High Speed Rail In California Is Now On Track


, , , , ,

By Noel T. Braymer

It has been 12 years since voters approved the start of 520 miles of High Speed Rail construction between Anaheim, Los Angeles, the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area. Then reality hit. Things usually don’t go according to plan when building something new such as High Speed Rail. This is particularly true in California where much of the rail infrastructure has its roots going back over 100 years ago. Like any major construction project with little experience of it being built in California things didn’t all go according to plan. Such major projects are often promoted by major consulting and planning/engineering companies like Parsons Brinckerhoff which now does business as WPS USA. Years before 2008 Parsons Brinckerhoff had the contract to design and lead construction for the California High Speed Rail Project.

Then reality hit. The biggest problem was finding right of way for phase 1 construction between Bakersfield and San Francisco. The original plan was to share much of the UP right of way in the San Joaquin Valley alongside Highway 99. The California High Speed Rail Authority asked  the UP about using its available right of way along their mainline. The UP had publicly said they wouldn’t allow High Speed Rail on their right of way in 2008. When asked, the UP said no, and the California High Speed Rail Authority didn’t have a fall back plan. The High Speed Rail Authority ended up sharing right of way with the BNSF in the San Joaquin Valley. This route was not ideal and many parcels of land were needed to be condemned to connect with the BNSF right of way from private land owners, many of them farmers. There was much opposition by the landowners which dragged out the process and increased the costs of construction of the first phase of HSR in the San Joaquin Valley. The UP has since relaxed some of their opposition to allowing High Speed Rail Tracks in the San Joaquin Valley. But much damage was already done with costs rising and opposition growing in some parts of the San Joaquin Valley.

Of course over the years there were sensational headlines every so often about major problems and cost overruns for the California High Speed Rail Project. These headlines often came around election years. Several times, roughly every 2 years, which is when California normally holds elections, leaders of the California Republican Party would announce they were filing a petition with the Secretary of State to overturn the California High Speed Rail Project. I can’t remember any of these petitions getting approved by the Secretary of State to be put on the ballot for the coming election. But my guess is the California Republican Party was able to add names and addresses to their mailing lists from the people signing  petitions to kill High Speed Rail. As a political football if a group succeeded in killing the High Speed Rail Project, they would have to find something else to talk up to excite their base.

Right now in the news are reports of terrible problems with a bridge built in Madera which is falling apart due to hopeless incompetence of the contractor or at least that’s the impression the news reports are giving. The bridge in question isn’t for trains. It is a highway bridge going over the High Speed Rail Tracks to grade separate trains from roads. The bridge in question is being built by Tutor Perini which is a well known construction company and has a major contract with California High Speed Rail. The problem with this bridge is it has water leaks. There is a subcontractor whose job it is to water seal the exposed metal inside of the bridge. The problem for this subcontractor was their seals didn’t stop the inside of the bridge from getting wet. Tutor Perini is paying for all the final work, not the taxpayers. But it doesn’t help to see news stories on this issue with a photo of a California  High Speed Rail river bridge under construction in Madera which is not the highway bridge which needs to be water sealed.

Just in the last year or so California High Speed Rail is really going places. The goal is for now to run High Speed Rail tracks 171 miles between Bakersfield and Merced. At least hourly service is planned with new stations at Bakersfield, a Joint station for Kings and Tulare Counties, Fresno, Madera and terminating at Merced. At Merced there are planned timed transfers to ACE trains between San Jose and Sacramento. There will also be transfers on the San Joaquin trains from Merced to Oakland and Sacramento. Even with connections running times between services will be much faster than today. The new trains will all run on a mostly hourly memory schedule for fast connections.

What has really taken off has been new High Speed Rail service starting construction this year between Victorville and Las Vegas. Service is expected to start running by 2023 or so. This new High Speed Rail service already has raised funding by the selling of bonds. The private company behind this is named Brightline. It is privately funded and is busy extending service out of Miami to Orlando. This Florida rail passenger service travels on new rail passenger cars and low emission diesel engines for speeds up to 125 miles per hour. Brightline is building in California and Nevada a largely elevated High Speed Railroad with speeds up to 200 miles per hour. Building this new High Speed Rail service is a subsidiary of Brightline called XPressWest. This company has been trying for years to get funding and approvals to start building their railroad.

What is also in the works is to build this new High Speed Railroad on land leased from the States of California and Nevada in the median of I-15. Brightline is planning a 170 mile railroad between Las Vegas and Apple Valley California for about 5 Billion dollars. By leasing the median on I-15 construction costs are lower since there isn’t land that needs to be bought or cleared. What XpressWest/Brightline is also up to is extending service south of Apple Valley 50 miles to Rancho Cucamonga likely as a phase 2. At Rancho Cucamonga Brightline will share connections with Metrolink which will provide rail connections to much of Southern California. What Brightline is also working on is running a connection from Las Vegas to Palmdale roughly 63 miles apart with connections to Metrolink. This was until recently planned for both rail service and a new freeway. With the freeway plan now dead, there is an effort to transfer funds from the original proposal to fund just the rail segment.

