06 July, 2008


Cal Train photo or a "what if shot" taken near Gainesville or Tallahassee?

It all started in a car crazy society that was tired of seeing the air they breathed. Why not use the new Federal Passenger Train network, "AMTRAK" to try and relieve the congestion. Believe me, I was there, your blogger remembers the jokes. "It will only work if they figure out how to seat the passengers AND their sports cars in coach". Well they did it anyway and something amazing happened. People started abandoning their cars by the hundreds. New development sprung to life alongside the revived passenger stations and a whole new urbanism took root. Yes, I remember "The San Joaquin" in those days. A single little train, one locomotive and maybe 3 cars that trundled down the valley each day from Oakland to Stockton, Fresno and ended it's run 2 feet from hell, in Bakersfield. The equipment was second hand, the Air Conditioning worked - sometimes, and schedule keeping was hap-hazard at best. But on and on it rolled, slowly the numbers of riders creeping ever upward.

Move on to Florida. A state much more dense then the San Joaquin Valley of California. Crowned by Jacksonville, the railroad gateway to America's playground.
Just 60, 120 and 300 miles from Gainesville, Tallahassee and Miami (via Daytona Beach) respectively. Racetrack fast railroad track connecting all points, downtown to downtown possibilities, but not to worry, we're planning extra lanes on the roads to Hades. Fuel prices are soaring, and America's number one beaches are not access able by train. University of Florida, Florida State University and Florida A&M all sit poised to send hordes of commuters into Jacksonville on a daily basis...but you better call Greyhound. A single little train on each of these routes would give us a measure of the future, something we could watch, something we could promote. Schedules could be fixed so the trains to and from the Northeast would offer easy connections or even through cars from Jacksonville. If it seems impossible, just think of what the worlds most auto centric society did. One wonders how we could get to Gainesville, Daytona, or Tallahassee if they were all in California?

The official word from Tallahassee on an AMTRAK-FLORIDA SYSTEM? "ZZZZZzzzzzz..."

California passenger rail success story
Railway Age, by Julian Wolinsky

A billion dollar investment is paying off in steadily rising ridership. Who says Californians are car-crazy?

If there are any doubts that an intercity passenger rail revival is truly under way in California, a few significant statistics will put those uncertainties to rest. There are three state supported corridors: the Pacific Surfliner, the Capitol, and the San Joaquin. They carry 2.9 million passengers annually--nearly 15% of Amtrak's national total. The number of daily trains, now totaling 23, has been steadily increasing, and with each service expansion comes a surge of new riders. More than $1.2 billion has been invested by the state to upgrade right-of-way and rolling stock, and hundreds of millions of additional dollars are in the pipeline. As service has improved, so has ridership, confirming that a long suppressed market for train travel existed in California. If schedules are convenient and frequent, people will leave their cars at home.

New routes and more trains have been added. The Pacific Surfliner (formerly the San Diegan) has been expanded to 11 daily roundtrips between San Diego and Los Angeles. The line was also pushed farther north, to San Luis Obispo. Since 1990, more than $500 million has been invested in the Pacific Surfiner route.

The San Joaquins now operate five times a day, with one train running from Bakersfield to Sacramento using a newly upgraded segment between Stockton and Sacramento. There are seven daily Capitols from Sacramento to Oakland, with four continuing south to San Jose and two north from Sacramento to Roseville. Caltrans won the right to run up to 20 trains between Oakland and Sacramento in exchange for contributing $56 million in state funds to improve capacity of the UP-owned line (the railroad contributed an additional $10 million and did all the work). However, the link south of Oakland will remain capped at four trains until track and signal expansion takes place.

Besides bond money raised through taxes, a significant source of capital funds is the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP), which supports intercity rail, transit, and highway construction. It allocates about $1 billion annually, but 75% is awarded to local agencies that submit packages of favorite transit projects. Some communities have used their share to enhance the intercity rail system. They've renovated stations or built new ones and have added such passenger amenities as parking lots.

Although capital financing is relatively straightforward, obtaining operating subsidies is more complex. Each year Caltrans must request money from the legislature, which controls the Public Transportation Account. That program is funded by the sales tax on diesel fuel and a portion of the sales tax on gasoline. Half is earmarked for intercity rail, including Amtrak Thruway bus routes, and the remainder is allocated on a formula basis to local transit operators. Lawmakers must authorize spending from the fund; the money is not just doled out automatically. "We have no authority to spend anything unless the legislature gives it to us," explains Caltrans Rail Program Manager Warren Weber. "That's true of any program."

