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President’s Commentary – Key RailPAC priorities for 2020

By Steve Roberts – RailPAC President

[Originally published in Steel Wheels, 1st Quarter 2020]

Greetings!

In early January, members of the RailPAC Board developed options and came to a consensus on RailPAC’s policy priorities for 2020.  The two major ground rules were that the priorities had to be focused and actionable in 2020.  A list of about a dozen initiatives was consolidated and prioritized into four key priorities with two additional initiatives RailPAC will be following, but don’t appear to require RailPAC to take the lead.  RailPAC can offer support if the opportunity arises.

The four key 2020 RailPAC priorities are:

Surfliner Service Crisis and Vision – The recent collapse of the cliff at Del Mar clearly shows the threat of rising sea levels and more intense storms to Surfliner/Coaster service.  There is no future for the Surfliner/Coaster route at its current location.  Given the magnitude of relocation project, it needs to start now.  And the collapse of the cliff at Del Mar is not the only threat. The route is also threatened by the same forces at San Clemente.  In addition, the Surfliner route has not developed an expansive vision that would deal with both the climate change issue along with dramatically re-imaging the rail line as an faster, electrified, high-frequency, high capacity service that would incent transit oriented development, generate maximum ridership and contribute to enhancing travel capacity within the Southern California megaregion. Southern California RailPAC’s members are focused on calling attention to the immediate threat to the route as well as championing the development of a robust long-term vision of an interconnected high-performance auto competitive passenger rail system. 

California High Speed Rail Funding Strategy – Even though this initiative is one to watch rather than take the lead, Board members clearly felt it had high importance because of the magnitude of the HSR program. This initiative is both complex and challenging.  It is challenging because, unlike most discussions which often take place at the staff level (which RailPAC can influence with information), the high-speed rail funding discussion is taking place at the highest levels of the Newsom administration and legislature.  Add in the attempted “claw back” of funds from the administration in Washington and as they say “this is way above my pay grade”.  It is complex because all of the discussions and the power plays are happening legislator to legislator with only flashes of light as legislators on both sides make their cases or work behind the scenes for a compromise.  RailPAC will keep members updated and stand ready to weigh in on this issue at the appropriate time.

Daily Sunset Campaign – One thing I think all RailPAC members can agree on is tri-weekly service for a long-distance train route generates sub-par ridership and ticket revenue results.  So not surprisingly, this initiative was identified as a key priority for RailPAC in 2020.  Building on the grassroots outreach over the past few years by advocates along the I-10 corridor, 2020 will see a new phase of the daily Sunset Limited campaign.  Details are outlined in an article on page XX of this issue of Steel Wheels.                

SCORE/Metrolink Vision – SCORE, Southern California Optimized Rail Expansion program, is a $10 billion capital program that will upgrade the Metrolink system, adding additional tracks, grade separations, signal work and investments to facilitate zero-emissions operations.  Currently Metrolink is working on rail operations modeling; development of design alternatives, identifying and prioritizing proposed capacity improvements, undertaking preliminary engineering and the environmental assessment for the proposed projects.  SCORE service goals would deliver faster, more reliable service with greater frequencies system wide and high frequencies within the core network.  This initiative will be being championed by RailPAC’s Southern California members who are especially focused on developing a robust long-term vision of an interconnected high-performance auto competitive transit system.  Near-term goals for these members is advocating for the timely completion of the third main track Hobart to Fullerton including the Fullerton interlocking project, double tracking of the Antelope Valley and Ventura lines and a new station at Pacoima.

Initiatives being monitored:

Several initiatives proposed as 2020 priorities were not rated as highly as the others listed above but they still are important.  These are:

Dumbarton Transportation Corridor (Dumbarton Bridge) – The Dumbarton Transportation Corridor is a critical connection linking San Joaquin Valley and East Bay housing to job centers in southern San Mateo County and northern Santa Clara County.  The current highway bridge is at or near capacity with job growth continuing.  Building a replacement rail line and bridge utilizing the current rail right-of-way would add substantial cross bay capacity to this corridor while facilitating connections and/or direct service from several existing high-capacity transit operators – Bay Rapid Transit District (BART), Caltrain, Capitol Corridor and Altamont Commuter Rail (ACE).  From the transit perspective the lack of service on this corridor represents a critical gap in network connectivity.  Because of these connectivity benefits, RailPAC considers this an important priority.  Currently the project is undergoing the Environmental Review Process so advocacy opportunities are limited until the report draft is completed.  RailPAC’s Northern California members will be monitoring this project.

Mental Health/Homelessness/Security – For riders on intercity and commuter rail their “final mile” is most likely on transit and/or walking.  In addition to being concerned about this as a social justice issue, RailPAC members are also concerned about how mental health and homelessness impacts the perception of security both on-board and around transit stations.  This perception results in lower ridership and thus reduces the community benefits from the large investments in transit systems.  There appear to be several initiatives underway in Sacramento in an attempt to address these issues.  While RailPAC has no expertise to offer solutions to mental health and homelessness, RailPAC can comment on the impacts of failing to address these issues.  RailPAC will stand ready to support any legislative action around these issues.

Freight Rail Carrier Cost Shifting – This priority focuses on actual and proposed changes in rail freight operations, long-mega trains and single person operator freight trains that potentially have significant negative public impacts.  The issue is not so much the changes to operations, but the implementation of these changes without the investments by the freight railroads to mitigate the potential public impacts of these changes; i.e. blocked crossings and delays to passenger trains.  In effect the freight railroads are shifting the costs of these operational changes, which should be internal and borne by the carriers, to the general public.  While RailPAC has no expertise in the specifics of rail freight operations and investments to mitigate the negative impact of these operational changes, RailPAC can attest to the public costs of these changes.  RailPAC will stand ready to support any legislative action around these issues.

 

CA Rail Statistics, Commentary, High Speed Rail, Issues, Rail Technology, Reports

RailPAC submits comment letter on Connect SoCal – The 2020-2045 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy

The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) regional transportation plan is nearing completion. As described by SCAG’s Connect SoCal website:

“Connect SoCal – The 2020-2045 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy is a long-range visioning plan that balances future mobility and housing needs with economic, environmental and public health goals. Connect SoCal embodies a collective vision for the region’s future and is developed with input from local governments, county transportation commissions (CTCs), tribal governments, non-profit organizations, businesses and local stakeholders within the counties of Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura.

