built as soon as possible but in a way that is compatible with running HSR trains through to Orange County in the future.  This I believe reflects the common sense approach already promulgated in the letter from the CEOs of Metro and OCTA (Art Leahy and Will Kempton) to the CHSRA.  In addition most of the panel recognized that bridging the Los Angeles to Bakersfield gap in the state rail system is of primary importance.  Here then we have broad agreement on two key policy issues that these groups can get behind.  While there is a need to flesh out these ideas with more specific proposals, and probably each of the groups concerned would need to discuss these ideas internally, I am optimistic that we can lay the foundation for a new “Steel Wheels Coalition” that can successfully advance our agenda.

I had a lot of positive comments about the meeting from those who attended.  We had two Mayors, two city council members, and a number of Amtrak and Metro personnel.  Our presenters included the Chairs of Metro, LOSSAN, and Metrolink.  We had really interesting presentations from DesertXpress, Siemens and Talgo, and from Stephen Gardner, Amtrak’s Vice President of Planning.  Once again we had insufficient time for questions.  We were very fortunate that  all of our invited presenters were able to accept but that meant that we had to keep the program moving at a brisk pace with less time for discussion than I had hoped.  But we should be both proud and flattered that these people gave up their Saturday to join us.  It shows that we have come a long way as a group and that we are taken seriously as an important voice in passenger rail issues.

Please feel free to e-mail me with feedback, comments and suggestions.

Paul Dyson, President

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