By Noel T. Braymer
The surprise announcement that LOSSAN was planning to lease new Talgo cars originally built for the state of Wisconsin has raised more questions than answers. This revelation came as a small part of a much larger announcement of money grants from the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) which included $15 million dollars towards a 5 year lease for the Talgo equipment. Since then the information on this effort has been fragmentary and often confusing. The oddest thing about this project is it plans to use this equipment between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. There is only one train which goes solely between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo which has the worst ridership of any of the Surfliner trains.
The 3 other Surfliner trains that go to and from San Luis Obispo and San Diego are the most traveled and best revenue producers of the Surfliners. During the summer these San Luis Obispo trains often have and need 10 cars compared to the normal 6 car consists of the Surfliners. The plan had been for a 12th round trip between Los Angeles and San Diego to have with a new earlier morning arrival in Los Angeles. This train was to be extended to San Luis Obispo on the slot now used by the one Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo train. The reason the San Diego to San Luis Obispo trains are so successful is because of their long route they can generate more passenger miles. Longer average trips mean more revenue. Longer route trains also have direct service to many more stations along the route serving more markets and bringing in more riders than shorter routes.
There has been some confusion about the Talgo equipment being leased. A few years ago the Talgo company set up a factory in Wisconsin to build 4 trainsets of its Talgo 8 trains which meet the FRA crash worthiness standards. The hope was that there would be more orders in the Untied States for Talgo 8 trains in the future. Two of these trainsets were for the State of Oregon on the Cascade trains and the other 2 for the Hiawatha service between Chicago and Milwaukee. Just before the order was completed in 2012 the recently elected governor of Wisconsin in an attempt to “save money” cancelled the Wisconsin order. This has led to years of legal battles which cost the State of Wisconsin money. The Talgo cars for the Pacific Northwest has seating for only 286 passengers, but has a business class car and dining car which the Wisconsin cars don’t. The Cascade route from end to end is 310 miles. By comparison it is 86 miles between Chicago and Milwaukee while the seating for the Wisconsin Talgo trains are 397.
It is hard to compare Talgo equipment to standard rail passenger equipment. While a standard rail passenger car is 85 feet, a Talgo Car is 43 feet long. The Wisconsin Talgo trains have 14 cars, this includes a cab car which has Head End Power generators but doesn’t carry passengers. So the other 13 Talgo cars are roughly the equivalent of a 6 car low level conventional passenger train since a Talgo car is just over half the length of a standard passenger car. This includes 11 passenger Talgo cars, a Bistro or food service car and a bike/baggage end car with 19 seats. Most of the passenger cars are paired so one car has a restroom while the other has more seats. Unlike the Oregon cars, the Wisconsin cars don’t have a first class car with fewer seats. The entire route between San Diego to San Luis Obispo is 351 miles. Just the distance between Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo is 222 miles. The plan is to use this equipment from Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo which was expected to travel on a route 86 miles.
So how would passengers travel south of Los Angeles or north of Los Angeles if the new Talgo equipment begins and ends at Los Angeles? With the current trains that operate north and south of Los Angeles there is usually a 30 minutes layover. This is a combination of padding in the schedule, the need to load a new route into the PTC onboard computer, the changing of train crews and the need to retest the brakes to reverse directions before leaving Los Angeles Union Station. This delay might be cut in half if a Talgo train with crew is standing by while a connecting train from the south arrives at the same platform for passengers to transfer between the trains. This process would be reversed in the other direction with a conventional Surfiner train and crew standing by for the arriving Talgo train. Ten to fifteen minutes would likely be needed for people to transfer between trains.
This could mean a faster trip north and south of Los Angeles. Good transfers are needed to increase ridership for all trains.This will only be an issue for the next 4 to 5 years when run-through tracks will be available at Los Angeles Union Station which will eliminate the 30 minute layovers. Maybe that’s why LOSSAN is only planning to lease the Talgos for 5 years On any train route ridership is highest on those with the least need to transfer to get to a destination. It has been know for some time that the more passengers have to transfer: ridership drops. With the trains to and from San Luis Obispo already the busiest trains, what impact will a forced transfer have over reducing travel times by 10 or 15 minutes? As is it the Talgos are roughly equivalent to a six car train, but the trains to and from San Luis Obispo now often need more than 6 cars as it is.
The most pressing need for new equipment on the Surfliners is the need to eliminate the one trainset of low level equipment now in use. Leasing the Talgo trains is likely to save money over paying Amtrak for these old cars. Also the low level cars are slow to load with manual doors and high steps. This means all the Surfliner schedules have to be planned around these slower loading trains. The Talgo trains have low level loading and powered doors that all open on all cars like the Pacific Surfliner equipment. Some of the lightest traveled trains on the Surflners run on the mid-day and evening between Los Angeles and San Diego. The greatest need for additional cars are on trains that go to Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo. A better use of these Talgo trains might be to run them on service between Los Angeles and San Diego. This would not only allow reductions on all schedules with shorter station wait times, but increase ridership on the trains now served with the old low level equipment.
The idea of leasing new equipment for the Surfliners is a good idea. This can mean getting more new equipment sooner. The problem now is the long time it takes to get funding to buy new equipment. Most businesses with large fleets of trucks, trains or planes lease instead of buying equipment. This allows them to finance new equipment over time making payments from revenues and savings from the new equipment instead of waiting for funding. Financial institutions are only too happy to arrange leases.These financial companies earn major tax credits and deductions buying leased equipment on top of the revenues from the lease. For the operator leasing simplifies the issue of getting rid of the equipment when no longer needed since they don’t own it. A government agency using tax revenue for equipment can’t get a tax credit or deduction for this equipment. In effect LOSSAN can get the benefit of a government subsidy by leasing the equipment instead of paying cash up front with grant funding.