What is at the heart of Connect SoCal are over 4,000 transportation projects—ranging from highway improvements, railroad grade separations, bicycle lanes, new transit hubs and replacement bridges. These future investments were included in county plans developed by the six CTCs and seek to reduce traffic bottlenecks, improve the efficiency of the region’s network and expand mobility choices for everyone.

Connect SoCal is an important planning document for the region, allowing project sponsors to qualify for federal funding. The plan takes into account operations and maintenance costs, to ensure reliability, longevity and cost effectiveness.”

As part of SCAG’s public comment process on the Draft Connect SoCal plan in January, RailPAC submitted the following letter (click here for pdf version) in response to the draft version of the plan’s Passenger Rail report.

January 18, 2020

Draft Connect SoCal Plan Comments
Attn: Connect SoCal Team
Southern California Association of Governments
900 Wilshire Blvd., Ste. 1700
Los Angeles, CA 90017
Re: Connect SoCal 2020 RTP/SCS, Passenger Rail Technical Report

Dear Connect SoCal Team:

The Rail Passengers Association of California & Nevada (RailPAC) welcomes the opportunity to provide input to the Connect SoCal 2020 Regional Transportation Plan/Sustainable Communities Strategy. The Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) is in a unique position to encourage the state, county and local governments to work together to improve passenger rail service in Southern California.

RailPAC offers the below comments on the Connect SoCal Passenger Rail report.

The Passenger Rail report’s Vision and Purpose (p. 2) sets a very positive tone for passenger rail in the SCAG region over the next few decades, with goals to grow ridership and provide more frequent, and new, rail services.

RailPAC has always focused on intercity passenger service and regional rail. While it is important to move large numbers of people short distances by transit, it is equally beneficial to the community to move smaller numbers of passengers over relatively longer distances. An intercity train journey of 70 miles or more is the equivalent to 13 transit journeys in terms of vehicle miles avoided. Investment in Intercity and Regional Rail in the SCAG region has been totally inadequate for the past three decades. We still are trying to operate a modern service with many miles of single-track railroad. The approach to Los Angeles Union Station, the hub of the network, is circuitous and serpentine, unnecessarily adding 5 to 10 minutes to every journey. A bypass track is needed to avoid the near sea level alignment through San Clemente, a serious capacity constraint on the key route between California’s two largest cities.

Detailed comments:

Metrolink SCORE (pgs. 34-41)-

The Metrolink SCORE program is a welcome and long overdue step forward. It can transform Metrolink from a commuter-oriented system (focused on rush hour service to Downtown LA and Irvine) to a truly regional rail system with frequent service in all directions, 7 days a week, from early in the morning to late at night.

These SCORE projects need to expedited, and funding needs to be clearly identified:
• Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo Siding (OCTA)
• Raymer to Bernson Double Track (LA Metro)
• Brighton to Roxford Double Track (LA Metro)
• Doran Street Grade Separation (LA Metro)
• Lone Hill to White Double Track (LA Metro)
• Placentia Metrolink Station (OCTA)

LOSSAN Corridor Rail Service (pg. 28), San Diego to Orange County market:

SCORE needs to be integrated with LOSSAN and Surfliner. Due to the huge amount of traffic exchanged between SCAG and SANDAG every day, there should be a pooled Coaster/Metrolink additional service San Diego to Fullerton (stopping at Fullerton avoids the frequency conflict on the BNSF with the 91 line slots). The pool trains would connect to the Metrolink 91 and Orange County line trains at Fullerton, on continue to LA Union Station. SCAG and the LOSSAN agency should actively encourage this pooling of Metrolink and Coaster rolling stock and services, and start a working group on it with NCTD or SANDAG. Such a working group would figure out technical issues such as equipment compatibility between Coaster and Metrolink, voltage of hotel power, position of wheelchair ramps, position of locomotive on the train, etc.

New passenger rail services (pgs. 27-28)-

• Los Angeles to Coachella Valley-
This service is long overdue. There is an urgent need to start discussions with UP on the infrastructure upgrades needed. For the distance involved and the kind of traffic an intercity service similar to Surfliner is appropriate, rather than Metrolink regional rail.

• Victorville to Las Vegas/High Desert Corridor-
SCAG should work with Los Angeles County, San Bernardino County, and Virgin Trains USA to connect the Victorville-Las Vegas train to the Palmdale station via the proposed High Desert Corridor.

• Coast Daylight/ Coast Rail Coordinating Council (CRCC)
RailPAC supports restoration of the Coast Daylight if a competitive transit time can be
achieved.

• Southwest High-Speed Rail Network (pgs. 28-30)
The 2014 study recommended a CA-AZ-NV volunteer passenger rail policy and planning group, and a ‘blue ribbon commission’ to study a Phoenix-Southern California Corridor. RailPAC would like to participate in this, if such a commission is created to start implementing an LA-Phoenix service (and not just another study).

Amtrak-

Pg. 8-
Exhibit 1 Amtrak services – Why not show Amtrak stations on the map?

Pg. 9-
Needs updating after passage of SB742 re Thruway buses.
The report does not explain the extensive State role in LOSSAN and refers to the service as “Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner”.

Pg. 22-

Pacific Surfliner On-Time-Performance (OTP):

The Surfliner OTP statistics need tighter metrics than 10 minutes or 15 minutes off of schedule.

The Metrolink OTP standard (pgs. 22-23) is 6 minutes off schedule.

Not surprisingly, the report makes no mention of the pitifully small market share of both intercity or commuter rail, nor does it mention the lack of connectivity between Metrolink routes at LA Union Station. 3 million a year is about 4100 round trips a day, 8200 single rides, in a population catchment of at least 16 million. That’s not even a rounding error 0.06%). 46 mph and 69% OTP factor in.

