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September 20, 2008

Rail Meeting

This afternoon I went to a panel discussion in Palm Desert on the subject of regular rail service between the Coachella Valley and Los Angeles. It was organized (or moderated) by RailPAC, the Rail Passenger Association of California & Nevada. There were three people on the panel.

The key person was Richard Phelps, Amtrak's Vice President of Transportation (i.e., he's in charge of the trains). Here's a PDF version of an Amtrak magazine with an interview with Phelps on page 3. Before becoming VP of Transportation he was General Superintendent of the Southwest Division of Amtrak for 17 years.

Along with him was Bill Bronte, Chief of Caltrans Division of Rail. He's a rail supporter, but does seem to like to hear himself bloviate at considerable length.

The third man on the panel was Sheldon Peterson, Rail Programs Manager for Riverside County Transportation Commission. A man of few words, he nonetheless made it clear that RCTC is all for regular train service between here and L.A.

Spotted in the audience were Terry Henderson, city councilmember in La Quinta and our own Desert Hot Springs councilmember Scott Matas. They may have been there in connection with their responsibilities in RCTC and CVAG, respectively. An Indio city councilmember was also in attendance. Representative Bono-Mack had sent a staff person.

The two choices for rail service to L.A. are either Metrolink (the L.A. commuter train service) or Amtrak. The assumption seemed to be that Amtrak service would mean an increase in the number of trains on the Sunset Limited, the New Orleans-Los Angeles train that already stops in Palm Springs on an irregular and tardy basis. One speaker from the audience and Mr. Peterson from RCTC said they preferred Amtrak. The speaker from the audience said that Metrolink didn't allow any food or beverages on board and that Amtrak had more comfortable trains.

In my opinion, tying regular commuter rail service to a long distance train that actually comes from two cities in the east (the Texas Eagle from Chicago joins the Sunset Limited in San Antonio) would lock us into an inflexible schedule...and increase the likelihood of running behind schedule. I'd be willing to ride in a box car with wooden benches if it ran on time and could be rescheduled to meet changing local needs.

Whoever provides the service, the railroad itself belongs to Union Pacific. It needs upgrading just for the freight service it already carries, and would need further upgrading for regular passenger service. We're talking millions, of course. Union Pacific won't even talk until they know the money is coming. Mr. Phelps of Amtrak made it abundantly clear that of the several freight railroads they have to deal with, Union Pacific is the worst. Federal law requires railroads to give priority to passenger traffic, but Union Pacific rarely does so. One attorney from the audience asked why Amtrak wasn't hauling Union Pacific into court over each and every violation of this statue. Mr. Phelps said that they had done that at least once, service improved for about 9 months, and then slipped back to its current mediocre level. He says he believes that cooperative work between Amtrak and the freights produces better results.

Currently, Mr. Phelps told us, 95% of Amtrak's capital funds go to the Northeast Corridor, which he claims Amtrak owns. Maybe they've enlarged their ownership since, but when I lived in Boston Amtrak owned tracks only between New York and Washington, not the tracks going north to Boston...which is why it took so long to electrify that stretch.

He also spoke of Senate Bill 294 which has passed both houses of Congress and is now waiting for the differences between the two houses to be resolved. That bill includes a provision "to develop a standardized method for allocating Federal funding equally among the states for capital and operating costs on Amtrak routes." That might help.

It brought a round of laughter from everyone when one audience member talked about the Palm Springs plan to begin to charge for parking at the Garnet station.

One speaker from the audience strongly suggested (while looking hard at Bono-Mack's stand-in) that anything called a "pilot project" would be a lot easier to get through all the legislative hurdles. He, being from Santa Monica (IIRC) and having a home in Coachella Valley specifically thought a Friday evening train from L.A. to Indio and a Monday morning train running the opposite direction would be ideal. I don't see how that would do much to help desert residents, but if some expert study (could we keep that under half a million?) said that was the best way to start out, then I could live with it.

The city councilmember from Indio reminded us that Indio is about to embark on construction of a new 17,000 square foot intermodal transportation facility and he promised Indio would do ANYTHING Amtrak wants in order to get Amtrak to stop there. He did not, however, blow a kiss to Mr. Phelps.

A city councilmember from Loma Linda (I forgot to mention him earlier) said the city had done a recent survey and discovered that the VA hospital and the other medical facilities in his city were the source for quite a lot of the congestion on I-10, much to their surprise. He said the city was eager for a train stop in their town, and they were prepared to integrate it into their local transit when they got it.

On peripheral subjects, Mr. Bronte said that the Pacific Surfliner over the last two months has carried MORE passengers than Acela in the Northeast Corridor! I find that almost too stunning to believe, but when has an official from Sacramento ever been wrong?

Both Mr. Bronte and Mr. Phelps reported that bi-modal use of bicycles with trains is very high and growing, both throughout the Amtrak system and on Metrolink. Both systems are looking at ways to modify their cars to allow them to carry even more bicycles.

And finally, what about those cash cows, the casinos? They look like obvious partners since all the casinos except the Spa casino in downtown Palm Springs and Augustine casino are right along the railroad. It turns out that the casinos are eager to build little station stops and to provide a shuttle service to their respective gambling dens. But if you thought they might cough up, say, $50 million to do a little double-tracking, then think again.

UPDATE: Here's an especially badly written report on the meeting in the Desert Sun. I didn't hear the details on the schedule or the billion-dollar price tag mentioned during the meeting, but the reporter is young and maybe her hearing is lots lots better than mine.

Filed under California,Coachella Valley,Travel | permalink | September 20, 2008 at 08:21 PM


In this updated article in the Desert Sun it says that the $1 billion for train service from Indio to L.A. would include "upgrading all rail lines in Southern California." I'm so sure that no one said this at the meeting. I can hardly imagine why the gov't would need to upgrade EVERY rail line from Santa Barbara to Blythe just to rain a train from the Coachella Valley to L.A.

The article also says that California spends $86 million [per year] on "its rail lines." Wrong. It spends $86 million on train service. California doesn't own the rail lines.

The article contains lots of other small errors.

Posted by: Ron's Log at Sep 21, 2008 9:14:08 AM

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