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.

Some Of California’s Rail Service Missing And Weak Links

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By Noel T. Braymer

The good new recently was the budget deal in the California Legislature to fund ACE to extend it first to Modesto and finally to Merced. This extension will link places in the upper San Joaquin Valley to most of the San Francisco Bay area. Just at Ace’s terminal at San Jose by the time service is extended to Modesto by 2024 there will be connection for ACE to Caltrain, Capitol Corridor, BART as well as VTA light rail and bus transit service in Santa Clara County in the San Jose metro area. But tying up the biggest connections will come by 2027 or earlier with connections at Merced to California High Speed Rail. Central to increasing ridership on all rail passenger services is expanding the number of connections rail has to more places and services.

The reasons roads continue to become more congested is because when more roads are built, people drive more. This was understood in the 1980’s with the construction of the 105-Century Freeway, the last freeway built in Los Angeles. In order to reduce future congestion (it was know when it was built it would be congested from day one) this freeway has fewer on and off ramps per mile than freeways in the past. Also to reduce auto traffic it was built with High-Occupancy Vehicle Lanes to encourage more people to ride share as well as the construction of the Green Line Light Rail service on the 105 freeway. This freeway was also built with fewer lanes for general traffic to discourage single passenger vehicle travel. The key to increasing ridership on rail service is to make it possible to get to more places at more times in the day. The more choices drivers have to drive, more people will drive. The same is true to have more people ride by rail.

Merced to San Jose is not the only missing link for rail service in California which is needed to increase ridership and revenue. Right now there are only 2 round trip trains between the San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento. There are connecting buses between Stockton and Sacramento on the San Joaquin trains which do very well. There is a large potential market for rail travel to Sacramento from the San Joaquin Valley and points south now served with connecting buses. Part of the problem is San Joaquin service to Sacramento doesn’t have as many stations as it does between Bakersfield and Oakland. More stations mean more riders. So does more frequent service. A major problem with these two underused trains is there is no mid-day service which is a popular time to travel. Also the morning train arrives in Sacramento at 11:20 AM, after the start of the business day when many travelers want to travel. The other arrival comes into Sacramento in the late evening. These problems are understood by the planners for the San Joaquin trains. The problem, much like it was with getting ACE to Merced is lack of money which is needed for more train equipment and track work to allow more rail service on this line. The need for more service will increase when High Speed Rail service is running in the Valley by 2025. There will be a connecting station in Madera between High Speed Rail and the San Joaquin trains. Having increased and faster service between Madera and Sacramento would carry many passengers for the San Joaquin trains and connections to High Speed Rail.

There is great demand for more rail passenger service along the California Coast. A major underserved market is for travel north of San Luis Obispo up to San Jose. Today the Coast Starlight runs daily as the only train between San Luis Obispo and San Jose. It has a limited number of stations which bypass several communities along the Coast. Again the problem is lack of funding to get the track work needed to extend more service. This would likely be done by extending the current Pacific Surfliners from San Diego to San Luis Obispo to San Jose. Local leaders along the Central California Coast have been working to expand rail service in their region for over 20 years. With service from major hubs such as San Diego, Los Angeles and San Jose, it would be possible to connect to most of the population of California by rail service along the Coast.

One place you can’t get there from here is the Inland Empire of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties by rail to southern Orange County and San Diego County. There is limited track capacity holding back running additional rail passenger trains between Orange and San Diego counties. But what can be done quickly and cheaply is to create connections with existing rail passenger service connecting at Irvine for convenient travel between the Inland Empire to San Diego. Monday through Friday there are 8 daily round trip Metrolink trains between Irvine and Riverside. Four of these trains also terminate in San Bernardino. With 12 round trip Pacific Surfliners daily, most of these 8 weekday Metrolink trains can connect with Surfliner trains with connections of under an hour. What will be needed is an agreement for joint ticketing and some timetable adjustments to improve connections. Between San Diego and San Bernardino is a market of at least 7 million people.

Another largely ignored market for rail connections are the counties of Orange, Riverside and San Diego to the coastal west side of Los Angeles County, particularly to LAX. There are long term plans to extend the LA Metro Green Line to the Metrolink Station at Norkwalk/Santa Fe Springs. By 2023 the Green and Crenshaw/LAX lines will share a station with a LAX People Mover for direct connections to the LAX Terminals. This may not happen before 2050. What can be done in the near term is to extend the existing LAX to the Disneyland area bus service to stop at the nearby ARTIC transportation center and train station in Anaheim so rail passengers can get a direct connection to LAX. Another simple solution at least for Metrolink passengers would be a bus connection at the Norwalk/ Santa Fe Springs station to LAX. Such a service might also serve the LA Metro Green, Blue, Expo and future Crenshaw/LAX and extended Purple Lines. This would greatly increase connecting rail ridership with this connecting bus.

“THE WALL STREET JOURNAL REDUX–HOW MUCH MORE INCISIVE THE STORY ON AMTRAK’S NEW CFO SHOULD HAVE BEEN…

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By M.E. Singer

Although I acknowledge how thrilled we should all be that The Wall Street Journal plunged into depths unknown by electing to run yet another story on Amtrak, “New Finance Chief Looks to Keep Amtrak on Track ” (17 April), the story was overly conflated with the proposed cuts in federal funding, Penn Station derailments, and the ever so popular Governor Christie of New Jersey blithely blaming Amtrak for his own state’s poor planning and safety record of NJT. However, in respect to Yogi Berra, I experienced a moment of “deja vu-all over again” in the lack of knowledge of this journalist, or, simply the writer being uninterested in pursuing any meaningful follow-up. As my response to this piece was limited by the WSJ’s policy, I wanted to expand here upon my reaction and dissect this minimalist, superficial interview in respect to how the real media transportation writers would have conducted this story and followed up on points previously identified from their solid research. First, I would commend Mr. Feidt on his recruitment, as Amtrak’s own HR has fervently stated that the company does not recruit management from the outside.