Metrolink’s story on pgs. 22 and 23 is similar, a tiny percentage of journeys in the region. Also, the definition of commuter rail (pg. 11) is completely out of date with modern travel patterns and needs to be updated to a definition of “regional rail”.
Hollywood Burbank North Station (pg.24) – the airport no longer provides a shuttle to meet every train, on demand only. The station will not be used by HSR and will most likely be demolished hen the second track is added.

California High Speed Rail (pgs. 12-15)-

SCAG should press for completion of the Southern California tunnels as soon as possible. First priority is Antelope Valley to San Fernando Valley which will initiate high speed regional service.

Los Angeles to San Diego – this Phase Two section needs to be accelerated, especially in light of the ongoing erosion of the Del Mar bluffs. In addition, the existing LOSSAN route needs a bypass track to take the line away from the near sea level section at San Clemente. This single track is both vulnerable to sea level rise and is a serious capacity bottle neck.

Locomotives-

The paragraph ‘Tier 4 Locomotives and Electrification’ (pg. 12) implies that the 40 diesel F125 locomotives purchased recently will be the only locomotives that Metrolink will operate for the next 30 years. However the quantity of 40 locomotives is not nearly enough for the level of service increases that Metrolink is proposing over the next 10 years. Metrolink is expecting rapid growth in its train frequency, under its SCORE funding plan the Orange county line currently at less than 1 train per hour (13 trains per day), will have minimum frequencies of 2 trains per hour in 2025 and 4 trains per hour by the 2028 Olympics, for example. The existing fleet of several dozen diesel locomotives is not enough to support this growth. Even if Metrolink had the amount of diesel locomotives needed, it still doesn’t justify delaying electrification. Continuing to run a 100% diesel fleet for the next two decades will not be environmentally or socially acceptable. At the very least a hybrid solution of a battery locomotive supplementing a diesel will help meet air quality and carbon goals.

There need to be more federal, state and locally-funded programs that could support zero-emission locomotive research and development (R&D) projects and technology demonstration projects. There are plenty of incentives and R&D programs, at both the state and federal levels, supporting electric cars and trucks. By contrast, public R&D funding opportunities for electric rail technologies are few and far between. Southern California should be a leader in zero-emissions, electric rail technology, and SCAG could be a major advocate for this technology.

Freight Rail Operations (pgs. 16-17)-

It is commendable that SCAG recognizes that freight rail infrastructure investments have great public benefit. RailPAC fully supports expansion of freight rail capacity and new grade separations on shared corridors, as this will reduce potential for congestion conflicts and delays to passenger trains. More capacity also allows more passenger trains to run.

One issue that needs attention is the safety and reliability impacts of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) practices of several of the Class I railroads, notably Union Pacific (UP) in Southern California. UP in particular is adopting so-called PSR to cut costs, running longer and heavier trains, two miles or more in length, which are slower to accelerate. There are several reasons that the longer trains are not in the public interest. First of all, the waiting times for vehicles and pedestrians at the various UP railroad crossings on roads and streets in the SCAG region are getting longer. This inconveniences the public (hundreds of people at a time), creates more pollution from idling vehicles, and harms the flow of local commerce. It also makes it more difficult to share the tracks with passenger trains, which end up running late because of long slow trains taking up so much space on the rails. PSR’s focus on short term profit is a danger to the future of rail transportation, and is leading to corners being cut on safety. Over 100 long freight trains pass through the SCAG region each day.
The use of the term “freight railroads” is inappropriate and misleading. “Common Carrier Class I Railroads” should be used.

Thank you for your consideration.
Sincerely,

Paul Dyson
Vice President, Southern California
Rail Passengers Association of California & Nevada (RailPAC)

Amtrak National Network Campaign 2018, Editorials, Issues, Steel Wheels Conference

Our Most Important RailPAC Steel Wheels Conference Ever

2018 has become a critical year for passenger rail in California.  The threat to the interstate network trains, California Zephyr, Sunset Limited, Southwest Chief and Coast Starlight, puts them on the brink of fading into history barring radical action by Amtrak management and the Federal government.  Two decades of under-investment would have been enough to doom these overnight sleeper trains without the deliberate destruction by Amtrak’s new management team.  Amtrak CEO Anderson stated in April at the Los Angeles summit that “they are not viable” and he means to replace them.  Well, that’s a plain enough statement for me.  Perhaps from his standpoint its a reasonable position to take.  Anderson was not at the helm during the decades of neglect and channeling of of the majority of available funds to the NEC.  Nor is he responsible for the repeated calls from past Presidents and the Congress for the elimination of Amtrak, based on dubious data from Amtrak themselves.  But as CEO he is responsible for ensuring that he has good data on which to base his decisions.  He should understand the value of a connected 500 station network, and he should know the value of the cash flow from these trains.  When you stop selling a product, the first thing that you lose is the revenue.  How much of the allocated costs end at the same time?

Let’s not fool ourselves.  “Saving” the Southwest Chief is not just about maintaining the present operation with some cooperation from the FRA regarding Positive Train Control.  Saving the National Network, especially the “Superliner” trains in the west will require a huge capital investment.  Locomotives and cars do not come cheap.  Indeed they are made more expensive by another Amtrak management failure, the lack of consistent orders for replacement and additional cars which could have formed the basis of an ongoing, low volume production line.  This would have retained the skills and tools needed, rather than trying to start from scratch with the “lowest bidder”.  Nippon Sharyo is now closing their factory in Rochelle, IL, having failed to produce a bi-level car.  We’re in danger of the passenger rail manufacturing business becoming like halloween shops,  the pop up economy.

Siemens is selling passenger locomotives at $7 million a copy, and passenger cars can be had for about $3 million each.  It doesn’t take long to run up a $2 billion tab at that rate, and that’s without refurbishing the best of the existing fleet.  But then, $2 billion pales in comparison with the $150 billion I’ve heard quoted to maintain and modernize the Northwest Corridor.  Let’s not be afraid of large numbers.  And let’s not forget that $2 billion represents a lot of skilled work hours from a number of suppliers around the country.  It also represent the continuation of work opportunities for train crews, station staff and maintenance personnel.  In my view it’s an investment that we can afford, and that is well justified.

