A Rail Renaissance in California

Nov 24th, 2013 | Posted by

Amtrak California has set new ridership records on the Pacific Surfliner and the San Joaquins, leading Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty to proclaim “a rail renaissance is under way” in California in the agency’s press release:

In a state noted for its freeways, Californians are riding trains in unprecedented numbers. In 2012-13, Amtrak California carried a record 3.9 million passengers on its thriving Pacific Surfliner and San Joaquin rail lines. Over the past ten years, ridership on the Pacific Surfliner, the second-busiest rail corridor in the nation, and the San Joaquin, the fifth-busiest, increased by nearly one million passengers, and ticket revenues skyrocketed from $44 million to $102 million.

I don’t love that opening line, but the numbers are pretty clear. Amtrak California carries 5.6 million passengers a year (when you include the Capitol Corridor, whose ridership dipped slightly in 2012-13) and has seen dramatic growth over the last ten years. That growth has come because of nearly $2 billion in infrastructure investment since the state took over the routes in 1976, allowing an increase in service frequency:

Since Caltrans began funding the Pacific Surfliner corridor between San Diego and San Luis Obispo in 1976, nearly $1 billion in capital improvements have been made, and the number of daily trains has risen nearly fourfold from three daily round trips to eleven.

Caltrans has invested $460 million since 1979 to improve the San Joaquin corridor between Bakersfield-Sacramento-and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area. Passenger service has increased from one daily round trip to six (four between Oakland and Bakersfield and two between Sacramento and Bakersfield).

Californians are showing they will ride passenger trains if the option is given to them. For the last 35 years the state has been working to improve the legacy service it inherited from Amtrak and they’ve done a great job with it (though there’s always room for improvement).

The next step, of course, is to build high speed rail from SF to LA. And what these numbers show us that with an investment in tracks, cars, and frequent service, Californians will ride.

  1. Donk
    Nov 24th, 2013 at 22:18

    It helps that they are actually starting to do things efficiently, logically, and rationally. One great example is that LOSSAN services are actually becoming somewhat coordinated. There is a now a joint map and timetable of all the LOSSAN services:


    The Bay Area is probably still too inept to do this, but I may be wrong.

    Ted Judah Reply:

    It is interesting that the document doesn’t mention OCTA, given that it will be the new managing agency for the Surfliner going forward.

    I have a feeling over time there will be less coordination, not more between the Surfliner, Metrolink and the rest of LOSSAN.

  2. Donk
    Nov 24th, 2013 at 22:39

    There are a number of ongoing and planned improvements in San Diego county on LOSSAN. Mostly double tracking and bridge replacement projects. For anyone interested here is the link with projects listed on the left hand column.


    It is sort of sad though that this is the vision for the LOSSAN corridor in San Diego county for the next 20 years. Thinking small. Too bad they don’t have the funds to tunnel thru Miramar hill and connect with the San Diego trolley there.

    Joey Reply:

    Even sadder considering the massive parallel expansion of I-5 which they are still trying to push.

  3. joe
    Nov 25th, 2013 at 08:48

    Levitating Train Between DC And NYC Would Leave The Rest Of America Behind

    Conventional wisdom assumes mass transit is only for urbanites, while small town America clings to their cars. But attitudes are changing quickly. Amtrak ridership all over the country is growing steadily, and research suggests that the more regular service a route offers, the more passengers it attracts. If the DC-New York maglev were to become the poster child for infrastructure investment at the expense of slower routes, rural America’s options — and their fledgling interest in train travel — could disappear. The maglev would only confirm suspicions that mass transit investment redistributes taxpayer dollars to toys for city-dwellers, a bias that has helped turn public transportation into a hotly contested partisan issue. Without broadening train use all over the country, mass transit innovation won’t be a priority for most Americans.

    Some state associations and private companies in California and the Midwest are still slowly chugging along, but a high speed national network won’t get back on track without long-term federal funding and political support. That won’t happen if we keep pretending people who live in Washington and New York are the only people who ride the train.

    Transit’s partisan because it is seen as a predominately urban service and urban areas predominately vote Dem.

    I don’t agree with the argument we must operate with a flat mass transit budget. Stats show fewer miles driven per person, less interest in car ownership and increasing operating costs. We can afford to spend more and politically it is possible if the spending benefits a more diverse demographic.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    Transit is as a partisan issue because Real Americans ™ drive everywhere and when they have to, use airplanes. Places they won’t run the risk of having to be close to some of the Unreal Americans.

