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Commentary, Electrification, High Speed Rail, San Joaquin

RailPAC submits comment to California Senate Transportation Committee & Senate Budget Sub-Committee #5, Joint Informational Hearing on High Speed Rail

March 15, 2021

California State Senate Sub-Committee #5 -Transportation
State Capitol, Room 5019
Sacramento, CA 95814

Chairs Gonzalez, Durazo and Sub-Committee Members:

After review of the California High Speed Rail Authority Revised Draft 2020 California Business Plan,the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada (RailPAC) recommends that the Revised 2020 Business Plan be adopted. RailPAC also supports the appropriation of the remaining Proposition1A funds to complete the core 119-mile Central Valley segment. RailPAC feels it is critical to continue to focus on completing the rail line from Merced to Bakersfield and initiating the Interim Central Valley Operating Plan as the best strategy forward.

In order sustain and accelerate project momentum and avoid cash flow issues, it is critical that the remaining Proposition 1A funds be appropriated to finish the core 119-mile segment between Madera and Poplar Ave. This would eliminate a major current risk (COVID driven short-fall in Cap and Trade funds) while positioning California’s high speed rail project as the strongest candidate for additional Federal funds.

Ironically some of the project options proposed by others substantially increases project risk resulting in a high probability of an increase in costs due to delays. Suggestions that the Proposition 1A appropriation be postponed rests on the assumption that the cash flow shortfall can be mitigated. This is speculative and the recommendation increases risk. In addition, not providing a steady funding source prevents the agency from taking advantage of any opportunities to accelerate construction. This suggestion also assumes that the Biden Administration will favorably view projects that are not taking actions to best position themselves to leverage Federal investment.

Among the other postponements suggested,none creates a greater risk than the delay of the Track and Systems contract. First, the core 119-mile segment requires a track to meet ARRA requirements, second all of the core 119-mile designs for civil works will be completed by the time the Track and Systems contract is finalized, third the Track and Systems project will require many months of design and pre-construction activities all of which occur off-site without impacting civil construction. The fourth issue is extremely critical and the activity most impacted by any delay. Much of the Track and Systems components (such as rail, ties, signal components, etc.) are long-lead time items in an environment of a major federal infrastructure initiative where the capacity of the railroad supply industry is geared to lower, normal levels of railroad investment. Delay risks putting California’s HSR project behind the Northeast Corridor, Brightline, Texas Central and Chicago Hub passenger rail capacity projectsin acquiring track and signal components.

One of the key initiatives of the CHSRA Revised Draft 2020 Business Plan is to initially construct the Merced to Bakersfield operating segment as a single track line (with passing sidings). This is an example of focusing in on what is critical to start-up. A single-track rail line is adequate for systems and rail equipment testing. Given the Interim Operating Plan’s proposed service level (hourly service from Bakersfield and Merced 18 hours per day); a single track with passing sidings is sufficient. It is not until hourly service is added between Bakersfield and the Bay Area that a double-track railway will be required. During testing and subsequent interim operations additional segments of double track can be safely constructed. Amtrak totally reconstructs its Northeast Corridor tracks even as operations safely continue on adjacent tracks.

The CHSRA Revised Draft 2020 Business Plan presents a viable plan that substantially improves the California passenger rail network. The Interim Operating Plan brings true high-speed rail service to California sooner than any alternative option. It demonstrates the potential of high-speed rail while facilitating an improved and expanded ACE/San Joaquin/HSR network reaching all of California and delivering a broad integrated California transportation network with the high-speed rail service as its core link. This network also creates the most financially viable option for increasing service and reducing the required operating subsidy compared to the current standalone ACE and San Joaquin services.

The Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada is a bi-state organization with membership throughout California and Nevada. RailPAC is a strong advocate for an expanded comprehensive public transportation network serving the entire state. RailPAC is an all-volunteer non-profit passenger rail advocacy group, founded in 1978. Thank you for this opportunity to provide input on this vital issue.

