By Noel T. Braymer
This is not an in-depth report of the meeting. Instead it it my personal observations of the highlights of the speakers at the meeting on Saturday at the Los Angeles Metro Board Room on December 5th. The first speaker was Amtrak Board Member Yvonne Burke. She is the only Californian on the current Amtrak Board. My impression was that she gave the best presentation of the day. Ms. Burke has a long political career in Los Angeles County in including the State Assembly, Congress and the Board of Supervisors of Los Angeles County. She came right out and admitted that she really didn’t want to be on the Amtrak Board. But it was then Los Angeles Metro CEO Art Leahy who called her and asked her to apply for the job. His argument was that California needed someone to represent California on the Amtrak Board. A major point that Ms. Burke made was that Amtrak needs to be a national service for the country, which as a whole needs rail service, not just the major urban areas. Ms. Burke also explained several parts of the recently passed Transportation Bill concerning Amtrak, besides funding Amtrak for the next 5 years.
There was discussion by both Ms. Burke and later Bruce Becker of NARP of some of the changes in the Transportation Bill concerning Amtrak. This includes another attempt to reform Amtrak’s accounting to get a better idea of Amtrak’s true costs and for it to be in accordance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), which Amtrak’s accounting has never been. This battle over Amtrak accounting has been ongoing for some time, so it is unsure what the outcome for this attempt will be. There is also language in the Transportation Bill to have operation of 3 of the 15 long distance trains given to private operators to see if they can save the taxpayers money. Amtrak claims that no private operators would be interested in operating the Long Distance trains. It is likely Amtrak will resist these efforts to privatize its trains. It will be an interesting 5 years ahead to see how all of this plays out.
What was discussed was the increasing interest from many States, and often rural areas for more and improved Rail Passenger Service. For this money is included in the Transportation Bill. Ms. Burke also discussed changes on going with the Amtrak Board. The board is carefully balanced to have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats on it. By court order because Amtrak by law may have only congressionally approved Board Members, the Amtrak President and Federal Railroad Administration Administrator now serve as ex-officio members with no voting rights. While there was language in an earlier version of the Transportation Bill to insure balanced regional representation on the Amtrak Board, this language was not in the version that passed.
After Ms. Burke, there was a presentation by Jay Fountain, Amtrak Route Manager for the Sunset Limited, Heartland Flyer and Texas Eagle. He was later joined with Eric Smith, Amtrak Route Manager for the Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief. Both credited their best ideas as coming from Amtrak Employees who work directly with its passengers. One such idea supported by Mr. Fountain is to experiment with regional cuisine on the Sunset Limited by serving Red Beans and Rice. Of the 3 questions I wanted to talk about with both Messrs. Fountain and Smith, one was asked by an other attendee about a Daily Sunset with Mr. Fountain. Mr. Fountain admitted that a daily Sunset was a good idea, but said the problem was a shortage of Superliner equipment. Mr. Fountain also said he was working on a solution to avoid a bus bridge being used this winter while the UP did track work in Arizona. This would change the schedule of the eastbound Sunset, leaving at 4 PM out of Los Angeles to create a larger work window for the maintenance of way work on the UP. The schedule for the westbound Sunset would remain unchanged. I was able to talk to Mr. Smith about my 2 other questions. He was optimistic that in the future the Southwest Limited would be rerouted to Pueblo, But he admitted it isn’t going to happen soon and funding would have to be found. As for my question on connecting the Heartland Flyer to the Southwest Chief, he said there are already plans to create a bus connections with the Flyer to Wichita, Kansas. He said the different States with possible Heartland Flyer service would have to work out a deal to connect the Flyer with the Chief.
Mr. David Golonski is a former Mayor of the City of Burbank and current Chair of the LOSSAN JPA Board. He pointed out that California has already spent $2 billion dollars on rail infrastructure in the State. He gave a talk on the goals and current efforts at LOSSAN. This included the signing of an agreement with Amtrak for the operations of the Pacific Surfliners. He talked about hiring at LOSSAN and work on a Marketing program for the Surfliners. He also talked about a grant from Cap and Trade money which will allow the Surliners passengers to also transfer to public transit at no extra charge at their destination. He talked about LOSSAN’s goal for a 12th round trip between Los Angeles and San Diego. This might be part of a second San Diego to San Luis Obispo train. The main problem is the current congestion on the tracks between Los Angeles and Fullerton makes a 12th trains unlikely soon.
Darrell Clarke is on the Transportation Committee of the Sierra Club. He is also known for his grassroots organizing to get support to build the Expo Light Rail Line to Santa Monica over the objections of some of the homeowners along the right of way. His presentation was on Connections: The First and Last Mile. He talked at length on the State’s policy to reduce the emission of Greenhouse Gases which will include cutting consumption of gasoline in half by 2030. A major part of doing this according to Darrell Clarke is with transit oriented development and greater use of bikes, scooters, walking and so forth to reach destinations from transit centers.
Michelle Boehn from the California High Speed Rail Authority, spoke at length about the need for connections with rail transportation. With this she talked about funding provide by the CHSRA for projects to improve connections like SCRIP which will build run-through tracks at Los Angeles Union Station. She also talked about new plans for the High Speed Project to bring HSR trains into Los Angeles Union Station instead of across the street from LAUS.
Dave Cook is with Rail Propulsion Systems which is now rebuilding old locomotives for the State of North Carolina as Tier 4 emission locomotives which is the cleanest level available. Most of his presentation was on how to get almost zero emissions with performance comparable to an electrified railroad which costs much less money than electrification. This would be done by combining 2 rebuilt locomotives into a single unit. One locomotive would be rebuilt as a very clean burning locomotive fueled with compressed Natural Gas. The second locomotive , attached to the first would be all electric with power stored in ultra capacitors. The capacitors would be recharged by a combination of regenerative braking, power from the other locomotive and from the grid. The all electric locomotive would be used primarily for acceleration of the train. The other locomotive would be used for cruising speed and to recharge the electric locomotive. Mr. Cook pointed out that for passenger rail service with several station stops, acceleration is more important than top speed in running faster service. By recycling energy on the locomotive with ultra-capacitors, faster speed with higher acceleration is possible using less energy and fuel while creating fewer emissions. This can be done for much less money than electrifying a railroad, particularly if it has mixed traffic with freight.
The last speaker was Bruce Becker of NARP. He spoke at length of NARP’s lobbying activities both in Washington concerning Amtrak and with groups across the country working to expand or bring new rail passenger service to their communities. Mr. Becker pointed out several Republican elected officials who publicly supported Amtrak service. He also said that it is difficult to find Republicans in Congress who will agree to sponsor an anti-Amtrak bill for fear of a reaction against them back home. He also spoke about several of the elements in the Transportation Bill concerning Amtrak and rail passenger service.