By Noel T. Braymer
I rarely have a chance to attend the meetings on rail service to keep up with what is happening. I hadn’t given any thought about attending the recent LOSSAN Joint Powers Authority (JPA) Board Meeting at the SANDAG headquarters,until I figured I could take the Rapid Bus on the I-15 to it and still get back to work on time. Could I have taken the Coaster? Yes to get to the meeting on time. But no If I wanted to get to work on time and home after work. No Coaster trains were running in the late morning for me. I got up before 6 AM and left the house by 7:15 AM. What is normally a 45 minute drive from Oceanside to Rancho Bernardo took at least 70 minutes that morning. I am so happy to work in the afternoons and evenings and usually miss that kind of traffic.
I missed the bus I planned to take. But the next one was only 15 minutes behind it and I got dropped off only 2 short blocks from the SANDAG offices where the meeting was being held. No parking problems for me downtown. The building had new controls for the elevators. You pressed the button outside of the elevator for your floor, and an elevator would open and take you directly to your floor. Much faster than your normal elevator ride. Reminds me of plans for people movers which would work like an elevator but skip intermediate stops to speed up trips. Back in the 20th century though these systems never seems to work.
I got in before the meeting started just after 9:30 AM. I noticed many new board members had replaced some of the old board members.The problem with that is the new board members have a lot to learn about Rail Passenger service to get up to speed on their job. RailPAC President Paul Dyson gave a public comment at the start of the meeting. He announced the December 5th RailPAC meeting and that we’ll have Amtrak Board member Yvonne Burke and a senior representive from the California High Speed Rail Authority. Much of the meeting like most public meetings was boring and hard to hear. There were no major votes, mostly informational items. An early subject was an update on the final handover of management of the Surfuliners from Caltrans to the LOSSAN JPA.
The next business item was the Surfliner Marketing update. Micheal Litschi of the JPA staff went on about branding and name recognition about Amtrak and Surfliners. The JPA is suppose to hire a marketing manager soon. So I don’t understand why they didn’t wait to let the expert do their job? I felt the JPA staff was getting marketing for rail service all wrong. Most public transportation agencies do. Marketing isn’t the same as advertising. No rational business spends money on a new product or service; without first doing marketing research to see how much demand there is for a new product or service. Marketing isn’t an exact science and many products flop when introduced. What marketing information that is needed for rail passenger service is: knowing how frequent people want rail service, to which stations, when they want to travel, how fast they want to go, what connections they want and how much they want to pay to travel with what amenities.These things needs to be tested before going whole hog on a major new service and know to improve service and revenue.
It was during this marketing update that one of the new board members pointed out that he got an angry email from a constituent who wanted to travel from Encinitas to Fullerton by train. But he couldn’t because the trains didn’t connect. We have had LOSSAN, Metrolink and Coaster now for over 25 years and we still don’t have real connections and seamless ticketing between them. We have no sweep trains which are what are needed to connect passengers between local and limited stop trains. It is the job of the Board to order staff to work on these projects, not just talk about them. The LOSSAN Board needs to get together with the boards of Coaster and Metrolink to encourage them to to get their staffs working together for better tran connections. This is important as more double tracking is finished, there will be more frequent train service which should make it easier to schedule connections.
The next presentation was by Jay Fountain of Amtrak. He had a lot to talk about. He was saying how Amtrak prepares months in advance for the Thanksgiving Weekend which is their busiest time of the year. During this time all Surfliner trains have reserved seating. Last year they carried almost 70,000 passengers on the Surfliners on Thanksgiving Week. Many different Amtrak departments work on this. I couldn’t believe it but crew scheduling is done in Wilmington, Delaware for the Surfliners. Last year Fountain pulled in extra equipment for the Surfliners on Thanksgiving including extra Horizon Cars and a Superliner Lounge Cafe car. He said people preferred the Superliner car because the food service was on the upper lever where most people walk on the Surfliners. Surflner have their snack service downstairs and people which often walk right past.
This year Fountain is adding 2,000 more seats during the Thanksgiving weekend by running an extra round trip with existing equipment. This will be done by having a train leave San Diego at 4:40 AM for San Luis Obispo. They will do it Thursday and Monday mornings of the Thanksgiving weekend.The equipment will leave Los Angeles at 8:30 PM on Wednesday and Sunday as train 592. It will leave Thursday and Monday morning as train 1761. He plans to greatly increase revenue doing this. Mr. Fountain lives in Fallbrook and commutes to LA on the first Metrolink trains out of Oceanside at 4:37 AM. He said there are plenty of passenger on the trains out of Oceanside that time of the morning. He clearly wants to make this a permanent service. He talked about his new job with the Western Long Distance Trains. He said he will continue to work in LA and will still be in charge of the Surliners. Oh I found out from Fountain’s talk that Metrolink’s camera drone is named Caspar. His presentation includes a few aerial photos from Caspar.
The rest of the meeting was too boring generally to talk about. There was a presentation of the capital projects underway for rail service in San Diego County. It was mostly just material from the SANDAG website and projected on the screens in the Board Room.
At the end RailPAC President Paul Dyson got a chance to talk again. He was saying that the new Positive Train Control for the Surfliners will mean the trains going north or south of LA will have to wait 30 minutes to download the route they are going on next. Paul said there should be a way to put the whole route on the trains and not create a longer layover for through trains.