Yours truly,

Steve Roberts
President Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada

Amtrak Long Distance, Commentary, Editorials

Please contact your U.S. Representative in support of COVID Relief Bill and Amtrak long-distance trains

Within the next week it appears that the House will have the final vote on its COVID Relief Bill.  As released, the bill has funding and a mandate for daily service of Amtrak’s long-distance trains. RailPAC encourages all those who value passenger rail to contact their representative and encourage them to vote for the bill.  All House members on their web page allow constituents to send a short email.  This will be the fastest, easiest way to express your support for daily service.  Your email is a vote for daily service.  Legislators’ staff members count up these email messages.  So communicate your support for daily long-distance service within the next day or so.

Some suggested language:

“Transportation, both local and intercity, is a key factor in the reopening of the American economy.  I urge you to vote for the COVID Relief Bill.  Especially critical, as the travel industry tries to rebuild, is funding and the mandate for Amtrak’s long-distance trains to return to daily service.  Also important is funding for transit systems which will be needed by workers as jobs and traffic congestion return.”  Thank you.

Steve Roberts, President RailPAC

Amtrak Long Distance, Arizona, Central Coast, Coachella/Imperial Valleys, Commentary, Editorials, Electrification, High Speed Rail, LOSSAN, Metrolink/SCCRA, Rail Technology, San Diego County, San Joaquin, Technical and Rolling Stock

Steel Wheels, 1st Quarter 2021 issue available online

Download the pdf of Steel Wheels, 1st Quarter 2021 by clicking here.

In this issue:

  • San Diego County rail improvements
  • Public transportation in a post-pandemic world
  • Prospects for future LA-Phoenix passenger rail
  • Letter to California High Speed Rail Authority
  • Arizona rail news
  • Russ Jackson commentary on state of U.S. passenger rail in 2021
  • Andrew Seldon commentary on future of Amtrak
  • Battery vs. hydrogen trains
  • European night trains- lessons for USA?
  • and more!

RailPAC remembers Tom LaBonge (1953 – 2021)

Passenger rail lost a good friend yesterday with the untimely death of former Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge.  Tom gave the welcoming address at two of our Steel Wheels conferences in Los Angeles, and with his encyclopedic knowledge of the geography and history of the city could always be relied on to give proceedings a lively start.  Few people knew more about the city of Los Angeles and no one loved it more.

Tom was passionate about passenger rail and often helped us with support letters and contacts at City Hall.  The picture above was taken at the 2014 Steel Wheels Conference at the Metro Board Room, Union Station.  Tom is presenting me with a certificate of appreciation for RailPAC’s work promoting passenger rail for the city.

In return we gave Tom one of our RailPAC plaques which featured a picture of Union Station taken by our member Charles Freericks.  Knowing that politicians are presented with dozens of these I was delighted to see it still prominently displayed in his office a few years later.

-Paul Dyson, RailPAC President Emeritus


Steel Wheels, 4th Quarter 2020 available online

Download the pdf of Steel Wheels, 4th quarter 2020 by clicking here.

In this issue:

  • Russ Jackson commentary on Amtrak’s current predicament
  • Arizona news
  • Amtrak preliminary FY’20 results released
  • High Speed Rail update- Brighline West and Florida
  • Riverside County developments, including Coachella Valley Rail
  • Diverse markets of long-distance trains
  • and more!
Amtrak Long Distance, Bay Area, CalSTA TIRCP, Caltrain, Central Coast, Coachella/Imperial Valleys, Commentary, Editorials, Electrification, High Speed Rail, LOSSAN, Metrolink/SCCRA, Rail Technology, San Diego County, San Francisco, San Joaquin

RailPAC submits public comment letter on California Transportation Plan 2050

The California Transportation Plan (CTP) 2050 is the “state’s long-range transportation plan that establishes an aspirational vision that articulates strategic goals, policies, and recommendations to improve multimodal mobility and accessibility while reducing greenhouse gas emissions”:

Read RailPAC’s letter of public comment on the CTP 2050 public review draft by clicking here.