Two back-to-back comments in this story by Amtrak’s new CFO since February, Mr. William Feidt, screamed out at me: “Mr. Feidt said his priority would be to make the trains safer and more efficient, which may be difficult given the funding constraints. He also said he wanted to add 40% more trains by 2012 across all routes.” Really? Careful scrutiny by the journalist should have provoked the following inquiry re a proposed 40% expansion of more trains:

Equipment:
The question begs what, when, and how to increase the trains by 40% in but four years?
1) The Northeast Corridor is operating at or near capacity with the numerous commuter lines and Amtrak; plus the serious infrastructure deficiencies that inhibit increased frequencies and higher velocities. Despite PRIIA 2008 requiring these commuter lines to pay for their use of the NEC, why did this not happen until mandated by Congress in December, 2015? Where was Amtrak’s number crunchers, let alone its board?
2) The State-Supported Corridors outside the Northeast face a three-fold problem:
a) No equipment. The lowest bidder to produce the new bi-level intercity passenger cars, Nippon Sharyo, has failed to fulfill its contractual obligations. The federal funding earmarked for this project expires in September, 2017. Will Amtrak and the USDOT move this contract to a firm operating in the US with a skilled American workforce to save this investment, e.g., Siemens, Alstom, Bombardier?
b) The Class 1 privately-owned freight railroads have identified an economic valuation of their track slots far above what was initially agreed upon when they were on their death throes in 1970. Any increased frequencies and/or expanded regional routes would trigger significantly higher costs than the bare bones services currently provided. Will such costs consume any additional potential revenue from increased services?
c) Amtrak’s own fully allocated cost methodology inhibits any state incentives towards increasing frequencies or expanding routes. Every additional train is not priced as an incremental cost.
3) The long distance passenger services are currently operating at capacity and experience lack of equipment to meet seasonal demands. Despite this fact, their is not even a proforma to build more bi-level Superliner cars. The Midwest to East Coast-Florida/South routes dependent upon a single level car order with CAF has been delayed by years. As well, this order does not include coach or lounge cars.

Could the new CFO explain why Amtrak has insisted on purchasing its equipment, when everybody else is leasing, given the interest of such leasing companies to obtain the tax benefits, just as they do with orders from Boeing? Also, the asset utilization of this equipment has a significant financial impact. What is the plan to increase schedule velocity and decrease schedule padding to facilitate the turnaround of consists and reduce the number of consists required to cover routes? Concomitantly, what is the future of equipment pools to serve seasonal services? For example, instead of surplus equipment from the “Auto Train” parked in the Sanford, FL yard during the summer, how will Amtrak look to re-direct such assets, such as developing with the State of Colorado a P3 relationship for an overnight Chicago-Denver summer service for access to the western national parks?

Although Amtrak’s CEO, Wick Moorman, will attend to infusing a safety culture into the recalcitrant ranks of employees, it is incumbent upon the new CFO to make Amtrak more “efficient” despite the funding constraints. How will this be conducted and achieved to actually make Amtrak more “efficient?” In what areas, such as:

Labor:
As it is acknowledged that no serious opening to re-negotiate labor agreements occurred in the past ten years allegedly to buy labor peace, what will now be done differently now to reduce labor costs? What are the options to the cost of LSAs and SAs in diners? Just as Amtrak is the opposite of privately-owned airlines and buses using publicly-funded infrastructure, so it is with food & beverage services–typically, those in that industry derive the majority of their income not from salary, but from tips with a minimum of health benefits, as they do not regard such positions as lifetime careers. As well, what are the alternatives to LSAs staffing corridor cafes-vending as on North Carolina state trains, rolling trolley cars as with VIA Rail?

Purchasing:
Will their be a “deep dive” into how such contracts were let out on bids, negotiated, decided, and implemented? Why does it appear that accountability over the vendors falls into a “Grey Zone?” For example, why does Aramark run commissaries when after Amtrak took over the “Auto Train,” it assumed all food services from Marriott? Other than the ex-CEO of Aramark coming from Pepsi, why does Amtrak serve only Pepsi products, when the national market clearly favors Coke products? (Coke=17%+Diet Coke=9.4% vs. Pepsi=8.9%).

Food & Beverage/Catering Services:
In view of the inconsistencies of providing an acceptable F&B service, aside from some individual tweaking on the west coast (meals at coach seats), what is the consideration of outsourcing all catering operations; staffing? Perhaps even focusing on just the Sleeper Class services? Acknowledging that Amtrak cannot continue on this sclerotic approach to what was an appeal of rail travel, if not to be outsourced, than how does Amtrak get control over its inventory PARs to prevent stock-outs on trains? To secure cash management, what will Amtrak propose to provide acceptable pre-paid cash alternatives? Will Amtrak contemplate terminating the inclusion of meals with the sleeper class fares in order to upgrade the menu variety and quality, and to increase overall revenues by strictly identifying the true costs of F&B, instead of burying it within the sleeper revenues? Other than the super-hyped Dunkin Donuts coffee to be served on “Acela,” and the availability of NY state products on the Empire service, what is the plan to move more quickly forward to offer a diversified and attractive menu of regional food and drink specialties to increase revenues? How much faster can this rollout occur beyond the slow rolled, incremental approach as exemplified by the Dunkin Donuts coffee? How will the long distance Superliner diners be more optimally utilized, such as encompassing a full grill service appealing to coach passengers?

Revenues:
What is to be contemplated to move beyond the current situation and actually increase revenues to reduce federal/state subsidies? Why has Special Train movements diminished over the years? What can be done to attract more Private Varnish movements; tours, e.g, “American Orient Express”? To build revenues aboard trains, why have the LSAs not been trained in mixology to make cocktails–and equipped to do so? To what extent can the successful Amtrak Thru bus concept be extended, as recently accomplished in Michigan? In respect to consumption of resources, is their a plan to start charging the states served by the Northeast Corridor in the same full cost allocation methodology created by Amtrak? If not, why not? How are those states uniquely different than the rest of the nation? Is their consideration towards returning to an improved version of the package service concept, without impeding schedules as before? What has Amtrak considered to expand advertising revenues, such as car wrapping? Would Amtrak contemplate re-positioning itself to receive payment by offering open access or franchises on its routes?

Scheduling:
In respect to the obvious need to increase revenues, what will the CFO propose to attain an acceptable OTP (On-Time Performance) relationship with the Class 1s? What shall determine the economic value of the track slots, and how such value will rise and fall with traffic, as well as the passenger demands of schedules, timing, velocity, and frequency? As well, what role will the new CFO play in measuring the metrics of corridors to identify the gaps in services to serve micros portions of the corridors, such as Kalamazoo-Chicago; Chicago-Springfield, etc?

