By Noel T. Braymer
California contracts with Amtrak to operate the Capitol Corridor, San Joaquin and Pacific Surfliner trains. California already owns most of the equipment for the Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin trains. But Amtrak owns most of the equipment for the Pacific Surfliners. The equipment for all of these trains is getting old and shortages of equipment is holding back ridership growth. Amtrak charges quite a bit for use of its equipment. In the short and long run California will save money if it gets new rail equipment that it controls. One thing that is unlikely to happen any time soon is Federal Funding for California to buy new passenger cars.
So we need to find creative ways to finance new equipment. We also need to standardize State wide the equipment the State has to reduce costs of maintenance and operation. We will also need to place the largest order possible to get the lowest cost per rail car. We also need to find ways to get new equipment built sooner and cheaper. Many people have questioned the current Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) standards for rail passenger equipment in this country. These standards are not in line with accepted standards in the rest of the world. Much of this is based on the strength of passenger cars which adds weight to American equipment. There is an issue if this added weight which increases operating costs adds any value in making FRA certified equipment safer.
In crash tests held by the FRA, it was found that passenger equipment that absorbed energy in a crash created less damage,potential death and injuries than equipment with current FRA crash standards. There has been some changes to FRA policy on this issue which will allow High Speed Rail equipment used in this Country that is used by the rest of the world. Most other rail passenger equipment in the world is designed to absorb the energy in a crash rather than to be harder to crush as with the FRA standard which goes back to the time before the creation of Amtrak in 1971. Some changes along these lines would reduce the cost of building new equipment and get such equipment built faster. Lighter equipment would also be cheaper to operate.
Most transportation businesses don’t buy their equipment: they lease. This allows businesses to finance their equipment and spend less money each year paying for use of their equipment as it earns revenue. It also saves the costs and bother of storing old equipment and finding a buyer when old equipment is replaced with new equipment. Lending institutions are only to happy to lease equipment since they enjoy tax credits as the owner of this equipment. These are benefits that government owners of equipment paid with tax money don’t enjoy. Getting new, more efficient equipment with lower maintenance costs for the 3 rail corridor services in California will save the State money and increase the trains farebox recovery. Much of the money to make the lease payments could come from the money now used to pay Amtrak to provide and maintain their equipment. Some of this money can also come from money saved with higher farebox recovery with added ridership and improved service with the new equipment. Already on the Pacific Surfliners higher farebox recoveries are saving the State money with lower subsidy payments to Amtrak. Money budgeted for that subsidy should be used instead towards leasing new equipment.
What would new rail passenger equipment mean for California? New equipment would mean better on-time performance and reduced running times for its trains. This means the trains spend more time in revenue service and less time stopped at stations. The new equipment would have powered doors that can be opened remotely by train crews allowing faster loading and unloading of trains and shorter station stops. We now use many old train cars which the doors need to be opened by the train crews on trains with cars that have powered doors . If a train crew member is not available, passengers have to walk to a car with open doors. Some trains have all old equipment which all the doors have to be opened by train crews. This is very slow to load and unload since maybe only 3 doors are open on a 6 car train instead of 12 doors. Plus these cars often have more steps and narrow doorways which also means slower loading and unloading. More equipment means that trains will be able to carry more passengers and generate more revenue. More equipment can also mean more frequent service as well as new services to more places in the planning stages for years.
Expanded service with more efficient equipment means higher farebox recovery and getting closer to the need for little or no operating subsidy. This won’t make rail service rich. But it will make Rail Passenger service in California more independent of the political budget battles which makes it hard to improve and expand rail passenger service in this country. There are countries that would love to build rail passenger equipment for California and offer financing to do it. We need to think in terms of getting financing for new rail passenger equipment instead of government grants which can be cancelled without warning when administrations change.
The California train most in need of new equipment is the Pacific Surfliner. They have the best financial performance to be able to contribute cash to make lease payments. The Surfliners would save the most money with new leased equipment which would be cheaper than paying Amtrak to use their equipment. The Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin train use mostly State owned equipment which already is saving the State money compared to paying Amtrak to use their equipment. With new and additional equipment on the Surfliners, there would be a significant increase in rail service, ridership and and revenues which would benefit the State Rail Program as a whole.