Tag Archives: Amtrak California

Why Intercity Rail Matters

We’ve had some good discussions on public transit lately, focused on moving people within cities via buses and trains. But just as important is intercity rail – getting people from one part of the state to another. And just as high ridership is bumping against budget constraints on city lines, so too is intercity rail running into capacity limits:

Amtrak set records in May, both for the number of passengers it carried and for ticket revenues – all the more remarkable because May is not usually a strong travel month.

But the railroad, and its suppliers, have shrunk so much, largely because of financial constraints, that they would have difficulty growing quickly to meet the demand…

“We’re starting to bump up against our own capacity constraints,” said R. Clifford Black, a spokesman for Amtrak….

Today Amtrak has 632 usable rail cars, and dozens more are worn out or damaged but could be reconditioned and put into service at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars each.

And it needs to buy new rail cars soon. Its Amfleet cars, the ones recognizable to riders as the old Metroliners, are more than 30 years old. And the Acela trains, which have been operating about eight years, have about a million miles on them.

We are running into similar problems here in California. Our intercity rail services under the Amtrak California brand, are experiencing soaring ridership. The Pacific Surfliner trains, from San Luis Obispo to San Diego via LA, are the second busiest trains in the Amtrak system, often with standing room only. The Capitol Corridor, from San José to Sacramento via Oakland, is the third busiest route in the Amtrak system, and it too is bursting at the seams with riders.

That we have these routes at all is remarkable, and is due to the passage of Proposition 116 in 1990, which sank $2 billion into passenger rail. Amtrak California is mostly funded by the state, and administered by Caltrans’ Division of Rail (with Amtrak providing most of the operations and some funding). But this investment has run its course and new funding is needed to expand intercity rail, so that Californians can travel from city to city without relying on their cars or on flights, which are either too expensive or nonexistent (can’t exactly catch a plane from San José to Sacramento).

Proposition 1B, the multibillion transportation bond approved in the 2006 election, was supposed to deliver funding to purchase more cars and expand Amtrak California services, including the creation of a “Coast Daylight” train from SF to LA via the 101 corridor.

Those funds haven’t materialized because Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Department of Finance stunningly claims that there is no need for new cars. According to the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada (RailPAC):

The Department of Finance, whose director Michael Genest maintains that public fund support for mass transit, particularly the intercity rail program, is not a legitimate expenditure of public funds, has conducted an “audit” that said “we don’t see you need it.” So, “we can’t spend any because of that.” That puts the expected order of new cars for the Surfliners, Capitols, and San Joaquins on hold.

What happened was that Genest sent auditors to ride the Capitol Corridor in the middle of the day on a Wednesday in the middle of January – traditionally a time of low ridership, whereas the route is packed to the rafters on weekends and during commute hours. This flawed “sample” enabled the Schwarzenegger administration to extend its war on public transportation to the successful Amtrak California system, in an attempt to starve it of services right at the moment when Californians are embracing intercity rail.

Intercity rail is crucial to this state’s economy. As gas prices rise fewer Californians are becoming in-state tourists. Places like Santa Barbara, Yosemite, and yes, Monterey rely heavily on visitors from the big metro areas to survive. Without reliable and available intercity rail they will see significant economic damage.

We’re also in the middle of an airline crisis as flights are cut back and fares inexorably rise. That is going to make it even more difficult – and more expensive – for Californians to travel around their state.

I would be remiss if I did not mention high speed rail as another solution to the need and demand for intercity rail. But even though it is a necessary project, it won’t open until the middle of the next decade. Amtrak California can help meet California’s needs right now – if only Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn’t bent on shackling Californians to oil.

Sure, Arnold doesn’t want to drill offshore, but if he succeeds in strangling passenger rail, that opposition won’t mean much for mobility and economic prosperity in our state.