HR:
If any aspect of HR remains outsourced from the former regime, how soon will it be brought in-house? Given the repetition compulsion identified in far too many numerous OIG reports, what is the plan to bring Amtrak into the 21st century to stop once and for all defalcations and fraud re timecards, overtime, and bonus metrics? As well, given the emphasis on Lean and Six Sigma to run the organization, to what extent has this been identified as impeding cooperative efforts? How can Amtrak seriously embrace Lean and Six Sigma given its unresolved operational and financial issues?

Finance/Accounting:
Aside from the snickering politicos of the Northeast who think they pulled the wool over our eyes, when will the new CFO acquiesce to the concerns how Amtrak presents the numbers for the Northeast Corridor makes the editor of Pravda blush? As Amtrak still remains a national system, the taxpayers deserve a modicum of integrity. How does the new CFO develop a financial system that is truly transparent, to respect GAAP (Generally Acceptable Accounting Principles) to reflect all infrastructure costs and improvements before profits for the Northeast Corridor? As well, and as importantly, to create a truly transparent cost methodology for the state-supported corridors west of the Potomac? Although Amtrak lost key personalities in Government Relations and PR when its board wrongly attacked Mr. Gunn, somebody should be able to explain that with a less opaque cost structure, the states paying their way 100% would be more inclined to contemplate more frequencies or route expansions. Indeed, such states would be before Congress with Amtrak to support funding for more equipment to serve their needs to fulfill mobility and development derived from rail. As well, to what extent will the new CFO come front and center to admit that without the long distance routes, it is obvious that the state-supported route costs would only increase?

How will the new CFO identify the captive value of depots to achieve the collateral value of development, as we have witnessed along the LOSSAN corridor between San Diego-Los Angeles.?

In regards to the latest OIG report, what process and verifiable audit will the new CFO implement to prevent Amtrak paying duplicate bills, missing discounts, and basically running its A/P like a “candy store?”

IT:
How will the new CFO prevent the excessively costly and wasteful duplication of needless implementation of IT services within each area of the firm, instead of being controlled and coordinated by IT itself?
Although the new CFO for Amtrak will spend much of his time housekeeping from the past; hopefully, he will have the time to also assiduously plan how he will scale up requisite capital and benchmark to successfully endeavor to more than preserve Amtrak, but to truly expand our national passenger rail system?

Taking the Train and Bus to LAUS and LAX

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By Noel T. Braymer

In May I’ll be flying to Ireland. When I take a long flight I try to plan for every possible contingency before I go. From Oceanside where I live I have several options to fly to Europe. San Diego’s airport is the closest airport from where I live. There are no direct flights to Europe from San Diego. So a trip by air from San Diego can easily mean a trip to Europe of 16 hours or so with a layover of several hours. Also airfares to Europe are higher at San Diego than from LAX which also has more travel choices. I found a good deal online for a non-stop flight from LAX to Dublin in 11 hours. Better yet, this flight leaves in the early evening and returns in the late afternoon. This will make it easier to take the train to get to LAX than if the flight was in the morning. There were cheaper flights from LAX to Dublin. But one had a 16 hour layover in Iceland and another a 23 hour layover in Stockholm.

As part of my planning for my flight, I decided to make a dress rehearsal to find out possible problems getting to LAX and to find my way around the airport for my flight. I rode the last morning Metrolink train out of Oceanside for Riverside and transferred at Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo to the Metrolink train to Los Angeles. I’ll be riding Amtrak when I go to LAX in May on a mid day train. While the train to Riverside had plenty of empty seats, the train to Los Angeles had plenty of passengers before it left Orange County. The train was early arriving in Los Angeles around 10 AM. First I timed how long it took to walk from the platform to the Flyaway bus stop at Los Angeles Union Station. I also wanted to be sure how to get to the Flyaway bus stop and to get information and a bus timetable. The man in the Flyaway booth said he didn’t have timetables and told me I could get them at the Information booth at the west entrance of the station. I went to the Information booth and they didn’t have Flyaway Bus timetables either.

Latter on my phone I got the information online I needed for Flyaway Bus service. The Los Angeles Union Station Flyaway Bus to LAX is one of the busiest of the Flyaway Bus lines. It has 24 hour service with hourly service through predawn morning and service every 30 minutes most of the time, with 20 minute service during peak periods. The buses leave Union Station at the top of the hour and at the half hour most of the day. They leave Terminal 1 at LAX at 10 and 40 minutes after the hour most of the day. Flyaway says the trip time between LAUS and LAX is around 35 minutes depending on traffic. The Flyaway buses use the HOV lanes on the freeways which helps them to be faster and more reliable than driving alone The.one way fare is $9.75 cents. Flyaway Bus accepts most credit and debit cards, but not cash.You can also get your tickets online or buy them at a Metrolink ticket machine. I remember when the Flyaway service first opened about 10 years ago the fare was $6 dollars. The current fare is testimony of the popularity of the Union Station Flyway bus even as the price went up.

I wasn’t in a hurry to get to LAX on this trip, so rather than pay to ride Flyaway, I used my all day transit pass that came with my Metrolink ticket to ride LA Metro transit. I caught a Red Line subway train at Union Station and transferred at the 7th and Flower station in the commercial center of downtown Los Angeles. From there I transferred to a Blue Line train to Long Beach and then transferred at Willowbrook to the Green Line heading to the station nearest to LAX at Aviation Blvd. At the Green Line station I caught the shuttle bus to the terminals which are about 2 miles or just over 3 kilometers away. I got off at Terminal 2 which is where my flight in May will depart. While I was there I wanted to check out where Flyaway buses would drop off and pick up. By Red, Blue and Green Lines and then shuttle bus it took just over 90 minutes to get to the airport. It is about 19 miles or 30 kilometers between Union Station and LAX.

This is a map of Amtrak service with the white line, Metrolink in the colored thick lines and Los Angeles Rail transit lines in the thin color lines with M’s at the end. Downtown Los Angeles is where LA Union station is. LAX is to the south west next to the ocean.

The Green Line shuttle bus seemed to run only on the lower level road at LAX. The lower level road serves passengers arriving at LAX and is where the baggage claim is. I went upstairs to the elevated roadway where departing passengers go to check in. I found my airline’s sign outside of the terminal. Since my airline only has one flight out of Los Angeles there was no one working check in for the airline when I was there which are shared with multiple airlines. But I noticed that the other airline signs matched up with the location of their check in, so I was sure this would be the right place.