    VBobier Reply:

    Real Americans? Whose zat?? Everyone that is a citizen of this Nation, is a Real American, not just those of English ancestry…

    Alon Levy Reply:

    He’s being sarcastic.

  4. Paul Dyson
    Nov 25th, 2013 at 09:26

    Entirely predictable commentary from Robert, especially the last paragraph. Upon review of the numbers, surely one would draw the conclusion that the next step should be massive investment in L.A. – San Diego, since that’s where the people and the passengers are?
    The sad story here is that the level of investment over that period of time has been pitiful, and the passenger agencies have been too quick to add trains, straining inadequate infrastructure. The journey time between Los Angeles and San Diego is longer than it was 20 years ago, and the punctuality record, 85% on a good day, leaves much to be desired.
    Another point to note is that the Capitol Corridor, a shining example of JPA governance, is starting to slip, while the Division of Rail administered San Joaquin continues to grow. LOSSAN passenger count is flat and revenue has risen thanks to a hefty price increase.
    San Diego county finally appears to be living up to its responsibility as right of way owner but this list of projects was written 20 years ago and as Donk so rightly says, huge investments have been made in the freeways. I commented at the LOSSAN Board meeting that we are reaping the fruits of our infrastructure investment. Bolt Bus advertizes a 2hr 5min schedule L.A to S.D., 50 minutes faster at half the price!

    joe Reply:

    President Obama’s stimulus package had billions for HSR so CA applied and has billions. Let’s get it started and stop bitching.

    CA is not run on the Disk Operating System, single tasking with interrupts. We can have HSR and investment in conventional rail. We just need rail advocates to stop tearing down projects and maybe some honest recognition that the biggest obstacle to expanded rail in san diego is their conservative, car centric culture.

    Your funding growth proposal, argued here many times is to forgo the HSR project and Prop1a funds. Somehow, CA alone among all the states, could have used the federal HSR money elsewhere. Just stand up to LaHood and Obama – use the money wisely on other things like Soctt Walker and Rich Scott tried and filed to do.

    Paul Dyson Reply:

    I’d certainly love to get something started. LOSSAN had a billion in verified shovel ready projects which were dropped in favor of HSR. Rail advocates just want to see rail improvements actually built, improvements that will work and improve the lives of people here in California. Nothing about the HSR as planned and the IOS in particular will do anything for the transportation needs of Californians for at least 20 years. You really need to look closely at what the IOS means, where it goes and what it connects with to realize that the blended plan is a hoax and a money sink.

    Ted Judah Reply:

    You really need to look closely at what the IOS means, where it goes and what it connects with to realize that the blended plan is a hoax and a money sink.

    As opposed to building from the “bookends” and trying to link up the north and south by meeting halfway?

    The local transit empires aren’t interested in solving issues of statewide concern. San Diego and Sacramento, by virtue of being on the end of the socioeconomic straw, are very supportive of Amtrak California service and have ensured it has flourished. But the fiscal design of California’s cities and counties make them pretty darn incapable of solving the BIG problems.

    Building the IOS is the best thing that could happen, sadly. By simply telling the power brokers in Southern California and the Bay Area, “this is where the rail line will be, these are the cities it serves, and this is what it costs” it solves all the other collective action problems. It is the fairest, or the cheapest way? No, but what do you expect?

    California is the one state in the Union where all the largest metro area is not the richest, nor the most important to the state’s economy. A unified voice on public policy is almost impossible and it’s the reason you see so much “dysfunction” areas outside of just transportation. So I understand that the State could always do a better job with its billions. But you are assuming that local governments, fighting over all that coin, wouldn’t kill each other first….

    VBobier Reply:

    And starting in 2017 California can start to fund HSR Construction all on its own without raising any taxes, we can build through the Tehachapi mountains to Palmdale, then build to Los Angeles without any Federal funds or obstruction by crazy insane baggers in the Republican Party, then We can build towards Pacheco Pass and then connect up with the Peninsula, it means spending $5.9 Billion a year for 10 years, but that’s acceptable as it’s California state money and the CRP and the national Republican Party can go to blazes, it will be built and after 2015 California can buy off the shelf TGV or AGV trains as those will be legal to use by then, no more talk of the Acela, since it’s obsolete and not something that can be made when less expensive and more capable trainsets are legally available as of 2015 according to the FRA…

  5. EJ
    Nov 25th, 2013 at 10:03

    I don’t love that opening line

    I’m pretty sure that style guides require any article about transportation in California to have some boilerplate statement about how much we love our cars. This despite the fact that California isn’t really any more car-oriented than most of North America, and less so than a lot of areas.

