freight and passenger rail

The strike by railroad workers seems to have been averted by the private railroads giving in just slightly. I don’t know enough about labor in the railroads to say much of intelligence on the issues, though I am pretty sure that as huge and very profitable corporations, the interests of the freight railroads are not those of the workers.

The possible strike has reminded me that I have ideas about railroads. I quite often use the Capitol Corridor regional service, Sacramento to the Bay Area, and also use the Amtrak long-distance routes, Coast Starlight and California Zephyr. My experience is that service on these routes has been continuously deteriorating over the years. Amtrak is not really very good at running trains, and they are even worse on maintaining trains. Equipment problems are a daily occurrence, and are often the start of trains falling behind schedule.

Passenger trains are guaranteed, by federal law, right of way over freight trains. But only if the passenger train is on schedule. So if a passenger train falls off schedule, due to equipment problems or slow loading at a station or slow crew changes (Amtrak personnel are often late to the job at crew change locations), the train will fall further and further behind. The long distance trains are either on time, because they never fell behind, or four to six hours late, because they did, and lost priority to freight trains. It is frustrating to sit on a siding, often for quite a while, while a slow and long freight train gets the right of way.

The Martinez rail bridge is a major problem for Capitol Corridor schedules. The only solution is a new high level bridge that would not be delayed by maritime traffic.

But the real issue to me is that maintenance of the rails is unacceptably bad. About two years ago, Union Pacific did a major maintenance project on part of the route between Sacramento and Martinez. The result? The rails were much worse after than before. It used to be I could write, not easily, but acceptably, on the Capitol Corridor. Those times are long gone. It is now difficult, and dangerous, to even get up and walk around. Sharp jolts from poorly maintained rails are a regular occurrence. I’ve seen people thrown to the ground by these jolts. A few years ago, a Capitol Corridor train almost derailed between Sacramento and Davis, with many passengers injured. Amtrak stonewalled the investigation, and Capitol Corridor JPA shrugged and accepted that no one was going to take responsibility.

Transportation advocates have long pushed for electrification of the Capitol Corridor trains, and similar regional rail systems throughout the US. But Union Pacific does not want catenary wires (the overhead wires that power electrified trains) along its tracks. So Capitol Corridor will continue to use diesel locomotives forever. The current model is much cleaner than older ones, but still dirty. If you really want to see dirty, look at the ancient diesel locomotives that Amtrak uses for its long distance trains.

Capitol Corridor JPA has a project to add a third track between Sacramento and Roseville so that more passenger trains can be run on that section. Today, there is one train westbound and one train eastbound, up to Auburn, with a stop in Roseville. The project has been much delayed, and now has been trimmed back so that only part of the route with have a third track. As I see it, Capitol Corridor was extorted by Union Pacific.

So, solutions:

  1. Regional rail services, which are almost entirely funded by the states and not Amtrak, should start separating from Amtrak. The result will be better managed trains and better maintained trains. The only advantage regional rail gets from Amtrak is unified ticketing, so the solution there is to have a separate unified ticketing service that is not controlled by Amtrak.
  2. The states and/or federal government should take ownership of all rail lines that serve more than one passenger train per day. Freight railroads would still own their rolling stock, and could buy passage on the routes, but the routes would be managed (dispatched) to prioritize passenger rail at all times. If the freights are willing sellers, then fair market value, but condemnation would be used where they are not.
  3. All regional passenger service should be considered for electrification. The passenger service would be cleaner and quieter and faster (better acceleration than diesel). Not all would be electrified. Freight railroads would have to accept running under catenary, or better yet, just start running electric locomotives as well.
  4. California should commit to and fully fund a high level bridge at or near Martinez.
  5. Capitol Corridor should terminate the third track project as currently designed, and demand that Union Pacific provide the right of way for a third track without any freight use at any time. I’m sure UP would refuse, which takes us back to item 2 above, public ownership of the right of way and rails.

Is driving or the train less expensive?

In today’s SacBee article by Tony Bizjak, California just got 125-mph trains. Here’s why they still can’t outrace your car, it is claimed that driving is less expensive than the train. The example given is Sacramento (SAC) to Oakland Jack London (OKJ) round trip. The article says “A price check by The Bee last week found basic Capitol Corridor round-trip train fares – with no monthly pass or other discounts – of $50 to $54 for the Sacramento-Oakland ride. That is typically more expensive than the cost of gas and vehicle wear and tear on a car drive that distance.”

First, the undiscounted Capitol Corridor ticket price is $58 round trip, though there are many discounts. But I’ll stick with the price of $58. I use the IRS mileage rate, 53.5 cents per mile for this year, to calculate driving costs. I hear people all the time claim that it costs them much less to drive, but realize that this is a real calculation the IRS does each year, and it IS the average cost. Unless this is Lake Wobegon, where all cars are “below average,” this is the best number to use.  Driving from the Sacramento station to the Oakland station is 82 miles, so 164 round trip. Calculated cost is $0.535 x 164, $88. $30 more than the train. Of course this is a solo trip. If two people are going, then it is $116 train and $88 driving, advantage driving. However, once you arrive at Oakland, you have to find parking. There is no free parking within 1/4 mile of Jack London, and even that is places most people would not want to park at night. Parking rates in lots and decks (parking garages) is commonly $15 for the day, though there are a wide variety of choices. Add that to your trip cost if you are driving. 

My point is not to give Tony a hard time. He is just repeating information he hears all the time. I hear it all the time too, including from transportation advocates who should know better.

Amtrak discounts include AAA, NARP, military and veteran, senior, disabled, and children (2-12 50%, under 2 free). Capitol Corridor promotions include steep discounts for additional passengers in a group, such as the current Take 5 Weekend Deal and ongoing Friends and Family, and sports and entertainment co-promotions. Every situation is unique, but these discounts and promotions can often bring the train cost down below the driving cost even for groups of people. 

Of course there is the environmental responsibility comparison, and for that one driving always loses.