Market Forces Are Driving The Decline In Oil Production

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By Noel T. Braymer

Earlier this year the price of oil did something strange. Instead of buyers paying to buy oil on the world market. The oil sellers offered to pay oil users to reduce their oversupply of oil. This is no way to make money, but it did reduce the short term costs of storing oil. What we are beginning to see is oil turning into a “stranded asset”. In other words the costs of producing oil will cost more than what people are willing to pay to buy it. This is not a case of “running out of oil”. It’s just that new sources of energy such as renewable energy are competing with fossil fuels while being cheaper and cleaner to use. There has been an increase in use of Natural Gas aka methane. For now it is cheaper than burning coal or oil. But that price advantage is declining in the face of growing, cheaper renewable energy.

This trend goes back several years. This started when coal producers stopped bidding on new coal leases from the Bureau of land management a few years ago. Basically coal supplies were greater than market demand. This was an example of a stranded asset. In other words the coal underground has become worth less. This meant it was losing value for the coal companies as an asset. Now there is still plenty of coal being dug from existing mines. But there is little interest in digging new mines as the cost of doing so likely wouldn’t produce a return on investment.

Much the same thing is happening in the Oil and Natural Gas industries.The Shale Oil/Gas boom has basically gone bust in the last few months. Shale Oil/Gas has never really made a profit. But it was bankrolled with massive loans with very low interest rates. That money will likely never be paid back. Renewable energies such as solar, wind and stored energy continue to improve and become more economical to produce. Renewable energy is highly competitive with fossil fuels whose production costs are not declining while renewable energy continues to get cheaper. These developments are alarming to oil and gas producers which have billions of dollars invested in undeveloped oil and gas fields around the world.

Increasingly there is talk of the oil and gas industries finding that they are sitting on stranded assets which they may never recover much value if current trends continue. We will likely see more effort by the oil and gas industry to increase their subsidies from the government with increased tax credits.The oil and gas industry has years of experience dealing with tax codes.

The gas industry will likely find declining demand for “natural gas”.The challenger will be hydrogen gas. There is increasing research in using solar energy to produce hydrogen. What is being looked at is cheaper solar electricity. Water is H2O. That’s 2 atoms of hydrogen with one atom of oxygen. It takes a lot of energy to separate the oxygen and hydrogen in water. New methods and cheaper electricity may make it possible to use liquid hydrogen as a fuel. This will be a few years in the future. There is talk that hydrogen can be used when the price of hydrogen comes down to provide emission free energy for both jet airplanes and trucks, buses and trains.  This is still a few years in the future.

While progress is being made, these and other improvements to create a more sustainable future will take time.With increasing investments in wind, solar, hydrogen and energy storage we will see a much cleaner, more economical and healthier planet and way of life.

My Recent Train Trip To Los Angeles Union Station

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By Noel T. Braymer

Recently more train service was added on the Pacific Surfliners with at least one round trip between San Diego and San Luis Obispo. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus this spring, ridership on most passenger trains in this county including California has crashed. I finally took some time to see what conditions were needed to rebuild ridership. So I took a quick trip from Oceanside to Los Angeles and a quick turn back to Oceanside.

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View from Oceanside of the train schedule by the hour.

The parking lots at the Oceanside Transit Center are still mostly empty. The trains on the new schedules ran not only on time, but were often early getting to the next station. On my train out of Oceanside the train’s crewmembers scanned the passenger tickets at the car door and rarely walked through the train. The car I sat at generally had one person sitting at each set of two seats on the train. So the upstairs level of the car I was riding was at roughly 50% of capacity. I’m not sure what the ridership was on the other cars.

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View from a platform at Oceanside.On the left are 2 resort hotels next to the Oceanside station. The leftmost hotel is still under construction but nearing completion. Rail passenger service is a major economic stimulus and its impact on the local economy is great when there is good rail service. Photo by Noel T. Braymer

What I noticed was in each direction the trains were mostly early and the train usually had to wait at the station before departing on its scheduled time. Travel times could be greatly reduced if the train dwell times could be the same as they are now because of low ridership. I noticed from the train the parking lot at Fullerton was largely empty, much like it is at Oceanside and I’m sure the same holds true at the other stations. One thing I noticed was most of the passengers on the train were wearing masks to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Several people didn’t wear them at the platforms.

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This is my “ticket” for my trip to Los Angeles and back. My northbound train was scheduled to arrive in LA at 11:25 AM. I took this photo to show the arrival was earlier than expected. We could have arrived even earlier if we didn’t have to wait to depart at the scheduled times at all the scheduled station between Oceanside and Los Angeles

When we got to Union Station, it was still depressing. The waiting room is still closed to the public. I’m sure sales are way down at the shops and food services. The oddest thing was the confusion over the Pacific Surfliners train sets.  We arrived early into Union Station. After checking Union Station, I decided to wait at the platform for the next Surfliner going south. I went to the platform for the next departure to San Diego. When I got there I found a Surfliner Trainset with most of its doors wide open but didn’t see train personnel. I saw people walking into this trainset assuming it was the next train going out. Finally an Amtrak employee started walking through one of these cars and told the people on that car that it wasn’t going out soon. As he started leaving the first car I told him there were people sitting in the other cars of the train with open doors.