Tri-weekly Trains on Amtrak is a bad idea


, , , ,

By Noel T. Braymer

Andew Selden is a retired Business Attorney and President of the Minnesota Association of Railroad Passengers. He is also an expert on the business of Rail Passenger Service. With that he has followed for years the non GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) Amtrak “accounting” practiced almost from the beginning of Amtrak. The direct result of this is according to Amtrak Management the trains on the Northeast Corridor are making money while the Long Distance Trains, poor things have the highest reported “losses” of all Amtrak Trains. If Amtrak were to use GAAP accounting the Long Distance Trains would make a small profit.The fact is under the Presidency of W. Graham Claytor Jr in the 1980’s Amtrak LD trains were and or close to making money. Claytor’s administration was the last time Amtrak invested money on the LD trains. But the NEC trains running on often ancient infrastructure (like the 85 year old Lift bridge next to the Newark Penn Station) and other ancient problem structures are Amtrak’s pride and joy. But if we look at the trains on the NEC, we find the vast majority are not Amtrak trains, but commuter services, primarily New Jersey Transit.

According to Amtrak, the NEC makes a $500 million surplus (the heaviest Amtrak ridership is between New York and Philadelphia which is just under 100 miles on the over 400 mile NEC). As reported by Mr. Andrew Selden the “Interregional”  aka Long Distance trains annually lose $500 million dollars according to Amtrak. Mr Selden asks the question “Adding those results together leaves a net deficit of just $100 million. So where does the rest of Amtrak’s $2 billion (i.e. $2,000 million) annual federal subsidy go? The missing $1.9 billion a year is real money, even in Washington D.C.”

Mr. Selden goes on “We have long advocated that Amtrak’s capital should be reallocated, with a far larger share being interregional trains, not for political, geographical, moral or historical reasons, but simply because those are the services where capital can be best used to maximize the returns on investment, measured by the annual amount of revenue and revenue passenger miles produced, per dollar invested.” The best way to make money on passenger service is to generate the greatest number of passenger miles. Even airlines know getting a buck for an otherwise empty seat is better than nothing. This is at the heart of what is wrong with running LD train service 3 days a week. It boils down to if the trains are not running, you are not making money. Daily service outside of special trains such as ski trains is needed to get the most passenger miles (revenue) every day. This is a problem with commuter trains that often layover between rush hours and rarely run into the evening or midday. Daily service for Long Distance trains means income 7 round trips days a week not just for 3 in each direction. Also people are more likely to ride trains with daily service, compared to 3 days a week because of convenience.

Mr. Selden asks the question how the NEC Trains have a $500 million “surplus” while the LD trains “lose” $500 million and the State subsidized trains “lose” $100 million at least according to Amtrak? This is even odder when you consider that Amtrak runs the Long Distance trains with major discounts to use the freight railroads tracks. So even the costs of operating the Long Distance Trains are dumped in large part on the railroads, saving Amtrak money.

Mr. Selden notes “Mr.Flynn’s plan to limit all interregional trains to three days a week previously was a disaster. Tom Downs followed  bad advice from Mercer Consulting to cut frequencies in order to cut long distance “losses” (neither Mercer nor Downs understood to begin with that the ‘losses” were fictions of the APT-predecessor “RPS” route costing system, not actual financial results of operations). It didn’t work because Amtrak costs are mostly on the NEC ownership and its bloated fixed costs, not train operations, so when they cut train operations, what went away were revenues far more than costs.”

Amtrak Needs More Frequent Trains, Not Fewer

By Noel T. Braymer

Amtrak Spells Out Long-Distance Plans
Railway Age Aug 13, 2020
“Amtrak has released a paper in which it says it “is committed to operating a national rail network that serves customers across the United States,” including daily long-distance (L-D) services, provided certain conditions are met.”
“In response to the Covid -19 pandemic, we have already made temporary reductions in service frequency to our Northeast Corridor and State Supported services. We are now extending similar temporary reductions to most of our Long Distance routes, effective Oct. 1.To be clear, our temporary reductions and subsequent plan to restore this service are dependent on sufficient federal assistance—at least $3.5 billion in FY 21 assuming a 50% system wide ridership level, but additional assistance could be required if ridership does not reach this level.”…
Tri Weekly LD 100120

Daily rail passenger service has been known for years to be financially more productive than less than daily service. Longer routes and better connections are well known to increase ridership and revenue. Trains don’t make money unless there are paying passengers riding the trains. 

The history of Amtrak’s Long Distance Trains has largely been one of cutbacks rather than of service expansion. During the Amtrak Presidency of  W. Graham Claytor Jr. between 1982-1993, he expanded Long Distance services and ordered new additional equipment which increased revenue production while reducing operating costs. While Claytor was Amtrak President, Amtrak greatly increased Amtrak’s cost recovery which Claytor predicted by 2000 Amtrak would break even. After Claytor retired, his successors cut back Long Distance service and Amtrak’s revenues declined. With the roll out of the Acela in 2000, Amtrak most or less went broke which led to billion dollar bailouts for Amtrak. 