I returned to the lower level and caught the Green line shuttle back to the Green Line Station. Traffic was very heavy at LAX even in the middle of the day with one way traffic on each road level. Most of the traffic seemed to be from buses, not private cars. The Green Line shuttle buses carried a good load of people and they ran often. Many of the people on the Green Line shuttle buses were employees working at LAX. Airports are major employment centers. When I got back to the Green Line Station, I walked and took pictures of construction of the next to open rail transit project in Los Angeles: the Crenshaw/LAX Line. The Crenshaw/ LAX line will directly connect to the Green Line and have connections for transfers to the Expo Line between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica.

This is a map from LA Metro of the under construction Crenshaw/LAX line which is between the Expo Line on the top and the Green Line at the bottom near LAX.

The Crenshaw/LAX Line will include better connections to LAX. It will also connect with the Green line at the Aviation Blvd station. The Crenshaw/LAX Line is expected to open by 2019 with service closer to LAX for it and the Green Line. By 2019 new bus connections with half the distance to travel as the current shuttle will be available at a new station at Century Blvd which is the entrance road to the airport. By 2023 the Los Angeles Airport will be operating a “People Mover” which will serve outlying parking lots, rental car using passengers and a new transit station on the Crenshaw Line roughly a half mile or kilometer north of Century Blvd.

This is a drawing of the planned joint Light Rail/LAX People Mover Station near LAX. The Green and Crenshaw Lines train travel from left to right and the People Mover from down to up.

Even by 2023 there won’t be direct service by rail between downtown Los Angeles and LAX. By 2021 a new subway tunnel will allow the Blue Line to reach Union Station and for passengers to transfer to the Green Line to the shuttle bus at Century Blvd. By 2023 passengers will be able to catch the People Mover. Passengers will also be able to catch the Expo Line downtown to Crenshaw Blvd to take the Crenshaw Line to LAX. There is discussion of building a connection to allow direct service to from downtown Los Angeles to LAX. But building a track connections between either the Blue and Green Lines or Expo and Crenshaw/Lax lines will be expensive since with both combinations the lines are at different levels with the Green Line elevated and the Crenshaw/LAX Line underground at the connecting points. Also both the Blue and Expo Lines are Light Rail services and have to wait at often long traffic lights in downtown Los Angeles.

This is construction of the Crenshaw/LAW transit rail line next to LAX. The Crenshaw/LAX line will be something of a roller coast along its 8.5 miles. There will be times when it is on the surface, elevated over many major roads it crosses and has over a mile of tunnels. Here the Crenshaw/LAX will go over 111th Street then in the distance drops down in a tench below street level as it passes the east end of the 2 South runways of LAX.

Well, what did I learn? I am confident that I can get to LAX and back home catching the Flyaway buses and connecting to Amtrak without getting stranded in Los Angeles even if my flights are delayed. For most flights and for many people taking the train and Flyaway Bus doesn’t make sense, particularly for trips that only last a day or two. Leaving my car at an airport parking lot for 2 weeks would be very expensive. Being able to avoid long layovers for connecting flights is very attractive. But for many people living south and to the east of LAX there aren’t good rail/bus connections to the airport for most trips. A simple solution to this would be to have existing LAX bus service to Disneyland extended to the nearby Anaheim Transportation Center to serve passengers from Orange, Riverside and San Diego Counties. This is a market of over 7 million people.

Another solution would be to run shuttle buses from the Norwalk/Santa Fe Springs Metrolink Station. This is at the closest point to LAX by intercity rail. There are plans to make the Metrolink station into a High Speed Rail station as well by 2029. There are also plans to extend the Green Line which terminate now at Norwalk to the Metrolink station. Planning for extending the Green Line to the Metrolink Station are 30 or more in the future. In the mean time adding shuttle buses could be done in a short period of time.

 

Getting the Coast Daylight sooner rather than later

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By Paul Dyson RailPAC President

California Senate Bill 477 (Canella)
The Transportation Agency of Monterey County (“TAMC”) has sponsored
legislation, SB 477, to enable the Capitol Corridor service to be extended to
Salinas. The legislation setting up the state corridor JPAs sets geographic
limits to their operations so this bill is required to run trains between San
Jose and Salinas. This bill will also enable the operation of a Coast Daylight
service by bridging the legislative gap between the LOSSAN limit, San Luis
Obispo, and San Jose. RailPAC strongly supports this. I’ll be testifying at
the LOSSAN Board on Monday 17th April and at the Senate transportation
Committee hearing in Sacramento April 25th.

For your information, below is my testimony to the LOSSAN Board,
followed by the LOSSAN staff report and the legislative bill summary.

Chairman Krantz and Board members, Paul Dyson, President of RailPAC.
One of the many negatives of the JPA form of governance, especially
governance of what is at least nominally a commercial enterprise, is that the
enabling legislation places the Authority in a straightjacket. While Megabus
and Greyhound can add routes and introduce new equipment the JPA takes
months or years to make changes, and is in most cases prohibited from
acting outside its jurisdiction. If you add to that the fact that member
agencies of the JPA tend to be intensely parochial and send representatives
whose first concern is to protect the interest of that agency and certainly to
avoid committing any of its resources, you have a recipe for failure, or at
best limited success.

It need not be this way, and SB 477 could provide a framework which would
enable passenger rail to expand, and for existing services to be far more
successful. The evidence for this goes back to the late 1980s when RailPAC
and others successfully pushed for the extension of the San Diegan trains to
Santa Barbara. Adding new destinations and doubling the number of
stations served quadrupled the number of origin/destination pairs, and the
additional route mileage enabled longer journeys at higher average fares.
For a time farebox recovery of operating costs exceeded 100% until Amtrak
woke up and increased their charges, a salutary lesson and one that you
should be wary of today.

