San Joaquin JPA; a trip and meeting report

Reported, with an editorial, by Paul Dyson, RailPAC President

I traveled to Fresno Friday 26th July for the San Joaquin JPA meeting, the third of this newly formed corridor agency. Travel both ways from Burbank Airport via Thruway bus and San Joaquin train was on time and uneventful. The trains were well loaded, about 95% in my coach both ways, and the buses about 50% northbound (including 8 from Burbank!) and 33% southbound. Both modes deployed clean equipment and courteous and helpful crews.

At the meeting the BNSF’s D.J. Mitchell and Rick Depler gave an informational presentation to the Board about BNSF’s role in the corridor, how they cope with emergencies and incidents, as well as their modelling and review process for capital projects.

The key action item on the agenda was the staff report on the appointment of a managing agency for the corridor. Following the model of the Capitol Corridor an agency with some experience of operations and service development, and perhaps most importantly contract negotiations, will be appointed to “run” the corridor. This will fulfill the current role of Caltrans Division of Rail. There were only two candidates, the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission which operates ACE, and BART which manages the Capitol Corridor. Both were rated highly by the selection committee but SJRCC won out based mostly on local knowledge and geographic relevance, being based in Stockton. Vice Chair Steve Cohn of Sacramento and also a member of the CapCor Board pointed out the specific experience of BART with intercity service. It was clear that he did not have the votes and the SJRRC was unanimously chosen, subject to contract terms.

The next item concerned the deployment of the “Comet Cars” which will soon be available for service. Board member Perea in particular had previously expressed reservations about these cars, and demanding that they should be replaced at the first opportunity with the new bi-level cars now being built at Rochelle IL. I spoke in public comment reminding the board of the delay between the passage of 1B in 2006 and the start of manufacture of the next generation of cars. The Comet car program was the only alternative to continued overcrowding. Furthermore I pointed out that once the bi-level program was under way there would likely be ongoing demand not only from the California corridors but from other states and even from Amtrak for the long distance trains. Since $28 million of taxpayers money had already been invested in the Comets it was incumbent on all concerned to make them work. I then went on to briefly describe our idea for deploying mixed consists of Comets and Bombardier bi-levels (see my story at which would provide low level boarding on alternate cars, plus ADA and bicycle accommodation.

Other agenda items included review of a joint policy statement with the High Speed Rail Authority and Caltrans. Also discussed was the April Sacramento Rail Forum and a meeting with the other state rail board chairs to discuss common principles and policies.

Editorial: This Board has a steep learning curve ahead of it, plus a difficult task of managing expectations. As long as Amtrak continues to maintain the rolling stock to current standards, the train crews give the excellent service that I witnessed and enjoyed, and if BNSF dispatches the railroad and runs the trains on time then there is little that “local control” can do to make a major improvement. We wish Stacy Mortensen and Dan Leavitt well as managers of SJRCC in their expanded role and we look forward to working with them to expand service.