Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

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By Noel T. Braymer

Often it is hard to find things to praise when it come to rail passenger service in the United States. But lately there have been a few things to be happy about. Amtrak has its share of problems: many of them self-inflicted. But there has been progress in the last year or two. There are two recent good examples of this.These include ongoing efforts to extend the City of New Orleans east of New Orleans along the Gulf Coast to Florida. There are also efforts to extend the Heartland Flyer between Fort Worth and Oklahoma City up to Newton, Kansas for connections to the Southwest Chief. Now there have been test trains and lots of publicity in the past from Amtrak about extending services. Quite often they end up being public relations exercises and attempts to shake down local governments for funding. It has been some time since we’ve seen efforts to expand service by Amtrak to increase their revenues. Why should this time be different? Well Amtrak has been recently talking to towns across the county that want station stops in their towns. The results have been with more stops ridership has improved. It the last few years Amtrak has been putting more effort to get as much available equipment as possible to expand service during major holiday weekends. The results have been increases in badly needed revenues from these efforts.

There is increasing interest by upper Amtrak management to expand service to increase revenues more than the incremental costs needed to expand service. This was seen in Southern California on the LOSSAN Corridor. For years the LOSSAN Joint Powers Authority (JPA) had wanted to add a 12th Pacific Surfliner round trip between Los Angeles and San Diego. Also the morning train from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo which is part of the LOSSAN Corridor had terrible ridership. But on the return leg for this train which continued on to San Diego had good ridership. Local Amtrak management in Los Angeles worked with the LOSSAN JPA to fix both issues. What was done was a new evening train was run from Los Angeles to San Diego. This equipment is then used for a 4:00 AM departure on weekdays from San Diego which arrives in Los Angeles by 7:30 AM for people needing to get to Los Angeles early in the morning. This train then continues to San Luis Obispo. Using existing equipment, LOSSAN got a 12th round trip between Los Angeles and San Diego as well as 2 full round trips between San Diego and San Luis Obsipo. Revenues have continue to increase with this expanded service.

Recently Amtrak ran a test Heartland Flyer train from Fort Worth to Newton, Kansas with stops at potential future stations such as  Arkansas and Wichita, Kansas. An extended Heartland Flyer to Newton would allow connections to the Southwest Chief which runs between Chicago and Los Angeles. The Chief runs in both directions in Newton between 2 and 3 AM. This connection would allow passenger on the Heartland Flyer to connect to most of the Amtrak system from the Chief. Would passengers be willing to make connections at the wee hours of the morning? Amtrak has a connecting bus which has been running for a while between the Heartland Flyer and the Southwest Chief at Newton. Ridership on that bus has been doing very well, with reports of sold out buses on some recent holiday weekends. This will be a fairly simple project to do using the existing equipment with a second crew needed for a round trip.

Amtrak has also been quietly adding improved bus service for the Sunset Limited to Phoenix from Maricopa, with a stop at Tempe. Amtrak has also added bus connections to the California Zephyr at Denver to towns along Interstates 25 and 80 in northern Colorado and along the southern part of Wyoming. These and other bus connections to Amtrak exist but despite limited information about them, people are also riding them.

Northeast Regional Amtrak trains which run between Washington, New York and Boston also have a few trains that serve Virginia with stops at Richmond, Norfolk, Newport News and Lynchburg. By next year service will be extended to Roanoke, Virginia, the costs for doing so is largely being paid for by the state of Virginia. As for the the extension of the City of New Orleans to Florida, I expect this will happen. What improves the odds for this is most of the area this service serves is heavily represented by elected Republicans officials who control both Congress and the White House. Extending  the City of New Orleans to Florida will do very well and increase revenues. In an online article from Trains Magazine dated March 3, 2017 “ Amtrak’s Moorman supports Gulf Coast rail service”, Amtrak President Moorman not only supported New Orleans to Florida service. He also supported Amtrak service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans as well as a section of the Crescent splitting at Meridian Mississippi to Fort Worth, Texas. This support was voiced by Mr. Moorman in a letter to the Southern Rail Commission which is politically well connected in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

The future of additional new services on Amtrak are limited by shortages of both passenger cars and locomotives. The cooperation of the freight railroad also can’t be taken for granted. Future expansion of Amtrak service will need more equipment. But with expanded services we will also see more interest and demand around the Country for more Rail Passenger service from other states along other routes.

LESSONS FROM AMTRAK IGNORED WHEN CONTEMPLATING PRIVATIZATION OF AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL

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By M.E. Singer

In view of the harsh lessons reflecting upon the intentions and promises in creating Amtrak vs. its outcome, and with Congress apparently ignoring the reality of history, I was compelled to address the facts as they are known, when The Hill raised the platitudes and issues over the privatization of the nation’s Air Traffic Control system (ATC) in “Senators Pan Trump’s Air Traffic Control Plan,” 7 June.

As Congress lacks a vibrant institutional memory; expert transportation writers in the media have gone the way of the stick shift in autos; and the public is led like lemmings against their own interest by well-paid lobbyists, a caveat for those now telling us how privatizing Air Traffic Control (ATC) is the best idea since chopped liver. To appreciate what will be in play when privatizing ATC, I suggest benchmarking with the rationale for and history of Amtrak, knowing how it was created and orphaned by the federal government.

Historically, when the Penn Central went bankrupt in 1970, but two years after its creation, its demise crippled rail service throughout the Northeast. Given the fear of how the dynamics of such a significant economic hit could metastasize across the country to negatively impact the remaining railroads, the federal government and railroad industry were concerned over the real potential of complete economic failure leading towards nationalizing the railroads.

The first step to avert this calamity (a narrative vividly pushed by the railroad industry) was for the federal government to offload the passenger services–and debts–from the railroads. Ironically, such costs were accrued over decades of excessive regulations and taxes incurred by the railroads, while competing against a federal bias that fully funded the infrastructure for competitive modes of transportation with their own designated trust funds, i.e., air, highway, inland barges.

The last knife into the network of passenger trains operated by the privately-owned railroads was in 1967, when the U.S. Mail was unilaterally pulled off of these trains, including the railway post offices and bulk mail. In many cases, the mail contracts had allowed for the continuation of passenger services under restrictive federal and state ICC regulations while avoiding a deficit operation, which later required the cross-subsidization from freight revenues to maintain any semblance of passenger services. By moving such lucrative contracts to the competitive modes of air and truck, the federal government ensured the rapid demise of the passenger train leading up to the Railpax legislation by Congress in October, 1970.

Although Congress followed through the initial Railpax legislation structuring Amtrak to become operational in 1971 as a “for profit” quasi-public entity, Congress failed to ensure any potential for Amtrak to be successful in a growing competitive marketplace. Congress denied Amtrak consistent, multi-year funding authorization to facilitate its budgeting, planning, and equipment acquisition/modernization programs to rehabilitate and expand routes and services at the lowest possible cost. Instead, Amtrak became a financial outlier–and political target of think tanks and lobbyists–falling into the annual congressional budgetary process and circus-style hearings.

Unlike other modes, Amtrak was not provided by Congress a dedicated fund, e.g., air, highway, and inland waterways trust funds, siloed from any other distribution. Also, Congress prevented Amtrak from having a dedicated ticket tax; or, even to receive 1¢ from every dollar of the gasoline tax. Alas, contrary to the initial enthusiastic announcements for an energetic future, Amtrak was to be restricted pretty much to the routes it had inherited upon takeover from the private railroads. (Note-the last new long distance route established by Amtrak was the Auto Train in 1983; only due to a persistent railroad experienced CEO, W. Graham Claytor.)