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Southbound Surfliner train arriving at Oceanside.

Not long after this another Surfliner trainset arrived at the same platform. This was the trainset for the next departure to San Diego. It caused some confusion having two Surfliner trainsets at the same platform. Finally people got settled down. There was a young woman in the same car I was sitting in who said she had lost her train ticket when a conductor asked to scan it. She was frustrated that they might call the authorities to have her thrown off the train at Fullerton. When the authorities arrived they asked her if she had paid cash or used a credit card to buy her ticket. She said she used a credit card. They replied that if she had used cash, there was no way to prove she had bought a ticket. But because she had used credit, she should be able to get a replacement ticket at the Fullerton Station. This was good news for this young woman. Don’t you just like people who solve problems, compared to those who create problems?

Speaking of solving problems, a simple way to find people with a major viral infection is to take their temperature. This is something that was common in many places like South Korea to track down people with COVID-19. This is important since a few inflected people can spread COVID-19 to a lot of people. I know about this because for nearly a month I have been working at a major warehouse complex taking the temperature of the employee’s. So far not one worker has had a fever. What is used is an infrared thermometer which quickly finds the temperature on the person’s forehead. We still have to wear masks at work too. Hopefully the current COVID-19 virus will run its course soon.

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Yes I had to wear a mask like everyone else on the train.

What will Governor Newsom Do?

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By Noel T. Braymer

There is a reason many people don’t trust politicians. Politicians often contradict themselves: aka lie. A coalition of  Republican minority members of the legislature have teamed up with Southern California Democrats, mostly in the Los Angeles area to block funding for completion of California High Speed Rail between Bakersfield and Merced which would provide rail connections between the upper inland San Joaquin Valley, Bay Area and  bus bridge service to Southern California. What has conspired has been an effort to transfer funding set for electrification work between Bakersfield and Merced. No word yet what is planned but this would derail the High Speed Rail program. A railroad designed for speeds  220 miles per hour might be used by new diesel locomotives and rail cars for speeds up to 125 miles per hour for service between Bakersfield, Sacramento and Oakland. But this was not in the planning for future rail service in Northern California and dropping electrification for Valley High Speed Rail undoes years of work to build support for California High Speed Rail in the San Joaquin Valley. This will also upset years of planning for funding the High Speed Rail Project.

What will Governor Gavin Newsom do? Taking a political risk, when Newsom became governor he put a great deal of his political capital on the line when he supported the current plan to run High Speed Rail between Bakersfield and Merced first. This is part of a larger plan to expand rail passenger service in the upper San Joaquin Valley and Bay Area. Killing HSR service will remove a major linchpin of planned expanded rail service in Central and Northern California. Where will this leave Newsom after he puts his efforts into keeping High Speed Rail?

Newsom recently cut millions of dollars from the State HSR project budget by cancelling contracts with “consultants”. These consultants will be replaced with State Employees, many of them engineers who will be paid less than the consultants they replace. Basically Newsom will get screwed by the Republicans and Los Angeles based Democratic Assembly members if they force him to reroute current funding. This also will upset years of efforts to create plans acceptable to people in the San Joaquin Valley and dealing with a steep learning curve learning how to build High Speed Rail in California.

Newsom will not be happy with  the Southern California Democrats for more or less stabbing  him in the back. What Newsom could do is veto future legislation from the renegade legislature members. Depending on what is possible, Newsom could make life difficult and even support efforts to unseat the rebellious legislators. But the reality of politics is often bitter enemies one day are best of buddies the next. Why are these Democratic legislators so focused on using California High Speed Rail funds in Southern California? Basically rail supporters in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita Valleys want about 4 billion dollars to electrify and add more tracks for Rail Passenger service between downtown Los Angeles and Burbank.

This will be a major trunk line with branches to the Santa Clarita Valley, the northern San Fernando Valley and Northwestern San Fernando Valley up to Ventura County. There is mostly single track railroading now between Union Station and Burbank junction. But there is room for up to 4 tracks for much of this right of way. Los Angeles County is now busy with several expensive rail passenger projects, many over budget and behind schedule. Perhaps if Los Angeles County rearranged some of their transportation priorities, they might delay a few projects to make improvements between Union Station, Burbank and beyond without dipping into High Speed Rail funding.

Why Can’t Amtrak Learn From Their Mistakes?