    VBobier Reply:

    California is only car loving cause for decades there was no other viable alternative, now that alternative is being built and expanded and it’s Passenger Rail, get used to it, as it is going to be the norm I’d think, as it is in most other civilized nations on Earth. Don’t like that? TS…

  6. JB in PA
    Nov 25th, 2013 at 10:08

    5.6 million passengers a year equals:
    One freeway lane at full capacity 24/7.
    Two freeway lanes in a heavily used section with a normal daily traffic pattern.
    Three or four freeway lanes considering not all of California freeways state wide are utilized like the 405 or the Hollywood freeway and on average carry much less traffic.
    For a basic freeway, like 101 or 5 mid-way between SF and LA there are two lanes in each direction. So basically Amtrak = 101.

  7. Roger Christensen
    Nov 25th, 2013 at 12:23

    Urban rail in LA County appears to have broken a record in October with 372,000 daily boardings. This includes a record 169,000 on the subway. Expo light rail has already hit it’s 2020 ridership goal. With Measure R projects like Expo 2, Foothill, Crenshaw, Regional Connector, and subway extension coming on line in the next ten years means we will be seeing more than a half million daily boardings.

  8. Travis D
    Nov 25th, 2013 at 12:41

    So it appears the judge has refused to stop the first construction contracts.

    J. Wong Reply:

    Not clear. He did block the sale of the bonds. He also ordered them to come up with a new funding plan.

    J. Wong Reply:


    The AP is reporting that “continuing construction” is blocked.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Of course they will appeal, but an overturn will be very embarrassing and those judges involved will risk the charge of corruption and tampering.

    In the Eisenhower administration they coined the term “agonizing appraisal”. But I think Jerry is too far into senility to be capable of a reset.

    Happy Turkey Day, Judge. You be a standup guy..

    synonymouse Reply:

    actually “agonizing reappraisal”

    Mike Reply:

    Hey, what happened to the Nancy Pelosi mind rays?

    Travis D Reply:

    They’ll return as soon as he realizes that actual construction can proceed.

    Alan Reply:

    I think that in the end, judge Kenny will be more than embarrassed. He left himself wide-open to being overturned. It’s absurd to state that the project is not what was promised–nothing has yet been built! The portions of the project incorporating the “blended” approach won’t be built for years, and chances are that not a penny of Prop 1A money will be used. And a lot of things can change before that construction begins.

    The project is still building a high-speed railroad between SF Transbay and LA/Anaheim. All of the wild assertions about not meeting the running times are unsupported guesswork. I don’t think that the law governing the validation of the bonds was intended to examine the project in such fine detail. The voters were promised a railroad; a railroad is what is being built. Now, if the CHSRA had said that they were going to take $2 billion and give it to the state general fund, or to build an airport or a school, then the project opponents would have an argument.

    I’ve said before that Kenny has left himself open to being overturned on the Tos ruling, for unilaterally inserting a definition of IOS into Prop 1A, where none exists.

    VBobier Reply:

    Yeah, Happy Thanksgiving Turkey, er syno…

    Alan Reply:

    The article you linked was from the AP, and says nothing of the sort. The judge, according to the article, declined to block spending of the Federal money or order rescission of the construction contracts. As anti-HSR as the Merc has been, I’m sure they would have trumpeted any order halting construction.

    Brian_FL Reply:

    Uh yes the AP article does say that. Here is a copied paragraph from the news article:

    “In a separate lawsuit, Kenny ordered the rail authority to redo its $68 billion funding plan before continuing construction, a process that could take months or years. He had previously ruled that the authority abused its discretion by approving a funding plan that did not comply with the requirements of the law. The judge said the state failed to identify “sources of funds that were more than merely theoretically possible.”

    So further construction is blocked until the authority can come up with a realistic financing plan. According to the article that may take more than a year. I do not know how much clearer it can be made that CHSRA has a big mess on their hands. And it is of their own doing.

    Alan Reply:

    However, the judge refused to block the spending of Federal money or rescind the contracts already awarded. I’m guessing that what the reporter meant was that the funding plan had to be redone before any *Prop 1A* money can be used. It’s doubtful that he had the authority to do that, because Prop 1A failed to provide remedies–something that the judge himself pointed out in the preliminary ruling. But that’s why we have courts of appeal.

    We’ll see when the rulings are posted to the court’s website.