In the regulatory area, Congress failed to protect Amtrak’s operational relationship with the Class 1 freight railroads, whose right-of-way Amtrak depended upon beyond the Northeast Corridor. As these Class 1s successfully merged and eliminated redundant mainlines through the benefit of being de-regulated, they acquired a market savvy to build upon new competitive services, e.g., intermodal (stacked containers traveling faster and cheaper than trucks.) Per the initial Railpax agreement of 1970, Amtrak was to pay actual user fees to these railroads to access their privately-owned infrastructure, with the clear understanding of receiving priority dispatching.

However, as rail traffic increased across the reduced lanes shared with Amtrak, the freight railroads determined they were underpaid for the increased value of track access and slots for dispatching. Consequently, freight was designated the priority for dispatchers, at the expense of the on-time performance of passenger trains. Despite paying increased user fees to the Class 1 freight railroads, as well as (questionable) performance bonuses, on top of excessive schedule padding to appease the Class 1s, Amtrak schedule reliability was stabbed by freight interference; destroying the raisin d’être for Amtrak as a competitive mode, outside the Northeast Corridor. Consequently, any idea of increasing Amtrak frequencies, let alone expansion of new routes to serve market demand, was consistently met by intransigence of the Class 1s towards access restrictions and high financial demands for infrastructure improvements to even contemplate any such increased services.

As a creation of Congress, Amtrak naturally found its comfort zone on the Potomac, focused upon serving the Northeastern political power bloc, at the expense of the national network system. In 1976, the Northeastern politicians secured and foisted upon Amtrak the Northeast Corridor between Boston-New York-Washington (and Philadelphia-Harrisburg), but without the requisite continuous funding to repair and maintain the vastly deferred infrastructure.

However, the clout of the Northeast politicians also extended into the day-to-day management and decision process of Amtrak. To accomplish this goal, the Northeast political cartel positioned influential denizens of the Northeast as a majority bloc on Amtrak’s Board of Directors to do their bidding. In turn, Amtrak’s Board succumbed to their political puppet masters and brought on as CEOs their chums from the Northeast between 2005-2016. Despite having no railroad operational experience, these three CEOs came with the political acumen to divert funds, with the obvious blessings of the Board, from the national network to support the prized Northeast Corridor, hemorrhaging from massive infrastructure requirements.

As well, this Board, through its politicized CEOs, devised a congressional mandate in 2008 that required all state train services under 750 miles to pay according to Amtrak’s own full cost methodology. That is, all but the Northeast Corridor (despite being less than 450 miles between Boston-New York-Washington). The same congressional mandate, the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, also required commuter lines using the Northeast Corridor to pay for such operations; yet, Amtrak never pushed to collect payments until ordered by Congress, but not until December, 2015. Of course, these additional funds were not utilized, as derived from, to support state-supported routes, but rather, to be re-directed further fill-in the black hole of the favored Northeast Corridor.

Today, Amtrak’s long distance services languish and are at risk of being de-funded for political purposes with the FY18 budget, despite the fact how these routes directly serve rural and “flyover” towns, linking them to cities across the country. Interestingly, the average passenger rail miles traveled on these long distance trains, 800 miles, is actually equivalent to the airlines.

Indeed, when it comes to Air Traffic Control (ATC), their is much to learn from how Amtrak was envisioned, promised to the public; yet, allowed to wilt away, complying with persistent political interference directing routes and services. As a result, we have a situation today where Amtrak inconsistently consumes a significantly higher level of funds to support the prized Northeast Corridor infrastructure and overhead. This has continued to be at the expense of the national network of long distance, and state-supported routes, in keeping with the influential politics of but one region over the rest of the nation.

The caveat is to learn the lessons of past similar promises by benchmarking to how the federal government previously involved itself in market decisions; opening itself up to the undue parochial influences of particular regions prone to injecting themselves into a better deal, at the expense of everybody else.

What isn’t on the new May Amtrak timetable but should be because it is running

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Report by Anthony Lee with Russ Jackson

Amtrak no longer prints a national timetable as they had been doing since day one in 1971.  Instead, the entire national schedule appears on line as it would have been, if printed.  It isn’t easy to find, but here is how you can get it:  Go to
https://www.amtrak.com/train- schedules-timetables  ; When you get to that page, a small blue line half way down says,
Amtrak System Timetable – May 2017 (PDF, 6MB)  There it is, all 138 pages, and you can print the pages you want.

Amtrak has been adding some bus connections to the long distance trains.  The connection that started last year for the Southwest Chief between Newton, Kansas, and Oklahoma City that connects with the Heartland Flyer can be found on page 79.  New this year is the connection to/from the Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle at Maricopa, Arizona to Phoenix, making a formal connection that has been needed since 1997.  Its schedule, seen below, is found on page 82 of the new timetable.

Amtrak Sunset Limited bus connection0012

Amtrak Sunset Limited bus connection

However, there is a new bus route that cannot be found in the timetable unless you know it’s there and try to book a ticket on it.  That’s a bus connection to/from Wyoming to the California Zephyr at Denver.  This new thruway bus service is provided by Powder River Stage lines, serving the Wyoming cities along Interstate 80 and along the Interstate 25 corridor in Colorado.  It follows the former routes of the Desert Wind/Pioneer trains that were eliminated in 1997 and the BNSF’s The Cowboy line that ran to Billings, Montana, from Denver, which hasn’t run since the 1960s.  The new bus connection will be serving the Powder River Basin region, the state Capitol Cheyenne, the University of Wyoming at Laramie, Colorado State University at Ft. Collins, plus the cities of Douglas, Buffalo, Casper, Evanston, Rawlins, Rock Springs, and Wheatland in Wyoming, and Greeley, Colorado.  This route is similar to the long bus routes in California that connect with the Capitol Corridor, the San Joaquins, and the Pacific Surfliners.

Anthony Lee discovered this new bus route, and with some research we found that it does exist and tickets are available.  On http://www.amtrak.com we entered the request for a ticket from Laramie, WY, to Omaha, NE.  The following ticket was confirmed:

Amtrak Wyoming bus ticket request

Amtrak Wyoming bus ticket request

But, wait a minute.  What if folks who would use that new connection tried looking in the traditional place…the timetable?  Was there any publicity about this bus distributed in Wyoming or Colorado?  We don’t know.  We decided to write to Amtrak Customer Service Support to tell them about this, which we did on Thursday, May 25.  The reply came back on Saturday, May 27.  It said, “Thank you for contacting us in regard to your travel plans.  The connection from Cheyenne, WY or Laramie, WY to Omaha, NE is by a bus from Cheyenne or Laramie to Denver, CO and an Amtrak train from Denver to Omaha.  Thank you for bringing it to our attention that the bus schedule is not in the published timetable.  We have sent your feedback to our Scheduling Department.  Meanwhile, you can view the schedule by entering your departure and arrival stations, the date and number of passenger(s) under the tab Buy Tickets on amtrak. com.  We hope this information is helpful.  Sincerely, (signed) Amtrak Customer Service.”  How about that?  Well, that was a good response and is appreciated.  However, this article is written on June 8 and no change is evident on the Amtrak site related to this bus.  Looks like we will have to wait until the  October timetable.

What’s Happening With Rail Service in San Diego (With Photos and Graphics)

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By Noel T. Braymer

There is constant construction planned in San Diego County to upgrade tracks and stations to support more and hopefully faster rail passenger service in San Diego County. As of now up to 50 trains a day run one way along the coast between Oceanside and San Diego. Current plans call for up to 67 trains by 2020. Today that includes 24 Pacific Surfliner trains and 22 Coaster trains. By 2020 that number should be 26 Surfliners and 30 Coasters which by 2030 it goes to 36 Surfliner and 54 Coaster trains. There will also be additional freight and Metrolink service planned in the future. San Diego County owns the 60 miles of coastal track running from the Orange County Line to downtown San Diego. San Diego County plans to spend $1 billion dollars to upgrade the railroad in San Diego County. Currently 68% of the railroad is double tracked. By 2025 it is expected that the line will be 90% double tracked. What San Diego County is doing is putting off the most expensive and shorter segments of the remaining 6 miles of track for last. By 2050 the plan is to have 99% of the railroad double tracked.

