Comet Cars not seen in a glowing light by newly formed San Joaquin Joint Powers Board

Report by Bill Kerby, RailPAC Treasurer

The author of the May 24th meeting of a newly formed joint powers board wishes to submit a revised version of that meeting. The presentation made by Dan Leavitt was mischaracterized in the report. Agency names were not fully provided and this oversight is corrected in the following revision. The author regrets any inconvenience that may have been caused by these errors.

The San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority (SJJPA)… met in the City of Sacramento’s old city hall May 24th. New members of the recently formed JPA governing board were sworn in, Sacramento Assemblyman Roger Dickinson received an award for supporting intercity passenger rail through the JPA process, and several action items were voted for and approved. Fred Strong, representing the Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor Agency (LOSSAN), expressed satisfaction with the prospect of coordinating service with the San Joaquin corridor. The SJJPA bound itself to a short time line to choose a managing agency for the new SJJPA. Process for the selection of the Managing Agency on behalf of the Authority requires the winning bidder to be responsible for management, administration, financial and legal matters coming before the SJJPA for three years. Final selection is slated for the next meeting of the SJJPA on July 26th in Fresno.

When the new management agency starts negotiation with Caltrans on an Interagency Transfer Agreement, the negotiators could find that the task “may prove somewhat challenging immediately as the SJJPA has no independent source of funding at the present time.” The Managing Agency and a Managing Director will be hired and located within the region served by the San Joaquin Corridor. Assuming that the Managing Agency takes shape during mid-year 2013, the JPA intends to harmonize the California High-Speed Rail Authority’s (CAHSRA) Business Plan with the SJJPA’s business plan. The staff report on this issue states”…it remains a possibility that the CHSRA may not need to do, or desire to run conventional intercity rail services on their first construction segment.” To demonstrate that the high-speed rail project from Madera to Bakersfield is operational at some level before full build out of the initial operating segment (between Merced and Southern California) of the California High Speed Rail project, Stacey Mortensen stated that the CHSRA could ask manufacturers in countries like China, Japan, Switzerland, Germany or France to demonstrate high-speed train sets running on the 130 mile test section.

At present, California has no electrified railroad line in passenger or freight service. In accord with Mortesen, RailPAC would prefer to see electrification continue beyond the Caltrain project. Once completed, experience gained on the San Francisco Peninsula could be employed in the 130 mile Central Valley project and thereby gain economies of scale.

If readers agree with electrification of the test track, let RailPAC and the SJJPA know of your agreement. Send comments to or

A heated debate erupted among the board members on the matter of accepting the refurbished Comet cars, originally built as electric multiple unit cars for New Jersey Transit. The question is should the rebuilt cars be substituted for Superliner cars with two of the four train sets currently in service on the corridor. Mortensen estimated a net gain of approximately 175-200 seats with the substitution, leading to potential revenue increases if the seats are filled. The downside of the swap attracted the most intense discussion. Vice Chair Perea questioned whether the SJJPA was legally required to accept the 14 cars, which are part of a $20 million contract. Worry about reimbursing the State of California for the Comet car share of $20 million through fare box recovery was also expressed by the Board. Other members focused on how ADA compliance would be achieved if less abled passengers had to climb up three steps into the Comets from station platforms. None of the Comet cars feature remote controlled doors, so some doors would remain closed at many stations and an extra car attendant might be needed to operate usable doors. Stanislaus County member Vito Chiesa offered a brief history of the Comet order. The lack of any used inventory of Amtrak certified cars and the inability of current manufacturers to fill small orders prompted Caltrans to select the Comets to gain needed seats. He noted further, this equipment order for purchase and refurbishment of cars nearly 40 years old should not be a surprise since Division of Rail’s Director briefed the San Joaquin Rail Committee numerous times over the last four years. As an advocate for strengthening rail service to the state’s capitol city, Sacramento Councilman Steve Cohn opined that he’d like to see obtain more equipment to add to Sacramento’s two daily trains between Stockton and Sacramento; however, he was not necessarily in favor of using Comet cars. Among the benefits of the Comet Cars is a good riding experience. Once a passenger is seated in the car, the rider will see a bright interior equipped with comfortable intercity seats and enjoy a smoother ride with the air suspension on the new trucks. Find the agenda document with Comet Car details at

RailPAC hopes the optimism shown by the pledge to work with the San Joaquin JPA by Fred Strong, LOSSAN corridor board member, and Roger Dickinson’s affirmation of support from the state, counties, and other support groups could unify a diverse group of interests meeting on the common ground of building a connected rail passenger system.

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