So here we go again with Amtrak’s plan to operate  3 trains weekly service  starting in October for all its Long Distance Trains. Based on ridership, Amtrak says it will later expand daily service. But some trains might also be terminated. What is missing is the key to increasing ridership. It boils down to passenger miles. That’s a major part of increasing revenues: having people ride trains on longer trips. What is needed to fill up trains or any form of commercial travel are connections to as many markets as possible. A simple example of this is when Amtrak would run express trains between major cities. They skipped the stations in between to go faster between 2 major cities. When doing this, ridership and revenue on these trains would decline and not increase because people couldn’t get to where they wanted to go.  

A good example of a productive train is the Empire Builder. It has one if not the longest route of any of Amtrak’s trains. It runs between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. It also brings in the most revenue of any of Amtrak’s trains. One thing the Empire Builder has, but most Amtrak trains don’t are train sections. The Empire Builder runs between Chicago, Wisconsin, Minnesota and out to Spokane, Washington. At Spokane the Empire splits in 2 with one “section” headed for Seattle, Washington and the other section for Portland, Oregon. The process is reversed in the other direction when the whole train heads east from Spokane to Chicago. Connecting train sections and splitting them has been a very successful for well over 100 years. It is almost like having 2 trains for the price of one. Amtrak also has the Lake Shore limited which runs from New York to Boston or Chicago with train sections joining and splitting at Albany. These section trains generally predate Amtrak. Yet they remain very productive to this day.

In addition to adding more sections to Amtrak trains, what will increase ridership are better connections to other services. This is a major part of the California State Rail Plan. This will create timed connections between services as well as make ticketing seamless. Cell phones are already used for ticketing both for monthly passes as well as day trips. What is included in the State Rail plan is using cellphones to work out a full itinerary for trips with connections. This can include bus and local rail service, hotels, and transfers between  Amtrak and regional rail services. All this can be handled with a bar code that can be scanned on a person’s cell phone. 

As part of the California State Rail Plan, trains will be run in the near future on a regular basis at the same time of the hour up to twice an hour in many places. By using the same schedule every day for all trains these trains have fewer conflicts with meets from other trains and much better on time performance for connections not only between trains. But also other forms of public transportation. This is already established in many countries outside of the United States. Better connections between regional services just in California  can connect Pacific Surf Liner trains to Coaster trains in San Diego County and Metro link for much of Southern California. Bus connections can be improved in the San Joaquin Valley to the San Joaquin Trains. Connections are also possible between the ACE trains between San Jose and Stockton, with Capitol Corridor trains between Sacramento and San Jose and some BART stations.   

Can you hear the helicopters now?


, , , ,

By Noel T. Braymer

In the 1970’s while I was in college I took Economics 101. I even got a decent grade for the class . I had already read some books by famous economists so I had a general grasp of supply and demand as well as the multiplier effect from spending money. Basically as people spend more money, they create more money. An example of this is construction using taxpayers money. This idea is being used by Metrolink to improve its equipment and trackage which will lead to more revenue as more people are able to travel by Metrolink. The end result of this is by roughly 2028 Metrolink is planning to operate most of its trains 2 to 4 times per hour up to 7 days a week with multiple connections to other services and as well as  Metrolink’s other lines.

Just before I went to college a future Nobel Prize winning Economist, Dr Milton Friedman wrote an article in the form of a parable about dropping money from helicopters to illustrate monetary expansion. I hope you are still awake. “Helicopter money” continues through today when an economy is in a “liquidity trap”. Basically when the economy goes into a slump  most people are short on money. This slows down the economy more so. What we are seeing currently are “stimulus checks” going to taxpayers to spend more money to reboot the economy. This has been done before in other Presidential Administrations with varying degrees of success.

A major problem is that over the last 20 to 30 years many taxpayers are now heavily in debt compared in the past. Which means many people lack money to spend on things which would stimulate the economy. Recently the Gross Domestic Product of this Country has experienced one of the biggest declines in its history. With this are attempts by some members of Congress to roll back stimulus packages to many of the people who recently lost their jobs due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The following is from a recent article by Aljazeera.

“The US economy plunged a staggering 32.9 percent from April through June on an annualised basis, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported – by far the worst contraction on record. In the first quarter of this year, when the US officially entered recession in February, the economy shrank 5 percent from the same period a year ago.  Before coronavirus lockdowns swept the nation in March, the worst reading on US gross domestic product (GDP) – which measures the value of all the goods and services produced in the economy –  was recorded in 1950, when the US economy shrank 10 percent in the first quarter.”  (What was happening in 1950? The start of the Korean War.)

A sharp contraction in consumer spending was the main driver pushing the economy into its second-quarter chasm. Before the pandemic, consumer spending drove two-thirds of US economic activity.  A plunge in exports, inventories, business and residential investment, as well as state and local government spending, also contributed to the historic weakness. “

“Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell noted during a press conference on Wednesday that the rise in joblessness has been “especially severe for lower-wage workers, for women, and for African Americans and Hispanics”.

The Fed chair also said that data is showing that on balance, the pace of the recovery appears to be slowing and that whatever path the economy takes will depend “to a very high extent on the course of the virus”.
The election this November is going to be interesting.