Bay Area, Caltrain, Commentary, San Francisco, San Mateo County, Santa Clara County

Caltrain Measure RR

To our readers residing and registered to vote anywhere within San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties,

Caltrain needs your support.

On the November 2020 ballot, there will be a measure to provide dedicated funding for Caltrain on the ballot known as Measure RR. Unlike BART, Caltrain has never had a dedicated funding source, which means it must go hat in hand to the three counties for funding every year.

The Caltrain service is an essential component of the Bay Area’s regional rapid transit network. Since the line was taken over from the State, Caltrain has never had dedicated funding. The bulk of its funding has come from fares, with the remaining public funding from the three-county partner transit agencies making voluntary contributions. The lack of dedicated funding has resulted in periodic financial crises, which is no way to run an essential part of the region’s transportation network. 

Dedicated stable funding should enable Caltrain to continue operating through the current COVID-19 pandemic. More importantly, dedicated funding would enable the high level of service envisioned in the Caltrain business plan service vision — better all-day, all-week service for commuting and leisurely trips as well as better connections with other local and regional services.

Caltrain’s financial position is dire. A shutdown is a real possibility. Before COVID-19 disrupted the economy, Caltrain carried four freeway lanes worth of cars. Those cars would be dumped back onto the highways and streets once the pandemic eases. Longer term, the improvements outlined in the current business plan to be funded by Measure RR would remove an additional two lanes of car traffic on highways.

While many consider a sales tax inequitable, the Caltrain board has taken action to approve unprecedented policies supporting equity and connectivity. These policies would be implemented and funded by the tax, with goals to improve the racial and income diversity of Caltrain’s ridership by providing affordable.

In order to achieve these changes, your vote along with two-thirds of voters in the three counties combined for Measure RR is critical. Vote “yes” on Measure RR this November.

-Steve Roberts, RailPAC President


Amtrak’s Current Situation

With the failure on September 10th in the Senate to pass a “skinny” stimulus package, the outlook for any stimulus legislation is bleak.  The stimulus legislation, as passed by the House, was the vehicle that was to be used to deliver a supplemental appropriation to keep daily service, state funded corridor routes, commuter rail and transit operating as the new fiscal year began.  It also contained a mandate and funding for daily long-distance service.

So what is next?  A must pass is a continuing resolution to keep the Federal government in operation starting October 1st.  No one in Congress wants a shutdown just before an election, risk for both parties is too high.  The thrust right now is for a “clean” continuing resolution that continues the FY20 appropriation levels with no changes.  That said there are at least two must pass add-ons, a continuation of Federal flood insurance (it is hurricane season) and a reauthorization of the highway bill so that the Federal gas tax can continue to be collected.  Given the broad based threat to transportation – airlines, Amtrak, commuter rail and transit – could there also be a broader transportation add-on?  That is an unknown and, except among transportation advocates, no discussion as of yet.  

Some things we do know is that the shutdowns and layoffs will be very visible and cutting transportation is not the best strategy to stabilize the economy.  So this will not come quietly.Without additional funding there will be substantial layoffs in the airline industry along with a reduction in service to smaller communities.   With lower revenues and without supplemental funding Amtrak will, with a cash burn of $250 million a month, be headed toward bankruptcy.  Capital and non-safety maintenance spending will be slashed with perhaps the closure of the shops at Bear, DE and Beech Grove.  Nothing will be fixed, the fleet will be “consumed” to maintain service.   Once a week service (or once a month) on long-distance routes may be standard.  Keeping some service is preferred since labor protection payments apply if a service is totally discontinued but don’t if some service is retained.  Without funding to back-fill the states for payments to Amtrak for state funded trains, expect the termination of many state funded routes.  Without funding for commuter rail and transit, expect a substantial reduction in service by these providers. 