This is a brochure from San Diego County showing the planning as of 2015 for upgrading the 60 miles of track in the county.

This is the final half of the brochure on the ongoing track work in San Diego County.

Much of the current construction is being funded in part by a grant last year of $82 million dollars from the State for rail passenger projects. This money went for other projects besides in San Diego County including extending double tracking 1.8 miles from the Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo station to just north of the San Juan Capistrano station in Orange County. Also money was approved to lease for 5 years 2 sets of Talgo equipment for the Pacific Surfliner equipment pool. Starting from the north of San Diego County going south, lets look at what projects will be built in the next 6 years or so. There is roughly 16 miles of railroad along the coast in Camp Pendleton in northern San Diego County. Most of this is double tracked. But there is 1.6 miles of single track between San Onofre and Pulgas. This will require replacing at least one single track bridge which may be part of the hold up. There is funding for this project for planning, but construction funding is still to be announced.

The project now being finished is the construction of a third track and platform at Oceanside. The problem at Oceanside was having Coaster or Metrolink trains terminate at Oceanside tied up one of the 2 main tracks at the station. Quite often the trains would deadhead to a yard in Camp Pendleton, then move back to be in position for awaiting passengers. With a third platform and track, it will be possible for Coaster and Metrolink trains laying over at Oceanside to pull off of the 2 mainline tracks at the station during a layover. This will increase the station’s track capacity and avoid deadhead moves for trains laying over. The third track and platform is now in service. But it will be a few more months before all three platforms and tracks are in service. Platform 1 is now out of service for some upgrades and it is likely the same may happen at platform 2. All three platforms will be in service before the end of the year.

Photo of the new 3rd track and platform at the south end of the Oceanside Transit Center. Photo by Noel T. Braymer

Work is starting this year to be finished next year at the Poinsettia station for the Coaster trains in the south part of Carlsbad in the La Costa neighborhood. This station is double tracked and has 2 field side platforms. The problem is to get across the tracks passengers now cross them at grade. What this means is when a Coaster train is stopped at the Poinsettia Station, no other trains can pass through the station until all passengers have left the platforms and the Coaster train has left the station. What is going to be built are longer and slightly higher platforms, a new fence between the tracks and a pedestrian tunnel to allow passengers to walk between platforms. This will safely allow more trains to travel through the Poinsettia station, increasing the track capacity of this track segment while improving safety. Both Oceanside and Poinsettia stations are getting platforms raised from 8 to 15 inches above rail to speed up loading on low level loading passenger cars. So why is this station named Poinsettia? Where do you think most of the poinsettia flowers come from for Christmas each year: south Carlsbad of course.

Also in south Carlsbad will be built a new double tracked bridge at Batiquitos Lagoon which will add 3 quarters of a mile of double tracking. This will be built at the border between Carlsbad and Encinitas. This will connect segments of double track in south Carlsbad to double tracking in most of Encinitas. This same principle will be used in many places in San Diego County to build new concrete double tracked bridges to link existing segments of double tracking. The new bridges are replacing old wooden single track bridges, all of which are over 50 years old and expensive to maintain. The new bridges are also higher to better survive future floods. Work for this bridge is planned to start this year and be finished by 2019.

Another concrete double tracked bridge now under construction over the San Elijo Lagoon between Encinitas and Solana Beach. This will include a new bridge and 1.5 miles of new double tracking. With the new bridges at Batiquitos and San Elijo lagoons, there will be continuous double tracking from Solana Beach to South Carlsbad by 2019. There are plans by 2020 to build a new double track bridge at the north border of Oceanside over the San Luis Rey River with a mile of new double track. This will create double tracking through most of Camp Pendleton and to the southern border of Oceanside. Between Oceanside and Carlsbad is 1.1 miles of single track which includes the Buena Vista Lagoon and the Carlsbad Village Coaster station which was built for single track service. This project isn’t planned until 2030. This strongly suggests this will be an expensive and difficult project.

Photo of work underway to double track and replace the existing wooden bridge at San Elijo Lagoon. Photo by Noel T. Braymer

Two other projects planned around 2030 are a new bridge over the San Dieguito River in Del Mar by the San Diego County Fairgrounds and 2 miles of double track between Sorrento and Miramar. Between Sorrento and Miramar is the slowest running, with the steepest grades and tightest curves for this rail line. To raise speeds from 25 to 40 miles per hour will cost at least $100 million dollars. The only project on this line which is more expensive would be a tunnel under Del Mar which would be in the range of over a billion dollars and is not expected before 2050.

Most of the rest of the double tracked construction in San Diego between 2016 and 2019 will be between University City and Old Town. This work is being done as part of a joint project with the San Diego Trolley light rail extension of the Blue Line from downtown to Old Town, the campus of the University of California at San Diego and the nearby University City neighborhood. This is a 11 mile, $2.1 billion dollar project for the Trolley which has been in planning for almost 30 years. This will provide continuous light rail service from the Mexican border to downtown San Diego, Old Town up to University City.

San Diego County map of the extension of the Trolley Blue Line 11 miles to UCSD and University City. This is a joint project to also extend existing double tracking from Miramar  Road and Elvira by the 52 Freeway while straightening and double tracking to Morena and double tracking the bridge over the San Diego River by Old Town.

Between Old Town and La Jolla the Blue Line extension will share right of way with the existing railroad. The Trolley already shares the right of way with the Coast Line from downtown to Old Town. Elvira starts near the 52 freeway. There is now double tracking between Elvira and Miramar through Rose Canyon. On a 2.6 mile segment between Elivra and Morena which roughly ends at Balboa Blvd the Coast Line will get double tracked and realigned to straighten out some slow curves.This will also include replacing 3 old bridges with new double tracked ones.  This project too has been in the planning stages for almost 30 years. At the San Diego River just north of Old Town construction has been underway for about a year for a new double tracked bridge of the Coast Line. This will create double tracking from downtown San Diego past Elvira to the existing double track to Miramar. This work is planned to be finished by 2018.

This is new grading on the joint right of way for the Blue Line extension which will be built to the east of the Coast Line railroad.

Construction of a new rail bridge over the San Diego River seen from the train with a dirty widow on the existing bridge. Photo by Noel T. Braymer

My Train Trip To Los Angeles For Lunch (With Photos by author)

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By Noel T. Braymer

On Sunday of the Memorial Day Weekend I decided to go for a train ride to Los Angeles. With the $10 dollar weekend day pass on Metrolink, I couldn’t find a better deal. This is the first time I’ve ridden Metrolink on a weekend since the pass was introduced. For over 20 years I’ve usually worked on the weekends. I didn’t mind since the weekend are usually quiet at work and shopping during the week was less hectic than on the weekends. Since I am easing into retirement I thought this would be a good time to try Metrolink’s weekend day pass. I didn’t want to make a full day of it so of the 4 round trip weekend Metrolink trains between Oceanside and Los Angeles, I took the second late morning train of the day. This would get me to Los Angeles in time for a late lunch at my favorite Mexican food place in Chinatown. As usual it was busy so I feel no need to advertise it to make it more crowded.