Turning Rail Service And The Economy Around


, , ,

By Noel T. Braymer

With the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus this spring came major reductions in ridership and revenues for transit and rail passenger services. Many of the limited number of current riders are considered “essential workers.” These essential workers are often blue collar workers. While there was service to get these folks to work and back home. The reality was many people stayed home, couldn’t get to work or were told not to go to work to avoid getting sick. Since summer road traffic is much higher now than a few months ago. But buses and trains are often running with plenty of empty seats. The revenue production is so low that services are running out of money for operations.  An economy is run with money circulating to pay for goods and services. When that process is disrupted, the economy slows down and people have less money and more debt they likely won’t be able to pay off. A healthy economy is based on spending which in turn expands the economy. But if spending declines, the economy shrinks.

Because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus, people are spending less money and often staying at home. We have also seen many cases of people ignoring medical advice to maintain social distance and wear masks to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. There have been many news stories of people ignoring this advice which in turn causes many of these people to get sick and sometimes to die. While this should be under control hopefully before winter. In the meantime businesses and government agencies will be running deficits. What can the government do to keep businesses running and get the economy to start growing? This all comes down to money. How do you “make” money? That boils down to credit.

When you go to a bank to borrow money, the bank doesn’t have cash in its vaults to give you. What you get is a check for a sum of money. What a loan is, is an IOU ( from the bank) for the borrower to pay them back with interest. When you take out a loan the bank doesn’t give you money. It allows you to spend the money from the loan which you pay off in installments. The bank’s favorite customers are often the ones with the worst credit scores. As long as people keep paying on their debts, the bank is making money. Private Banks and other financial organizations don’t want people to pay off their loans. They prefer to have people keep paying them.

Are there alternatives to this system? The Federal Government has the power to borrow large sums of money particularly in a crisis like wars or natural disasters. The way most economic recessions are handled is for the Federal Reserve to “make money” by buying up bad debt or make very cheap interest rate loans for housing or start up companies like Uber or Shale Oil wildcatters. In the case of Uber and the Shale Oil wildcatters even with borrowed cheap money they have failed to become profitable.

Another alternative is for private banks to make loans to create more money. This is explained  with a post on the website “Next City” titled “Could a State-Owned Bank Help California’s Recovery Efforts?” In the article an expert on money Paul Pryde, read “It was not long after that Pryde came across a paper from the Bank of England, that country’s central bank. Published in 2014, the paper explained how the majority of money in the modern economy isn’t created by central banks, it’s created by private commercial banks making loans. It was an epiphany for Pryde, even after a long career around banking and finance.”

“Today, Pryde is a member of the California Public Banking Alliance, and has been contributing his wealth of experience dealing with the public sector and with banks to help craft AB 310, a bill to convert the existing California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank from just a revolving loan fund into a proper, deposit-taking, money-creating, state-owned bank. California legislators introduced the bill this month, hoping to get it passed by Labor Day as part of the state’s pandemic response and recovery efforts.”

This reminds me of the recent funding for Virgin Trains USA between Las Vegas and Victorville. Hundreds of millions of dollars was raised with bonds issued by California and Nevada to fund construction of High Speed Rail in the median of the I-15 freeway. By 2023 the initial rail service is expected to be running. After that there are plans to extend Virgin Trains USA south of Victorville on the I-15 to the Rancho Cucamonga Metrolink Station for  connections to San Bernardino and Los Angeles.

“In the long-term, the California Public Banking Alliance — consisting of environmental justice advocates, racial justice advocates, tenant advocates, labor organizers and, yes, some banking and financial professionals and institutions — believe a state-owned bank could help meet a laundry list of public policy needs like affordable housing, homeownership, small business lending, or environmental sustainability. Rather than just negotiating with private banks to use their money-creation powers, they want a public bank that can utilize some of that money-creation power directly on behalf of the public itself…”

“AB 310 allocates no new budget dollars. Instead, the bill directs the California State Treasurer to move $9 billion from a $100 billion state-managed investment portfolio into a new investment in the California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank, to essentially serve as working capital for the state-owned bank. Currently, about half of the state-managed investment portfolio is invested in U.S. Treasury bonds. The new state-owned bank would have to repay that investment eventually, and supporters say it would offer better returns to the state than plain old Treasury bonds….”

“Supporters intend to build upon the governance model of the only state-owned bank in operation, the 101 year-old Bank of North Dakota. (The Territory of American Samoa also recently opened its own bank, by the way.) In North Dakota’s case, the Governor, Agriculture Commissioner and Attorney General (all statewide elected officials) serve as the state-owned bank’s board of directors, known as the North Dakota Industrial Commission. The state of North Dakota deposits all of its revenues into its state-owned bank, which does not carry federal deposit insurance but is instead guaranteed directly by the state.”

We need a new, New Deal



By Noel T. Braymer

President Donald J.Trump talks big, but rarely delivers. He may be the only person in history to lose money owning Gambling Casinos. But he is good at distracting at least some people from the problems he has created. One of the greatest failures of the President of all times has been the failure of leadership by this administration to control the outbreak of COVID-19 this year. The United States failed to fully use measures which worked to control this epidemic in most countries around the world. Basically it comes down to isolating infected people, social distancing, hand washing and wearing masks to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

But President Trump wanted first to reboot the economy at the start of this year after the COVID-19 outbreak caused major shutdowns of businesses and services. Instead of waiting for the measures to stop the spread of the disease, President Trump wanted people to go shopping and socialize. The result of this was the pandemic got a new lease on life. Since Spring major outbreaks of the COVID-19 virus have led to many rural areas of the county having outbreaks of COVID-19. Instead of jump starting the economy, Trump’s measures led to major outbreaks of illness, additional deaths and stagnation of the economy.