Here in California, with a new Governor taking office in January, questions will inevitably raised about the High Speed Rail project.  Even the most ardent supporter has to be disappointed in the lack of progress since 2008.  Rather than rehash all the reasons for the current situation, RailPAC will be looking at ways to exploit the work done so far and make recommendations based on what can realistically be delivered in the next decade.  That will be the debate that we will have in Sacramento, and continuing into the New Year.

Speaking of disappointment, what real progress have we seen with the state corridors?  In 2018 it still takes most of three hours to travel by train between Los Angeles and San Diego, about the same as 1971.  And how about an hour and ten minutes for 50 miles between Oakland and San Jose?  RailPAC’s early campaigns were about using existing routes and making incremental improvements, and that was OK for the first decade or so.  But the low hanging fruit has long since been harvested, and the boards that now govern the state corridors had better wake up to the fact.  Single track railroads along the beach may be picturesque but they don’t move people quickly or efficiently.  Both LOSSAN and CapCor need major capital investments if they are to have real impact on our mobility needs.  Yes, we’re talking billions again.

This is why we have an annual conference, and this is why it’s more important than ever that you attend.  National Network, State Corridors, High Speed Rail are all at a turning point and in need of very large investments if they are to continue and prosper.  This is your chance to meet industry experts and RailPAC leaders and tell us your ideas and where we should focus our efforts.  REGISTER TODAY!

Paul Dyson, RailPAC President

pdyson@xg1.b3e.myftpupload.com

 

 

Amtrak National Network Campaign 2018, Commentary, Issues

Amtrak’s Accounting – George Chilson

Amtrak’s Route Accounting: Fatally Flawed, Misleading & Wrong

The Rail Passengers Association (RPA) strongly believes that the ongoing debate concerning the future shape of Amtrak’s national network has been distorted by its use of fully allocated costs rather than avoidable costs as required by statute. The adverse outcome of using fully allocated costs is the widespread and incorrect perception that Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor is financially self-sufficient and that Amtrak’s need for taxpayer funding results entirely from its operation of passenger trains in the rest of the nation – the National Network, which consists of state supported regional and federally supported long distance routes.

In our companion White Paper, RPA explains why fully allocated costing combined with Amtrak’s catastrophically flawed route accounting system grossly misrepresents – and exaggerates – the public cost of providing passenger trains as a mobility choice for the entire nation. Faulty route accounting has, in turn, led to the popular misconception that the abandonment of long-distance trains will eliminate Amtrak’s need for taxpayer funding. Nothing could be further from the truth. The funding needed for the Northeast Corridor dwarfs that of what’s needed for the rest of the nation. RPA’s white paper explains the history of Amtrak’s route accounting methodology and demonstrates that if Amtrak applied the more economically sound avoidable costing methodology to assess the performance of its various routes, Amtrak’s leadership team would not be working to replace the current national network with disconnected groups of short distance regional trains serving only a small number of major metropolitan areas.

The Rail Passengers Association asks Congress to require Amtrak immediately to halt all route, schedule and frequency reductions as well as recent on-board service modifications; then require Amtrak’s leadership team to explain to, and gain the approval of, the Congress, the states and stakeholders of its vision of the passenger train system and service they envision for the future. Cover, concealment and stealth tactics are appropriate for a military operation but not for a Government Sponsored Enterprise whose purpose is to provide passenger train service to the nation.

For more than 13 years, Congress and other federal agencies have called for more accurate, precise and transparent reporting of Amtrak’s component routes. Numerous arms of government including the Federal Railroad Administration, the USDOT Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the General Accounting Office have all found Amtrak’s route accounting system deficient and not compliant with federal statute requiring disclosure of avoidable costs. The end result has been a false framing of Northeast Corridor services as “profitable” and the rest of the system as “unprofitable.” Neither can exist without federal taxpayer support.

Congress should demand that Amtrak comply with the already in place laws, regulations and Congressional mandates and make public the financial performance of each individual route employing the avoidable cost methodology. In the interim, Congress should require Amtrak to refrain from any further route and on-board service until it reveals its plans for the future system and the economic analysis underlying it to public scrutiny, analysis and agreement. Congress must assert oversight of Amtrak — a Government Sponsored Enterprise – and not allow Amtrak to operate by stealth and deception. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Amtrak National Network Campaign 2018, Issues

RPA Staff Fact Check of Amtrak Statements re Southwest Chief

Fact Checking the Amtrak Proposal to Replace the Southwest Chief with Bus Service in Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico

 

The Southwest Chief would effectively cease to exist if the proposed bus bridge from Dodge City, KS or La Junta, CO to Albuquerque is implemented. While presented as a decision based in concern for passenger safety and cost reductions, the plan would make passengers less safe, dissipate the service’s economic impact across the corridor, and—given the resulting collapse of ridership and revenue—effectively save no tax dollars on operational expenses.

 

The plan to truncate the Southwest Chief with a bus bridge would also shift costs to states that have the most to lose from its truncation. In its presentation on the proposed bus bridge, Amtrak points to plans for service expansions in Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma as evidence of its commitment to the region. However, the cost of these services would be borne by the states under PRIIA Sec. 209. While the continued presence of the Chief would in fact facilitate the development of these services with valuable passenger connections, the development of these urban corridor services shouldn’t come at the the expense of rural communities that currently depend on Amtrak National Network service.

 

The bus bridge will worsen the performance metrics Amtrak is using to justify this truncation without lowering taxpayer costs

