Gabbard: History of the Surfliner, LOSSAN and a Look at Pending Legislation
On the tail end of the current state legislative session two intercity rail related bills received approval and were sent on to the Governor for consideration. As far as I can tell there has been no coverage of these proposed statutes in either conventional media or the blogsphere. So I have prepared a detailed article that explains their significance and the various issues involved, as the Governor considers whether to approve or veto them. The rather extended length of this post is because many aspects are obscure and or complex, requiring extended explication. My pardon to those who are daunted by its length–the topic is important and deserved this depth of coverage.
One of the transportation success stories of Southern California is Amtrak’s coastal intercity line known as the Pacific Surfliner. Operating between San Diego and San Luis Obispo via Orange County, Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, Ventura County and Santa Barbara it is Amtrak’s heaviest used route outside the northeast corridor, carrying 2,786,972 passengers during fiscal year 2011 (a 6.6% increase from Fiscal Year 2010). Which is amazing considering the humble origins of the route as a mere two daily round trips between San Diego and Los Angeles augmented by the then tri-weekly Amtrak service between Seattle and San Diego (today known as the Coast Starlight and truncated at L.A.) when Amtrak started operations May 1, 1971 as can be seen in this link to a page from the initial Amtrak national timetable. And those three trips made between San Diego and Los Angeles at the inception of Amtrak bear a significance that I will explain later.
To provide context a brief digression is necessary on the formation of Amtrak (actually the National Rail Passenger Corporation) and the roller coaster ride style history it has had. Rail passenger service was on its deathbed financially by the 1960s due to competition from automobiles and the airlines. During that time a non-profit advocacy group the National Association of Railroad Passengers (NARP) was formed to lobby Congress to save passenger rail service in the U.S. The result was the formation of an entity (which we know as Amtrak) to assume operation of interstate passenger rail services. Amtrak received some funding and rolling stock from the legacy freight railroads, which was the price they paid for being relieved of running passenger service without going through lengthy regulatory hearings. None of the stakeholders or elected officials involved at the time wanted to be known as the ones who killed passenger rail in the U.S., which is why Congress created Amtrak, why President Nixon signed the bill and why the railroads supported creation of Amtrak. Many observers expected Amtrak to not survive long. Some proponents hoped it would quickly begin to be profitable and self-supporting. Instead of dying or booming Amtrak ended up muddling along with varying levels of annual federal appropriations to help keep it operating. And to this day NARP is a strong lobbying force with states and the federal government on behalf of Amtrak.
The Surfliner is what is known as a “state supported” route through a partnership between the state of California and Amtrak in which the state pays for Amtrak to operate the service. An overview of this process nicknamed 403(b) after the section of the original Amtrak legislation (the Rail Passenger Service Act of 1970) under which it was made possible is on the Amtrak website (scroll down to the section headlined “State Support”). In total three intercity rail routes are funded through Caltran’s Rail Division (aka Amtrak California): the Pacific Surfliner, Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin. The blog Stop and Move has an informative comparison of ridership and other key statistics for the three routes for the period Oct. 2008-May 2012. The Pacific Surfliner 2010 Service Development Plan has a table with similar data covering the period 2000-2009 (see page 10, Table 1).
The advantages of being part of Amtrak are very significant. By statute it has access to operate passenger service over the rails of freight railroads simply for the incremental cost. Amtrak itself actually owns very little trackage — most prominently 366 miles of the heavily used Northeast Corridor plus a few other lengths of track. Otherwise it operates over the rails owned by what it terms “host railroads”. Amtrak also brings to the state supported arrangement expertise, maintenance facilities, reservation and station services for ticketing, etc. In addition the state funded services operate as part of a national network (although the coordination between lines or lack thereof has often been a sore point). California is the biggest player in state supported trains, augmented with an extensive network of dedicated feeder bus routes (Thruway) and a substantial investment by the state in locomotives and coaches.
Beginning in 1976 the San Diego to Los Angeles route (then known as the San Diegan) expanded beyond the three daily trips. Then on June 26, 1988 the first extension occurred as the service was extended to Santa Barbara. This was followed in 1995 with one trip a day going all the way to San Luis Obispo. Recognizing the name San Diegan no longer reflected the extent of the route June 1, 2000 it was re-named the Pacific Surfliner. Currently eleven daily round trips run between San Diego and Los Angeles with five daily round trips continuing to Santa Barbara, and two daily round trips going further north to San Luis Obispo.
As I explained in a previous post, in 1989 a joint powers authority called the Los Angeles-San Diego Rail Corridor Agency (LOSSAN) was formed by the transportation agencies along the route of the then San Diegan. The purpose was to foster cooperation among the agencies in advocating for improved service via lobbying the state and federal governments, as outlined in this fact sheet. This is done through regular meetings of its Board and a Technical Advisory Committee. As the route lengthened the membership was expanded and eventually the name adjusted to Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor.