Because of the failure of President’s Trump’s efforts to kickstart the economy, the economy has been racing into one of the biggest recession in American History. How has the country handled  major economic downturns before? A major example was the Great Depression which started in late 1929. What largely started the recovery from the Great Depression was President Roosevelt’s recovery program called the New Deal. Basically it boiled down to creating work for people out of work and paying them  which stimulated local economies. These involved numerous programs which some critics called make work or boondoggles. What was often forgotten since the 20th century was the large scale of infrastructure projects built during the “New Deal” and still in use today. (if you town predates World War 2, you likely got a new Post Office built downtown in the 1930’s. Not only construction, but the New Deal included reform of Wall Street which caused the crash, unemployment insurance as well as the creation of Social Security. While the New Deal wasn’t perfect. It did help keep the economy going.

Since the recent instabilities of the economy, several “stimulus projects” have been approved. The issue is, are the monies being approved going to help most people or large corporations? What history has shown is a healthy economy is based on consumer demand . That means people are being paid enough to afford housing, to eat, travel and stay healthy. When the United States was brought into World War 2 the Federal Government “encouraged”  workers to buy “War Bonds”. This was done to prevent inflation by reducing demand. Because of the war there was little available supplies to spend money on. The War Bonds at least got people to save money. When the war was over people could then buy things they wanted and used their savings to buy  houses, businesses, new cars or household appliances.

Infrastructure has been falling apart in many places in this county for years since the 1970’s. A minor example of this are the roads near where I live over the last 30 years. Thirty years ago the roads were in good shape, Now every time it rains, the patches on the potholes get washed out and the potholes reappear.The freeways are often crowded and rail passenger service often doesn’t connect to where people want to go. Where there is good rail passenger service, there is new housing construction near the stations. Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, many people haven’t been riding the trains or buses. This has dramatically cut the revenue of these services. These services can carry more people. But it will cost money to attract more passengers with better service.

The next presidential election is going to be different. The big question is what will be done to rebuild the economy? Transportation and housing are 2 issues that have long been ignored. If former Vice President Joe Biden is elected, what can the public expect from his administration? What happens if most public transportation goes bankrupt in this country? The legacy of Donald Trump will be the same as it has been most of his life: a mess.

What’s Coming For Future High Speed Rail Service In California


, , ,

By Noel T. Braymer

As California along with the rest of the United States recovers from the COVID-19 epidemic. There are plenty of projects planned or underway to upgrade rail passenger service. A big example of this is the agreement to build High Speed Rail service by Virgin Trains USA between Victorville and Las Vegas to start service by 2023. This is seen as part one of a larger system. Already the plans call for extending HSR service south of Victorville along the I-15 freeway to Rancho Cucamonga. What’s at Rancho Cucamonga? It’s a Metrolink Station on the San Bernardino Line between Los Angeles and San Bernardo. With connecting service from Metrolink, passengers from many places in Southern California would be able to travel to Las Vegas without getting stuck in traffic. Also long planned is the construction of a rail connection between Victorville and Palmdale. Long range plans call for High Speed Rail service extended from Los Angeles to the Bay Area . At Palmdale passengers could connect to the Virgin Trains USA to or from Las Vegas with Metrolink service.  Much of the financing for this service comes from California State Bonds paid for by Virgin Trains USA. Also the lease agreements for use of the I-15 median with the State of California for the rail right of way both saves Virgin Trains money and simplifies construction.

While the California High Speed Rail Project has often been declared dead, work is still ongoing. Current planning calls for 171 miles of High Speed Rail service between Bakersfield and Merced by 2027. Despite the critics, much of the work on the current 119 miles of construction is now well underway, A major factor in the San Joaquin Valley for this project are up to 4,000 jobs created in the San Joaquin Valley in an area with high levels of unemployment. Like any complex project being built for the first time, there has been a steep learning curve in building HSR in the San Joaquin Valley. Many of the problems with the project stem from business as usual by the army of consultants that came with  the start of this project. Recently Governor Newsom reorganized the project and is turning over the work from the consultants (who charge the State for their work) over to State Employees, many of whom are Engineers. Soon it will be time to start laying tracks and installing signalling on the nearly finished 119 miles of right of way between Madera and Wasco.