  • The Chief’s ridership trends are steady: Amtrak’s earlier statement that the number of passengers using the Chief is “steadily declining” is false. Ridership volume in FY 2017 was down only 1% from its peak in FY 2015; it was up 14% from eight years ago in FY 2009.
  • Amtrak’s presentation highlights the fact that 96% of Amtrak trips are under 750 miles. But for the Chief’s 2,265 miles, conspicuously absent is the fact that trips on the Chief overlap along the entirety of the corridor. Having analyzed the Chief’s passenger load throughout its route, Rail Passengers estimates significant ridership and 70% of the trains’ current revenue is at risk under this proposal. The proposed bus bridge would be of a significant enough duration – 6-12 hours—to decimate high revenue sleeping car ridership. This is made more disappointing because;
  • The Chief’s seat occupancy rate compares well even to the NEC: Amtrak’s earlier claim that the Chief operates “40% empty” fails to fully capture how busy the train is. The reality is that passengers filled 61.5% of the Chief’s available seat miles during FY 2017. This number puts the Chief within the top 20% of all Amtrak’s routes (8th out of 48), higher than even the Acela Express (In assessing “occupancy,” it’s important to recognize that trains do not operate the same as airplanes; trains do not make a single trip between a pair of end points, they make numerous stops along a single corridor. As a result, there is a constant turnover of seats. That’s the strength of a long-distance corridor train like the Chief; by connecting 36 stations, it provides a convenient, single seat ride for passengers traveling short, medium and long distances, serving 528 unique city pairs. This allows a single corridor to generate the volumes and revenues needed to serve people in urban and rural communities. In matter of fact, on the more heavily traveled segments of the Chief’s route, the number of passengers can be 90% or more of the available seats, causing “sold out” conditions for prospective passengers.)
  • By using a Fully Allocated Cost methodology, Amtrak fails to fully capture the incremental cost of running the Chief. Had the railroad also employed Avoidable Cost methodology—as stipulated in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005 (Public Law 108-447)—the cost would have been significantly lower. Rail Passengers’ estimate, developed using concepts developed by the Volpe Transportation Center for Amtrak in 2009, suggests that as much as 80% of the costs that Amtrak allocates to the Chief may represent fixed costs for shared facilities and overhead. These costs would not go away with the Chief’s elimination and would instead be allocated to other routes.

 

Amtrak is asking its stakeholders for more, after reneging on a partnership it has repeatedly and publicly committed to over the course of multiple grant applications

  • States have already invested local funds in partnership with Amtrak: Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico have all invested over $9 million in state funds ($6 million in previous TIGER grant applications with another $3 million in the current round of TIGER grants), based upon an explicit agreement between Amtrak, Amtrak-served communities, and BNSF Railroad. For Amtrak to suddenly withdraw its support for the Chief in the middle of the preservation effort, without any opportunity for stakeholder input, constitutes a serious breach of trust.
  • This sudden decision by Amtrak has stalled applications for additional infrastructure grants, including plans to apply for a share of the $1.5 billion in grant funding offered through the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) Transportation Discretionary Grants program. Given the BUILD program’s emphasis on supporting rural transportation systems, it’s safe to assume the Southwest Chief would have scored well.

 

The bus bridge will be less safe for passengers, less accessible to the public

  • Amtrak’s justification of forcing passengers onto busses for lack of Positive Train Control will make them less safe; Busses have 3.04 accidents per million passenger miles, while intercity passenger trains only have 1.7, over 40% fewer accidents mile for mile.
  • Amtrak has enjoyed considerable gains in ridership from the Accessibility Community, because Busses and trains are not equal options for these passengers. Bus Bathrooms are in no way ADA compliant, while accomodations can be made on Amtrak, a real factor for a 6-12 hour journey. Ingress and Egress issues are a significant area of risk addressed in the ADA, and multiple transfers increase the probability of injuries.
  • Amtrak states that the $50 million, ten year-investment in infrastructure investment “does not include positive train control (PTC) installation and implementation costs.”
    • The focus on safety is admirable and correct. However, the Federal Railroad Administration does not require PTC over lines with fewer than four passenger trains per day, and less than 15 Million tons of freight per year. (49 CFR 236.1019 – Main line track exceptions).
    • Risks are limited because competing traffic is light in some places, non-existent in others. The absence of heavy axle load freight traffic should also make derailment prevention easier, given the reduced risk of rail breaks and freight braking-induced kinks. This segment should have lower overall risk, even without PTC, than most of the network.
    • The Raton Route in question is considered safely exempt by the FRA, save for the Rail Runner district in Albuquerque; the Rio Metro Regional Transit District is currently working with the FRA to ensure that it meets all PTC requirements in a timely fashion.

 

The Rail Passengers Association represents the passengers and communities that depend on this corridor, and so we feel compelled to provide a broader and more complete context to help members of Congress evaluate the proper next steps to preserve this important transportation service for residents in the 36 communities across 8 states that depend on the Southwest Chief. We are available for any further elaboration.

 

RPA has done a good job here, and there are plenty of quotable sections for your letters to our Senators and Congressional Representatives.  Paul Dyson

Commentary, Issues, Rail Technology

California Integrated Travel Conference 2018 at UC Davis May 1and 2

RailPAC Board members Doug Kerr and Steve Roberts attended this event, and their report follows.  Chad Edison and State staff have been working hard to bring together the many State rail and transit agencies to make travel easier for the passenger, a long standing RailPAC goal.

On May 1 and 2 Steve Roberts and I (Doug Kerr) attended the California Integrated Travel Conference held on the UC Davis campus.  Steve and I put together this summary.  The conference was put on by the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA), Caltrans, and the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority.  The two-day conference contained a large amount of content presented by many speakers.  This is just a short overall summary. The major factor driving this initiative is the need to fully utilize existing and planned transportation assets if the state is to avoid transportation gridlock.  Population growth in California will continue.  We cannot continue to offer the same disjointed product, continue doing the same things we’ve done for the last fifty years.

If one thinks of the service integration as a three step process – First, gateway with a single portal to link systems with information and service options, Second, specific  travel/schedule choice, ticketing/payment and ticket verification, and Third, station navigation, train boarding and connections – this conference focused on the second step, specific  travel/schedule choice, ticketing/payment and ticket verification.

The conference was a first step in providing a process to integrate travel across the many modes, jurisdictions, and agencies that exist in the state.  The end goal is to provide methods to plan a trip using multiple modes (such as corridor trains, rail transit, bus transit, and rideshare) and provide a single method for fare payment.  As was noted above the conference focused on journey planning choice, ticketing and payment.  While it appears the overarching goal is to incorporate all three steps, the immediate focus is on step two because the fast evolving technology and protocols can be rolled out in the near future.  These innovations will drive customer service improvements and lower ticketing transaction costs.  Needless to say, full service integration would require progress on the other two steps especially schedule coordination.  The terms used often at the conference were Urban Mobility and Public Mobility.  Transit services are looked at as one part of mobility which also includes rideshare, bikeshare, and any other mode to get from point A to B.

