Notes from the RailPAC-NARP Steel Wheels in California Conference

The 2014 Steel Wheels conference was held in Sacramento on Saturday, November 15. Thanks to Alice for the meeting notes, which are condensed here.

Paul Dyson, RailPAC president, opened the conference, followed by Robert Stewart of NARP (see slides). Stewart noted that the key legislators on transportation in the new Congress will be all Republicans, and almost all from the midwest or west.

Stewart says that our message to Congress should be: make the investment in rail. He shared some of the points Tom Hall of Amtrak had made at the Salt Lake City NARP meeting last month: Food and beverage service creates other business.

For the long distance trains, the #1 issue is on time performance. Poor OTP costs Amtrak lots of money in fuel, crews, and loss of revenue.

Jim Mathews, new President of NARP, followed, with his vision of how rail advocacy could be improved. This was similar to his presentation at Salt Lake City. He said that individuals are the most effective advocates, and NARP wants to support that. He says that the consensus in DC is that HR 5449, the new PRIIA legislation, is going nowhere, but that it has some useful features (along with completely inadequate funding levels).

The keynote address was from Roger Dickinson, outgoing member of the California Assembly.  He said that Californians support rail, and that people will choose it if it is a viable option. Three of the top five performing corridors are in the state.

The new state budget has $1.7B in transportation funding, and 40% of the cap-and-trade revenue is set aside for transit and rail funding. This sort of predictable funding is a big deal.

State planning is aimed at creating sustainable communities, and there are some specific projects that are focusing on this. Some of them include:

  • Managing the dramatic increase of hazardous shipments by rail, especially Bakken oil.
  • Getting more more information on shipments to emergency personnel.
  • Improving the safe movement of freight, which has implications for moving people: Railroads should not use this as argument to reduce passenger rail.

Dan Leavitt, San Joaquin JPA, discussed the current and future plans for ACE.

ACE now offers 4 daily RT commuter trips, plus service to 49ers games (which makes money). They are working on making improvements to UP line so they can add trains, and connect to HSR and BART. They think they can get state and federal funds, only 25% local funds; they need financing to keep building on schedule.

The San Joaquin JPA has extensive bus connections; 45% of passengers include bus connections.

Future plans includes and additional train Oakland to Bakersfield, plus more service to Sacramento.San Joaquins and ACE will be running on same infrastructure Stockton to SAC. They also need to market better to diverse populations.

They are considering Business class service to Bakersfield, and want to hear from passengers about this. They are also considering mid-corridor starts so as to make earlier frequencies possible.

They do not see HSR hurting the San Joaquins. SJ will complement HSR service. They are working on common ticketing and reservations across agencies.

Jeff Morales, the CEO of the California High Speed Rail Authority, updated the group on the HSR project. He said that California is leading the way, while Washington, DC lags behind. They are still looking for federal support, though.

The project, he said, is not about the train, it is about shaping the future of the state. California needs to make big investments to change how people move, as it can’t keep doing what it has been doing, since traffic affects productivity, quality of life, and air quality.

HSR means that successful college students, such as Fresno State engineering students, may be able to stay in Fresno. College students have already expressed their support with the “I will ride” campaign.

Any new roads built will fill up immediately, as will increased capacity at airports. One of five flights leaving LA goes to Northern California, but short distances are inefficient. The HSR project will increase airport capacity by shifting some travel to HSR. Amtrak has increased its market share in the NEC from 37% to 80%+ since starting Acela.

HSR not just about connecting endpoints SF and LA, it’s about connecting people and economies of all population centers, and diversifying the economy. Fresno has the same population size as DC. HSR will tie the Central Valley with the rest of the state. I-5 doesn’t.

CHSRA is working with other agencies to shape growth sustainably They are working to improve local transit, and with Caltrain on electrification.

Morales recognizes that anything big is controversial: There were 2,000 lawsuits filed against the Golden Gate Bridge. The reorganization that led to the current University of California system passed by single vote. So did the state water system.

While there was no clear vision for HSR in the beginning, there are now $3M in contracts signed, and work is underway, even as they continue to work through legal challenges. And the state now has an ongoing funding commitment for transportation through cap-and-trade.

The HSR project wants to have ongoing positive effects, including:

  • Employment that can continue.
  • 30% of contract $ to local, small businesses. 160 such businesses are already under contract, along with 28 disabled/veteran businesses, and women-owned businesses.

Questions from the audience: Why Palmdale? Because Prop 1A says so. HSR is about connecting up the state, not just getting from endpoints A to B. Palmdale will also make rail connections to Las Vegas possible. There are now 19M trips between Southern California and Las Vegas, of which 17M are taken by car.

How to connect CalTrain to HSR on peninsula? Where will the service be? Is there capacity to run both? No HSR systems run at high speed through urban areas, so either tie them together or spend tons of money. The blended service will mean not a lot of new track, just some passing track. The want to take advantage of the large ridership between Burbank and San Jose, and want the two systems to be compatible.

Andrew Selden of the Minnesota Association of Rail Passengers presented his thesis that long-distance trains are actually more cost-effective than NEC corridor trains.

He started by saying that Amtrak’s business is carrying people over distance, so the appropriate metric is passenger-mile, not ridership.

Based on Amtrak’s fiscal 2013 figures, shown in the charts provided.

Revenue passenger miles / inventory passenger miles = load factor, which measures capital efficiency, and shows growth opportunity. A sold-out train is a growth opportunity. On the Empire Builder, every seat and berth turns over 2.5 times during a trip on average.

Selden has calculated that all of the Federal support for Amtrak goes to subsidize the NEC, so the incremental cost of long distance trains is zero. He says that the NEC market share number mentioned earlier is actually the modal split between air and rail, not total market share. If one adds cars and other modes, Amtrak’s market share in the NEC is about 1.5%, less than motorcycles. The total market share for long-distance trains is about 5%. So, Selden says, we are putting most of the Federal capital into the least productive places.

Armin Kick of Siemens discussed building 125mph locomotives and passenger cars for the All Aboard Florida project in Sacramento. Unfortunately, his slides are marked “confidential” and can’t be shared.

AAF has contracted with Siemens to build 5 trainsets for the Phase 1 section from Miami to West Palm Beach, and 5 more trainsets when AAF extends to Orlando Airport in phase 2. Siemens is also building locomotives for Amtrak, and the multi-agency procurements that includes WSDOT, IDOT, and CalTrans.

Siemens coaches will be their first single-level passenger cars for the US market. They will have such features as 39″ seat pitch, and windows that match the seat spacing.

Since the trainsets will include locomotives at both ends instead of push-pull, there will be more redundancy, to ensure continued HEP in Florida’s hot climate, and they will be able to expand the trainsets to 9 car consists when demand gets there.

Chad Edison, Deputy Secretary for Transportation, California State Transportation Agency (CALSTA), discussed the State Rail Program, and the reorganization of the various state agencies that deal with rail.

CALSTA is a cabinet-level agency, new in 2014, and his focus is rail. He briefly provided information about the JPA agreements, and how they are working on integration between the various agencies (there are 170 different agencies that provide public transportation services in California). They are looking to improve passenger experience through better connections and ticketing, so as to lower costs per passenger-mile.

Currently, 23% of daily trips are not using autos, which is up 8%, but they think they can double or triple this. They will begin the process of integrating 170 agencies with rail first, then major local systems, where lots of people are making connections.

HSR infrastructure will be one of the least expensive to operate so they want to get most out of it.

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