One person’s Boondoggle is another’s infrastructure improvement. Much is written in newspapers about what a boondoggle rail projects are. But many of the forces which oppose rail service support new road construction, even as existing roads are badly in need of repair. The following  is a quote from the Frontier Group website- “America’s aging roads and bridges need fixing. Our car-dependent transportation system is dangerous, harms our communities, and is the nation’s leading source of global warming pollution. And more than ever before, it is clear that America needs to invest in giving people healthier, more sustainable transportation options.
Yet year after year, state and local governments propose billions of dollars’ worth of new and expanded highways that often do little to reduce congestion or address real transportation challenges, while diverting scarce funding from infrastructure repairs and key transportation priorities. Highway Boondoggles 5 finds nine new budget-eating highway projects slated to cost a total of $25 billion that will harm communities and the environment, while likely failing to achieve meaningful transportation goals. Highway expansion costs transportation agencies billions of dollars, driving them further into debt, while failing to address our long-term transportation challenges.” What has been found is when major roads are built or expanded, the results cause more traffic congestion, not less.


NCTD Coaster Train at the downtown San Diego train station. Expanded rail service drive new development. Photo by Noel T. Braymer

This push to build new major roads mostly with debt reminds me of the world wide push to build Toll Roads from recent history. The promise was that local communities would “make money” from Toll Roads which were highly promoted by international companies which proposed to build them. But rarely do such toll roads make a profit. Often in these contracts if the toll road fails to be profitable, the local government agency was held responsible for paying for the new Toll Roads. While the local authority received  income from the new toll road. It was rarely enough to pay down the debt incurred from construction.

What is needed are better connections between transportation services. This is common in many places overseas. Planning is ongoing in California to run services which run at the same time every hour with connecting services for quick and easy transfers to many destinations. Ideally services should be run at least every half hour with connections at every station stop. By running trains at the same time of day this makes it possible to run more trains on time with fewer problems. With this will come joint ticketing. This will likely include ticketing on smart phones which will sell tickets to multiple destinations with transfers. Such service improvements would connect different rail services with bus services (local and intercity) and connections to airports. Hopefully we will see ridership return as the COVID-19 virus is controlled.

While Rail Passenger service is often blasted as being a waste of money. The reality is good passenger service creates wealth. This can often be seen as new developments spring up at or near train stations even here in California. This happens at Amtrak/Metrolink and Rail transit stations in California. As the COVID -19 virus is suppressed. More people will be drawn to places with good rail service. The same can’t be said for major shopping malls built near freeway. The big box stores are now going bankrupt at an alarming rate. Behind much of this are Hedge Funds which buy these stores on credit, but force the stores to pay back high debts to the Hedge Funds which is easy money for Hedge Funds. This is what happened to Toys R US and other Big Box stores

High Speed Rail Is Alive And Well in California


, , , , ,

By Noel T. Braymer

While politics casts a damper on High Speed Rail construction in the San Joaquin Valley. California’s other High Speed Rail project is moving right along. Virgin Trains USA has an agreement with the State of California to lease the median in the I-15 freeway between the border of California/Nevada to Victorville. This will allow construction of an elevated railroad for high speeds on a significant segment of the new rail alignment. Virgin Trains USA is also in discussion with Nevada to lease the I-15 median from the State Border to Las Vegas for High Speed Rail service.

Just recently Virgin Trains USA reported that they are planning to extend construction south of Victorville along the I-15 as far as Rancho Cocamonga in the future. This will greatly expand the travel market with connections to the Los Angeles Area. Using the empty freeway median will greatly simplify construction and lower costs as well as allow faster construction. A major problem with the High Speed Rail project in the San Joaquin Valley has been the need to condemn private property to build a new right of way. This has been a very slow and often contentious process which is a major factor in the rising final costs of the California High Speed Project.

A major factor in breaking the deadlock for Virgin Trains USA has been the State of California’s approval of issuing billions of dollars in bonds for Virgin Trains USA to start construction between Victorville and Las Vegas. Virgin Trains USA has many other construction projects underway in Florida. Virgin is already building expanded future service to Orlando and other major cities in the State of Florida. While construction continues in Florida, the original Virgin Trains USA service in the Miami area is shut down for now. But it will be connected to the rest of the State of Florida when service is expanded in Florida.

What is driving Virgin Trains USA on the west coast is its acquisition of XpressWest. XpressWest has for years been promoting High Speed Rail not just between Southern California and Las Vegas. But also across much of the western United States. XpressWest pioneered the idea of leasing freeway medians for mostly elevated railroads where such rights of ways are available. It is difficult to acquire right of way on the older freeways in California which wouldn’t be straight enough for High Speeds. Elevated rail structures are cheaper than tunnels and more flexible to build.

Are there any lessons to be learned from the XpressWest model? The proof will be in the pudding I guess. Clearly having access to public land reduces costs and avoids costly battles with private property owners. This can be integrated with existing railroad rights of ways to connect to more travel markets. There are already plans to build a rail connection sharing a new roadway between Palmdale and Victorville with Virgin Trains USA. The XpressWest model won’t work in all cases, but there are some that will work very well.

There may be lessons from the XpressWest model that could be used for High Speed Rail service between Northern and Southern California. Some of these include raising income from development coming from increased travel with High Speed Trains. Development was always a major source of income at or near stations.The key to an efficient and valuable transportation system are connections to many places with rapid and frequent services to as many markets as possible.