While some integration exists today in the US, for example Bay Area Clipper Cards can be used on BART, Muni, SMART, Golden Gate Ferry and others, there are still many exceptions such as Capitol Corridor trains do not accept Clipper Cards.  There is also some integration on travel planning provided by sites such as Google, but these often don’t include all options and pricing.

In Europe and Asia the technology and protocols are more advanced.  Examples of successful travel integration were presented from London, Toronto, Hong Kong, Sweden, Switzerland, and Germany.  In all cases the integration produced increases in ridership and revenue justifying the time and expense of producing seamless travel.  It also generated improved customer satisfaction by eliminating the frustration of searching different carrier websites and buying multiple tickets in order to complete a single journey.

Some emerging trends:

  • More robust stored value cards (Clipper Card, TAP card, etc.) linked to a customer profile and database that would  allow not only multi-carrier use, but calculate a through journey distance discount, discounts based on usage in lieu of 10-ride and monthly fare plans, and passenger class discounts (students, seniors, seniors, disabled, etc.) without the need to produce multiple types of cards.
  • Solutions for the unbanked customers are under development.  One near-term strategy pivoting around the reduction of the number types of stored value cards (i.e. student, senior, disabled, etc.) is increasing the number of distribution outlets (i.e. retail stores, 7-11’s, etc.).
  • Information standards to allow easy merging of data sources i.e. carrier fares, inventory and schedules, etc. across multiple transportation operators.
  • Calculation of the best fare.  An underlying goal is for the customer to have confidence that the fare/ticketing system will always calculate the best fare.  This does not mean that parallel transit bus, commuter rail and intercity rail have the same fares, it means the fare/ticketing system will always generate the lowest applicable fare for the journey choices of the customer.
  • Contactless use of a credit card for fare payment.  This is the next wave for credit purchases not only for transportation fares but for small retail purchases (i.e. Starbucks).  This eliminates the stored value card for most riders.  Linked with a customer profile and database all the features of an advanced stored value card fare payment are available, just tap your credit card and go.
  • Mobile ticketing.  Travel and schedule choice, ticketing and payment and ticket verification will be done via Smart Phone.  The phone will be virtual wallet electronically scanned as the rider passes the platform entry gateway or barrier.  Smart phones as virtual wallets that may soon be available for lower value purchases in retail stores.

All of these emerging trends increase customer convenience, reduce ticket transaction and settlement costs, get cash out of the system and speed the platform entry process.  However, there is a need for non-carrier funding to jumpstart the process.

Some of the issues/barriers identified that hinder implementation include the following:

  • Ease of use must be top priority.  Often it is not.  Sometimes what is done is what is most convenient for the operator.   Focusing on this goal is important because the personal automobile travel often wins out because it is easier and simpler to use than figuring out public transit.
  • The main impediments to integration are not technology based, but are tied to interagency agreements, governance, agency concern about loss of revenue and agency perceived threats of loss of independence.
  • Public transit serves everyone, including those without smart phones, bank accounts and credit cards.  Methods must still exist to accept cash payments.
  • A multi-agency fare policy is critical.  Fare policies, particularly involving discount amounts and requirements for various passenger classes (students, seniors, disabled, etc.) need to be “harmonized” across agencies.
  • Integrated fares do not exist today.  Transferring from one mode to another requires payment of separate fares and can become costly because the customer does not received the value of the distance based discount also known as a fare taper.
  • The goal is to create one network consisting of multiple operators.

There were also some higher level discussions concerning the current poor utilization of urban streets, the need for right-of-way management and road pricing reflecting that road capacity is a  scarce resource.  Alternatives discussed were dedicated bus and bicycle lanes reducing the space allocated for personal automobiles.

Overall the conference, attended by over 100 people, was optimistic that integrated travel can happen in spite of the large amount of work to get there.  CalSTA seemed willing to lead the way in the effort.

 

Commentary, Issues

Passenger Rail Investment Priorities – RailPAC View

I was recently asked by a member about our policy towards investments, particularly regarding High Speed Rail versus conventional incremental improvements.  Below is my attempt at a brief answer.  I’d be interested to hear from you, and let me know if I have your permission to post your comments.

 

Thank you for raising a vital question.  I’ll try to be brief and to the point.

1.  Passenger rail is under invested in California.  Examples in southern California include lack of double track on the LOSSAN corridor and several Metrolink routes, and failure to build the Los Angeles Union Station run through tracks.  There are many similar examples in the north.  These investments are not just vital but represent a bare minimum commitment to an efficient passenger rail service.

2.  In my view, and shared I think by most members, is that there are key routes, built in the 19th or early 20th century, that are simply not competitive for modern transportation needs.  These include Los Angeles to Bakersfield, Los Angeles to the Antelope Valley, and the northern San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area and Silicon Valley.  No amount of investment will be sufficient to upgrade the existing lines, and new construction, especially tunneling, will be necessary to facilitate the kind of service we believe is needed.

3.  When the High Speed Rail Project was first proposed our concept was to see investment in electrified regional networks in both northern and southern CA which would be the anchors of a trunk line linking the two.  If the project survives after many missteps I think this will be the course finally taken.  It will be a long time before Los Angeles and Bakersfield are finally linked by fast rail service.

4.  As for the money, California has a similar sized economy to Spain, Switzerland, or the Netherlands.  These countries have made the decision to invest large in modern rail systems, and I don’t see why California should not be able to do the same.  Both Spain and Switzerland have similar topographical challenges to California, and they were not daunted by the cost.

5.  The national network (long-distance) trains are nice to have, and represent some useful mobility options as well as leisure and tourist opportunities.  The trains urgently need new rolling stock, which should be funded at the federal level from the large sums Amtrak receives every year, and chooses to spend elsewhere.

I hope that helps, and I’d certainly be interested to hear your opinion.

Paul Dyson. pdyson@xg1.b3e.myftpupload.com

Commentary, Issues

Ventura – Santa Barbara “Commuter ” Service off to rocky start – the punctuality problem

LOSSAN retimed the morning train (761) from LAUS to San Luis Obispo to make it a “commuter” train from Ventura County to Santa Barbara and Goleta.  (See Surfliner schedule effective 4.1.18).