Finally, on August 24th Amtrak submitted a revised request for FY21 Supplemental spending and outlined spending opportunities if there is a stimulus package that goes beyond just stabilizing FY21 operations (click here to download pdf).  Amtrak’s revised FY21 Supplemental request keeps all long-distance trains daily and eliminates layoffs.  Please note the chart on page two is in two parts.  The top part totaling $4.88 billion is the supplemental request to stabilize FY21 operations.  The second lower part is an overview of projects Amtrak could fund as part of an economic recovery proposal.  Note that it includes funding for the replacement of the Superliners. 

What to do now?  Email your Senators and Representatives and ask for funding to stabilize Amtrak FY21 operations and maintain daily long-distance service.

The next two weeks are critical in getting funding for intercity, commuter and transit either in a Continuing Resolution or attached to the FASTACT extension (needed to extend the gas tax).  It is critical that RailPAC’s members and followers contact their Senators and Representatives directly or via:

Steve Roberts, President Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada.

Amtrak Long Distance, Commentary

STATEMENT Of UNITED RAIL PASSENGER ALLIANCE To the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Hearing on Amtrak Response to Covid-19 September 9, 2020

United Rail Passenger Alliance (URPA) respectfully submits this Statement to the Subcommittee. URPA is an independent national research and education organization on rail passenger transportation issues.

Amtrak’s response to the Covid-19 epidemic has been schizophrenic. At the same time it undertook a campaign to clean its stations and trains to reduce the risk of virus propagation, and a masking requirement for employees and customers, it has also prejudiced the mobility needs of the American public by announcing the withdrawal of the majority of its train services in the only part of its business where Americans have returned to using trains in large numbers. It makes no sense to reduce operations in its largest, most productive and most commercially-successful business segment, the national system of inter-regional trains, just as demand for these services has rebounded more than anywhere else in the system.

URPA applauds Amtrak’s cleaning and masking (and social distancing) initiatives. But URPA condemns Amtrak’s abandonment of the demonstrated transport needs of the American public at a time of crisis brought about by the Covid-19 epidemic.

Amtrak has deceived the Subcommittee in respect to the performance and prospects of its three operating divisions, the Inter-regional trains, the state-sponsored intra-regional corridors, and the federally-subsidized Northeast Corridor (NEC).

Contrary to Amtrak’s misrepresentations, the inter-regional group of trains is Amtrak’s largest, most productive and most commercially-successful segment. These are the trains to which Americans have turned during the Covid-19 epidemic.

The inter-regional group of trains (sometimes referred to as “long-distance” trains) is Amtrak’s largest business—it carries the most intercity passengers of any segment of Amtrak’s operation. NEC trains’ passengers consist predominantly of customers who are classified by the Department of Transportation as commuters, not intercity passengers; the intercity component of Amtrak’s NEC traffic is no more numerous than the intercity component of the inter-regional trains, and in some years, less. (In many years, the state-sponsored corridor trains also carry more intercity passengers than do Amtrak’s NEC trains, leaving the NEC—in terms of true intercity passengers carried—as Amtrak’s smallest division.)

The inter-regional trains are also Amtrak’s most productive. They have the highest load factors in the entire system (50-60+%, in operations where an annual load factor of 65% is a sold-out condition due to the large number of stations served and the regular turnover of passengers en route; on the western inter-regional trains, it is customary for each seat and berth to turn over on average 2 ½ times per trip). The load factor in the NEC by contrast rarely exceeds 50%, and south of Philadelphia and east of New Haven Amtrak’s NEC trains arithmetically cannot have load factors that exceed 28%–more than two-thirds of their proffered inventory goes unsold, a most unproductive use of scarce federal subsidy capital. In the traffic vacuum in the NEC during the Covid-19 epidemic, these NEC load factors are even lower.