In 1996 Senate Bill 457 (Kelley) set in motion a process by which local agencies could assume management of intercity rail services with funding to continue being provided by the state. The legislation resulted in the Capitol Corridor forming a joint powers authority. The agencies along the San Joaquin route early on decided they had no interest in the idea. But the Surfliner corridor agencies went through a lengthy process of study and internal negotiation before eventually deciding not to go forward. My understanding is the two main issues that stopped the JPA from being formed was worries about how firm the commitment of the state was to fully fund the train into the future and an inability among the agencies to agree on how to structure the board of the joint powers.
Into the new century at the federal level long-time Amtrak critics were on the ascendency, putting into statute the ludicrous goal of the agency being self-sufficient by 2003. Amtrak management with a straight face went along with this idiocy until the agency nearly fell into bankruptcy. The body politic finally blinked when a veteran railroad executive named David Gunn was brought in to clean up the mess and immediately was up front with the Congressional oversight committees about the realities of passenger rail economics.
Reflecting this new reality in 2008 Congress passed Public Law 110-432, Division B of which reauthorized Amtrak (dropping the idiotic self-sufficiency mandate) and is known as the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 (PRIIA). One of the long-time contentious issues it tackled was disparities in the methodologies under which the various states funded their state supported routes. At a 2010 meeting on state-supported services then Amtrak Vice President John Bennett made a presentation with historical background on the state supported Amtrak routes and how PRIIA would affect them. Even 2 years after the bill passed many effected parties still had not fully grasped the implications of what is known as section 209. In fact I only in 2010 became aware of this issue, thanks to a conference held by the Rail Passenger Association of California & Nevada (RailPAC) at Metro’s headquarters building. It really flew under the radar of not just rail fans but many staffers of elected officials and state transportation departments.
But slowly the word has been getting out and in the past few years stakeholders have realized impending deadlines mean the effected parties need to start to get ready for the changes PRIIA mandates. A sign that progress is being made came in March of this year when the Surface Transportation Board gave its approval to the methodology Amtrak and the states had worked out for implementation of changes in how states pay for the services. PRIIA also mandates as of 2013 Amtrak will only directly fund routes over 750 miles (known as long-distance routes). All routes under 750 miles (known as corridor routes) are to solely be funded by the various sponsoring states. Remember those three initial San Diego to L.A. rail trips Amtrak started with? While the expansion of the coast rail service is paid for by the state of California to this day Amtrak funds three of the trips. As the latest report of the California Transportation Commission (p.74) notes this is about “$11 million annually [of] federal funds to operate the 30 percent of Pacific Surfliner service that is not state-supported”.
It was in October 2006 at a meeting RailPAC held in Fullerton (as reported in my column for the Nov. 2006 Transit Advocate newsletter – see page 5) that then Buena Park Mayor Art Brown of Buena noted local agencies were beginning to re-examine a take-over of managing the Surfliner. This renewed effort might have been a response to ongoing grumbles by rail fans about how Amtrak and Caltrans operated the Surfliner as exemplified by activist Noel T. Braymer’s commentary Why The Capitol Corridor Works, and What is Wrong with the Pacific Surfliners.
In the 5 1/2 years since Brown made his remarks the takeover effort has percolated, initially rather weakly. When Art Leahy came to Metro as its new CEO in 2009 he showed heightened interest in regional integration. Leahy’s successor at OCTA, Will Kempton, previously headed Caltrans and also from the start of his tenure has been keenly interested in multi-modalism. Leahy and Kempton took the nascent effort and placed their considerable influence behind it becoming a serious effort.
In July 2011 Jonathan Hutchison, Senior Director, Corridor Development at Amtrak, in a presentation to the Railway Association of Southern California outlined some of the challenges the Surfliner faces:
1. Constrained infrastructure
2.. Rolling stock –new equipment will help, but several years until delivery 3. How to meaningfully integrate services while preserving intercity and freight utility 4. Improving overall intermodal functionality 5. Balancing regional needs along entire corridor 6. Additional state operating funding needed 7. Positive Train Control mandate
Amidst a period of protracted budgetary uncertainty, mindful of impending legislative deadlines and daunted by the challenges outlined above plus needing time to work toward finding common ground among the numerous local stakeholders the LOSSAN Board at its Jan. 25, 2012 meeting (see pp.8-10 under heading “Update on Possible Local Authority for Intercity Service…” for the minutes of that discussion) approved the submission of a spot bill to begin the legislative process while the LOSSAN members continued negotiating over refinement of the language in the bill via legislative amendments item #9 at the Jan. 25 meeting outlines some of the concerns that the various key parties were grappling with at that time.