The lesson of this is that expanding a network is not a burden but a benefit.
Adding routes and stations provides greater mobility for our citizens, and
adds to the revenue base. Furthermore the benefits are not just commercial.
Consider that the original Santa Barbara extension added two more counties
and numerous cities, each with their own Congressional and State
representatives, and you will realize that the political gains are at least as
important as the monetary. Without the support of the politicians in Ventura
and Santa Barbara Counties, and later San Luis Obispo, not to mention those
politicians on the routes of the other state corridors, it is doubtful whether
we would have received the capital infusions from the federal and state
governments had the Los Angeles – San Diego not grown to the north.
It seems to me that the LOSSAN Board, and the other state rail boards,
should seize the opportunity presented by SB 477 to establish a more
flexible commercial framework. Indeed I would be looking to offer
amendments to this bill that changed the boundaries of the LOSSAN JPA.
Extending the northern boundary to San Jose, and adding a route to Calexico
via the Coachella Valley, enables you to add service at a future date without
requiring you to do so. The Thruway buses already serve these routes and an
alternative approach would be to enable LOSSAN and the other boards to
convert bus routes to rail where physically possible. This should not be
controversial.

Finally, we live in a climate of political uncertainty at the national level, and
once again the Amtrak national network has come under attack. While
attempts to kill off these routes have failed in the past we cannot be
complacent, not with Executive and Legislative power in the hands of a
single party. SB 477, especially with the amendments that RailPAC
proposes, gives the state corridor agencies the authority to step in and
preserve intercity passenger service over key routes.
RailPAC recommends and requests that the LOSSAN, San Joaquin and
Capitol Boards formally support SB 477 as the next step in expanding
mobility for the people of California.

LOSSAN Staff Report:
Senate Bill (SB)477(Canella, R Ceres):
Intercity Rail Corridors: Extensions
SB 477 (Canella, RCeres) seeks to provide flexibility to intercity rail
corridors to allow for future expansion beyond existing statutorily defined

THE DEEP STATE OF FAKE NEWS AGAINST THE LONG DISTANCE TRAINS-NECESSARY LINKAGE TO THE NORTHEAST CORRIDOR

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By M.E. Singer
The recent superficial attempt by The Wall Street Journal at jumping on the Penn Station bandwagon by opining, “Amtrak’s Rolling Train Wreck” (13 April), causes severe cringing and lamenting for the time when every decent newspaper included a knowledgeable transportation writer/editor. Frankly, this article was a parody of past fake news distorting the facts and dissected accordingly in response, as expanded here:

The Long Distance train services are far from being losers as depicted (unless still relying upon a Commodore computer)

Amtrak pays the private freight railroads for only track slots, dispatching, certain passenger-related infrastructure; however, Amtrak does not carry the fiscal burden of the entire infrastructure responsibility, as with the Northeast Corridor (NEC). Despite being overtly hampered by cost allocations against just one daily trip; lack of equipment to increase frequencies and revenues over increased direct costs, this sector continues to serve a purpose by connecting en route “flyover” and rural towns to each other and cities. It is a false premise to perpetually allude to long distance routes as merely serving as an end point to end point service. Contrary to the popular calumny perpetrated how empty the long distance trains continue to be, which is why they lose serious dollars, in reality the long distance train passengers travel an average 800 miles–just as with the airlines. However, unlike the airlines, the long distance trains turnover their accommodations an average of 2.5 times per trip. (Frankly, I experienced this fact on but one westbound “Southwest Chief” in 2013, when the roomette across from me was occupied Chicago-Kansas City-Trinidad-Albuquerque-LA.) Just as the airlines have developed hub-and-spoke systems to achieve connectivity, so does the long distance train facilitate regional inter-connectivity with state-supported routes. If not persistently denied requisite funding, increased frequencies of long distance trains would be the catalyst to increase or expand regional routes of state-supported trains. Already, we are witnessing the success of this concept by the California Joint Powers Authorities to successfully inter-connect regional corridors.

With the closing of The Carnegie Deli in Manhattan, where do the New York/New Jersey politicos and media go for their information these days?

This starts with the misleading concept in this article referencing the Amtrak Reform Council, as it was not composed of the original “A” team members picked for their acute political capabilities. They walked when it became quickly clear how the outcome was politically preordained (including ex-NJ Governor Christine Todd Whitman). Also interesting is how no correlation was made from when the Amtrak Board of Directors terminated their very competent CEO in 2005, David Gunn, and used that position for political appointees from NJT, UP, and FRA, as we fondly remember the selection of the Acela over off-the-shelf equipment, the endearing claim of a “glide-path towards solvency,” and deterioration in safety. Amtrak was left rudderless until October, 2016, with the arrival of a new CEO with real railroad experience, Wick Moorman, ex-CEO Norfolk Southern.

As the governors and senators of New York/New Jersey are so quick to now pine about the inadequate investment in Amtrak, what will it take for them to achieve a complete epiphany to link their direct concerns over the NEC with the long distance national system? Where is the logical realization that Congress dumped the NEC on Amtrak in 1976; however, never properly funded Amtrak for the massive infrastructure maintenance and improvement required? To fill that gaping void, Amtrak shifted funding from the National System to support the NEC. Where is their follow through to understand how Penn Station is dominated by extensive Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit commuter operations, given that Amtrak runs only 4 trains per hour? So, how did Penn Station become strictly a federal/Amtrak problem, deliberately neglected for so many years by these same politicos? In reality, the commuter lines operating along the Northeast Corridor, including into Penn Station, have enjoyed a free ride until Congress finally mandated in December, 2015, after so many years of having its intent delayed, payment to Amtrak proportionate to the commuter schedule operations. One cannot help but think that despite the Northeast Corridor being an economic facilitator, and Penn Station declared the “regional economic engine,” that such past hesitancy by these politicos to take action to protect the NEC was due to the reality check that this would trigger the Northeastern states paying significantly more to operate their commuter lines.

Inability to assess opportunity costs within the throes of Penn Central accounting standards

How was the opportunity cost determined to build more Acelas by the Obama Administration in its final hours? Given the fact that the new Acelas will not dramatically offer increased speed and faster schedules, perhaps instead of pushing for $2.85B construction work at Alstom’s Hornell, NY plant, the economically savvy Senator Schumer would have been wiser to pursue the re-building of the Northeast Corridor, given the well known decrepit condition of its bridges and tunnels? To avoid the perpetual problems exacerbated by a growing lack of interest elsewhere in the nation, the Northeast Corridor should become the responsibility of U.S. DOT and not bleed the entire Amtrak system. Let the U.S. DOT be concerned with maintenance, dispatching, and ensuring monthly collection from the commuter lines; prorating Amtrak’s actual limited operational exposure. However, the politicos of the Northeast must appreciate the intended linkage between the NEC and the National System. Without the National System, as exemplified by the long distance routes hitting so many political enclaves, the attitude of the people and their politicos outside the Corridor will amplify what ex-U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas said in 2003, “either a national rail system or no system.” Given how the nation has lost its bi-partisan, what’s in the common good outlook, their will be no empathy, even with the threat of the NEC becoming a “rails-to-trails” program.