Empty Passenger Trains Won’t Run For Long


, , ,

By Noel T Braymer
Through Spring of this year due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, ridership on intercity trains everywhere has all but ended. I continued to ride trains this Spring, although not as often as in the past. During this Spring I rode Metrolink, Amtrak Pacific Surfliners and Coaster trains. This covered trips to Los Angeles on Metrolink and Amtrak as well as trips to San Diego on the Coaster. What these trips all had in common were plenty of empty seats. As we see some progress in reducing the spread of COVID-19, rail ridership is far from recovering. If we want rail passenger service, we need to ride it. We also need to market it to bring more passengers to the trains. The following is a report of the status of rail passenger service in Southern California. Providing a sanitary ride with masks to prevent the spread of viruses is needed to ensure the reduction of infection when riding the train. This has been fairly successful at major stores that have been allowed to stay open this Spring

The start of the crackdown for stopping the COVID-19 virus goes back to April of this year. I took a weekend Metrolink Pass from Oceanside to Los Angeles one Saturday. Even by April almost no one was traveling by rail. I even was prevented from transferring to transit services at Los Angeles because of restrictions to avoid spreading the Corona Virus. Soon thereafter ridership crashed on most transit ridership in California and most of the rest of the country.  Lack of connections and frequent passenger services derailed ridership since then to this day. The heart of transportation lies in connections to as many travel markets as possible. A major station like Los Angeles Union Station is an example of this as a major hub for connections to multiple travel markets.

This June I took a quick trip to Los Angeles Union Station from Oceanside on Amtrak. The advantage of this was the Surfliner’s greater frequencies compared with  the more limited Metrolink services. I mostly wanted a quick trip to Los Angeles and back to Oceanside.While ridership wasn’t great. From the passenger cars I did go through about half of the seats on these cars were occupied. What was noticeable was the train was ahead of schedule for the entire trip. Basically people were spending less time getting on and off the trains. But the train couldn’t depart until the station’s scheduled departure time. So while we often waited at the stations, we still got to Los Angeles early. Cutting out schedule padding would encourage more ridership. The biggest problem remains how long the services at Union Station remain closed.

Just recently I took the Coaster Train from Oceanside to San Diego and back. Ridership was very low. My return train normally also would be a commuter service from Sorrento Valley (a major job center in San Diego). There was almost no one waiting at the platform to ride home going north during rush hour.

Generally the fight to control the coronavirus has been going well. Much of this came crashing down recently as several States decided to open up more businesses. What happened  next was a major increase of the number of people catching the COVID-19 virus. Many of the people catching and spreading the virus were adults under 30 who had gone out drinking and partying with their friends. Even singing at church can spread the virus since the virus is spread in droplets of water as people talk or sing. We should be able to travel more with proper controls that stop the widespread infection of this virus.

Amtrak, Tri-weekly, The future, and Yogi

Commentary by Russ Jackson

You already know what the situation is these days with Amtrak and its plans for October.  What we need right now is some philosophy that will keep our chins up and continue working to first get them to see they are on a path to self-destruction, and then get them to take a positive “growth” position looking forward with the long distance trains.  As the eminent philosopher, Yogi Berra the Hall of Fame baseball catcher said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”  And he’s right.  Amtrak has its head in the sand regarding its own future.

Railway Age summed up what happened by quoting Amtrak EVP and Chief Marketing and Revenue Officer (How’s that for a title?) Roger Harris’s June 15 letter to employees:  “Citing a “need to be smart about how we deliver our service in this market environment” as well as “to demonstrate that we are using our resources efficiently and responsibly” because “Congress is not going to support us indefinitely to run mostly empty trains,” .Harris began his announcement by saying that Amtrak “remain[s] committed to operating a national network that serves our customers across America.” Then, following his pronouncements about “smart” service delivery, “efficient” and “responsible” resource use and uncertain Congressional support, he announced plans for train frequency cuts of 32% on the Northeast Corridor and 24% for state-supported service, and a reduction for most daily Long-Distance trains to three days per week. “Low ridership on Long-Distance trains has significantly increased our operating losses, which already exceeded $500 million annually on these services before the pandemic*,” Harris said. “We expect these Long-Distance frequency reductions will save as much as $150 million in FY21 vs. the losses that would have been incurred with daily service.  Harris said Amtrak’s goal “is to restore daily service on these routes as demand warrants, potentially by the summer of 2021.”

You already knew that.  Now let’s see what the rest of the story is.  We already know that Amtrak’s own figures are not real, just what they want us to know.  Many articles have been written, aired, published, and posted nationwide about what that October 1 plan is, so a realistic question is how much damage has been done to the Amtrak legacy because of what they plan to do?  Instead of an enthusiastic “We’re still here…come on back and ride, we have room for you!!!!” we get the bad news above.   They do not have to put this plan in force this Fall.  We know that, they know that, and hopefully the Congress knows enough to force them to rescind the plan and provide the full national service that its constituency needs and wants.  Or, is the Congress going to finally wash its hands of Amtrak and say, “Go ahead, do it and maybe you’ll see what happens is the opposite of what you want.”  But then, maybe that’s what the current management does want.  They don’t have much corporate memory to know that their plan is doomed to failure.