I got to the Oceanside station at least a half hour early in case there was a long line to buy tickets. Both ticket machines were working for once and there was no one in front of me at the ticket machine when I got my ticket. The machine was selling only day passes so buying a ticket was easier and faster than on a weekday with no stations to find the button for. Only when I finished getting my day pass did I notice people coming to buy day passes behind me. Like most of my train trips I was on the hunt for good pictures to take. I couldn’t help noticing several new major construction projects next to the tracks not far from the Oceanside Transit Center which is also the train station. It reminds me of the development that has happened around the downtown San Diego train station. I believe that the same company which owns most of the land around the San Diego station is behind the new development in Oceanside. I know that when the ATSF and the SP were planning to merge they first combined all their real estate property into a separate independent company. The ATSF dropped out of the merger and later the SP was bought by the UP, but the new land company owning the former SP and Santa Fe properties remained. It has changed names and owners a few times over the years and sold Los Angeles Union Station to LA Metro. Between San Diego and Oceanside, business seems to be good for this company.

View of new apartments under construction next to the train station at Oceanside

While traveling next to the I-5, the freeway between San Diego and Los Angeles and up to Seattle, I noticed in the middle of the day traffic southbound was stop and go into Oceanside and into San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente. This happens most of the time when I ride the train. Better rail service would go a long way to reducing traffic congestion. But that will require some expensive track work to get full double tracking between Los Angeles and San Diego where the tracks are near the ocean. Without rushing, the train arrived in Los Angeles at least 12 minutes early. I was to learn later there was extra schedule padding for the weekend trains. I checked around Union Station to see if anything was new and headed out for lunch. I looked inside the old Fred Harvey Restaurant site which has been closed since 1967 at Union Station. The restoration work is finished and I could see signs of work to bring in a new restaurant at the historic building was ongoing. Hopefully we might see a new restaurant there by next year. I checked out the self-service bike rental service at Union Station. You can use your credit card to rent a bike for $3.50 for not a day, but for a half hour. It’s cheaper to bring your own bike. Speaking of bikes they (being the station owner LA Metro) are building a bike storage building called the Bike Hub on the north end of the station near the old Postal Annex. Next to the bike building is where they moved the Dodger stadium shuttle bus for Dodger games. Los Angeles Union Station is being transformed from just an old train station into making Los Angeles the surface transportation hub for Southern California.

Banner at LAUS at construction site for future Bike Hub to encourage more people to ride bikes in downtown Los Angeles

The Dodger Stadium shuttle bus at its new location at the north end of LAUS next to the future Bike Hub

This is the current Little Tokyo station. By 2021 it will be replaced with a subway station as part of the Regional Connector subway.

After a satisfying lunch, I had almost 3 hours to explore. Since the last train home on Metrolink left in the late afternoon, I didn’t want to miss it. So I mostly checked out the route of the Regional Connector tunnel which will bring the Blue, Expo and Gold Light Rail Lines together through downtown Los Angeles. I was able to use my weekend day pass to ride the southbound Gold Line train to the Little Tokyo stop. The current Little Tokyo station will be replaced by 2021 with a subway station across the street which will extend Blue Line trains from Long Beach on the Gold Line to Pasadena and to the east. It will also extend the Expo Line to East Los Angeles on what is now the Gold Line. One problem with trying to take pictures in Los Angeles of its many rail transit projects is most of the work now is underground. I walked along 2nd St which is above the route of the Regional Connector between Flower St and Little Tokyo. Doing so I was able to find the 2nd and Hope Streets station site. This station is near the popular Music Center  with the Dorthy Chandler Pavilion and  Walt Disney Concert Hall as well as the recently built Los Angeles Cathedral. The station is on top of Bunker Hill which has many large office buildings, but the Regional Connector tunnel and platforms will be something like 5 stories below the 2nd and Hope station entrance. The plan is to use large elevators to carry passengers to and from the trains to street level. Doing so with escalators was deemed impractical in such a confined space.

This is at 2nd St and Hope which is where the Regional Connector station will serve the Bunker Hill area of downtown LA.

Another view from Second and Hope of the nearby Dorthy Chandler Pavilion, the Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Headquarters for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

I next walked down Hope to 7th and Flower Streets and caught the next light rail train to the Pico and Flower Station. This is where light rail in downtown Los Angeles comes to the surface and the Blue line runs on Flower St before turning left on Washington to its mainline to Long Beach. The Expo Line continues on Flower south of Washington turning rights on Exposition Blvd which is on its mainline to Santa Monica. There is lots of construction with 4 skyscrapers under construction along Pico on the block between Flower and Figueroa. On Figueroa is the huge Los Angeles Convention Center and the Staples Center which is the arena for professional basketball and Ice Hockey in Los Angeles. Just this station will increasingly become a major station to handle the increased traffic from all this construction. The main bottlenecks are the traffic lights on Flower St south of Pico which don’t give Light Rail priority over road traffic.

View of the area around the the Flower and Pico light rail station in downtown Los Angeles.

From Pico I walked down Flower to 18th Street which is parallel to the 10 freeway. This is one of the biggest bottlenecks on Flower for Light Rail. 18th St is a T shaped intersection where the east side of 18th St turns into an on ramp for the east bound freeway. Flower St crosses the T but Light Rail trains normally carrying hundreds of passengers usually have to stop to let cars turning left across the tracks to get on the freeway, and then cars on 18th street to cross Flower and the tracks to also get on the freeway before the trains are allowed to pass. LA Metro is responsible for transportation in most of Los Angeles County including rail transit. But the City of Los Angeles has control of the roads in the city, and the city traffic engineers don’t want to give priority for the Light Rail trains on the streets of Los Angeles. LA Metro is looking at building grade separations on Flower to improve service for the Blue and Expo Lines.

This is a long view of the 10 Freeway over Flower St and the 18th St on ramp which is a major bottleneck for Light Rail on Flower

Here we see a car crossing the tracks to enter the 10 freeway at Flower and 18th street.

A train waiting at 18th St, the signal at the left hand side on the sidewalk is for a stop for light rail.

The train still stopped at 18th St as cars are allowed to cross Flower St from 18th St.

Finally the train has the signal to proceed and continue down Flower St.

By this time I had over an hour before I had to catch my train home, but I decided to get to Union Station early to make sure I didn’t miss the last train of the day home. I walked up to the platform where my train was over a half hour before train time. I was not alone on the platform with other people waiting to get on the train. Usually during the week days Metrolink crews open the train doors at least 30 minutes before departure. At the very least this reduces crowding on the platforms and a rush to get on the train. The crew of this train opened the train doors around 15 minutes before departure. What was very unusual was the crew didn’t give the customary 5 minute and 1 minute announcements before departure. With no warning the doors closed and with a lurch the train left the station. It was all very humdrum until we came to Santa Ana. We approached Santa Ana very slowly and came to a halt for a while with the train blocking Santa Ana Blvd which is along side the station. There was an announcement that wasn’t very clear that had something to do with the platform. Once we stopped in Santa Ana we sat for several minutes without an explanation. In the meantime a northbound Metrolink train arrived at the station, stopped and continued on while we sat. Then the train backed up. Finally we continues on our way about 15 minutes late. I don’t know what happened. But I did see a man in a wheel chair waiting as we entered the station at a handicap ramp on the north side of the platform. Did the engineer overshot the handicap ramp coming in? Who knows.