Just as Governors Cuomo (NY) and Christie (NJ) now seek independent verification that the Penn Station tracks are safe, if they hope to achieve their desired results for Penn Station, Hudson River tunnels and Portal Bridge, it behooves these politicos from New York/New Jersey to join us “at the level of grass where the goats graze” by requiring forensic audits while Moorman is still CEO to implement recommended changes. Such audits must be conducted by independent, external sources to delve into the on-going issues that are widely believed to be the “Gordian Knot” artificially presenting the long distance routes in the worse possible case, and dis-incentivizing state-supported routes. Audit issues to include:

1) Is their more than one Generally Acceptable Accounting Principles (GAAP) defined and applied to allow for NEC infrastructure expenses not to be included before declaring the Corridor profitable?
2) What is the extent of cost shifting from the Corridor to long distance routes? How do cost allocations for the Northeast Corridor and corporate overhead/expenses overly impact long distance and state-supported routes?
3) How will those costs be allocated without long distance routes?
4) Without the long distance routes, how much will state-supported route costs increase?
5) How much of state-supported route payments go towards the Corridor?
6) How can Amtrak’s opaque cost methodology be transformed into a true transparent cost system to relieve the long distance and state-supported routes of the unnecessary economic burden of carrying the NEC? Is their a model to evidence the exponential growth opportunity of frequencies and route expansion based upon a transparent cost structure?

Linking the Northeast Corridor to the National System-identifying options

Instead of Amtrak purchasing equipment, why hot lease or secure through P3 (public private partnership)? For equipment and the NEC, what is the potential for investment by pension funds, insurances, sovereign funds, and even benefiting from the tax to be secured when corporate profits are re-patriated from overseas? Close the loophole for the “paper entrepreneurs” using tax-free municipal bonds to build for their own private business enterprises, e.g., sports stadiums. Before allowing one tax dollar of investment into any Hyperloop or infrastructure for autonomous vehicles, we need to achieve a national transportation policy. It is time to appreciate a bygone era when Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island authored the book, Megalopolis Unbound; endeavored in just 7 years to create the Northeast Corridor Rail Improvement Project initiated in 1969 with the Metroliners and TurboTrains between Washington-New York-Boston.

Following Senator Pell’s vision, encourage package express firms (e.g., FedX, UPS, DHL) to provide turnkey equipment to operate dedicated trains on Corridor during the night. As well, Amtrak itself could Increase revenues by operating a more coherent, efficient package express program than prior attempt. Amtrak should be competing with “Chinatown” curbside buses on Corridor with new Tourist Class. Also, is it time to outsource catering and first class; to re-negotiate labor contracts? (Note-closing long distance routes requires 6 year severance to labor.)
As a source of revenue for Amtrak, should Congress interpret the Passenger Rail Investment & Improvement Act (PRIIA 2008) to encourage vetted private operators to bid on franchises or open access, to directly compete with each other and Amtrak; provide turn-key operation (equipment, crews, etc)?

Judging by the comments of readers to this mis-informed article in The Wall Street Journal, the public at large has no concept of facts and reality here, questioning why Amtrak cannot be coupled to freight trains, why Amtrak schedules are so slow-and late, or not understanding if the long distance trains were cut, so too would be their track slots at the preferred pricing. Indeed, to paraphrase Robert Frost, ‘we have promises to keep, and miles to go before sleep” to fix the perceived problem of the long distances passenger services.

What’s Wrong With Amtrak

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Letter From Andrew Selden President, United Rail Passenger Alliance

To Hon. Elaine L. Chao, Secretary United States Department of Transportation

 

Dear Secretary Chao:

URPA has followed with interest the Administration’s budget proposal and its purported impact on Amtrak, as well as Amtrak’s recent statements concerning its results, investment priorities and spending plans. These stories all reflect long-standing misimpressions of both the financial and operational results of Amtrak’s various train operations, and the outcomes of Amtrak’s investment strategies. The budget proposal threatens to eliminate the largest sector Amtrak operates (by output) and its most commercially successful trains (by load factor and market share).

Amtrak’s investment strategies reflect a serious misapplication of scarce capital resources. For decades—subsequent to the departure of W. Graham Claytor as CEO—Amtrak has produced a negative rate of return on invested capital:  Amtrak’s financial results are worse now than they have ever been despite the investment of tens of billions of dollars of free capital in federal subsidies, or more precisely because of how those grants were deployed.

The financial results of operation of Amtrak’s three segments (NEC, Regional Corridors, and Long Distance) are basically the opposite of what Amtrak portrays. Amtrak uses inappropriate metrics that distort the results.

Inappropriate Metrics

We cannot be sure whether Amtrak’s public utterances are designed to mask or place a “positive spin” on its persistently bad results, or instead reflect Amtrak’s own misunderstanding of the metrics used to report its results. Their reports, built on train and segment “ridership,” chronically deceive congress and the media. “Ridership”—the foundation of Amtrak’s self-evaluation–is not a meaningful measure of anything important that Amtrak does. Amtrak exists to move people between cities by rail. “Ridership” does not measure the performance of that mission. It measures only transactions—tickets sold—not the distances over which customers are carried, or the revenues they generate, or the costs required to move them. A static equipment display generates transactions (“ridership”) but zero transportation output.

The only useful metric for the output of a non-commuter, intercity passenger service is NOT “ridership” but “revenue passenger miles” (RPMs) which factors in the distance a passenger is carried. Passenger miles are the output of the enterprise. They are all that matters to an entity whose purpose is to provide intercity passenger transport. Airlines report, rely upon, and plan based upon passenger miles and load factor, not “ridership.” Freight railroads do not measure output by “units carried” but by ton miles of freight transport produced.

Trains Ranked by Output

Amtrak’s segment output of intercity transport may surprise you. In FY2016, Amtrak long distance trains generated 2.649 billion RPMs, while the NEC managed only 1.978 billion, just barely topping the regional corridor trains elsewhere in the country, with 1.899 billion. The long distance trains therefore by a wide margin are Amtrak’s largest segment in producing intercity passenger transport. In FY’15, the NEC had the fewest RPMs and was actually the smallest operation Amtrak had, measured by output. These results are not aberrations, they have been consistent for decades.