In more philosophical words of the great Yogi, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”  Is Amtrak management playing games expecting the Congress to dump more money on them?  I think so.  Then we are right back where we started, but with the whole country reduced to Tri-weekly service and all the planning variables that entails when potential riders are looking at making a trip.  My question is:  What’s the plan for Tri-weekly service?  If the plan is to restore service as demand increases, what are the goals for that to kick in?  Is connectivity a part of the plan?  For example, if we want to take our usual trip to California from Ft. Worth, will the days the Texas Eagle runs be the days it connects with the Sunset Limited in San Antonio?  We’ll be watching as the specifics are spelled out, as a clue to whether Amtrak is really serious about restoring service based on demand.

Meanwhile, let’s go back to Harris’s letter above.  Did you catch that $150 million figure?  Andrew Selden did, and he says,  “$400 million to start up a new NEC station (Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station) when they say they are broke? No problem…$150 million (they say) to sustain the national network?  No can do.”  Selden said, “It appears that based on normal business planning considerations Amtrak is doing its recovery planning exactly backwards, due to political pressure, a failed business model, ignorant leadership, and an utterly deceptive and deeply flawed internal cost allocation process.  Amtrak’s CEO William Flynn showed that he doesn’t understand any of this when he threatened in early June to cut all long distance trains to tri-weekly ‘to save money’ and then issued his plan.”  Pierre Loomis wrote, “Amen, and it’s long past time to expose the fact that Amtrak’s ownership of the NEC amounts to a huge subsidy for the NEC’s commuter railroads.”  Bob Johnston, writing on the Trains magazine newswire said, “While ridership and revenue remains suppressed because of the pandemic, long-distance ticket revenues climbed 71%, from $6.8 million to $11.6 million, between April and May. Operating with approximately the same frequencies, Northeast Corridor billing rose about 60% from $1.5 million to $2.4 million, and state supported trains generated less than a 50% increase, from $2.3 million in April to $3.5 million in May. So existing long-distance service, mostly operating seven days a week, provided almost double the May revenue of Corridor and state-supported operations combined.”  And, Johnston also said what we have been saying for YEARS:  “The operating losses Harris cites include allocated costs attributed to those services.  Amtrak has historically declined to provide line-item dollar amounts which would detail these costs for any train.”

Anyone who follows the Virtual Railfan web cams from towns like LaPlata, MO, Flagstaff, AZ, etc. has seen a gradual growth return of passengers to/from the Southwest Chief.  Was Amtrak premature in announcing the October plan?  Yes.  Did they do it deliberately?  Have a look at the consists on the long distance trains today.  What started as 5-car trains during the pandemic is now back to 7 cars on most trains, so Amtrak is recognizing that riders are returning.  Is this a tacit recognition that despite their efforts their plan is doomed?  As for ridership on just the Southwest Chief, for example.  According to Great American Stations, in Kansas in FY2018, 5,289 rode to/from Dodge City, 7,056 in Garden City, 4,415 in Hutchison, 8,362 in Lawrence, 15,218 at Newton (Wichita and connections from the Heartland Flyer), 9,136 from Topeka for a state total of 49,466.  How many of those riders would adjust their trips for tri-weekly?  Can Amtrak afford to lose the CASH generated by those folks?

Here’s a comment from long time RailPAC member Ralph James:   “I have heard that the October plan would reduce the long distance network to tri-weekly service.  If true I’m afraid it would be the beginning of the end for the national network.  We have put up with the tri-weekly Sunset schedule for several years shuttling between Northern California and Benson, Arizona.  We have made it work with some effort, but it takes some dedication that I don’t believe the average person would have.  If the connecting services are also tri-weekly there will necessarily be some connections that do not occur on the same day, meaning at least one overnight stay will be required.  Throw in missed connections due to late arrivals and instead of one overnight at Amtrak expense the traveler could be delayed two or three days with most at their own expense unless Amtrak puts everybody on airplanes to their final destination.  Sounds like a recipe for shutting down the long distance network to me if that is true.  There are not enough states in a position to even consider financing the off-days of a tri-weekly schedule so the network still fails even if one or two routes remain daily.”

Those of us who are “used” to tri-weekly service from the Sunset Limited for too many years know how hard it is to plan trips, as Ralph James said above.  There are some who would travel by train, but have to look elsewhere.  Bill Lindley in Phoenix is one, and he’s a veteran train rider:  He told us, “The Sunset Limited is practically useless to me.  It never runs on a day I need it.  An often overlooked part of (Dr. Adrian Herzog’s) “Matrix Theory” is that the shorter the trip, the more often a service needs to run to be reasonable.  On this basis, Phoenix should have at least six daily trains to Los Angeles,m three to El Paso, and hourly service to Tucson.  Meanwhile here I sit in Phoenix waiting for Amtrak’s first train of this millennium to arrive.”

And so we close with another Yogi-ism, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  That’s where Amtrak is and it either knows or doesn’t know where to go.  If there really is a plan to return to full weekly service (and real food in the dining cars for all riders) it should start with telling everyone who is taking its cutback plan seriously that it is a joke and really isn’t going to be implemented.  Do you think there’s a chance of that?  Ah, but baseball is coming back in July…so let’s follow that for relief from the aches and pains of being rail advocates…but keep a firm eye on what Amtrak management is doing.  Let everyone know what you think, too, and as everyone says these days, “Be safe.”