We were a good 15 minutes late by the time we got to San Juan Capistrano. As we approached the north end of Sierra Siding I could see the late northbound Metrolink train from Oceanside held at the siding to let us pass. Yet despite this we arrived in Oceanside about 5 minutes early. It takes about 90 minutes without traffic problems to drive the 90 miles from Oceanside to Los Angeles. By Amtrak it takes just under 2 hours. By Metrolink it is scheduled for  around 2 hours and 7 minutes depending on the train with about 10 minutes of padding. On a good day Metrolink trains often arrive 5 to 10 minutes early into Union Station. On the weekend trains, the schedule was more like 2 hours and 15 minutes between Oceanside and Los Angeles. It makes me think that with a few improvements the trains could run on time with tighter schedules in less time. The new locomotives for Metrolink have been delivered but are not yet in service. When in service they should go a long way in improving service reliability.

In closing I am pleased that starting this Memorial Day weekend, Metrolink is pushing to increase ridership and revenue on the weekends. This Memorial Day, Metrolink didn’t for once reduce or not run trains, but kept their weekend schedule. I hope Metrolink does this for all the major holidays. Metrolink is promoting beach train service to San Clemente and Oceanside while now accepting surfboards on the trains as well as connecting travel out of Los Angeles. With the day pass, passengers can transfer for trips on LA Metro to Hollywood, Universal Studios, the beach at Santa Monica or Long Beach and many other places without dealing with traffic or finding parking. I believe there is more Metrolink can do to increase ridership with discretionary travel both on the weekend and week day non rush hours. This will need more frequent trains on the off peak times to attract more riders. This will be easier to do on the weekends when equipment and track capacity will be available. This can also make it easier to make connections between Metrolink lines as well as with Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trains. Also promoting better connections to major airports, theme parks and special events ( Rose Parade for example) would improve ridership and Metrolink revenues.

 

A view from the train at San Clemente with posters promoting using the train to go surfing and to ride Metrolink to Angeles Baseball games.

View from behind LAUS of some of the new EMD 125 locomotives for Metrolink which are Tier 4 from emissions which is the lowest now available.

Why People Ride Trains: Its All About Service

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By Noel T. Braymer

People travel, by train or by other modes for many reasons. These include work, business, pleasure, to visit family, friends or for an once in a lifetime experience. Any mode of transportation that someone depends on a carrier is a service. People like good service and are unhappy when service is poor. Many factors make up good service with rail service. For a commuter going to work, a major factor is getting to work on time. For someone getting a sleeper on a long distance train, service includes a good meal, great scenery, working toilets and the chance to talk to interesting people on the train. For many people in between its being able to go where you want to go, when you want to be there with reasonable comfort, safety and price. This all sounds so basic, but is not always available.

Recently Metrolink started accepting surfboards on their trains. What took them so long? There have been beach trains on the Inland Empire/Orange County trains for years to beaches at San Clemente and Oceanside. Carrying surfboards should encourage more passengers to ride Metrolink. Metrolink also has storage for bicycles, in fact the bicycle storage areas will be used for surfboards too. There are lots of times when people want to travel besides during rush hour. Many of these people want to go to the beach or to go somewhere that will be a place for a good bike ride. People travel all through the day and not just during rush hours. Getting more of this discretionary travel is critical to filling up trains and bringing in revenues that keeps rail critics at bay. On the Surfliners and the San Joaquins I know that Fridays and Sundays are very busy. But what can be done to increase ridership on these and other passenger trains when traffic is light? The key is to provide service for markets that people are more likely to want to travel when they have free time and ridership is light. Also discounting tickets is a common practice to fill up empty intercity buses and airplanes.

Metrolink is offering discount tickets on the Perris Valley Line in Riverside County. This service has potential. A major problem with using it is, about the only place you can use it is for trips to northern Orange County and Los Angeles in the morning and returning to Riverside County at night. This makes making connections to other trains at other locations like Riverside very difficult. There is bus service to San Diego County from Perris. But there is only one bus to Oceanside and another to Escondido in each direction in the morning and evening, and it requires a change of buses from both cities in San Diego County to get to the Perris Metrolink Station. Discount tickets can help, but for discretionary travelers, destinations are as important as economy. You can’t go if the train won’t get you from where you are or to where you want to go.

Comparing Metrolink trains to the Surfliners, what is noticeable is Metrolink trains are busy during rush hours, while Surfliner are busiest during the weekends. This is particularly true during holiday weekends which Amtrak in general to their credit prepare to carry as many people and bring in as much needed revenue as possible. By comparison, Metrolink has rather limited weekend service, and that is often reduced or eliminated during holiday weekends. Now it is understandable that we don’t want Metrolink and Surfliner trains competing against each other. But Metrolink serves many places that Surfliner trains don’t. This includes the San Gabriel Valley, Antelope Valley and the Inland Empire. Even if passengers want to travel to or from these places to places served by Surfliners, it’s okay on the weekends to ride Metrolink to them. That’s because the Surfliners are usually full on the weekends and Metrolink trains are mostly in the yard out of service.

Metrolink has generally ignored discretionary travel since its beginning. But this is a major travel market with people traveling to have a good time or visit family and friends outside of rush hour. Metrolink for years has sold Amtrak tickets at its ticket machines. But how many people transfer between Metrolink and Amtrak? I see very little information on line or at the stations letting people know about connections between Metrolink and Amtrak. At least when you order airline tickets on line, you are shown many prices and combination of connections to get to when and where you want to go. These often include listing connections between different airlines that cooperate to carry passengers to more destinations. I know both Amtrak and Metrolink have on line search engines on their websites that list trains and routes to get you to where you want to go. But I don’t think these services will show connections between Amtrak and Metrolink or offer joint ticketing for both services. Why hasn’t this been done?

This Memorial Weekend we may be seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. This coming holiday weekend Metrolink will run regular service Friday through Sunday during the Memorial Day Weekend, instead of reducing service as they have done in the past. On Memorial Day Metrolink will run a normal Sunday schedule on all lines except the Ventura County and Riverside Lines. Also there won’t be service between Perris and Riverside. During the holiday weekend Metrolink is promoting Beach Train service and service to downtown Los Angeles with free connections to rail and bus service at Union Station to many attractions in the LA Metro area.

If you want people to take the train, it must go where and when people want to go. In most of California people are traveling from early in the morning to late at night, 7 days a week. San Diego is a popular destination by train for many people. So is San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. But there are places Metrolink travels to which are also worth going,  many of which Surfliner trains don’t go to. There is Magic Mountain in Santa Clarita and Knotts Theme Park in Buena Park and Disneyland at Anaheim. There is old downtown Orange, Claremont, Riverside, San Juan Capistrano, Oceanside and Fullerton all near their train stations. These towns all have charm and things to do and see for tourists, This is short list of places to go on Metrolink which could also connect with Amtrak. Most people who see a twenty dollar bill on the ground would pick it up and put in their wallet if there was no sign of the owner. Well ignoring the potential of discretionary travel with Metrolink to so many places on the weekends and off peak travel times is like ignoring thousands of twenty dollars bills just lying there waiting to be picked up.

Train Riding Around Dublin (with photos)

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By Noel T. Braymer

During my 2 week vacation in Dublin in the first half of May this year, I did what I often do: ride the local trains. I don’t consider myself a railfan as such. But there is much to learn about a city and a region from its transportation system. Also there is much to learn from other regions from their successes and their failures. Dublin is an old city and has a high population density. The result of this much of the development was done in the past without zoning laws. So you find housing, businesses, pubs, shops and factories all mixed together. A result of this is it is a short walk for people to stores, doctor offices, housing, pubs and jobs in many cases. There is heavy use of bus service. Routing is often confusing since the road system is not a grid system and bus lines often share major roads, then branch off to different routes. There are suburban areas that have freeway like roadways and shopping centers akin to what you see in most of the United States. But the hub of Dublin is the old city along both banks of the River Liffey. There is no place or money to build freeways through the heart of Dublin. But what Dublin has is a network of rail lines with lots of capacity to connect the whole Dublin Region.

