When Will Daylight Come to the California Coast?
For years now local governments along the Central Coast, aided by passenger rail advocates, have been working to bring daily local rail service back to their communities. While the Coast Starlight does serve Salinas, Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, and though the Pacific Surfliner serves other local stops from SLO southward, there’s still no daily scheduled rail service from SF to LA via the coast. Aside from Salinas, cities between Gilroy and Paso Robles have no rail service of any kind. And that in turn means no connection to the high speed rail system at Gilroy and again in the LA area, no connecting service and no funneling passengers to the bullet trains.
The proposed Coast Daylight service would fill this gap. While the Central Coast is too hilly and sparsely populated to support high speed rail service, it’s a perfect spot for intercity rail along the Amtrak California model. It would boost tourism in Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties and give residents there more reliable travel options to get to the Bay Area and SoCal. Amtrak California’s bus service along the corridor is popular, suggesting latent demand for rail.
Even the US military is supportive, hoping for a passenger rail stop at King City to serve soldiers going to and from Fort Hunter Liggett. (Little known fact: the military is one of the strongest supporters of transit in Monterey County, funding service through the local transit agency.) And as gas prices rise, it becomes more important than ever to bring some form of intercity rail to as many corners of the state as possible.
Unfortunately, as a recent article in the San Luis Obispo New Times points out, the Coast Daylight is yet again delayed thanks to a battle with Union Pacific:
According to a CRCC staff report, rail agencies are facing three major hurdles to reestablishing service. First, Amtrak needs the train set. According to the report, the arrival of new California-owned equipment in 2015 should help relieve the current rail car shortage and free up existing equipment.
Second, ridership and revenue modeling completed by Amtrak and Caltrans in 2010 concluded that about $7.5 million in new operating funds would be needed annually for the service, which is expected to increase ridership by an estimated 152,000 trips a year.
In previous years, Caltrans has proposed setting aside funds for the Daylight in its operating budget, but has been denied by the Department of Finance, citing the lack of an agreement with Union Pacific over the rails.
The CRCC is currently on its third draft of modeling, but thus far disagreements between the agency and Union Pacific have centered on the route’s projected impact on freight trains, which take precedence over commuter routes….
However, the agencies have disagreed with Union Pacific over just how many smaller, “reasonable” capital improvement projects would need to be made along the section of rail to get the route approved, such as updated signaling and other modernizations.
The state has about $43 million to restore service. New trainsets will be required, and once new cars are delivered to Caltrans in 2015 that should make available cars to use on the daily route in each direction. But that money has to go far, especially on older sections of track in Monterey County and northern San Luis Obispo County that need rehabilitation to help handle increased loads, or to lengthen sidings to give some more priority to passenger trains. So that makes it important from the state’s perspective to not have to spend too much money on capital improvements, hence their position in negotiations with UP.
The crux of the issue has to due with a capacity model. Bruce Jenkins of RailPAC summed up the issue in a post from December 2011:
The Coast Route remains a strategic line for Union Pacific freight operations, e.g., overflow traffic from the Tehachipi Route and growing local volume. The UP maintains that a single passenger train consumes the eguivalent of 2 to 4 freight train slots.
CRCC raised three main points of the modeling:
a) There are an unreasonable high number of freight trains assumed.
b) The modeling results can’t be verified.
c) The necessity of including projects south of San Luis Obispo (SLO) and north of SanJose (SJC) is unclear and unjustified.
UP responded :
a) The rail assets must earn a fair return for stockholders.
b) The high number of freight trains (20 trains/day) in the model include trains to east Oakland (Elmhurst), and 17.3 freight trains per day operate on the same tracks as the proposed Daylight.
c) The schedule can be modified and run again.
d) Model times can be set at SLO and SJC for the next run.
e) It is expected additional passenger operations would contribute to Positve Train Control (PTC).
In other words, UP wants to ensure they can make money from running a lot of trains over this corridor and that they don’t lose capacity to passenger trains. Of course, this may also be a negotiating position so they can get the state to put up more money to upgrade UP’s tracks, but UP has been notoriously hostile to passenger rail in California in the past.
As with all negotiations with UP, the state and the local governments, all of whom really want this service, are in a weak position. UP answers only to the federal government, which over 100 years ago took away most power to regulate railroads from localities at a time when Congress was in the railroads’ pocket. California’s Congressional leaders should do what they can to help push UP to come to a good faith solution with the state so that the Coast Daylight trains can begin rolling in 2015.