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By Noel T. Braymer

Through no fault of Amtrak, it finds itself caught in one of the worst economic crises by far in American history. Yet Amtrak is repeating the same mistakes to fix their present predicament that have failed every time. So again, Amtrak is calling for reductions in Long Distance services to “save money”. Has this ever worked in the past: NO. When Long Distance Trains are removed, revenues go down but overhead costs remain. The reasons for this are simple. Running Long Distance Trains doesn’t cost Amtrak very much money. That is because most of the travel on the Long Distance trains use the host railroads tracks which Amtrak by law gets a discounted price to use. What a deal! But the host railroads don’t like how little money they get with Amtrak trains which they say hardly covers their costs. On top of this Amtrak fares for Long Distance service produce a lot of revenue for Amtrak.

If Amtrak did a better job of maintaining its trains and expanding services on Long Distance Trains with better connecting services, a big if I know it would greatly increase its Passenger Miles and revenue production. This happened during the Amtrak Presidency of W.Graham Claytor, who was the only Amtrak President to expand Long Distance service and add cars to meet demand for such service. Claytor increased Amtrak’s cost recovery during his presidency predicting it could break even after he left. Instead his successors cut back Long Distance service which reduced revenues but not Amtrak’s overhead.

So where do most of the costs for Amtrak’s operations go to?  The NorthEast Corridor. But while Amtrak is stuck with much of the costs of running and maintaining the NEC, the biggest user of Amtrak’s railroad is New Jersey Transit. Amtrak is in theory a private company, while New Jersey Transit is owned by the State of New Jersey. But the reality is Amtrak picks up much of the tab for New Jersey Transit. Even for most of Amtrak’s trains on the NEC, while frequent, they often have low passenger mile counts which doesn’t produce much revenue. The heaviest ridership on the NEC is between Philadelphia and New York, a distance of just under 100 miles. This doesn’t produce nearly as many Passenger Miles as Long Distance Trains that travel over a thousand miles with many more stations served than on corridor services. More and better connections including bus services would add more markets for travel across the country which would improve revenue projections for Amtrak.

So what would be a better solution? Well I don’t think this will happen any time soon. But much of the NEC railroad could be reorganized as a multi-State non profit agency. This is common in many countries. A government agency would own and maintain the NEC and dispatching for the different rail services instead of Amtrak. This would include funding both by State and Local governments as well as rail services such as Amtrak and New Jersey Transit. I doubt this will be popular with Amtrak , New Jersey Transit or the other NEC States. But it would be more transparent than what we have now.

As for the Long Distance Passenger Trains, with cooperation with the host railroads and some State and Federal Funding. Track upgrades could be funded which would improve service for both passenger and freight service with more frequent passenger service. This is already happening in parts of California which includes better cooperation between the railroads and local rail passenger services.

But the reality for Amtrak has been try and fail, fail, fail again. Much of Amtrak’s Accounting is misleading and doesn’t meet Generally Accepted Accounting Principles also known as GAAP. Perhaps the best way to sum up Amtrak and the NEC is this quote from Albert Einstein :“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

 

Plans For Much More Track Work In San Diego County

By Noel T. Braymer

“A train tunnel to L.A. under UTC” – The half billion dollar answer to widening I-5 “

The sentence seen above is from a headline published on May 19, 2020 in the San Diego Reader. This reports the outcome of years of court battles going back to 2013 between the Cleveland National Forest Foundation against the County of San Diego for refusing to abide to State mandated truck and auto emission standards in the County. Out of this has come the report highlighted in the recent issue of the San Diego Reader of the proposals by the Cleveland National Forest Foundation to reduce emissions to State mandated levels. This would restrict the amount of new freeway construction and include major improvement of rail services in San Diego County. From the San Diego Reader “Key to the settlement were rail corridor improvements on the busy Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo rail corridor. The tunnel, which would cost roughly half a billion dollars, would be useable by both Coaster and Amtrak trains.  While the lawsuit had found highway widening projects inconsistent with the state’s emissions reduction goals, while study shows the tunnel – an existing plan that got sidelined – could reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 70,000 to 84,000 metric tons.”
Under this proposal from the Cleveland National Forest Foundation A new transit station would be built at the (University City) mall, which would include connections to light rail, local bus, and bus-rapid transit, making it easier to get downtown, the airport, and destinations served by the Sprinter light rail system which connects with the corridor at Oceanside.”…
 
A major factor in this article proposes tunnels for use by Pacific Surfliner and San Diego County “Coaster Trains”. For travel between Los Angeles and San Diego a tunnel cuts miles off of travel on the existing rail route from the late 19th century saving 6 to 7 minutes off the existing route. Also as part of the plan would be a new station at the Westfield University Town Center shopping mall. This would give connections to the now under construction extension of the San Diego Trolley Blue Line from downtown San Diego past Old Town and with several stations at the University of California at San Diego. The University and the nearby Sorrento Valley  area are major traffic (jam) generators which could be greatly reduced with better connections to the Blue Line Trolley,Coaster and Surfliner services.  
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This map shows the possible changes for better rail service in much of San Diego County. The dashed blue lines are routes of potential new tunnels for faster, more direct rail service. The green dashed lines are for track segments which will remain for now as is. The red dashed lines are of existing trackage which are planned for major upgrading. Graphic from SANDAG.