Spot bills are place holders. The Glossary of Legislative Terms on the state legislature website defines it as “A bill that amends a code section in a nonsubstantive way. A spot bill may be introduced to ensure that a germane vehicle will be available at a later date”. By germane is meant the bill’s subject is on the topic that is to be legislated. Legislative rules generally dictate when a bill is amended that the changes are subject-related (i.e. germane).
The spot bill was submitted to Legislative Counsel by the January 27th deadline for review and was introduced as Senate Bill 1225 on Feb. 23, 2012 by Senator Alex Padilla (D-20th District, LA Area). In explaining its purpose Padilla echoed Noel Braymer’s criticisms cited above “… current law has stifled corridor improvements. A JPA modeled after the highly successful Capitol Corridor JPA would allow for greater administrative, procurement and operational efficiencies that come with integration”. The history of the bill can be viewed via this link.
It was while reading the minutes of the March 5, 2012 LOSSAN Board meeting (see p.16) that I discovered a parallel effort was being undertaken for the San Joaquin rail line, linking Bakersfield and the Bay Area/Sacramento:
The Central Valley Rail Working Group, a group of 20 public agencies and local jurisdictions between Sacramento and Merced, is working on a similar local governance effort for the San Joaquin intercity service. Staffs are currently discussing the details of both efforts as a way to coordinate and potentially consolidate legislative efforts in the future.
The working group is the creation of the San Joaquin Regional Rail Commission (SJRRC), which operates the Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) commuter rail service as explained in a 2010 Sacramento City Council staff report.
The Legislation for the San Joaquin takeover is Assembly Bill 1779, and like the Surfliner bill this year has been wending its way through the legislature. Outreach has been made to stakeholders such as the San Joaquin Valley Rail Committee (an advisory committee consisting of elected officials and members of the public representing the 13 counties along the San Joaquin train route) and the Kings County Association of Governments (item #A4, pp.10-30).
One of the early clarion calls about the need to address faults in the LOSSAN corridor was a 2008 commentary by RailPAC President Paul Dyson about the shortcomings of the Oceanside Transit Center as to announcements, signage, ticketing and information. Around the same time a friend and I were at the San Juan Capistrano train station and needed to use the restroom. Time was short because we were catching an OCTA bus on a nearby street but had to waste precious minutes searching for the out of the way location of the bathroom. When I wrote the city of San Juan Capistrano about what happened they responded in just a few days with new signs at the platform indicating where the bathroom is located. Similarly LOSSAN has been working to address the sorts of concerns Mr. Dyson (and others) have raised. By 2009 I was gratified during SO.CA.TA’s annual Day After Thanksgiving transit exploration trip to note the Carpentaria Surliner station had message signs that provided updates when the train I was waiting for was delayed.
As I mentioned in my post on the new joint timetable, LOSSAN has been undertaking a program of quick improvements. In mid-2010 (“LOSSAN Corridorwide Strategic Implementation Plan Update” p.39) the consulting firm HNTB was hired to provide dedicated project management of this effort. HNTB assigned Gene Skoropowski, who they had recently hired, as their lead for the effort. Skoropowski had just retired as the manager of the Capitol Corridor intercity route linking the Bay Area and Sacramento. He is legendary in railroad circles for his stellar record overseeing the Capitol route, taking a service on the verge of cancellation and turning it into one of the highest ridership routes in the Amtrak system. His ability to deliver service, deal with host railroads, etc. made Skoropowski ideal for the project manager position. And as he began briefings up and down the corridor about improvements and progress for the “Corridorwide Strategic Implementation Plan” the symbolism of someone who had been there and done it successfully sharing his expertise had to assuage doubts among the various partners. Even though Skoropowski’s ostensible purpose was improvements to the corridor not governance issues.
In April the Metro Board voted to initiate a “regional rail bench” to be more pro-active in its support of passenger rail efforts in Los Angeles county. Which also signifies regional rail is becoming a larger priority at the agency. On a monthly basis Don Sepulveda, Metro’s Executive Officer for Regional Rail, prepares an update to the Metro Board on regional rail matters such as this one from July. Since September 2011 Metro has been supportive of the Surfliner local control initiative
Close attention has been paid to the bill by a wide variety of agencies and stakeholders, most of whom have taken support positions. These include Orange County Transportation Authority, Ventura County Transportation Commission (item #9C), Southern California Association of Governments (pp.23-24), Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, Orange County Business Council (“OCBC Policy Wins! (And One Loss)”), San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (see item #C5), Metrolink (item #19) and the transit industry trade group California Transit Association lists the bill as a priority.
