Commentary on the March 19th RailPAC/NARP Annual Conference

By Noel T. Braymer

Richard Katz, former State Assemblyman, Chairman of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (Metrolink) and LA Metro Board Member was the first speaker. He mostly talked about the organizations like SCRRA, LAMTA and CHSRA (California High Speed Rail Authority) that he helped vote into existence and have sat and or are on their boards. Just after Richard Katz finished speaking talking Los Angeles City Council Member Tom LaBonge showed up with just enough time in his busy schedule to give the group a hello and wish everyone good luck.

Gene Skoropowski was next and is now a consultant with HNTB advising LOSSAN which is the planning body for rail service between San Diego, Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. Gene started off taking about his experiences at the Capitol Corridor. This included developing relationships with the UP to improve maintenance of the railroad, improving on time performance, increasing frequencies etc. Gene made the point that back in the 1990’s many railroads were in trouble and had fire sales. The railroads are doing well now and are regretting some of what they sold and now wish they had the Right of Ways to deal with track capacity problems. The impression I got is Gene’s job with LOSSAN is to work to improve the trackage on the corridor and work with the railroads and agencies to work to get these and other things to happen. Gene talked about hourly service and memory schedules. He didn’t say if the hourly service between Los Angeles to San Diego was with Amtrak or a combined Amtrak/Metrolink/Coaster service. Gene talked about faster running times and how he cut dwell times at some stations on the Capitol Corridor. Gene ended by giving his 2 cents worth about High Speed Rail being canceled in Florida. He had been working on that project.Gene said the project had broad support including Republican support in Florida. He said a few rich men are behind most of the opposition to Florida rail service. Governor Scott of Florida is also opposing Miami Tri-Rail and the proposed commuter rail service for the Orlando area.

John Fenton, the new boss at Metrolink then spoke. He is like a breathe of fresh air at Metrolink. Fenton talked about passenger growth,; he said for LA 40,000 passengers a day was too low. He wants to skip raising fares this year and cover expenses with increased ridership. Metrolink will increase capacity mostly by running longer trains. He wants more powerful locomotives to pull more cars. He talked about express trains hoping that will increase ridership starting with one round trip on rush hours on the San Bernardino and Lancaster Lines. Fenton claimed they have based their plan on available parking at the stations that gets stops. Fenton also talked about maybe running some trains that will bypass Union Station. I assume these would be run through services. He also talked about safety, the new cars, PTC (Positive Train Control coming to Metrolink in 2015) and in-cab cameras for Metrolink trains. John Fenton’s background is with the freight railroads. Fenton talked about how Metrolink was getting complaints about the toilets on the trains. Now the toilets are serviced at the end of each run not just at the start of the day and he is proud that he isn’t getting any more complaints. Fenton is pushing on time performance. For February OT was 97%, up 5% over last year which for a commuter rail service is almost perfect. That is only 5 late trains a day.

The next speaker was Romm Doulton CEO of the Pullman Palace Car Company. This company is planning to run 1st class rail passenger service from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. They are talking about using 15 plus car trains with ATSF Highlevel and dome cars carrying 1200 plus passengers. The question on everyone’s mind was not answered, what about the UP? UP does allow Amtrak to run occasional charter runs.

The speaker before the lunch break was William Duggan, General Manager-West for Amtrak. Amtrak President Broadman is decentralizing Amtrak Management and created General Managers for West, Mid West and NEC. Mr. Duggan is back at Amtrak after working for New Jersey Transit. He has worked in Los Angeles before when he noted LAUS was much quieter.

On-time performance up 95% on Capitol Corridor. 90% on San Joaquin. He pointed out that ridership on the Surfliner often exceeds that of the Acela. The most surprising thing Duggan said was that Long Distance train produce a greater share of revenue for ridership than corridor trains! LD trains produce 28% of revenue with 16% of ridership. Sleeping cars are 15% of LD riders but produce 36% of revenues! Sleeping Car passengers travel more than 500 miles 88% of the time! Duggan talked about the Sunset. Amtrak has hired a consultant to look into the UP’s demand that it will cost 700 million to run a daily train. After the consultant study is completed then the two sides will negotiate. Just before this session broke up for lunch RailPAC Board Member Bob Manning spoke. For Train Day May 7th, Amtrak will run charter trains with 2 round trips between Los Angeles via Fullerton to Palm Springs. The train will leave May 6th Friday night arrive back in LA May 7th and return to Palm Springs that night and come back to LA Sunday. All trains will have paying passengers. Details are still being worked out.

During the Lunch break there was time for the attendees to check out the equipment display at Track 11 at nearby Los Angeles Union Station (LAUS) The Amtrak display was a Parlor Car and Superliner Sleeper. I spent most of my time checking out the new Rotem Metrolink Car which I hadn’t been inside of yet . What most people noticed noticed was that all the seat faced the same direction. I don’t know if people are all going to like going backwards. No tables or groups able to sit face to face. I have been told this applies only to the cab cars, the other new cars will have tables and seats in both direction. The seats were let us say firm.

After lunch Andrew Selden spoke. Andy is a prominent lawyer from Minneapolis and long involved with the United Rail Passenger Alliance. Andy again pointed out that the Long Distance Trains bring in more revenue per passenger than short distance trains. The Coast Starlight for example brings in almost as much revenue as all 11 Surfliners! Andy pointed out that Amtrak can best increase revenue by ordering more Long Distance train equipment for service west of Chicago and start by putting them on the existing trains which are often turning passenger away because the trains are full.

Next was Han van Winkle, Project Manager for the California High Speed Rail Project. He is a retired Army Officer with the Army Corp of Engineers. Van Winkle admitted that the CHSRA wants to do a stand alone project, but reality was that they might have to share trackage into Los Angeles and San Francisco and build incrementally not all at once because of questions about funding. He said the plan has been to build in the San Joaquin Valley first meaning Fresno/ Merced was likely to be the next segment. Then segments from Fresno to San Jose, Bakersfield to Los Angeles with San Jose-San Francisco and LA- Anaheim last. But Mr. Van Winkle admitted that there may have to be changes in the plans for when projects get built. He had one graphic which got my attention. It showed the population along the busiest TGV Line between Paris-Lyon and Marseille. California’s population is greater! Paris has a metro area of 10.4 million and Lyon and Marseille are both about 1.4 million. Los Angeles is according to this chart 19 million, and the Bay Area 6 million.

Because of time constraints I was unable to stay for the whole High Speed Rail Panel discussion, the address by NARP’s Chairman Robert Stewart or the RailPAC Membership Meeting this year. What was quite noticeable was the diversity of rail passenger supporters from environmentalist, union members and Paul Wyerich conservatives. But all shared an interest in expanding rail passenger service.