 
This project will include several major track improvements with even more  improved service and connections in San Diego County and to the rest of California with local and express services. 
 
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More information of current plans for rail service improvements in San Diego County. Some of the projects listed above such as the Oceanside Coaster Stub track are already in service.

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A detailed list of projects by SANDAG of the budgeted costs of major rail improvement projects in San Diego County.

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A more detailed list of projects now in service or in  planning and or budgeted in San Diego County for rail service improvements.

Markets,Markets,Markets-Connections,Connections, Connections are at the heart of Rail Passenger Service!

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By Noel T. Braymer

Non stop service generally isn’t profitable for transportation. Non-stop flights before 1980 were subsidized in this country with tax deductible airline ticketing. Most air travel was for business before 1980 which the businesses got much of its money back because of business tax deductions. Deregulating airlines forced competition between airlines to get more business. With that came hub and spoke airports for connections to many more markets and more revenue. Since then low fare airlines often with multiple stops between major airports have lead in profitability. Amtrak’s fixation on Acela trains on the Northeast Corridor (NEC) blinds it to connections to many other markets. Most travel on the NEC now is between New York and Philadelphia which is a distance of less than 100 miles. For most of the length of the NEC intercity bus travel serves more market pairs and stations which are convenient for people’s origins and destinations. When Atlantic City opened gambling in the 1980’s, Amtrak thought their rail service to Atlantic City would be profitable. What they didn’t think about was how people would get to the casinos from the train station which was not close with limited pedestrian access. Most visitors to the casinos got bus rides from near their homes to the casinos where people had reservations at a hotel/casino.

Outside of the NEC most regional Amtrak service is subsidized by the states these trains run through. While most of these services serve major cities, they according to Amtrak are not close to operating profitably. Many of these services operate only a few trains a day. Lets compare this to the Amtrak trains in California which the State helps to subsidize. In the North is the Capitol Corridor service which runs most of their trains between Sacramento and San Jose which is 133 miles long. This is more of a commuter service than an intercity service. But to their credit the Capital Corridor Joint Powers Agency runs a very tight operation and has a very high recovery from the fare box and excellent on time performance. The other Amtrak service in Northern California is the San Joaquin Train with 4 trains a day service between Bakersfield and Oakland with 2 trains a day between Bakersfield and Sacramento plus bus connections at Stockton to and from Sacramento. Also a major part of the ridership on the San Joaquin’s are a system of connecting buses to the San Joaquin trains. Major connecting stations on the San Joaquin trains to bus service include Bakersfield, Stockton, Sacramento, Merced, and Emeryville. These buses provide connections to the Los Angeles area, extra connection to Sacramento, travel to San Francisco, Las Vegas, Reno, Yosemite and up to Redding among other towns in the northern most part of California.

The first state subsidized service on Amtrak in this country was the San Diegans which the State started subsidizing in the mid  1970’s. After the State paid to add 3 additional round trips to the exiting 3 between San Diego and Los Angeles ridership on the trains tripled and cost recovery rose. By 2000 the service was renamed the Pacific Surfliner and until last year it had roughly hourly service between San Diego and Los Angeles with 4 round trips between San Diego to Santa Barbara as well 2 round trips between San Luis Obispo and San Diego. Currently in large part due to the Conronavirus 19 outbreak, fewer trains are in service for the time being.

What is in the planning stage now in California is a State Master Rail Plan. Between the 3 Joint Powers Agencies that control the Pacific Surfliner, San Joaquin  and Capitol Corridor are efforts to better connect these 3 services together with better connections to other services in the State. Much of the inspiration this master plan is the nation of Switzerland. Switzerland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world on a per capita basis. It also has some of the highest use of public transportation.  One of the things done in Switzerland is to run most of their trains on the same schedule at the same time of the hour. This is called a memory schedule because you just need to know what minute of the hour you local train is due. Also in Switzerland rail service is so frequent there are never long waits in most cases for a train.

