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LOSSAN Steering Committee Recommends OCTA Take Over Operations of Pacific Surfliner

Chart from the LOSSAN Staff Report scoring which agency should take over management of the Surfliner.

It has been a while since I last wrote about the Pacific Surfliner and the process of it transitioning to local management.

The first bit of news is the timetable that went into effect April 1st reflects that subsequently selected trips now serve stations of San Diego County’s Coaster commuter service that previously were not served by the Surfliner. The Rail Passenger Association of California & Nevada (RailPAC) has expressed concerns about this along with sharing same with Caltrans. In summary their complaint is “Degrading Intercity Schedules to cover gaps in Commuter Service a bad policy and contrary to State Rail Plan”. AFAIK our friends in Sacramento felt no need to respond to RailPAC or the issues it raised.

Meanwhile San Diego transit agency NCTD finally accepted a revised by laws for the Los Angeles – San Diego – San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor Agency (LOSSAN) which will have ultimate responsibility for the Surfliner although it is to continue being operated by Amtrak and funded by the state of California.

The next step is selection of a managing agency much as was recently done for the San Joaquin Amtrak route that serves the Central Valley plus the Bay Area and Sacramento. At the June 19th LOSSAN Board meeting the three agencies that have applied to be the managing agency for the Surfliner made presentations. These are Metro, OCTA and the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System.

At Fridays’s LOSSAN meeting being held in San Diego the managing agency will be selected (agenda item #7). The recommendation of a screening committee is that OCTA be selected. They stated their decision was based on the following factors: Read more…

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Dana’s Adventures on the Coast Starlight Start Today

I grew up in Central Washington State and when I recently learned my autistic nephew was about to graduate I determined to witness this important family milestone by travelling north. And in the process also experience something I have long been curious about: sleeping car service on Amtrak long distance routes. I have ridden coach on the Coast Starlight (Amtrak’s route between Los Angeles and Seattle) previously up the coast for two round trips and have vivid memories of what that was like. It is widely seen as one of the more scenic routes operated by Amtrak.

Starlight in blue.

During the the tail end of my Southbound return during the first trip on the Starlight I was seated in the dining car for dinner with some folks from the sleeping car section. I was intrigued at the camaraderie they exhibited telling me about the fun they had been having during the trip. The memory of that made me interested in finding out what all the fuss was about.

A few years ago at a conference put on by RailPAC (an advocacy group) as a premium for a nominal charge I obtained a copy of All Aboard: The Complete North American Train Travel Guide by Jim Loomis. After reading it cover to cover I sent it to my brother who is both my nephew’s Dad and a rail buff. That at least gave me some inkling of what my sleeping car adventure could entail.

Also luckily Larry Welborn recently did a write-up of his sleeping car experience on the Starlight for the Orange County Register which I found helpful plus my Mom sent me a clipping of an excellent overview of rail travel.

Doing online research I began to learn about various aspects of what I should expect during my journey. The Amtrak website has excellent details on trip planning and virtual tours of sleeping car accommodations (I will be travelling on a bi-level Superliner car in what is known as a roomette). The National Railroad Passenger Association (the national advocacy group for passenger service) has pages on its website with helpful

tips and details on what to expect during an Amtrak trip. Many rail fans have also compiled useful tips on Amtrak trips. Plus I looked over comments on the Starlight posted on Yelp and a travel blog’s advice on booking a ticket on the Starlight (which by the way is officially known as train #14 northbound and #11 southbound).

Then I focused in on the roomette aspect. The rail fan site trainweb has some informative layouts and diagrams. I also benefited from a thread on a flyertalk.com forum. And even found an explanation for the roomette room numbers. Read more…

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Surfliner Cancels Bike Fees, Requires Metrolink Commuters to Buy Amtrak Tickets to Ride with Their Bikes

For those that missed it in Today’s Headlines or the follow-up on Curbed, we bring some good news. Amtrak California modified its plans to require a $5 fee for bicycles to ride on the Pacific Surfliner trains, a fee that would have basically ended bike to train commuting for the handful of people who choose that particular commute. However, the agency is still requiring a reservation to insure that there is sufficient space on their trains.

Bike on a Surfliner rack. Image: Green Socal.net

They are proceeding with the new policy of requiring a reservation before any bicycles can be brought on board a Surfliner rail car, either on weekends or during a commute. To make a reservation, visit a ticket window or call 1-800-USA-Rail and attempt to navigate their system. I’ve been assured one can make multiple reservations at one time, again a nod to commuters, but I don’t know anyone who has tried to do so.