And the passenger mile data for the NEC overstates the NEC’s production, because nearly half of its output doesn’t even meet the standard definition of “intercity transport,” consisting instead of quasi-commuter traffic occurring solely within the commuter territory between Philadelphia, New York and New Haven, traffic that could just as well be carried by regional commuter agencies.

The “ridership” data in the NEC is equally misleading for the same reason:  the average trip length in the NEC is so short. About half of all NEC passengers ride solely in the quasi-commuter territory between Philadelphia, New York and New Haven. Under the standard definition employed by the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics, these distances aren’t even “intercity” transport.

Trains Ranked by Load Factor

Another key measure of performance is load factor.

Load factor is important for two reasons. It is a measure of capital efficiency, and it is a direct indication of places where the enterprise is over-invested (low load factor—capacity exceeds demand) or under-invested (high load factor—demand exceeds capacity). Load factor measures how much of its inventory a transport enterprise can sell. It is calculated by dividing RPMs by the number of available seat-miles deployed. Airlines depend upon high load factors, report it, and track it intensely, route by route, flight by flight. Amtrak does not.

Amtrak’s long distance trains consistently have a higher load factor than do the NEC trains, in some instances as much as 20% higher. Amtrak’s segment load factors have been generally consistent for decades. In the NEC, Amtrak’s load factor is just over 50%, for Acela premium services and conventional services alike. Amtrak cannot sell nearly half the NEC’s inventory of available seat miles that it generates each year. This demonstrates objectively and unequivocally that Amtrak is over-capitalized in the NEC because it has far more capacity there than it is able to sell.

In long distance markets, load factors are notably higher. A long distance train is effectively sold out at a load factor of about 65%, and most of the long distance trains approach that level year-round and meet or exceed it in the six or so peak months of the year. (Because of the large number of intermediate stations on a long distance route, a load factor of about 65% is functionally sold out because a seat vacant at any given point already has been sold to a passenger boarding downline. On the western trains, every seat and every berth typically turns over two or more times every trip.)  These load factors objectively and unequivocally demonstrate that Amtrak is under-capitalized in its few long distance markets because demand consistently exceeds supply. These are the only trains Amtrak operates where demand consistently exceeds supply.

Trains Ranked by Market Share

Another key measure of the returns on Amtrak’s use of federal capital is the market share its services have attained.

In the corridors they serve, the long distance trains have a much higher market share for intercity transport than do the trains in the NEC. Amtrak’s market share for intercity transport in the NEC (after 40 years and more than a hundred billion dollars in federal subsidy, in constant 2017 dollars) is well under 2%, which is trivially insignificant to regional intercity mobility in the Northeast. In the markets where they operate, the long distance trains often have shares that approach 5%, more than twice the NEC’s and achieved with sold-out trains and almost no recent federal investment at all.

Amtrak’s claims concerning its modal split with the airlines for end-point traffic in the NEC are meaningless. They are comparing apples to oranges in terms of the traffic flows involved, and a modal split in any case is meaningless in measuring performance when a third modality—motor vehicles—commands a market share greater than 90%.

Based on load factor and market shares, the long distance trains, therefore, are also objectively the most commercially successful trains that Amtrak operates. The load factor numbers are Amtrak’s, and the share values were calculated from data from the US BTS, FAA, AAA and other similar sources.

Amtrak disparages its long distance trains, its largest and strongest product, with the “romance and nostalgia” meme and the assertion that they are merely political sops to non-Northeastern members of congress. In fact, these trains are heavily used by a wide array of travelers. Their annual load factors show trains that are functionally sold out much of the year. The average trip length on Amtrak’s western long distance trains essentially matches the average trip length in domestic commercial aviation, showing that these trains compete effectively in the few markets where the service is offered. That average trip spans three to five meal periods and often involves an overnight segment, supporting the market for sleeping car (first class) services and dining cars. These trains carry every category of passenger as domestic airlines, the only difference being that business travelers are under-represented (but not absent). Just like an interstate highway, they primarily serve the thousands of intermediate origin/destination city pairs in addition to the small proportion of travelers who ride between or beyond  the endpoints.

Trains Ranked by Financial Results

Financial results of operation are another important metric of performance.

Recent media stories have repeated Amtrak’s “big lie” that its NEC trains are, as Business Insider recently wrote, “…Amtrak’s only profitable line.” That is simply a falsehood. Amtrak’s statements and suggestions to that effect silently omit any assignment to NEC trains and their revenues of all or most of the massive annual costs of the fixed facilities of the NEC. (If an airline were to omit its landing fees and terminal gate rentals from its financial results of operation, it would be considered a fraud; Amtrak does that on a daily basis.) These trains may (or may not) cover all of their direct operating costs, but they emphatically do not cover all of the fixed facility costs that they require in order to operate. Those costs (which Amtrak mischaracterizes as “capital” costs) came to about $1.6 billion in FY’16, most of which was spent in and for the NEC, and included another $473 million in deferred maintenance and purchasing (primarily in the NEC) that Amtrak incurred to cover a substantial shortfall in anticipated, budgeted, NEC FY’16 revenues. The NEC once it is charged with its annual fixed facility costs (even after accounting for NEC revenues) appears to account for the major part of Amtrak’s annual loss as shown on its audited financial statements, and to consume 100% of the uncommitted portion of the annual federal subsidy grant to Amtrak.

NEC Deferred Maintenance

Amtrak claims that the NEC requires as much as $24 billion in new federal subsidies to be restored to a “state of good repair.” That is an odd claim for a service that Amtrak claims is “operationally profitable.”

The tens of billions of dollars that Amtrak claims it needs to fix up the NEC is simply the accumulation of decades of deferrals, similar to last year’s $473 million in deferred maintenance and purchasing, to cover annual losses in the NEC in earlier years, taking account of the infrastructure costs along with the operating costs. No reporter or member of congress that we know of has ever asked Amtrak, “If the NEC is so profitable, why does it have billions of dollars of deferred maintenance?” Or, “When you say that NEC trains are ‘profitable,’ does that include the annual costs of the NEC’s track, bridges, tunnels, power stations, passenger stations, signaling, and heavy maintenance facilities?”