Included with this at most stations are connecting bus, rail transit, river boats and tourist train services as well as connections to major train stations and airports. The long term plan for California include memory schedules, frequent regular service and connections to other transportation services. We can see some of this in play now with the Peoplemover to LAX  now under construction with connecting transfers to the Green and Crenshaw Light Rail Lines .Planning is underway to start shuttle bus connection this year between the Old Town San Diego Transit Center and the terminals at San Diego’s Airport to reduce traffic congestion around the Airport. At Old Town is already rail service to the Surfliners and local “Coaster” trains in San Diego County. Also the Green Line San Diego light rail service to Mission Valley stops there and in a few years the Blue Line Trolley will also stop at Old Town after being extended north to the busy University City/UCSD Campus which is heavily traveled now by bus and gridlocked traffic,

As part of the State Rail Plan is smart phone ticketing. Already using an app on a smart phone is common for many rail and transit services. What the State Rail plan would allow is buying an entire itinerary from your Smart Phone much like ordering airline tickets with hotel and rental car reservation. If you want people out of cars you need economical and convenient services that have advantages over driving a car and with many of the missing connections of current public transportation. The Swiss shows that this can be true which is also seen in many other affluent nations around the world. The reason isn’t because they don’t have a choice. But that they prefer clean, reliable transportation services like rail.

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The graphic above is from the current California State Rail Plan which demonstrates what is being planned for California rail service.

What’s Planned For LOSSAN

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By Noel T. Braymer

LOSSAN’s name goes back to the late 1970’s with the expansion of Amtrak’s San Diegan Train service between Los Angeles and San Diego from 3 round trips starting in the middle 1970’s to 6 round trips by 1978. In the process ridership on the “San Diegan” more than tripled. Much has happened since then with some trains extended north first to Santa Barbara and later a few as far as San Luis Obispo. While there is plenty of travel demand along the California Coast by rail which is where the majority of the State’s population lives and work. The biggest hold up to ridership on the LOSSAN corridor is with much of it infrastructure going back almost 60 years or more, with much of it north of Los Angeles. The LOSSAN Joint Powers Agency is made of transportation agencies of its member counties between San Luis Obispo and San Diego. Much progress is being made for construction to allow faster, more frequent and reliable rail service along the Coast. The following is from LOSSAN and the LOSSAN RAIL CORRIDOR AGENCY TECHNICAL ADVISORY COMMITTEE.

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From a PDF on a recent report of ongoing Capital Projects for the LOSSAN Corridor

LOSSAN has numerous committees representing the member Counties along the San Diego-Los Angeles-Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties.

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LOSSAN capitol projects also connect and or share infrastructure with the UP, BNSF as well as with Metrolink service, many of which head inland to the Inland Empire and the High Desert area by Palmdale. LOSSAN is working to establish service to the Palm Springs region.

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A major effort at LOSSAN is to expand service using new and enlarged terminal layover facilities at San Diego, San Luis Obispo and near Santa Barbara at Goleta. In a few more years Surfliner service should be running hourly between San Diego and Los Angeles.

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This graphic on top shows the UP mainline in parts of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties as the yellow dashed line. The solid lines alongside the main line are locations of sidings connecting to the main line The sidings in red show proposed new sidings on this segment of track.

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Building a new Maintenance and Layover Facility not only can mean more frequent service. But will also please the residents of many of the new high rise condos around the Santa Fe Depot to not hear noises from routine train maintenance and servicing such as emptying the toilets at night on the trains. The expected site of  this new facility is seen in this photo in National City a few miles south of the Station and just north of Chula Vista.

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Not only is LOSSAN planning long overdue improvements in San Luis Obispo County and San Diego. But is also planning for improvements along the entire Corridor. Critical to this will require more train equipment for the Surfliners and shared use with Metrolink and Coaster trains in San Diego County and some Amtrak Long Distance trains in California. More equipment is greatly needed on the Surfliner route to meet future traffic as ridership grows back after the current COVAD-19 pandemic runs its course.

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Anderson is out at Amtrak and now Flynn is in

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By Noel T, Braymer

After much noise about making Amtrak profitable by getting rid of most of their Long Distance Trains, former Amtrak President Anderson was replaced on April 15,2020 by Amtrak’s new President William Flynn. Despite lots of talk, not much progress was made adding more regional services under Anderson. The collapse of travel demand world-wide due to the CORVID-19 epidemic didn’t help. According to Evan Stair; President of Passenger Rail Oklahoma. Anderson and Amtrak Senior Vice President Stephan Gardner talked about getting rid of up to 10 out of the 15 Long Distance or “inter-regional” train routes to “save money”. Inter-regional trains travel more than 750 miles in one direction. Why that is important is because Anderson and Gardner wanted services under 750 miles because local states would be paying Amtrak for the operations of these proposed regional services. So much for turning a “profit” under Mr. Anderson.