Various efforts were made to try and stop the last train to Goleta at Oxnard and start the morning train from there but none of these options was found to be practical.  So 759 starts from LAUS at 0400 in order to depart Oxnard at 0558 and Ventura at 0612, with a Santa Barbara arrival at 0647, Goleta at 0716.  This is not what Santa Barbara wanted by the way, they asked for a later arrival but I guess that could not be reconciled with Metrolink 106 and Amtrak 768.

Monday April 2nd, 2018

I joined the train at Burbank Airport on time with a couple of other people.  It seems that a number of students returning from Easter visits chose the early start rather than going back to school Sunday evening.  Things were going well except for a slight delay at Hassen siding E of Simi where we met M100 which must have been a few minutes late out of Moorpark.  Then the fun started.  UP dispatch put us on the wrong track at Camarillo. (There’s a long story about why Camarillo station is dysfunctional and usually only one platform is operative).  So we sat for a few minutes while a crowd of confused Metrolink passengers milled about, then reversed out of the station, and then entered track 2.  We then had to wait for M102 to pass before heading for Oxnard.  We arrived Oxnard about 26 minutes late and lost another minute while we passed M104.

Thus far you can put all the delay down to UP dispatch.  Having left Ventura at 0639 the dilemma then is A768, which 759 is supposed to meet at Santa Barbara.  With no siding between Seacliff and East Santa Barbara, UP dispatch decided to run 768, and we took the siding.  We eventually arrived Santa Barbara 57 minutes late.  No argument about UP’s decision, 768 has a lot of meets on the way in to LA.

Other points:  My estimate is that somewhere between 50 and 70 people tried the new service.  Considering the number of free tickets given out that doesn’t seem like much.  There was a surprising number, about 70, already on the train at Burbank although I think this was a one time only with the students.

Looking closely at the timetable, it should work, but requires everything to be on time to make the necessary meets.  Any snag and the edifice comes tumbling down.  Dennis Story was at Ventura and I sent him updates so that he could share info with the waiting passengers.  A disappointing day for Dennis, but this should drive the point home that if Santa Barbara County wants an effective train service they have to build the required sidings, NIMBYs or no.

I won’t even begin to tell you about the train home, including a loose horse at Chatsworth….(see below)

Tuesday April 3rd, 2018

Train departed Los Angeles about 30 minutes late due to a “mechanical” issue.  Arrived Santa Barbara 55 minutes late.  Dennis Story tells me of the 35 – 40 the passengers waiting at Ventura  about 10 abandoned ship and went back to their cars.

Commentary:

At the LOSSAN Board meeting March 29 I once again took up the issue of punctuality, and the current performance of the Surfliners.  68% on time, with all the recovery time built in and the UPS grace period of 10 or minutes is absolutely unacceptable.  There was very little reaction from the Board except from San Diego alternate Ed Gallo, who first didn’t know which trains I was talking about (such is the level of engagement of some of these people) and then suggested extending the schedules even more.

I think that there is a lack of operating discipline, and a lack of any sense of urgency among the train crews.  They are so used to being treated as second class citizens by UP, Metrolink, BNSF and NCTD dispatchers that they have become cynical about punctuality and their morale is low.  Add to that the Uniform Performance Standard, (“UPS”) which covers up endemic delays and gives a misleading picture to the Board and staff, (not to mention being blatantly dishonest to customers) and you have the recipe for late trains.

A case in point was my train home from Santa Barbara on Monday 2nd, train 774.  The train arrived 5 minutes late at Santa Barbara from Goleta.  Although 759 was nearly an hour late there was still an hour to turn the train.  The schedule offers 3 minutes station time at Santa Barbara and there were about 40 joining the train, not a huge crowd.  We departed 7 minutes late.   I see no reason for losing a further two minutes, or indeed why we did not pick up a minute.  At Carpinteria we were 8 minutes late, and Ventura 9 minutes.  At Ventura I started timing the station stops. Ventura took 2 minutes and thirty seconds for a handful of people.  We had a slow order for a grade crossing problem at Lemon and were 13 minutes late at Oxnard.  We met 763 at Camarillo and had to reverse to get into the platform, leaving Camarillo 17 minutes late.  Without a Moorpark stop we made Simi in good time and departed there 13 minutes late, but of course delayed 14 at Hassen for at least 10 minutes.

A runaway horse on the track at Chatsworth caused further delay and put us 19 minutes behind.  A failed Metrolink train at Burbank resulted in a request to stop at Northridge, so we were still 19 late at Van Nuys, and at my stop, Burbank.  If anyone had bus (or plane) connections they would have been inconvenienced.

Here’s the rub.  With the generous recovery time between Glendale and LAUS 774 arrived at Union Station only 8 minutes late.  Which under UPS is on time.  Better yet, since the train had a good midday run to San Diego, arriving there a few minutes early, no problems, right?  Everyone happy, mark that one up as an on time train.  Except it wasn’t.  Not to mention the delays to 14 and 763, which may or may not have made up the time later.

This sort of thing happens every day, with people waiting at intermediate stations with no information, and people on the train arriving late at stations before the end points with a negative impression of the service.

In my opinion UPS is a big part of the problem, as is excessive recovery time.  It leads to slackness.  We’ll get there when we get there, and we’ll probably be on time because mangement chooses to count it that way.  Another problem is host railroad dispatching.  This is a statewide issue and needs to be taken up by Calsta and the PUC.  If the train crews see that the dispatching problem is being addressed, and that someone is on their side, maybe they will smarten up and pay attention to those minutes at stations.

My observation on Monday was that a lot of delay on the platforms is incurred by the confusion between Coach and Business class doors, and in some cases insufficient doors being opened.  Clear announcements, especially from the Business Class attendant getting off the car directing passengers, would help enormously.

Much needs to be done, and it’s an accumulation of problems and bad habits that management needs to address.  The answer is certainly not to further extend journey times!