Dublin since the late 1980’s has been building incrementally an improved regional passenger rail network. At the heart of this is DART or Dublin Area Rapid Transit. The DART trains are EMU’s with overhead catenary. It is more a hybid commuter rail service than a rail transit service. Trains run roughly north to south along the coast of the Irish Sea between Ireland and Britain every 15 minutes with long high capacity trains. DART has branches in the north to Howth and Malahide, serves major uptown stations at Connolly, Tara St, Pearse and Grand Canal Dock and then runs south to Greystones. There have been many plans to extend DART, which are held back by lack of founding.

A DMU DART Commuter train  arriving at Connolly Station in Dublin. In the back ground is a DART EMU train. Photo by Noel T. Braymer

This the official map for DART with the green lines showing the DART Route. The blue lines are the routes of DART Commuter. The red line is for the LUAS Red Line which connect Heuston Station with Connolly Station

What is interesting is over the last 10-15 years there has been a growing system of Dublin Commuter rail services. These trains largely run during rush hours but many lines also have service during the day and weekends, These trains use Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) trainsets which have better acceleration than locomotive hauled trains. Most passenger equipment including Intercity services are in Ireland are using DMU trains, so outside of freight service, very few locomotives are seen on the rails these days. The commuter trains share many of the same tracks in central Dublin and stations with DART. Transferring between DART and Dublin Commuter trains open up travel to many places in the Dublin Metro area.

This is from a screenshot on Google Maps which shows the route of the new DART Commuter train which bypasses Heuston Station and continues south recrossing the Liffey just past the International Financial Services Centre. The tunnel is just north of the river where the black line is in the green shaded area.

In Dublin I took a ride on a new Dublin Commuter service which started late last year. There are limited connections to the suburban areas west of central Dublin directly by train. The 1844 Heuston Station is a stub end station at the west end of central Dublin. What has been done is improve an existing 1877 freight tunnel to operate thru service from the West to the coastal job rich stations in Dublin to the east. Back in 2008 there was planning to build a new tunnel along the south bank of the River Liffey to extend rail service from the east of Dublin to Heuston Station and to the area to the west. The financial crash of 2008 put this project on hold. So using this existing tunnel goes part of the way of what was planned back in 2007. For now there is only service with about 7 trains eastbound in the morning rush hours and westbound in the afternoon rush hours. There are future plans to extend service as ridership grows throughout the day and weekends. For me to take the train, I rode on DART to Pearse Station which is one station north of the current terminal for this new service at Grand Canal Dock. I caught the first afternoon departure west. After getting west of Heuston area, I got off and took a train back to Heuston and rode a crowded rush hour LUAS train to east Dublin.

View of the tunnel heading west and by passing Heuston Station enroute to Hazelhatch.

When we got off the new train at a suburban station west of Heuston Station to return home, we found ourselves in the middle platform of a busy 4 track station with 2 additional fieldside platforms.Photo by Noel T. Braymer

One last project happening in Dublin is the extension of the LUAS Light Rail Green Line north to Bloombridge. The current LUAS system is almost 23 route miles on 2 lines, the Red and Green with 54 stations. The under construction LUAS Cross City project will extend the LUAS roughly 3 and a half miles (5.6 km) and add 13 more stations . The Cross City project will extend the existing Green Line from south of the Liffey to the North Side, connect with the east/west Red LUAS Line and serve busy O’Connell Street. This 363 million euro project has been under construction since June 2013 and is expected to be operational by 2018.

This is a screenshot from the LUAS website of both the Red and Green Lines. The blue line shows the CrossCity project now under construction extending the Green Line to connect to the Red Line and end at Broombridge.

This is where the Green Line now ends at St Steven’s Green. The tracks will in the foreground will extend the Green Line north to Broombridge by next year.

This is recent construction for the LUAS Green Line construction across the Liffey and on to O’connell Street. Photo by Noel T. Braymer

Getting To Dublin By Bus, Plane And Train

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By Noel T. Braymer

In going to Dublin, Ireland for a long overdue trip, I wanted to see how well things would work at least for a long trip if I used rail and bus service for coming and going to LAX. For this trip it worked fairly well. By using a non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Dublin with ground transportation from my home some 90 odd miles in Oceanside my travel time was close to what it would be had I flown out of nearby San Diego to a hub airport connection to Dublin. This works on a fairly long distance trip which for me lasted for 2 weeks. Many trips by air are for only one or two days. With jet travel, a business trip of under 600 miles can start early in the morning and a person could be home that night to sleep in their own bed. For such short distance and time trips, taking rail or bus service to the airport wouldn’t work for many people. Besides such trips usually are paid with company expense accounts and are not coming out of the employees pocket. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have improved rail and bus service at airports. Many of the people going to an airport go there to work and their cars add to the traffic congestion and smog around airports. Modest improvements to public transportation could go a long way in reducing traffic congestion around airports as well as making it easier for people to get in and out of the airport, including visitors flying from out of town.

While being car-less for 2 weeks worked for me, it did have its moments of anxiety. I had a 7:50 PM flight to catch in Los Angeles. I got my round trip Amtrak tickets at Oceanside the day before my trip. My plan was to catch Amtrak Surfliner 579 from Oceanside at 2:29 PM and arrive at Los Angeles Union Station by 4:21 PM. I would have time for a snack and bathroom break. I had also bought online and printed round trip tickets for the Los Angeles Union Station Flyaway bus service to LAX which is managed by the operators of the airport. My plan then was to catch the 5:00 PM Flyway Bus from Union Station and to get to my terminal at LAX around 5:45 PM or so. That would give me a good 2 hours before flight time to check in and make my flight with some extra time to spare. One thing I noticed on my train trip was that one of the few doors open for boarding the train was the Cafe/Coach car with seating upstairs and food service downstairs. I had written a few months before about the lack of signage for passengers on the Surfliners to find the Cafe Cars and lack of directions on the announcements for the Cafe Car service to find it. I have seen passengers complaining on board they couldn’t find the Cafe Car not knowing it was on the lower level, not the upper level where passengers walk to get between rail cars. Now there was a permanent sign on the upper level of the car with the Cafe giving directions to the Cafe on the lower level. The electronic signs on the train now also gave directions to get to Cafe at the lower level and the PA announcements now given by the Cafe attendant also gave directions as well as informing passengers that Cafe Service was available.

This is one of the messages on the train to LAUS about Cafe Car service on the Pacific Surfliners. Photo By Noel T. Braymer

I left my house around 1:30 PM and walked about 5 minutes to a nearby bus stop. I have bus service near my place running every 15 minutes during the day on weekdays to downtown Oceanside and the Transit Center which includes the train station. I had time to spare catching the train to Los Angeles. After my quick snack I went to the Flyaway bus stop at the bus station at Union Station. I had read I should be at the bus stop 10 minutes early, so I arrived around 4:50 PM to wait for my bus. The bus arrived a little after 5:10 PM and it took a while to load luggage on the lower level of the bus. There was a good crowd of people on the bus heading for LAX. A Flyaway employee told us the bus was late because of traffic. It was roughly 5:15 PM before the Flyaway Bus left Union Station. The normal travel time to LAX is suppose to be around 35 minutes traveling most of the way in express High Occupancy Vehicle lanes on the Harbor and Century Freeways. But it was now the peak of rush hour traffic in downtown Los Angeles. Traffic was crawling on the surface streets and if anything it got worse as the bus got on the freeway in downtown. It took about 30 minutes to go maybe 5 miles to get on the express lanes on the Harbor Freeway. Even then traffic was sluggish. Instead of arriving at 5:45 PM, I got to my terminal at around 6:10. I still had to check in my bags and get through the security checks.