Years ago I attended a meeting about rail service in Southern California. An Amtrak Vice President was pitching a deal that the State of California should sign a contract with Amtrak to operate California’s High Speed Trains. What this genius didn’t realize was the contract to operate California’s High Speed Trains would be based on the contractor bidding to get the contract by offering to pay the State for the right to run the State’s High Speed Trains. This is common practice around the world. The bidder would have to bid an attractive price to win the contract, while carrying enough passengers to make money while also paying the State for the franchise to operate the trains. As part of his sales pitch this genius started bragging about how little they would have to charge the State. This was because by law when Amtrak was created the Freight Railroads had to give Amtrak a major discounted price to use the Freight Railroad tracks and right of way. This has long been a major point of contention with the railroads against Amtrak. The railroads want to make money, and they say they don’t make much money letting Amtrak use their infrastructure.

What we have seen under Anderson has been a lot of noise to run corridor trains routes under 750 miles long. Most of what was talked by Amtrak was talk of carrying lots of people between major cities under 750 miles apart with frequent service. Most of the talk for these new trains was between Atlanta-Charlotte. Also being considered was service between Atlanta and Nashville. It seems that Amtrak started talking about service to Nashville without talking first to CSX which owns the tracks to Nashville which is a busy, congested mainline for the CSX. Of course Anderson wasn’t interested in spending money for major capital improvements which would be needed to operate a faster and more frequent rail passenger service. So what was Anderson and Gardner up too?

One thing Amtrak has been interested in was getting the States to pay them money to run passenger trains in their States. How is this working out for them? So far it doesn’t look too good. Back on November 13, 2019 the Executive Director for the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, Stacy Mortensen testified before a subcommittee of the U.S House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Ms Mortensen oversees both the Amtrak San Joaquin rail service between Bakersfield and Oakland as well as the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) which is a  commuter rail service between Stockton and San Jose . The ACE rail service is managed by a private company, Herzog Transit Services Inc. Ms Mortensen is very satisfied with Herzog. Their operating costs are very reasonable and she has a good relationship dealing with Herzog. That can’t be said about Amtrak. What Amtrak charges the State to operate the San Joaquin trains is much higher than what it costs to run the ACE Trains. She also isn’t pleased with the level of cooperation she gets from Amtrak compared with Herzog. Quoting Ms. Mortensen “Amtrak’s lack of data transparency, resistance to data sharing and collaboration, inability to fairly determine a cost sharing formula and, higher-than-average costs when compared to other public passenger rail services has caused our agency to question the future viability of the service under this structure.”

At the heart of Amtrak’s beginning was the bankruptcy of the PennCentral Railroad. After the PennCentral went bankrupt in June 1970, Amtrak was running by May 1, 1971. While Amtrak wasn’t making money in its early years, it didn’t lose much either at first since Amtrak had very little overhead. Most of that belonged to the PennCentral on the Northeast Corridor. By about 1975 the Federal Railroad Administration in reorganizing the PennCentral  into what became Conrail dumped most of the costs of the Northeast Corridor onto Amtrak. This despite the fact that the majority of the costs for rail service on the NEC came from local commuter rail services not Amtrak trains. The FRA knew that Conrail couldn’t become profitable while also paying the whole cost of the Northeast Rail Corridor’s infrastructure.  When Amtrak got the NEC, it got involved in creative accounting. Basically Amtrak accounting didn’t count their costs so much as they assumed  their “costs”. One example of this is the costs of running Long Distance Amtrak Trains was based on how many miles they traveled. According to Amtrak, “it saved money” when its trains weren’t moving. This made the Long Distance trains very “expensive” the more they were moving. If Amtrak wanted to carry more passengers on a route, it would be “charged” extra for running additional service. This even while additional service would improve Amtrak’s operational efficiency and revenue generation. Over the years in an attempt to save money Amtrak eliminated some trains including some Long Distance Trains.These service cutbacks often instead of saving money usually reduced revenue instead. This did nothing to reduce the high overhead costs of the NEC so no money was saved, but revenue declined with fewer people riding the trains.

Amtrak doesn’t lose money on their Long Distance Trains. The cost of running them are largely dumped on the host railroads. But rather than expand service to increase revenue and productivity. Amtrak instead has been pushing for more contracts to run State funded services. So far it doesn’t look like that ploy is working. This reminds me when Amtrak decided to go after the market to operate regional rail commuter services. Amtrak assumed that it would dominate the market. Amtrak did well at first operating Caltrain and Metrolink services. But with many competitors like Herzog, Amtrak’s high overhead costs left them overpriced with little competitive advantage. The real problem Amtrak has is the cost of the infrastructure of the NEC. Parts of the NEC has many structures that date back over 100 years. To balance Amtrak’s Books, it often puts off maintenance. It seems now on the NEC  the back log for a state of good repair has reached $38 Billion dollars.

To become viable, Amtrak needs to run more trains, more frequently more hours in the day on longer distances.They need more markets to fill up their trains. Also much of the cost of the infrastructure of the NEC should be supported by State and Federal Governments. This is something that the NEC States have been fighting against since at least 1970. Amtrak is a minority user of the tracks of the NEC, but is charged the major share of the costs. Revenue for transportation is generally based on passenger miles. This can be increased on Amtrak by running more Long Distance trains with connections to other trains to as many places as possible. But Amtrak seems to think that running trains loses money. So they have often tried to “save money” by reducing service which never worked.