And while the cancellation of the fee is good news, with all good news there is also some bad news with Amtrak. The Surfliner is now requiring that anyone with a Metrolink Monthly pass purchase an Amtrak ticket before being allowed to get a bike reservation. Amtrak and Metrolink have a deal where Metrolink monthly pass holders can ride on Surfliner trains at no cost provided that they are riding between stations covered by the monthly pass.  Apparently, that deal doesn’t apply to bicycles.

Amtrak spokespeople hope that the reservation system’s inconveniences will be made up for by the piece of mind of knowing whether there will be space on the train for a bicycle. As people get familiar with the system, please be sure to let us know if this hope is fulfilled in the comments section. This of course assumes you are not a Metrolink monthly pass holder who will be asked to pay twice for a ride and make a special reservation.

On Amtrak and other rail forums, Streetsblog has been criticized for its incendiary headline when announcing the initial change in Surfliner policy from a pro-bicycle “bring your bikes on board” to a cumbersome, and at that time expensive, reservation system. While we stand by the tone and reporting in that story, the forums provided some excellent background information that explain why Amtrak decided on this particular change.

Steve Grande, with Train Web, explains.

When ALL of the Amtrak Pacific Surfliners used the new Surfliner Train Sets, there were bicycle racks at the bottom level of every car. These were not in a position where they were taking up the room of any seats. One could just walk right on, hang their bike onto the rack, and go take a seat. These cars were designed to make bringing a bicycle along easy. Each car had this on the bottom level except for maybe the Cafe Car, so there were 3 or 4 cars on ever train that could each take 3 bicycles…

The problem came up when they expanded the Pacific Surfliner frequency and the length of trains faster than adding new equipment. They started bringing back the old single level equipment. Thus one never knows when waiting for a train if a train with double level Surfliner equipment is going to pull in or if an old trainset with single level equipment is going to pull in. If it is the double level equipment, there is no problem. A person just rolls his bicycle onboard and hangs it up.

But if the single level pulls in, that is a whole other story! Those are not built to carry bicycles at all. In the old days they would require you to box up your bicycle and take it on board as checked baggage. Read more…

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Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner Adopts Wildly Anti-Bicycle Policy

Starting on June 1, the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner service connecting San Luis Obispo to San Diego by way of Los Angeles is adopting a new policy that will make life harder for anyone planning on biking to or from the train. The policy is so onerous for bicycle commuters, one has to assume it’s intentional.

Click on the image to see their current rider brochure for the Surfliner. The new bicycle policy is after the timetable at the bottom of page 2.

Amtrak will require reservations and a $5 fee to “accommodate” bicycles on the Pacific Surfliner. A cyclist will either have to call Amtrak or go to the ticketing window to make a bike reservation and pay the fee; there isn’t any way to do this online because Amtrak apparently is operating in 1992. This change will apply to everyone: occasional riders, Amtrak monthly pass holders and Rail2Rail/Metrolink monthly pass holders.

“The Surfliner serves the most popular bicycle tourism route in the country, so it’s frustrating to see Amtrak California antagonizing what would otherwise be one of its most loyal customer bases,” writes Eric Bruins, the Program and Policy Director for the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition.  ”

For any Surfliner rider who uses a bicycle to connect to the train this new policy will add $1250 a year in costs (one-way travel on Amtrak, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year), in addition to the time and hassle of making reservations for every Amtrak trip. The Streetsblog reader who pointed this out is already making commuter accomodations that don’t include riding Amtrak services.

“Instead of dealing with its capacity issues, Amtrak is suppressing demand with a reservation scheme that makes commuting prohibitively expensive and leisure travel burdensome,” Bruins continues.  ”I hope Amtrak reverses this poor business decision and instead seeks to grow ridership by promoting bike-train travel as a convenient and cost-effective way to enjoy California’s coastal destinations.”

Bruins’ anger was reflected by bike advocates at the other end of the Surfliner Tracks. Read more…

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Political Piñata Amtrak Is the Fastest Growing Transportation Mode

Amtrak has seen ridership grow 55 percent since 1997, faster than any other transportation mode. Image: Brookings

Let it be known: Amtrak is the fastest!

Fastest-growing, that is. Since 1997, Amtrak ridership has grown 55 percent — faster than the general population, faster then GDP, faster than air travel, faster than driving, faster than any other mode of transportation.

Even in a difficult political environment, more people are choosing Amtrak, according to a new analysis by the Brookings Institution. A record 31 million passengers took advantage of the rail service in 2012.

But the picture is very uneven. Almost two-thirds of Amtrak’s total ridership comes from just ten metro areas — mostly big cities in the Northeast Corridor and in California. The New York metro area alone accounted for more than 17 percent of boardings and disembarkments. Greater Washington, D.C. accounted for a 9 percent share and Philadelphia 8.5 percent.