Comments welcome, pdyson@xg1.b3e.myftpupload.com

 

Editorials, Issues

RailPAC Responds to LOSSAN Business Plan 2018

One of RailPAC’s missions is to respond to the Business Plans of the State Rail Corridors.  We have concerns about many of the policies adopted and hope that our experience is useful in pointing these Boards in the right direction.  The reality is that RailPAC has a longer history of attendance at these meetings, and knows the issues better, than almost all of the Board members.  And it seems that Board members are rotated on and off the Boards more and more frequently by their member agencies.

The LOSSAN Board meeting is today, we’ll see if there is any response.

15th March, 2018

Hon. Bryan MacDonald And Board Members LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency

2018 Business Plan –  Punctuality, Additional Trains, Rolling Stock

Dear Chair MacDonald and Board members:

RailPAC is a volunteer non-profit group of advocates, many with professional experience in the railroad industry.  Since 1978 we have attempted, through constructive criticism, and through advocacy at local, state and national levels to bring about a modern passenger railroad system in California and the west.

We have reviewed the draft of the 2018 business plan and would request your careful review of our comments on three particular, and related issues.

Punctuality:  Table 2.4 of the draft indicates that On Time performance (“OTP”) at 68.8% for 2017 is the worst it has been in well over a decade.  Add to that the Uniform Performance Standard (“UPS”) which counts trains that are up to 10 or 15 minutes late as on time and it is clear that fully a third of your customers are likely to be delayed or inconvenienced by this appallingly bad performance.

The draft makes comforting statements about working with host railroads, monitoring performance and so on, but this has been going on since before the agency was formed and the problem is worsening.  We see at least three problems here.  First, the primary source for information about delays comes from the Amtrak conductor’s reports.  These tell only a small part of the story.  Passenger trains run according to a schedule so any reference to “passenger train interference” as a cause of delay is fundamentally flawed.  One train delays another if one or both are running out of course.  The question is why was that train running late? The conductors’ reports do not have that information, and so you must dig deeper.  An in-depth analysis of at least a large sample of a day’s operations is required to root out where the problems are occurring and to formulate an action plan.

When additional stops were introduced in San Diego County at the behest of NCTD we were informed that their performance would be reviewed.  Amtrak maintained that the additional stops could be accommodated within the schedule.  What they did not make clear was that stops would take away and recovery time, meaning that an early morning delay would cascade through the schedule for the rest of the day.  RailPAC recommends that the morning northbound stops at Carlsbad Village and Sorrento Valley be removed from the schedule. Likewise, any southbound evening stops on a train that has a return northbound trip should be eliminated.

The UPS, permitting late trains to be counted as on time, further obfuscates the problem.  Minutes may be lost at stations with passenger boarding but these seemingly minor problems can accumulate to a ten-minute delay, which goes unrecorded in the statistics.  Yet this train running ten minutes late can negatively impact a train in the opposite direction and cause a cascade of late running for the rest of the day.  We recommend the elimination of the UPS “grace period” in evaluating and analyzing on-time performance and request that train statistics for Board reporting purposes be based on the actual recorded time against the scheduled time, i.e. that on time means on time, not ten minutes late.  Only then will you have a clear picture of the service that your customers are enjoying.

Additional trains:  The draft Business Plan calls for an additional round trip between San Diego and San Luis Obispo.  There is no reference in the document to any significant infrastructure improvements that will permit the efficient running of additional trains.  We know some improvements are taking place but there will still be significant bottlenecks that make the schedule fragile at best.  Indeed, the current projects are barely adequate to support the current level of traffic without further straining the system.  We have tried to point out that, since the introduction of commuter services on the Corridor, there are too many trains scheduled on weekdays to enable the operation of a consistently reliable service.  The punctuality statistics prove our point.  We recommend that there should be no additional trains scheduled until significant projects such as RaymerBernson double track, and the Rosecrans-Marquardt grade separation are complete.

Rolling Stock:  There is no way to put a gloss on this. The State agencies have made a complete mess of passenger rolling stock procurement since the passage of 1B in 2004.  In addition, CALSTA is trying to force California to adopt a high-level boarding standard twenty-five years after massive investments have been made in low-level boarding stations and rolling stock for both intercity, commuter and mixed-use stations throughout the state.  I have no doubt that there are advantages to high level boarding, but there is no appetite and no funds for wholesale reconstruction of our one hundred plus passenger stations.  We have to play the hand we have been dealt. The decision by Calsta to abandon construction of bi-level coaches and order single level cars should therefore be opposed by LOSSAN and the other corridors.

Reference is also made to the possible acquisition of Chicago type gallery commuter cars from Great Lakes Railway.   This idea should be immediately abandoned.  These gallery cars are the worst passenger cars in North America, if not the world.  Boarding is via steep stairs and the upper level is reached via a narrow staircase.  The cars were designed for the convenience of conductors checking tickets, and are noisy, uncomfortable and totally unacceptable for service in this corridor.  Staff should be directed to cease any attempt to acquire these cars.

RailPAC have previously recommended the interim use of mixed consists of Horizon/Comet and Bombardier cars (See Photo at end of text).  Bombardier continues to manufacture these cars and they can be equipped with intercity seats, as bicycle cars, ADA and escort accommodation etc.  This can be a stop gap while the bi-level
procurement program is revived and put in the hands of professional management.  We also understand that some former ATSF cars, an early version of the Superliner, may be available and this option needs to be explored.

Bombardier Comet mixed consist Richard Suggs 2010

Photo by Richard Sugg, RailPAC member.

The sensible approach for LOSSAN is to focus on the rolling stock and punctuality issues for the next two years.  If Surfliner compatible cars can be acquired, then existing trains can be augmented.  New locomotives should improve reliability and to some extent train performance.  Any idea of adding trains to the schedule should be put on a back burner until On Time Performance is radically improved.  The focus of the Board should be to persuade their member agencies to allocate funds for double track and other improvements in the right of way, and to ensure that these funds are spent once they are available.

RailPAC congratulates the LOSSAN staff for its efforts to better market the Surfliner service under difficult conditions.  We trust that the Board will set realistic objectives and at the same time set out a vision for a modern passenger rail corridor that will meet the needs of Southern California.

Yours sincerely, Paul Dyson President pdyson@xg1.b3e.myftpupload.com