Finally Some Good News For Rail Passenger Service In California

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By Noel T. Braymer

With the outbreak of Corona Virus-2019 and social distancing, has come major reductions in ridership as well as service levels for all forms of public transport. Recently there is plenty of good news with funding for major improvements of existing rail passenger service in California as well as new services, equipment and track improvements. A major example of this was the recent announcement by the California High Speed Rail Authority with LA Metro of funding for building “run-through tracks” at Los Angeles Union Station.There has been talk of this going back about 40 years ago.

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Along with the track work, the current pedestrian tunnel at Union Station will be greatly enlarged with  extra room for new shops, food services and improved connections to Union Station transportation services. The Memorandum of Understanding between California High Speed Rail and LA Metro includes just over 800 million dollars in funding for Link US (for run through tracks and Union Station improvements) from California High Speed Rail and the California State Transportation Agency. This also includes shared use  and upgrading of the Los Angeles County owned rail right of ways between Union Station and Lancaster. This also calls for additional funding to complete the run through tracks and Union Station improvements in time for the opening of the 2028 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

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Outdoor view of Los Angeles Union Station Christmas Morning. Photo by Noel T. Braymer

Also in the news in the Modesto Bee is a report of ongoing planning to extend more rail passenger service in a few years between the San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento. In the case of the “San Joaquin” trains, this would bring the previous 2 round trips between Bakersfield to Sacramento to 5 round trips by 2023 and 9 by 2026. This will switch most new  Sacramento service to a branch line of the Union Pacific bypassing the  UP mainline and the Sacramento Amtrak Station while terminating near the Sacramento Airport. This is part of the 900 million dollar- fully funded project to expand service.

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Waiting to board at Bakersfield . Photo By Noel T. Braymer

The other part of this plan is part of the extension of the Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) which until recently ran 4 round trips weekdays between San Jose and Stockton. Construction is underway building a new ACE Track along the UP mainline between Stockton and Merced. For expanded service to Sacramento the new trains would have one round trip train by 2025 and up to 4 by 2027 on the same branch line between Stockton and Sacramento as all but 2 San Joaquin trains that will head to the Sacramento Amtrak station.

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On a smaller scale, but also long awaited are improvements coming to San Diego County. The California State Transportation Agency awarded almost $40 million dollars to the LOSSAN JPA towards construction of a new maintenance and layover facility south of the downtown San Diego Depot as well for major overhauls of the Pacific Surfliner equipment which will run between San Diego-Los Angeles-Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, The new maintenance/layover facility will be built south of downtown San Diego.

A recent photo of people departing a Surfliner at Oceanside. Photo by Noel T. Braymer

With the construction of hi rise condos around the Amtrak Station have come complaints about the noise from the new residents by the station of noise at night while crews  work on the train equipment and of the smells from emptying sewage from the train’s toilets. The new maintenance facility will likely be in an industrial area south of downtown San Diego with rail access next to part of the San Diego Trolley Blue Line. This could also open up extended service for the Coaster Commuter trains with stops by the Convention Center roughly a mile south of the Depot. It might also lead to Coaster connections with the Trolley service not far from the Convention Center and Petco Baseball Stadium.

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NCTD Coaster Train at the downtown San Diego train station. The tall buildings by the station are all residential.

The State also granted $12 million for a $36 million project for service on the Green and Orange San Diego Trolley Lines. This is planned to extend a mile of double track in El Cajon to terminate Green and Orange Line trains at the El Cajon Transit Center. A shuttle Trolley will carry passengers transferring at the El Cajon Transit Center to the Santee Trolley Station. Most of the track between El Cajon and Santee  is single track in the median of a major/ road. Also more money was granted for stabilizing the bluffs on the rail right of way at Del Mar.

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A picture from a couple of years back at the downtown train depot in San Diego with Light Rail service in the foreground and local regional Coaster service in the background. Photo by Noel T. Braymer

Also in recent news California announced $500 million dollar towards 17 transit projects in the State. This included $6.5 million for 11 battery powered buses for the Antelope Valley Transit Authority. BART is getting $107.1 million dollars to buy 34 more new railcars. In Sacramento $3.9 million dollars is available for a new access route to connect the Sacramento Valley Station to the nearby new Railway Plaza development. The City of Inglewood is getting $95.2 million for a 1.6 mile People Mover to connect to the Downtown Inglewood Crenshaw/LAX Metro line station to the new SoFi sports Stadium with 3 additional stops in between in Inglewood. Lake Transit received  $13 million for a new transit center at Clearlake and 4 new Fuel Cell buses. Long Beach Transit is getting $6.45 million  for 5 electric buses for service between Long Beach and UCLA. LA Metro and Metrolink are getting $107 million for rail infrastructure improvements for hourly rail service in both directions on the Metrolink Antelope Valley line with addition half hourly service on the Antelope Valley line between Union Station and Santa Clarita.

