By Noel T, Braymer
Days before this Conference RailPAC President Paul Dyson came down with health problems which by Doctors Orders caused him to miss this year’s event. The morning arrival of the Capitol Corridor from Oakland ran late which rarely happens so some attendees were late arriving for the 10 AM start of the meeting. So this year’s meeting had one might say had more challenges than most. There was quite a bit of information for those who attended to hear. Some sessions ran longer than the time budgeted for them which is a common problem at such events. For many this forced people who needed to leave to catch trains before the end of the conference. This also reduces the time available for follow up speakers to talk to prevent the meeting getting any later. Here is a recap of the highlights of the Conference on September 24th.
At the opening the first speakers were Peter LeCody who is the Chair of NARP who was later followed up by NARP President Jim Mathews. There was a degree of overlap between what was said by the 2 speakers. There was major discussion of about funding for Amtrak as part of the Continuing Resolution for Amtrak Funding. This is being worked on as part of the need for Congress to avoid a shutdown of the Federal Government for lack of passing a Budget for this year. What NARP pointed out was that at several points funding for Amtrak on the Continuing Resolution being proposed was lower than originally planned in the proposed budget. These cutbacks mostly would effect the Northeast Corridor. But on one segment there was increased funding proposed in the Continuing Resolution which was for Long Distance Trains. According to NARP this was mostly the work of Congress members for the States that will be served if and when there is a return of Rail Passenger service along the Gulf of Mexico.
What is happening along the Gulf Coast is major support along the many towns on the route for a return of rail passenger service. The elected officials representing these towns have been working in Washington to return this service. This is reflected in the increased funding in the proposed Continuing Resolution concerning Long Distance Trains. This reflects a growing interest for more Rail Passenger service in many rural areas of the United States represented mostly by Republicans. The NARP representatives also went into details of NAPR’s efforts to align with many groups and to encourage NARP members to contact officials on different rail related issues.
Former Sacramento Assembly representative and major supporter for Rail Passenger service Roger Dickerson, gave the Keynote Address. His main theme was the need for train friendly elected officials and for more elected officials to be aware of rail issues. This included personal contacts with elected officials. He had a photo of himself with Democratic Nominee for President Hillary Clinton from 2008. The point he made is not only did she know who he was in the California Assembly at that time, but she also recognized the pin he was wearing which was for the Capitol Corridor Trains and she recognized what it was and knew about the rail service. Roger Dickerson also spoke about the problems of Oil Train accidents and of legislation to prevent future problems with them.
Next speaker was Dan Leavitt of the San Joaquin County Regional Rail Commission. This agency is in charge of both the Altamont Corridor Express service and manages the Joint Powers Authority for the San Joaquin trains. He went into detail of the many improvements proposed for ACE. He also spoke about the recently added 7th San Joaquin Round trip train and latest changes to the latest schedule. Mr. Leavitt also spoke of future plans for more local service between Fresno and the Bay Area. This includes plans to store a San Joaquin trainset for early morning service out of Fresno and late evening arrivals. The most important challenge for the San Joaquin Trains is increasing declining ridership and increasing revenues.
Jeff Morales, CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority gave an update on the progress of building ongoing in the San Joaquin Valley. Much of his speech was about the impact of High Speed Rail Construction and revitalization for the towns served by them. He pointed out that Fresno is the 5th largest city in California with a population of over a half million. With High Speed Rail service will come major economic growth in the San Joaquin Valley. Also High Speed Rail construction will in the case of the San Joaquin Valley eliminate 55 grade crossing for passenger and freight trains as well as for High Speed Trains. He also touched on the High Speed Rail Authority’s involvement in Southern California of upgrading the tracks between Burbank and Anaheim for joint use for High Speed Rail, Metrolink and Amtrak trains on this corridor. He highlighted an example of this with High Speed Rail money being added to other funding sources for a long overdue grade separation to be built in Santa Fe Springs at the intersection of Rosecrans Blvd and Marquardt Ave. This crossing is now rated as the most dangerous rail crossing in California.
David Kutrosky, Managing Director of the Capitol Corridor Joint Power Authority gave a long list of good news about the Capitol Corridor trains. Ridership and revenues are up. On time performance continues to be the best of any Amtrak train. Track and equipment maintenance also remains on a high level contributing to the high levels of service and on time performance on the Capitol Corridor most times. The dark clouds include delays and possible cancellation for additional passenger cars from the problems at Nippon Sharyo with building the order of new cars. New Locomotives however are on track for full delivery by 2017. The Capitol Corridor has plans for additional service which is dependent funding for track improvements. These include funding for track work north of Sacramento to run up to 3 roundtrips up from the current one for Roseville, There are also plans to extend more trains south of Oakland to San Jose. Of course these and other projects are dependent on capital funding which is not yet available and there is no guarantee of being funded anytime soon.
Next to talk was Andrew Selden of the Minnesota Association of Railroad Passengers. The point of his talk was to highlight the role of private companies operating rail Passenger service in this country and around the world. His message was competition leads to lower costs, greater efficiency and higher levels of passenger service. He pointed to the many private companies running many of the commuter rail passenger services in this county won by competitive bidding which all have lower operating costs than Amtrak. He gave a long list of privately operated services in this country and around the world. In many cases to win the franchise to operate service usually on publicly owned rail rights of way, not only are bidders bidding to the pay the highest amount to get the franchise, but they are also expected to put up private capital in the form of new train equipment and stations improvements to win the contract. Mr. Selden’s expectation is that with private operation of rail passengers service, the future of rail passenger service is bright in this county and around the world.
Last but not least was the presentation by Eric Smith, Chief Route Manager for the Coast Starlight and Southwest Chief. He had just arrived by plane from an Amtrak meeting in Washington when he came to talk in Sacramento. He started his talk about Jake the Conductor who was on the Pacific Surfliner which was recently held in Chatsworth because of a deranged man with a gun on this train. Conductor Jake rushed this man, got control of the gun and locked it in a cabinet on the train. He then evacuated all of the passenger in this car and locked the deranged man alone in the then almost empty car. This went a long way in preventing injuries or possible death in this incident.
The main topic of Mr Smith’s talk was efforts by Amtrak, the Unions and employees to reduce the costs and increase the revenues of food service on Amtrak Trains. For Mr Eric Smith there is no rail passenger service without food and beverage service. What has been happening in California to make food service self supporting it to experiment with ideas propose by Amtrak employee who work in passenger and food service. This includes creating new menu items with existing ingredients at Amtrak. One such example was a Salisbury Steak meal using existing hamburger patties, gravy and side orders to create a new dining experience. Also being looked at is ways to increase revenues with new services such as the Coast Starlight Business Class. There are efforts to upgrade this service more with seat improvements to make this seats more comfortable and unique. Mr Smith says this project has been very successful. The future of the Palour Car was bought up. Mr. Smith said there are no plans to get rid of the Palour cars. This doesn’t rule out turning newer equipment into Palour cars in the future to replace the original cars. Later this winter Palour Cars will be out of service on some trains for maintenance. Mr. Smith did say that there will be Palour Car service this winter on the weekends.