This is the view of the traffic from the Flyaway Bus shortly after leaving LAUS and trying to get on the freeway. Photo by Noel T. Braymer

When I got to Check In I was the only passenger there for my flight. Most if not all of the other passengers on my flight had already checked in. The airline employees were friendly and relaxed so they didn’t seem worried that I’d miss my flight. At least now the employees at the plane’s gate would know I was there. But I still had to get through the security search train. It was slow and confusing. At least it wasn’t as bad as when I had to transfer terminals at O’hare Airport 2 years ago on my last trip to Dublin. I think the X-ray cylinder from hell that they force you into is a major reason for the slow searches. People have trouble placing their feet and hands in the right position which holds up searches. By the time I got my belt and shoes on and walked to my gate it was almost 6:50 PM which was the time boarding was scheduled to begin. Departure was scheduled for 7:50 PM. But boarding was slow and it was roughly 8:10 PM before the door was closed and the plane pulled away from the gate. Even this took time since we were in a line with other planes waiting to take off. But while the flight was scheduled for 11 hours, the actual flight time was less than 10 hours and 30 minutes which meant we arrived basically on time.

In my next post I’ll write about some of my experiences with train travel in Dublin. After 2 weeks it was time for me to go home. My family in Ireland including my 3 year old grandson came with me to the airport. I didn’t get much sleep that night because my grandson at 3 in the morning wanted to sleep with his grandmother and me. By 8 AM in Dublin by which time I was already out of bed it was still midnight in California. We got to the Dublin Airport hours early by Noon for the 3:00 PM departure. My grandson didn’t want me to leave, but to stay in Dublin. Getting my boarding pass and checking in my bag was very easy and quick. It was mostly self serve, but there was an airline employee to help which I needed since I’m not a frequent flyer. Going through the search train at Dublin was almost a delight. The lines were short and moved quickly. The employees were very polite and the operation seem much smoother than most search trains. I think one major reason for this was while they X-rayed bags and shoes, they didn’t X-ray people. Another thing which sped things up was how they handled the trays you put your stuff in to be X-rayed. Most airports seem to always run out of trays and searching stops for TSA employees to carry stacks of trays often walking through the metal detector in the process. In Dublin the trays are not in stacks. They are on rollers attached to the side of the X-ray machine and are held vertically and not left flat when not moving on the conveyor belt. After you are cleared and have picked up your stuff, you lift the tray and lay it vertically on the rollers along the X-ray machine. If you like you can push your tray and several other trays back to where people need them to get their stuff to be X-rayed. When I was through the Dublin Airport search train I had a Duh moment. I thought, duh!, why don’t all airports use the same system for moving the X-ray trays that they use in Dublin?

My wife and grandson with me on the train in Dublin. Photo by Noel T. Braymer

One thing the Dublin Airport has, which few overseas airports have, is American citizens and permanent residents can go through US Customs and Immigration in Dublin, instead of when you get off the plane in the USA. If you have ever landed at a major airport in this country when several overseas Jumbo Jets land at say LAX and everyone goes through Customs and Immigration at almost the same time, you don’t know what an advantage there is to doing it before you take off. The US Customs and Immigration area is on the right of the hallway on your way to the gates. One thing that is annoying, is first you have to be searched again and then they stick you in the X-ray cylinder from hell. Next you go to machines which scan your passport picture and info, then take a picture of your face to verify your passport with your new picture. Next at the same station you answer 4 or 5 questions on a computer. Last, you talk to a Customs Agent who asks you questions of how much money you spent on your trip etc. The last question was: “Did you take anything with you from this trip?” My answer was “yes, lots of grand memories of my grandson”.

This time I was one of the first passengers to arrive at the gate for my flight home. My flight was scheduled to depart at 3:00 PM. By 3:00 PM everyone was on the plane but we didn’t leave the gate. About 5 minutes after 3:00 PM the plane’s captain came on the intercom to explain that mechanics were working on one of the 2 jet engines and that is why the air conditioning had been shut off. Soon after that the captain announced the work on the jet engine was done and we would soon be off. We left the terminal about 10 after 3 and then got in line behind several other planes in front of us all waiting for clearance to take off. We finally took off around 3:40 PM. But because of padding in the schedule we were expected to land on time in Los Angeles by 6:05 PM. So how can a plane take over 10 hours to fly between Dublin and Los Angeles and leave at 3:40 PM and arrive at 6:05 PM? The eight hours of time zone differences between Dublin and Los Angeles of course.

The plane actually landed 5 minutes early at 6:00 PM. We got to the terminal and then nothing seemed to happen. Turned out they were having problems getting the jet bridge from the terminal to move to get to the plane’s door. It was almost 6:30 PM before we started leaving the plane. By 6:50 PM I had my bag and found the bus stop for the Los Angeles Union Flyaway Bus. The buses are suppose to leave Terminal 1 at 6:40 PM and 7:10 PM. I must have just missed the 6:40 PM bus. At this time I wasn’t sure if the bus would be on time or how bad traffic would be. At 7:15 PM the bus arrived which was basically on time since I wasn’t at Terminal 1. By 7:30 PM the bus left LAX and by 8:00 PM we were at Los Angeles Union Station. For passengers who caught the bus at LAX but didn’t have a ticket for it, they were sent to the Flyaway booth by the bus stop at Union Station which only accepts debit or credit cards, then show their ticket to pick up their luggage. After I got my bag I checked, I went to see the status of the next train to San Diego and what platform it would on.

The Union Station Flyaway Bus at my terminal bus stop. I took this picture before my trip so I would know how and where to catch the bus. Photo By Noel T. Braymer

Amtrak Surfliner 592 was scheduled to depart at 8:25 PM. I got to the train a little after 8:00 PM. Only 2 doors of the 6 cars on the train were open, and a conductor was at each door scanning the tickets and handing out “hatchecks” which are strips of thin cardboard of different colors. The color represented the passenger’s destination and the strips are suppose to be placed in a plastic sleeve overhead above a pair of seats. Usually the conductors places the hatchecks when collecting tickets at the seats. It was a quiet night ride to San Diego. The train reached Oceanside around 10:15 PM. My last leg of this trip was to catch the next bus to get home. I checked the schedule at the bus stop and the next bus was due at 10:34 PM. The last bus of the night was at 11:34 PM. If I had missed the 592 and taken the 796 which if not held would leave at 10:10 PM, I would have missed the last bus home of the night. That would have been a long walk home or a taxi ride. But at least I’d get home even then. I got home around 11:PM and had been awake at least 24 hours when I did. But at least I wasn’t driving.

RailPAC Letter to Amtrak President Moorman

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15th May, 2017

Mr. Charles W. Moorman IV
President and Chief Executive Officer
National Railroad Passenger Corporation
50 Massachusetts Avenue NE
Washington DC 20002

AMTRAK AND THE NATIONAL NETWORK

Dear Mr. Moorman:
The Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada (“RailPAC”) is an all volunteer membership organization that has promoted the improvement andexpansion of passenger rail since 1978. Many of our members spend thousands of dollars each year with Amtrak. Our primary purpose is to advocate sound, value for money services that are both useful transportation and attractive in theirown right. The “value for money” proposition includes taxpayers as well as passengers.

Amtrak does itself, its customers and prospective customers and its employees a deep disservice by undervaluing its largest, and by some objective measures its most successful, group of trains, the national system long distance trains. Candidly Mr. Moorman, we are tired of the shabby treatment meted out to the national network trains. The recent Union Pacific derailment and the subsequent curtailment of the Coast Starlight is a case in point. Curtailment, and later reinstatement of this important service hardly merited a mention on your website. While I understand the difficulties involved with diversions and the provision of buses the failure to adequately publicize the lack of service between Sacramento and Eugene is unforgiveable. It has become the habit of Amtrak to simply turn away your patrons and say that you cannot do anything for them. A BNSF representative stated that Amtrak had not requested BNSF to divert the train via Keddie and Bieber. It is hard to believe that the option was not at least explored.