The farebox return on the three corridors by law must be at least 30% but is currently equivalent to that of the average public transit system. The pacific Surfliner, with a ridership of 1.57 million during the fiscal year ending last June 30, is the leader at 48%. Next are the San Joaquins (671,000 riders) at 42%, followed by the Capitols (684,000 passengers) at 32%. Such costs as interest and depreciation on Amtrak-owned equipment are not included. The Pacific Surfliner is Amtrak's second busiest service nationally while the Capitols are the fourth and the San Joaquins the fifth.

Amtrak has always been the system operator and rolling stock provider under a sole-source contract that's renewed annually. "There is no viable option," says Weber. "They are the only agency that's able to access the private railroads' rights-of-way at avoidable costs. In theory you could put it out to bid, but Amtrak's got the liability, the lockdown with the railroads, and they have the avoidable costs definition. We negotiate the price based upon ridership and revenue estimates. I don't think there's anybody that can compete with Amtrak." To help hold down costs, Caltrans negotiates a fixed price for Amtrak's general and administrative costs and for the use of its reservation system. Occasionally a locomotive or a couple of coaches have to be borrowed from Amtrak if the state-owned equipment is down for maintenance or repair, and Caltrans pays a rental fee. Planning is under way for construction of a $53 million joint Caltrans/Amtrak maintenance facility in Oakland, with the state contributing $30 million . Weber says this will further tie the two agencies together since Caltrans could not go to competitive bidding for maintenance work and still use the new shop.

California's intercity rail program isn't standing still. Future plans call for a significant expansion of existing routes and the inauguration of new lines. Gov. Gray Davis, a vocal and effective proponent of passenger rail, has gotten the legislature to back his policy of expanding rail transportation with taxpayer money. In July, he signed the Traffic Congestion Relief Plan, a $5.3 billion program that should leverage an additional $10 billion in federal funds. Unlike previous funding measures, which handed over most of the cash to highway builders, some two-thirds of this five-year package will be used for transit and passenger rail. "Rail is a vital component of California's transportation system," said Davis. "Increasingly, it represents the most efficient and practical means of reducing congestion in our urban transportation corridors."

From the Archive:
Why Not A Train To Gainesville?
In a day and age when urban rail is becoming vogue, and Bus Rapid Transit or BRT is the new battle cry of the highway side, is it time to revist the short distance train? Take a look at the famous "Del Monte", a one time daily train from San Francisco to Monterey and Pacific Grove. The train was well patronized and ran for 100 years, until a quirk in the Amtrak laws left all trains under 150 route miles in a commuter category and unavailable for rescue. Trains operated by commuter agencys kept right on rolling through Amtrak day back in 1971, all longer distance trains that made the cut switched over to Amtrak on that same date. Yet everything in between fell through the cracks. Today, the stage is set to obtain Amtrak-Federal-State and Local grants to revive many of these runs. The people in Monterey, California are already in a campaign to restore the "Del Monte".

Here in Jacksonville, we have the CSX mainline West from the Union Terminal to Baldwin, and hence Southward to Starke. At Starke, a well maintained branchline swings off for Alachua and Gainesville. The right of way into downtown Gainesville is intact, the tracks stop about one mile from the Station. With the "Gator Bowl" at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, with Shands Hospital in downtown, and with a new Shands teaching campus planned for the Northside, this could become a vibrant and busy little 60+ mile train route. We need to revisit this route, revive some of our history and tie downtown Jacksonville to downtown Gainesville... Let's just not call it "The Seminole".

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The arguments rage to this date, "Should have never been built," "waste of taxpayer money," "Doesn't go anywhere," "Nobody rides it..." etc. Bottom line is we have it, and it is finally showing signs of life. Simple extensions to the Stadium, San Marco, and the area of Blue Cross in North Riverside would turn this little train around. Addition of Park and Ride garages and multimodal transit terminals at the end points would bring on the crowds. The video must have been shot on a Sunday Morning, as downtown is certainly as packed with life as any other major City on weekdays. Jacksonville is a city of Bikes, joggers, walkers, buses and cars, one almost wonders how the photographer managed to find this quiet moment.

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