The inter-regional trains also always produce 150-200% more transportation output annually than do the NEC or state-sponsored corridor trains. Output is measured in annual revenue passenger miles (not “ridership,” which merely measure transactions). This is the most important index of size and productivity of a passenger transportation network, and nothing else that Amtrak does comes even close to the inter-regional trains in producing annual passenger miles. This is doubly so in the Covid-19 epidemic. (The state-sponsored corridors produce about the same output each year as does the NEC.)

The interregional trains are also the most commercially successful trains that Amtrak operates, measured by their market share for intercity passenger transport. In their respective corridors, the inter-regional trains ordinarily generate market shares of 5 to 6%. In the NEC, Amtrak’s market share (not the air-rail modal split that Amtrak sometimes publishes) for intercity passenger transport in the region rarely reaches as high as 1 1/2 %, and that has shrunk for decades. Today, intercity buses carry more passengers in the NEC than do Amtrak’s trains.

In the current Covid-19 epidemic, Amtrak’s transaction volume (“ridership”) and output plummeted. But they did not do so uniformly across the system. Amtrak has tried to deceive the public and the federal government by emphasizing its system totals rather than breaking out the separate performance in the epidemic of its three operating divisions. The inter-regional trains fell far less than did the shorter corridor trains, and the NEC fell the furthest. At the same time that Acela demand dropped to zero, the inter-regional trains initially retained 15% of their demand, and then quickly rebounded, in some cases to near-normal levels.

As the system struggles to recover—as Americans regain their confidence to make intercity trips—the inter-regional trains have recovered far faster than the corridors, and especially the business travel-dependent NEC, which remains severely depressed. URPA research suggests that the western inter-regional trains, by sharp contrast, recovered to normal, pre-epidemic, traffic levels during the late Spring and Summer peak period.

This finding is corroborated by the fact that in the four months ending July 31, 2020, the inter-regional trains brought Amtrak more revenue, and URPA believes more revenue passenger miles, than all of the other trains (including in the NEC) combined.

Based on these objective and relevant criteria, therefore, the inter-regional trains are, and remain during the epidemic, Amtrak’s largest, strongest, most successful, and most relevant group of trains. The inter-regional trains, in fact, appear to be the trains that serve the demonstrated demand of a clear majority of American travelers for rail transport during the Covid-19 epidemic, just as in more normal times..

Against this background, Amtrak’s decision to charge ahead with procurement, testing and deployment of costly new high-speed Avelia trains in the NEC—a market for which demand has dropped to and remained near zero—while eliminating even once-a-day services in its largest, most productive, and highest-demand segment, the inter-regional routes (except Auto Train), is bizarre, biased, political and irrational. Amtrak could not have more disserved the American public during the Covid-19 epidemic than by reducing the frequencies of its inter-regional trains.

Amtrak’s coy hints that the interregional trains might be retained if only congress appropriates massive new subsidies is exactly the same ploy, in almost exactly the same terminology, that Amtrak used in 2002 after the roll-out of the Acela program in the NEC exhausted the company’s cash and rendered it insolvent. Congress should not allow itself to be taken in again. Instead, congress should insist that Amtrak use its existing resources first to sustain the trains that customers are actually using:  the heavily-used national network of inter-regional trains.

Respectfully Submitted,

United Rail Passenger Alliance

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Andrew C. Selden, President


Amtrak Long Distance, Arizona, Caltrain, Commentary, Editorials, High Speed Rail, Metrolink/SCCRA, Orange County, San Diego County, Steel Wheels Conference, The Steel Wheels Column

Steel Wheels, 3rd quarter 2020 available online

Download the pdf of Steel Wheels magazine, 3rd quarter 2020 by clicking here.

In this issue:

  • RailPAC and Steel Wheels Coalition to Amtrak: “Daily is Minimum Acceptable Standard for Long Distance Trains”, and Amtrak’s reply, with Russ Jackson’s reply to Amtrak, Paul Dyson response.
  • High Speed Rail update
  • Tri Weekly and the Heartland Flyer
  • Orange County developments
  • Arizona news
  • and more!