Amtrak Misrepresents Financial Results of Operations

Amtrak’s losses cannot, and do not, arise out of its operation of trains other than its NEC trains.

The state-sponsored regional trains Amtrak operates cannot lose money (for Amtrak) because Amtrak operates all of them under contracts that obligate the state to pay Amtrak the difference between the train’s revenues and Amtrak’s “fully-allocated costs” allocated to that train. Under Amtrak’s logic, once a state has paid Amtrak’s “fully-allocated” costs of a given train, by definition no other costs–cash or non-cash—can remain. So, these trains are always cash-positive to Amtrak. They cannot, and do not, require or consume ANY federal subsidy.

The long distance trains also are cash positive to Amtrak. Amtrak said so itself in writing a few years ago, responding to a US Senator’s inquiry as to the impact on the annual subsidy if all the long distance trains were to be eliminated. Amtrak’s answer was that elimination of the long distance trains would increase, not decrease, its annual subsidy need and that its subsequent subsidy need would grow year over year. That can be true if and only if the long distance trains also are cash-positive to Amtrak. Thus, these trains also cannot, and do not, consume any federal subsidy dollars.

That same conclusion can be reached by deduction from the fact that the portion of the $1.6 billion in cash spent predominantly on NEC fixed facility costs and not recovered from NEC train and real estate revenue consumes and accounts for 100% of the unallocated portion of the annual federal subsidy grant to Amtrak. No dollars remain after paying for NEC fixed facility upkeep (not covered by ticket and other revenue) to be available for use on any other trains.

Amtrak’s APT Reports are not Statements of Profit and Loss

Amtrak’s purported statements of train, route and segment performance generated from its “APT” system do not contradict these conclusions. APT does not generate, and is incapable of generating, statements of profit and loss as used in GAAP-compliant financial statements, and its reports do not represent the financial results of operations of any train, route or segment. APT reports are not GAAP-compliant and are not audited.  Rather, they reflect a largely hypothetical, internal, full cost allocation system based on Amtrak management-derived algorithms, and depict only one out of a nearly infinite number of possible cost recovery scenarios to bring Amtrak as a whole to break-even. Amtrak does not have statements of profit and loss compiled in accordance with GAAP for any train, route or segment.

The inescapable conclusion is that neither the regional corridors nor the long distance trains have “losses” that are cross-subsidized by NEC “profits.” That is a myth and a lie. The NEC may (or may not) have an operating margin based solely on its direct operating expenses, but that margin–if it exists—at most goes only part way to covering the NEC’s enormous annual fixed facility costs, but not all of them. THAT is where the annual federal cash subsidy goes.

Failed Investment Strategies

Amtrak’s investment priorities are backwards, and preclude growth and deficit reduction. They produce negative rates of return on invested capital provided free of charge by taxpayers.

Amtrak invests the vast majority of its financial resources into the NEC. Yet, the load factor in the NEC is just over 50%, meaning that Amtrak cannot sell nearly half of its inventory in that market (and never has). That tells us conclusively that Amtrak already is seriously over-invested in that market. It has too much capital deployed in the NEC, because it can’t sell nearly half of the inventory it produces there. (After 45 years and a hundred billion dollars in current dollars, if those seat-miles could be sold, they would be. But they are not.) In the long distance markets, where the trains’ annual load factors are at nearly sell-out levels, Amtrak cannot grow because it has already sold as much of its small and shrinking inventory as is physically possible to sell (and in the sleeping cars, at breath-taking prices). Amtrak is plainly under-invested in these markets because demand exceeds supply for much of the year. Amtrak turns away tens of millions of dollars a year in proffered business that it cannot accommodate for want of long distance carrying capacity. Amtrak’s newest passenger cars on its western trains are more than 30 years old. That’s how long it has been since Amtrak’s last serious investment in these trains or in the scale of their carrying capacity. Amtrak has no plan to expand capacity in these sold-out trains.

The load factors tell a compelling story of misallocated capital, at the same time that they illustrate the absence of any possibility of real growth in the NEC and Amtrak’s willful refusal to invest for growth in its largest, most commercially successful, and strongest sector, the long distance markets. The three billion dollars of public funds that Amtrak invested in the Acela program has earned a negative rate of return (because Amtrak’s NEC and overall financial results subsequent to the inauguration of Acela services have steadily worsened, taking account of the resulting cannibalization of the NEC’s fixed assets to cover overall losses in that segment), yet Amtrak’s only significant new investment proposal is to sink billions more into the Acela successor, in a market chronically afflicted with low utilization, negative returns, and a paltry market share.
Unintended Consequences

Much of what I have related to you is not well understood because few have bothered to look behind Amtrak’s mischaracterizations of its business results. We think Amtrak’s obsessive fixation on the NEC reflects the preferences of its political patrons in congress, management bias, or perhaps its own obsession with the only market where Amtrak owns the railroad it operates over. But the result is the foolishness represented in both management’s endless repetition of the same failed investment strategy, and as reflected in the Administration’s budget proposal. The great irony is that if that budget were to be implemented, according to Amtrak itself, the country would lose the largest, most successful and productive group of trains Amtrak operates, and the annual federal subsidy for what remains, according to Amtrak, would rise not fall. That doesn’t seem like good policy or good business to us.

Solutions

Amtrak needs to re-think its investment strategies to direct capital to its largest and most commercially successful yet undercapitalized segments. Amtrak needs to come clean with congress, the administration and the public about the financial and operational performance of its three groups of trains using appropriate metrics. The administration could help enormously by demanding that Amtrak measure and report its results using the same metrics that airlines use:  passenger miles, load factor and market share, as well as financial segment results compiled in accordance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. Compelling Amtrak to comply with SEC standards for reporting its segment results would also be illuminating and useful, to congress, the executive branch, and the public. The Administration should demand that Amtrak redirect a large part of the capital made available to it, to be invested in its largest and most undercapitalized segment rather than its smallest or second smallest, and most overcapitalized, segment. Only then could Amtrak expect to achieve real growth and real reduction in its endless need for federal subsidy.

I would be pleased to discuss any of this with you if you have any interest in pursuing it.

URPA is an independent institute devoted to research and education on intercity rail passenger issues.
Cordially,
Andrew Selden, President, United Rail Passenger Alliance