We have seen some improvements in the standard of service on individual trains over the years, thanks to the initiative of dedicated and creative local managers. Just as these improvements are taking effect and the bottom line improves the momentum is scotched by budget cuts that have minimal impact on costs but result in a deteriorating product and reduced revenues. This pattern has just been repeated with the “reorganization” that has eliminated the positions of the commercial managers who were responsible for the western long distance trains. How can you expect to run a successful fleet of mobile hotels and restaurants without hands on management? Can you imagine for example the cruise industry operating in this way?

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Mr. Charles W. Moorman IV
15th May, 2017

We simply do not buy in to the premise that the long distance trains are a burden. It has to be a far better business proposition to sell long haul transportation over infrastructure that is rented compared to selling short haul trips over infrastructure that you own. It is clear from NRPC’s announcements that the profits claimed for the NEC are at best misleading. It is easy to show a profit if you exclude the greater part of your costs. These include such items as day today maintenance, which are counted as capital expenditures. If your claims of profitability are dubious then why should we accept your claims of losses on the long distance trains?

The decision to make no investments in new rolling stock for the national network trains is a decision to discontinue those trains in the not too distant future. RailPAC does not believe that you have the right to make that decision. Amtrak, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, still has a statutory obligation to maintain and operate a national network and the Federal Government gives you an annual stipend to carry out that task.

Amtrak must rethink how it uses the capital that the country provides to it every year, so that the benefits are more equitably distributed among the people who contribute it. Your most under capitalized markets are in the west, yet year after year, decade after decade, nearly all the capital goes into the northeast, which is by far your smallest market with the least upside for intercity passenger miles. Amtrak cannot improve its results or its role in providing intercity transport by repeating the same strategies over and over again. Now is the time to begin investing a much greater share of your capital resources into all of your western markets. The place to begin is the replacement and expansion of the Superliner fleet, and the locomotives that haul the trains.

I hope I’ll have the opportunity to meet with you to discuss these issues.

Yours faithfully,
Paul J. Dyson, President
pdyson@railpac.org

cc Hon. Elaine Chou, US Secretary of Transportation
cc Mr. Anthony R. Coscia, Chairman of the Board, NRPC
cc RailPAC Board and interested parties.

Let’s Eat!…in today’s Amtrak Dining Cars

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Commentary by Russ Jackson…with photos

When was the last time you had a meal in an Amtrak long distance train Dining Car? Those of us who travel on those trains occasionally notice the changes that may take place from trip to trip, but mostly this experience remains consistent in its presentation, both the in-car experience and the menus. Those readers who have not experienced the cuisine lately may want to see what the experience consists of in 2017. It’s nice to write positively about something we all care about.

In a recent trip report a writer told of his experience on a very long trip. (The number in parentheses is the number of on board meals available to him.) He started from Reno, NV, on the California Zephyr to Chicago (6). His itinerary expanded to the Capitol Limited from Chicago to Washington DC (3), Acela from DC to Boston (2), the Downeaster to and from Maine (2 in Cafe only), the Lake Shore Limited from Boston to Chicago (3), the Texas Eagle Chicago to San Antonio (4), the Sunset Limited San Antonio to Los Angeles (3, notable for no breakfast before arriving at LAUS but snacks available in the First Class Lounge upon arrival), the Coast Starlight from LAUS to Emeryville (2), and the Zephyr back home to Reno (1). While there were a few stopovers, it was an almost continuous trip which would have cost $8,000. But, he did it all with Amtrak Guest Rewards points, meaning he, the railfan, was a frequent traveler. That adds up to 26 meals he was eligible to have in the Dining Cars on those trains, but it is unknown how many he had even though they were already paid for. What he wrote was there were no problems with any of the dining car on board crews except once, and the meals were all outstanding, well prepared, and without mentionable defects. That speaks volumes for the quality of the travel experience on Amtrak’s long distance trains today, unlike many years in days past.

My 2016 trip - Cheeseburger in roomette
The best value item on the menu? It’s a cheeseburger (Amtrak calls it the “Natural Angus Beef Steak Burger”), and it comes with everything, shown here delivered to a sleeping car room. The writer can attest to its excellence, to the last bite.

What is new? The menus have changed somewhat. Andrew Selden says, “There’s a new menu on the California Zephyr with more choices, more variety, more pizazz. Pretty decent food, too. (Cars are) still understocked, too.” It’s not just on the Zephyr, as all train menus have expanded. The old standby items like the (“cage free”) Scrambled eggs at breakfast, steak burger at lunch, and the flank steak or chicken on the dinner menu remain and continue to be excellent choices. This year a “surf and turf” selection has been added. Amtrak calls it the “Signature Field & Sea Entree with Steak & Shrimp.” This choice is not just on the Zephyr menu. To see all the menus go to Amtrak.com, then to Experience, then to Meals, Dining and Munchies. But, for a quick look at specific trains see this link: www.AmtrakFoodFacts.com . What doesn’t come up are the cash prices, but sleeping car passengers don’t worry about that as they can choose whatever they want and it is paid for already in the ticket price. The “Field & Sea” is $36, by the way, if you do have to pay the cash price. Our prediction is they won’t sell many at that price.

In other Dining Car news, there is no change in store for the New York to to Miami Silver Star which lost its full diner a year ago. Passengers who board that train find that the only meals available to them are in the Cafe car. Did you notice that the Star logo is not in the Amtrak Food Facts display here? There was an interesting development there. When Anthony Lee first alerted us to this display the Star was included, and that brought speculation that with the imminent arrival of the new low level “Viewliner” dining cars that the Star would resume having full service, as there was a full menu shown when that logo was touched. Within hours of us finding the Star logo it disappeared. Those new Viewliner Diners have finally started coming out of the CAF plant in New York, the latest two were delivered the week of April 24. Two down, and 23 to go, and the Star will have to wait a while…if ever. Amtrak likes to play the game of letting a change last a while and eventually it is accepted with no need to change back.

Amtrak Cafe car at Ft Lauderdale 4-2017
This Amfleet Cafe Car is still on Amtrak’s Silver Star, at the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, station on April 20, 2017. (Photo by Anthony Lee)

Meanwhile, enjoy what you find on your trip. The menus have too many expensive items, which a family of four traveling in Coach could hardly afford on a cash basis. While there are menu items for children, and some crews will allow an adult or Senior to order from it, there is a limited amount of items stored on board on each trip. Andrew Selden is correct, above, when he says the Dining Cars are often “understocked.” Amtrak would say that Coach passengers on some long distance routes have an “at seat” menu. But, to entice them into the Dining Car how about having a grilled BLT available? Or other easy to stock items? The items available in the Lounge Car are cheap substitutes. So what if Sleeping Car passengers might order them, their money is already in the bank, so it doesn’t matter what they order, does it? Amtrak CEO Wick Moorman has been out riding the rails, almost all his travels being east of the Mississippi River, and he is aware of and understands the reasoning behind customer service But, as Daniel Carleton asks, “is it still the same nursing along of the long distance status quo until it goes away no matter how long it takes?”

In case you’re wondering, I’m looking forward to my next trip, and I do hope that the current Administration’s proposal to eliminate the long distance trains, not just the food and beverage service, doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of other budget items this fall and be adopted. Everyone seems confident that won’t happen, but be prepared. These days anything can happen.