    Brian_FL Reply:

    Yes it is definitely confusing. I am not sure how the Prop 1A issue will affect the outcome. I just wish that the CHSRA had done their homework first. That way there would be no confusion now that would allow these lawsuits to gain traction. Either Prop 1A says the environmental reviews must be completed on the IOS or they don’t. Same thing for a financing plan. How could the CHSRA honestly conclude that federal funding will be available in the future? They need to come back to reality and admit they need 90% state funding. As I posted several months ago, CHSRA needs to forget about federal funding and either go after private loans or state funds. So far I see no evidence of either.

    Alan Reply:

    OK…thanks to Morris’ link, I’ve now quickly read through the rulings. Specifically, the court ruled that:

    *It did not have jurisdiction over non-Prop 1A (federal) money and could not order CHSRA not to spend the federal funds.

    *The court was not persuaded by the Tos argument that the use of Federal funds now commits the use of Prop 1A money later.

    *The court would not order rescission of the Caltrans or Tudor-Perini contracts.

    So, it would appear that the Authority can continue work using the Federal funds. The only thing that the court did order was that the Authority rescind the old funding plan. And it would appear that the AP reporter was wrong (big shock!) in writing that the necessity of revising the funding plan would delay the project by “months or years”.

    It’s a hollow “victory” for the Tos plaintiffs, Brady’s blathering notwithstanding. Their goal was to block the project altogether, and in that they failed.

    The court was also wrong in asserting that if the Authority could proceed to a subsection (d) funding plan, it could spend money without finishing the environmental clearance. The Authority cannot build anything until it receives approval for each segment from the STB, and they can’t get that approval without completing the environmental work.

    Alan Reply:

    And as far as your question about the lack of future Federal funding– A lot of things can change over the life of a project of this size, including the composition of Congress. Sooner or later, the pendulum will swing back to the side of HSR proponents. The way the teabaggers are going, I’d put my money on “sooner”. The only thing that’s at all clear is that new Federal HSR funding is highly unlikely before January 2015. But, the Authority has said that their plans are already based on that assumption.

    VBobier Reply:

    And with the looming budget surplus due to arrive in 2017 of about $9.6 billion a year(give or take a few million dollars), there enough money for California to fund all of Phase 1 of the HSR project(though I don’t see more than $5.9 Billion a year being used for HSR), so this is a minor setback, the anti-HSR forces did not get all of what they wanted, HSR will continue and they can stick that where the sun don’t shine too. The legislature will have to do some work to fix the funding now that funds have been clearly identified as being available by the LAO as of 2017, which was really nice of them to do I might add.

    adirondacker12800 Reply:

    in 2000 they were projecting that there would be budget surpluses forever and the Federal debt would be paid down in 2011 or 2012. 2017 is a long time away.

    VBobier Reply:

    Actually as of Jan 1st 2014 that will be 3 years, not that far to Me, but whatever.

    Andy M Reply:

    So that means companies who already have work allocated can rub their fingers in glee at the generous compensation payments that are coming their way? And if anybody needs to know why costs are spiralling, please remind them of the people who brought this case and cases like it.

  9. Roger Christensen
    Nov 25th, 2013 at 13:51

    Of course the ruling has to arrive in the midst of the rail renaissance post.

  10. morris brown
    Nov 25th, 2013 at 14:45

    Judge Kenny rules against the State and the CHSRA in both lawsuits.

    The rulings can be found at:


    (right side of that page are links to both rulings)

    1. The State lost the Bond Validation lawsuit. State Treasurer Lockyer has on numerous occasions stated he will not approve the issuing of more Prop 1A bond funds unless the Validation suit was approved; that has not happened.

    2. In the Tos et al suit against the CHSRA, Judge Kenny has ruled the funding plan invalid; that Prop 1A funds for construction cannot be spent until the funding plan is rectified. That is sure to take a very long time. Not only does the Authority have to identify a huge new source of funding (over $20 billion more), but must complete the Environmental clearances for the whole IOS, almost 300 miles; they currently have these for only the 29 miles from Madera to Fresno.

    The only remaining funds now available are from the FRA (ARRA and FY10) and both require matching funds, which without Prop 1A funds is not available.

    I’ll be interested in the spin Robert will put on these rulings.

    VBobier Reply:

    It’s only a temporary set back Morris, more funds will be available in 2017 from the budget surplus, right now the CHSRA doesn’t need more funds, the surplus will or should take care of that and the EIR’s? That should be taken care of soon too, by hiring more people to do all of the work all at once.

    morris brown Reply:


    You are, of course, entitled to your opinion. You and others, if I recall from recent posts were of the opinion that the CHSRA would win these cases, which certainly is clearly not what has happened.