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A new Tier 4 Metrolink low emission locomotive at Los Angeles Union Station at the head of a trainset. Photo by Noel T. Braymer

Well you get the idea. There are many other projects for new electric bus services,Bus Rapid Transit and orders for new Light Rail vehicles. For additional details, see CalSTA 2020 TIRCP Award List and 2020 TIRCP Detailed Project Award

The Health Threat of the Corona Virus

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By Noel T. Braymer

With the outbreak of the corona virus (COVID-19) has come major reductions for the economy, employment and transportation demand including rail travel. With this has come major increases in unemployment nationwide. There is little written about how COVID-19 sickens and often kills people who come into contact with this new strain of virus. We can see many people who got the virus have often recovered. Two examples include actor Tom Hanks who was diagnosed with COVID-19 along with his wife while they were in Australia. Just recently they arrived back in this country after they recovered. Another example is CNN Reporter Chris Cuomo who is still recovering from COVID-19. He also spread the virus to his wife. So far it looks like both couples will recover.

Many people get viral diseases and most recover after a period of time. But there are often people who die within days of contact with the COVID-19 virus. Examples of this are when people living in nursing homes were exposed to COVID-19 around the world, which often in short order sets off major die offs of these unhealthy people. This is an example of what happens when a person has a weaken immune system which is common with the elderly. But looking at many of the people who died recently from COVID-19 were middle aged or young adults who one wouldn’t expect to be so vulnerable.

One thing that has been reported on is that a greater percentage of people who died from COVID-19 in this country were Black or Hispanic compared to the rest of the population. What seems to be the cause of this? One thing most people tend to ignore or are ignorant of, is the critical role nutrition has for good health and preventing disease. The American food industry is full of sugary foods which are popular with the public. The result of this over the roughly last 30 to 40 years has been a dramatic increase in the rate of diabetes and obesity not just in this country, but in most of the rest of the world. Type 2 diabetes is a direct result of excessive consumption of foods that spike the body’s insulin  levels which turns blood sugar into fat in a person’s body. With this comes what is called insulin resistance which means the body is running out of places to store fat. With high levels of insulin also comes inflammation throughout a person’s body. This can lead to many health problems. This can be a factor in the development of heart disease, cancers, diabetes, arthritis and so on.

An example of where nutrition is critical for good health comes from Vitamins D, C and the minerals Zinc and Magnesium . What kills most people with a viral disease are  lung problems. Vitamin D which is now recognized as a hormone is often called the “Sunshine Vitamin” because the body makes “D” when exposed to sunlight during the day. People with darker skin need more time to make as much “Vitamin D” as people with lighter skin. Vitamin D is critical for healthy lungs. Many people in poor health have problems breathing with viral diseases such as the flu or COVID-19. Many of the people who die from viral disease end up sedated with a ventilator hose down their lungs. The forcing of air from ventilation can make the lungs worse off when they are already poor shape.  While they are “kept alive” the number of people to recover from this is often small. Vitamin D can be stored in the body because it is fat soluble.  Vitamin D is a major part of healthy lungs. Besides sun exposures, Vitamin D is available in foods such as eggs, butter, fatty fish and cheese as well as in supplements. Vitamin D is central to calcium use in the body.  But in many cases people are often deficient in D and other needed nutrients made worse by eating low nutrient level “junk food”.

Vitamin C is also a major part of the immune system. Since the 1930’s Vitamin C has been recognized as an antiviral which means it kills viruses. Vitamin C is an antioxidant which means it can neutralizes toxins in the body and reduces inflammation. As a water soluble vitamin, Vitamin C can’t be stored long term and needs regular supplies to the body to be effective. Vitamin C is also critical to the making of collagen which is a protein needed to maintain and repair damage to the skin, bones and organs. Zinc is involved in many biochemistry reactions in the body. It is also vital in destroying invading bacteria and viruses. Magnesium is also involved in many biochemical processes in the body. It also helps with relaxing muscles and preventing cramps. It also reduces anxiety and helps bring about relaxation.

I am not a health care professional and I am not giving healthcare advice. But I encourage people to do their own research on health and diet. Over the last 20 or so odd years I have lost over a hundred pounds and weigh roughly what I weighed in my late teens and 20’s. I rarely get sick, and when I do I recover quickly. The only times I have slept in a hospital was shortly after my birth and for about 10 days when I was 14  in a body cast after breaking my left thigh during football practice. My belief is avoiding “junk food” has helped me lose weight and made it possible to be healthy and very active in my late 60’s.