By Noel T. Braymer
The reality of life is it doesn’t pay to be Pennywise and Pound Foolish. There is always the possibility that large, complicated projects will go over budget. Sometimes simple incompetence or corruption wastes money. But too often in life, particularly in rail passenger service, you lose money nickel and diming things in an attempt to save money. Quite often this happens with government budgets for public transportation. A classic example of nickel and diming is deferred maintenance. In the long run putting off maintenance costs money. The same is true from not making capital improvements which will have a positive return on investment. Here are some examples of this that we can see every day when it comes to rail passenger service.
1. Equipment maintenance. There has been progress compared to the past when there were times when passenger locomotives in Southern California would run of of fuel in the middle of their runs. But too often equipment breakdowns still happen more often than would be seen in most advanced countries with rail passenger service. Simple things like doors that are hard to open or close can delay trains or bad heating or air conditioning driving passengers away. Airlines do their best to do their maintenance at night when the demand for flying is lowest. They also want to use their planes the most when demand is the highest usually during the day to get the most income from their planes. Airlines don’t leave planes on idle the ground if they can help it. But quite often rail equipment is idle during the day when more revenue can made with them. Often there are delays getting work done and equipment sits idle even longer not earning money. Often buying new train equipment is put off which in the long run costs more money. As equipment ages it is more likely to breakdown and will need more maintenance. This leads to less reliable service and lower ridership.
2. Right of Way. Not maintaining the tracks and structures on a right of way is a common way to lose money in the long run. Track or signalling problems can cause delays and upset passengers. These can cascade not just to one train, but all trains along the line for hours with delays. Lack of track capacity or low speeds on existing track reduces the revenue potential of rail service. This is a problem on many of the tracks in California. I am very aware on this for most of the rail route between Los Angeles and San Diego on the busiest travel corridor between the 2 largest cities in California. The biggest problems are in southern Orange County and parts of San Diego County. In San Clemente there is a speed limit restriction of 40 miles per hour on a single track railroad along the beach in San Clemente. A tunnel to replace this trackage would cost around a billion dollars. But it would mean double tracking for increased capacity with faster operating speeds. Double tracking in this area would mean greatly increased capacity for more trains on this busy congested corridor.
There are 2 major bottleneck in San Diego County. There is also single track running on top of the buffs at Del Mar and on the wetlands of Los Penasquitos Lagoon. A tunnel could replace these tracks between Del Mar and Sorrento Valley which would be double tracked and allow faster speeds. A few miles to the south is 2 miles of 25 mile per hour single track running in the Carroll Canyon area. By eliminating miles of existing track with a tunnel to cut several miles from the current route we could have time savings of several minutes of running time. Also a station on this bypass at the UTC mall would have connections to the San Diego Trolley Blue Line now under construction as well as transit bus service. The University City area near the University of California at San Diego is where the UTC mall is which is in is the largest employment center in the city of San Diego .
3. Operations. Management is critical to preventing and rapidly responding to issues that can shut down or delay rail service. A few years ago there were problems getting a locomotive to start on a morning northbound Surfliner in San Diego. The locomotive barely made it to the siding north of San Clemente. Several trains passed the stranded train and its passengers for 6 hours until a northbound train to San Luis Obispo stopped and picked up the passengers of the stranded train. The crew on the rescue train hit their 12 hour work day limit when it reached Anaheim which further delayed everyone on the train. The next morning the first northbound train to Santa Barbara was given the job of coupling to the disabled train to tow it to Los Angeles. The crew of this train was also suppose to run a southbound morning train from Los Angeles to San Diego. But because of the delay getting the disabled train towed the crew was still in Orange County long after the southbound train was due out of Los Angeles. It was over an hour after what should have been the departure before anyone called in a replacement crew for the southbound train. After the blowback of this incident Amtrak keeps a standby locomotive at San Diego to replace any locomotive that isn’t running well. Since this policy was put in place, Surfliner reliability has improved.
The result of equipment problems, track capacity problems and management issues all can combine to raising cost and discouraging ridership. Certainly being on time and competitive with auto travel times is a major plus for rail passenger service. A few years ago the Capitol Corridor cut several minutes off of the running times of their trains between the Bay Area and Sacramento. There were grumblings by some that it wouldn’t work and they needed the padding in the schedule. Well the Capitol Corridor already had one of the best on time performance of Amtrak trains. They still ran on time even with the shorter running times. How did they do it? First it helps that the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Agency pays the Union Pacific extra money for extra track maintenance. Not only do the passenger trains have fewer operational problems on the road, but the UP has fewer problem too. Overall there are fewer conflicts between all trains. The other thing is the trains didn’t go faster to save time. What was done was cutting a minute or 2 out of the dwell times at the station stops on the Capitol Corridor trains.
The cheapest way to run trains faster is to spend less time stopped. This means less time at sidings and stations. Train cars with low floor loading and remote controlled powered doors save time at stations. This is the equipment used on the Capitol Corridor service. On the Surfliners, some trains have older cars with narrow doors, multiple steps and with most doors closed with station stops often of 5 minutes or more. The other Surfliner trains add badly needed seats with Superliner coaches which need an attendant to open the door. With Metrolink’s and most other commuter train equipment most station stops are 30 seconds or less. When the Pacific Surfliners first got their new Bi-level cars in 2000, the expectation was that station dwell times would be generally cut to 2 minutes. With roughly 7 station stops between Los Angeles and San Diego cutting 2 to 3 minutes off the running time at stations alone would save at least 15 minutes off of the running time. The problem is there is not enough Surfliner equipment to reliably make station stops in under 2 minutes.There is too many of the old, slow loading equipment mixed in the Surfliner fleet.
Reducing running times is also being held back by extra station stops on the Surfliners. These are markets that need to be served. But too many stops also end up with fewer passengers traveling longer distances. Revenue is based on passenger miles when tickets are sold by the mile. Having local trains and buses serving all stations and connecting to faster limited stop trains has been used successfully for years in many places. The long term plan for the Surfliners back in 2000 was that with speeds up to around 110 miles per hour, track improvements and fast loading equipment that service between Los Angeles and San Diego could be run in just a little over 2 hours. In the 1970’s the scheduled running time between Los Angeles and San Diego was 2 hours and 35 minutes. That’s the fastest it has been in almost 40 years.
Raising money is never easy and most transportation projects wait years for funding which often don’t get funded. But a key to gaining support of capital projects for rail service is to point out the increased productivity possible with improvements. This has been a selling point that will get run through tracks built at Los Angeles Union Station. Such projects shouldn’t be seen as costs, but as investments with a positive return on their investment. Running faster trains don’t just make passengers happier. Faster speeds also means carrying more people, further in less time increasing the productivity of rail passenger service. Faster trains mean running more miles in a day. Rail Passenger service has come a long way in California compared to 40 years ago on many levels. But it still has a way to go before it fulfills its potential.