    I do appreciate you casting these rulings, at least being “a temporary set back”.

    VBobier Reply:

    Well the CHSRA has not been told that the contracts are invalid and that the Federal Money can’t be spent, so that’s victory enough for Me, the rest will come most likely, HSR won’t be stopped short of a bloody revolt and that ain’t going top happen… No matter how much a few insane people yell and scream…

    trentbridge Reply:


    “The Court therefore concludes that the writ of mandate should not include any provision directing
    the Authority to rescind its approval of the CalTrans or Tutor-Perini-Parsons contracts.”

    Alan Reply:

    I’m not sure I’d even call this a “temporary set back”. A set back would have been an order halting construction, and not only did that not happen, the court specifically stated that Prop 1A did not apply to Federal or other sources of funding–only the bonds issued under 1A.

  11. morris brown
    Nov 25th, 2013 at 16:11

    LA Times:

    Judge blocks use of state bond money for California bullet train


    In a major legal blow to the California bullet train, a Sacramento judge ruled Monday that the project cannot tap bonds that voters approved for construction, a decision that could cause indefinite future delays.

    VBobier Reply:

    Yeah, but that isn’t a permanent ruling, the bonds will be able to be used, when the CHSRA has met the conditions, I expect more from the anti-HSR crowd, still it didn’t stop the project, so it’s a loss for the anti-HSR crowd… ;p

    Nadia Reply:

    You are right – it isn’t a permanent ruling in that the Authority can rectify its mistake and eventually spend the bond dollars.

    However, the judge has ruled that to do that, they must have a valid funding plan. That means the Authority needs to identify all of the money for the ENTIRE IOS ( about $20-$25 billion more dollars) AND COMPLETE all the environmental work for the ENTIRE IOS – which the Authority previously identified as Merced to Sylmar.

    So yes, as long as they do that in time to match the federal money – all is good. If they can’t however, then this is a pretty big deal….

    VBobier Reply:

    Well lets see I found some EIRs, it took some digging, but I found some links, as to EIRs the CHSRA only needs 4 EIRs to be done, Only 1 is at Final, 1 is revised, 1 is at IOP and 1 is at NOP. If the CHSRA wants to get these done asap, then they’ll probably have to hire some more people to do the work, so that all the ones that need to be finalized can be done concurrently. I provided links that are close, but not direct, as direct links could change.

    Merced to Fresno Project Section(Final EIR issued)
    Fresno to Bakersfield Project Section(Only at Revised EIR, so far)
    Bakersfield to Palmdale Project Section(Only at Intent of Preparation, so far)
    Palmdale to Los Angeles Project Section(Only at Notice of Preparation, so far)

    VBobier Reply:

    I think the CHSRA has said the funding plan was addressed just prior to this ruling, whether the Judge thinks so, I have no idea.

    As to the Federal money, I think the CHSRA has about $2.365 billion to go, how far that will go I don’t know, We shall see won’t We?

    My last post showed the links to where the EIRs are or should be at for the entire IOS, so we wait.

    Nadia Reply:

    @ vBobier -I appreciate the links – but I think you’re missing a key detail.

    In a nutshell, there are two buckets of Federal money – one that requires a match (the bulk of the funds) and one batch that doesn’t. At some point in the near future (about April 2014) they will have burned through the money that doesn’t require a match and they get into the money that HAS to be matched. Since that hasn’t happened YET, that part is not legally ripe – but at the remedy hearing, the judge clearly indicated that if/when that point in time passed, he would expect to see everyone back in court – since at that point spending Fed dollars would also effectively be spending bond dollars.

    I’m paraphrasing, but the FRA contracts says something like: we expect you to match with Prop 1A money and make every reasonable effort to get Prop 1A money, if you can’t, we’ll take our money out of other FRA monies that are owed to CA. If that isn’t enough, we’ll take it out of any FTA monies owed to CA, and if that still isn’t enough, we’ll take our payment out of ANY federal money – from ANY monies, owed to CA (education, healthcare, etc.)

    Forget the EIRs – Getting all of the enviro work to be done in time to be able to complete a valid funding plan by April 2014 is not likely – no matter how many more people were hired. And the PMT reports on our website show they are 2 yrs behind in their enviro work south of Bakersfield anyway…

    morris brown Reply:


    Both buckets of Federal funds require matching.

    synonymouse Reply:

    So that means an appeal is likely?

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