Big cities, in general, make up a disproportionate share of Amtrak ridership. Together, America’s 100 largest metro areas combine to produce almost 90 percent of all the agency’s trips, Brookings found.

But it appears the single biggest determinant of the success of an Amtrak line, however, is the length of the trip. Routes under 400 miles — short-distance corridors — carried 83 percent of all riders. Almost all of the ridership gains over the last 16 years came from the 26 routes that travel distances less than 400 miles. These routes, taken together, operate at a profit.

“Simply put, short-distance routes are the engines of Amtrak ridership,” wrote authors Robert Puentes, Adie Tomer, and Joseph Kane.

Read more…

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Dump the Surfliner Express? Report Says Ridership on New Route Is Dismal

Photo:Wikimedia

With much ballyhoo two years ago Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner converted one of its morning trips between San Diego to Los Angeles into an express, removing stops to reduce running time.

I was startled at the headline for the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada (RailPAC) latest e-newsletter blast: “Caltrans says dump the Surfliner Express”. This is based on a presentation made at the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo (LOSSAN) Rail Corridor Agency Technical Advisory Committee meeting last week.

Here is the gist of the situation: Read more…

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What Would Meaningful Amtrak Reform Look Like?

For the past two years, Amtrak has been under constant attack from House Transportation Committee Chair John Mica (R-FL), who has used his gavel to bully the rail company. He likes to call it a “Soviet-style” monopoly and he goads it for losing money on everything from long-distance routes to food service. His vitriolic diatribes against Amtrak have become white noise, and they’re about to fade into the background as Mica surrenders his post to Rep. Bill Shuster next year.

Will Amtrak's reorganization plan be enough to turn the rail line around? And will it be enough for the GOP to call off the dogs? Photo: Amtrak/Gary Pancavage

Still, Mica got a chance to trot them out yesterday at a Transportation Committee hearing on Amtrak’s reorganization plan.

Mica and Shuster teamed up last year to push a plan to privatize Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor service – the only place where Amtrak makes money. Republicans have also ceaselessly advocated for ending – or at least dramatically cutting – Amtrak’s government subsidies.

That demand doesn’t sit well with Democrats like Rep. Laura Richardson, who pointed out in yesterday’s hearing — as some Democrat always does — that “we spent more in one year with the oil and gas and energy companies and their industry than we have spent in the life of the program of Amtrak.”

The Mica-Shuster privatization proposal also met with such a fierce backlash that Mica and Shuster were forced to shelve it.

Amtrak has a different idea for how it’s going to move into the 21st century and, they hope, become “more like a business and less like a government agency,” according to Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman. The Government Accountability Office criticized Amtrak in 2005 for not having a strategic plan, and the rail agency jumped into action – if acting six years later can be considered “jumping” – and is now in the middle of a reorganization that started last year and is due to be complete by the end of next year.

The strategic plan includes safety improvements, better risk management, energy efficiency, and lots of internal operational changes that the public will probably not perceive.

The plan’s main dish is to segment the company into six “business lines”: Northeast Corridor Infrastructure and Investment Development, Northeast Corridor Operations, State Services, Commuter Services, Long-Distance Services, and Corporate Asset Development.

Again, such internal corporate restructuring may not get most people’s pulses racing with excitement – but Dan Schned of the Regional Plan Association says there’s a nugget of gold buried in there.

Read more…

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More Local Agencies Dealing with TAP, But Metrolink Remains Elusive and a Surfliner Update

Here are updates on two issues I have been paying close attention to: TAP and the LOSSAN takeover of the Surfliner.

With no fanfare several of the Los Angeles County municipal bus operators (including Foothill and Santa Monica Big Blue Bus) as of November 1st are providing paper TAP cards when patrons purchase transfers to continue their trip via Metro Rail. This resolves one of the outstanding issues that was blocking the locking of the gates at the Red/Purple Line stations.

Steve Hymon at The Source reports at last week’s Metro Board Executive Management Committee meeting the committee members gave a chilly reception to option 2 which would involve discontinuing Metrolink fare media including free transfers to Metro bus and rail service. I imagine the full Board when it meets next month will give a similar thumbs down to that idea. Which leaves the Metrolink ticket machine conversion option the only viable one on the table.

My reading of the minutes of the Oct. 12th Metrolink Board meeting (pp. 13-15 of the Nov. 16th agenda packet) is that they are rather unhappy at the position Metro’s handling of TAP and the gating has put them in. Even the Metro representative sounds a tad defensive and uncomfortable.

At least after I previously lamented the lack of details about how much having selected Metrolink ticket machines converted to issue TAP cards would cost Metrolink the Nov. 16th Metrolink Board agenda (which can be accessed by the link in the preceding paragraph) has two items, #7 & #8, that provide those details.

