Why is it so Hard to get More Passenger Trains on the Coast Line?

By Noel T. Braymer

The Coast Line between Los Angeles and San Jose is a natural for more passenger rail service. The demand is there to fill up more passenger trains. For over 15 years there have been plans to start up day service between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the Coast Line. Yet we are no closer today than 15 years ago. Why? The conventional wisdom is that it is because the Union Pacific is opposed to passenger rail service.

Is this true? Metrolink runs rush hour trains on the UP mainline between Los Angeles and Riverside with few problems. Metrolink shares tracks with the UP from Los Angeles to Oxnard, Lancaster and through to El Monte. ACE runs between Stockton and San Jose on the UP. Not only is this service staying put, but ACE is planning to extend service to Modesto and Merced on the UP. Also ACE is planning major improvements between Stockton and San Jose over the next 10 years to reduce running times by over half and run additional trains. This will require the cooperation of the UP. UP has been talking with ACE and said that separate tracks would be needed to run trains on their right of way for passenger speeds over 79 miles per hour. UP is not saying no to ACE, but will spell out what they want before they will agree.

What ACE and Metrolink have in common is that they are regional services. They deal directly  with the UP and have negotiated agreements with them. These agreements include what is paid for access to the UP rights of way and paying for the track improvements needed to operate passenger trains on the UP. Amtrak on the other hand from its founding has through legislation enjoyed major discounts using the freight railroads tracks and the railroad have had to maintain lines Amtrak uses to passenger standards for many years. The railroads complain they lose money running Amtrak trains and from problems dealing with Amtrak when their trains are late or break down on the railroads.

The exception to this seems to be the Capitol Corridor. Amtrak operates the Capitol Corridor trains between San Jose and Auburn. Recently it was announced that there are plans to extend service south of San Jose to Salinas on the Coast Line with Capitol Corridor trains. How can the Capitol Corridor run on the Coast Line when Amtrak can’t even extend one train north of San Luis Obispo to San Jose on the UP?

Even though the Surfliners and Capitol Corridor trains are operated by Amtrak, they are not managed the same. For years the Capitol Corridor trains have been managed by the Capitol Corridor Joint Power Authority (CCJPA). This JPA is made up of the transportation agencies between San Jose and Sacramento with BART providing the administrative support to run the CCJPA. The CCJPA also gets funding from the State to manage the trains as well as local monies. As such Amtrak runs the Capitol Corridor trains under contract to the CCJPA. Unlike the Surfliner which Amtrak owns most of the equipment, all of equipment for the Capitol Corridor is owned by the State. The State and CCJPA have a lot of leverage over Amtrak which maintains the equipment to keep it in good shape. The Capitol Corridor trains have an excellent on time performance and their equipment have high levels of customer satisfaction.

Caltrans has been administering the Surfliner and San Joaquins for the State through Amtrak. The CCJPA unlike Caltrans has the freedom to deal directly with the UP on operations of the Capitol Corridor. The CCJPA has created its own bonus program for the UP to encourage it to run their trains on time. In addition the CCJPA pays the UP to upgrade the tracks the Capitol Corridor uses. This has not only benefited the Capitol Corridor trains but also improved operations for the UP.

New Joint Powers Agencies are now being organized to manage the San Joaquins and Pacific Surfliners. The question is what will become of the future Coast Daylight between Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco? The local organization for the Central Coast is the Coast Rail Coordinating Council (CRCC) and it has been leading the fight for rail service on the Coast. As such the Coast Daylight doesn’t have a JPA behind it but there will be shared responsibility between the CCJPA and the new LOSSAN JPA on the Coast route.

It appears that a major factor in the lack of progress getting more service on the Coast Line is that it will depend on the UP coming to an agreement with Amtrak. Without Amtrak paying more money the UP is in no hurry to make a deal. Amtrak would be unwilling to set a precedent to raise trackage fees on any train since this would open the gates to raise fee on all their trains.

It seems that the only way to get more service on the Coast Line will require direct coordinated negotiations by the CRCC, CCJPA, LOSSAN, and Caltrans with the UP. Literally these negotiations would have to go over Amtrak’s head. They would require a plan to insure the UP gets paid more money and there is a serious talk about the future track improvements on the Coast Line. This seems to have worked with the CCJPA to make running passenger trains worth it to the UP. It hasn’t been all roses between the UP and the CCJPA but there is certainly more progress to be seen up north.

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