Forgive me but WOW!!! We are talking MILLIONS, kids. Be still my heart! Read more…

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Updates on Surfliner, FlyAway and Metrolink/TAP

Temporary Solutions for Metrolink’s TAP Issue Shelved

The ongoing saga of Metrolink & TAP is apparently not going to end anytime soon. At the Oct. 12th meeting of the Metrolink Board of Directors, the Board decided to not adopt the proposed solution to the connectivity issues between Metrolink and Metro trains caused by the “locking” of the fare gates. The rejected plan involved paper TAP cards being distributed daily by hand to Metrolink patrons to allow them access to gated Red and Purple Line stations starting January 1. Starting in March,  Metrolink would have supplied monthly pass purchasers with a temporary plastic 30-day TAP card each month.

More on everyone's favorite topic: TAP! Photo:The Source

The Board requested efforts be made to find a more permanent solution and requested that Metro delay the locking of the gates if need be until a more permanent solution can be found.. Scott Johnson, Assistant Public Affairs Officer at Metrolink, characterizes the situation thusly:

This is an ongoing collaboration between the two agencies and their respective boards. No definitive timetable has been established. The issue will continue to be discussed through internal meetings, alongside public committee and board meetings.

Status Update on Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner transition to local management

At its meeting on Oct. 15th, the Board of the Los Angeles – San Diego – San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor Agency (LOSSAN) adopted a new amended timetable for selecting a managing agency for the Surfliner. The new schedule is markedly less hectic than their original plans, and aimed at commencing early next year:

Overall, member agencies are asked to schedule consideration [of the amended Joint Powers Agreement and bylaws] by their individual governing boards between October 2012 and January 2013, at which time the LOSSAN Board would consider releasing the RFP, with a due date for proposals in early March and potential selection [of a managing agency] by the Board at their April meeting. SANDAG will continue to provide administrative support during this time. The start date of the negotiation period, July 1, 2013, does not change

Considering LOSSAN has nine member agencies, the process of having the amended JPA agreement and bylaws approved by the various governing boards indeed will likely take until early next year.

Metro and the Orange County Transit Authority are thus far the two agencies that have signaled they will be vying to be selected as the managing agency (which will provide office space, administrative support, etc. to the managing director who will be selected by the LOSSAN Board to handle day to day management of the Surfliner along with staff the Director will hire).

The FlyAway Read more…

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Orange County Transpo Authority Vies to Be Regional Rail Manager

A Surfliner plies the coast on the LOSSAN corridor. Photo by Nick Chill Photography.

Now that the Governor has signed the bills to allow local stakeholders to take over management of the Pacific Surfliner and San Joaquin Amtrak intercity rail routes the next steps are the formation of the joint power authority boards and in the case of the Surfliner the selection of a managing agency from among the members of LOSSAN (aka the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor).

Metro has already declared it will be applying to be the managing agency. Now OCTA has an item on its agenda today (#8) from staff seeking from their Board the “Authority to Submit a Proposal to Assume the Role of Managing Agency for the Los Angeles – San Diego – San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor.”

In making the case for it to be selected OCTA states:

OCTA could be well positioned to assume the role of the LOSSAN managing agency, given its ownership stake in 42 miles of 351-mile LOSSAN Rail Corridor, between Fullerton and San Clemente, as well as its extensive experience in funding and managing rail capital projects on the LOSSAN Rail Corridor. OCTA had played an integral role in advancing and building consensus around the new LOSSAN governance initiative. In addition, OCTA brings a breadth of management experience in a number of different transportation enterprises, including bus transit, freeway projects, local street and road improvements, motorist services, the 91 Express Lanes toll road, and oversight of Metrolink commuter rail operations in Orange County.

Since 2009, OCTA has filled a similar role as the provider of administrative services to the Orange County Council of Governments (OCCOG), which reimburses OCTA for the shared services provided in support of OCCOG. Based on its experience with OCCOG, OCTA staff will work to develop a staffing plan and cost proposal to provide administrative services for LOSSAN, as the LOSSAN managing agency.

Nicely OCTA has an attachment to the staff report with details on LOSSAN’s process for selecting a managing agency including a draft timeline.

Should be interesting whether any other agencies step forward and decide to throw their hat in the ring.

BTW, the only media coverage I have found of this process is a recent brief article on the San Joaquin bill that appeared in The Riverbank News brought to my attention by local rail/transit enthusiast Ken Ruben. Other than that all there has been is the pick-up of my coverage of Metro’s plans to apply to be managing agency by The Source. And rest assured we will continue coverage of this process as it proceeds.