The latest LOSSAN Board agenda (item #5) reports “August 6, 2012, the Department of Finance issued an oppose position on the bill, citing concerns that transportation coordination would be more difficult with a local authority and the high-speed rail project could potentially experience cost increases due to this increased complexity”. Which doesn’t sound like a deal breaker so much as a bow shot from on high to the locals hinting they need overtly to express a commitment to coordination after the transition.
June 21st the North County Transit District took an oppose unless amended position. Diedra Jardine, Manager of Administration at NCTD informs me “Since the legislature took action on SB 1225, the NCTD Board has not met. Moreover, the Governor has not yet acted on this bill. NCTD staff will provide a briefing to the Board at its next meeting, scheduled for September 20, on the legislation as it stands at that time. Staff anticipate that the Board will provide direction at that time to guide the Agency’s position on this legislation”.
There are concerns about the takeover concept expressed by other parties.
Paul Dyson, President of RailPAC in his “From the President” column in the Steel Wheels newsletter for Mar/April 2012 noted ” … the LOSSAN folks are still struggling to reach agreement on a future management structure. While it seems like a good idea to replicate the Capitol Corridor model I fear that passengers will not enjoy much improvement in service. Why? Well, the CapCor is a much simpler proposition to manage. The right of way has one owner, Union Pacific, and one passenger operator, Amtrak. LOSSAN’s [Right-of-Way] has 7 owners, two freight operators, three passenger operators (four if you treat Amtrak long distance trains and the Surfliners as separate, which technically they are) and multiple Boards with jurisdiction over spending decisions and operations. Forming a Joint Powers Authority exclusively to manage the Intercity (Surfliner) services on the route fails to solve the institutional relationship problems with the commuter operators and for that matter the long distance trains. Who will get priority both with schedules and real time dispatching? While it will be hard to negotiate, RailPAC still believes that we have to put all passenger services in the corridor under a single management to get the best service for all passengers and to make the best use of limited resources”.
In the June/July 2012 issue Dyson in “Thirty Years of Progress Threatened by Reorganization” further stated “… some powerful interests are determined to push decision making down to the county level. And if the May 24 LOSSAN meeting is any indication, there will be precious little agreement among Board members when the tough decisions have to be made. Indeed, the Board was unable to concur on what should constitute a majority or the new body, the “bookend” counties concerned about the power of Los Angeles and Orange County”.
Ed Imai, Principal Consultant to the Assembly Transportation Committee, in his analysis of the bill notes several concerns regarding statewide coordination, questions about statutory changes that seem unnecessary, uncertainty about how any funding shortfalls would be managed, criticized the narrative of the purported success of the Capitols Corridor as being worth of being emulated given that its farebox recover ratio (i.e. the extent that its fares cover the cost of operations) are below that of the Surfliner and lastly echoing Dyson about tensions over the make-up of local representation of agencies on the JPA Board Imai notes “Unlike the legislation forming the CCJPA, this bill would not codify the structure or membership of the JPA that would assume management of the LOSSAN rail corridor. This raises doubts about the capacity of the JPA to manage the corridor because if its prospective members cannot even agree on the representational makeup and structure of the JPA it is unclear that they could effectively manage the more complex task of corridor operations”.
Even the Coast Rail Coordinating Council (a coalition that has for some years been working on behalf of the Coast Daylight, a proposed daily train to run between San Francisco and Los Angeles) at its August 30th joint meeting with the LOSSAN Board in San Luis Obispo expressed worries “What will happen to state support for emerging corridors if SB 1225 and AB 1779 are implemented?” (item #3).
Noel Braymer in an e-mail to me regarding the two bills shared his concern that “The biggest potential problem with creating 3 separate JPA’s for the California Rail Corridors is coordinating connections between the different services for passengers making transfers. In particular is the question of the future of the highly successful Ambus service connecting the 3 corridor trains managed by Caltrans Division of Rail”. A local activist shared with me his travails in attempting to get a reservation via Amtrak’s reservation system for a Thruway bus from Salinas to San Jose to connect with a Capitol Corridor train that in turn would connect with a San Joaquin train. They instead offered a convoluted alternative, stating their system had a limitation of only being able to make reservations for service connecting with trains that have reserved seating (which the Capitol does not). Is this a hint a JPA spinoff could impede rider access to the Amtrak national reservation system? I am told this is an issue never raised while the Surfliner stakeholders discussed the JPA takeover.
By Ambus service Braymer is referring to Amtrak’s Thrway Motorcoach routes. These are an integral part of the success of California’s three intercity routes providing access to areas not directly served by the trains. This map shows how extensive they are. The bill explicitly contains safeguards to preserve the thruway system but one wonders how well coordination will work when separate agencies run separate routes. Right now generally trains will wait for connecting Thruway buses; hopefully these logistics will be worked out.
It is interesting that Senator Padilla uses the word integration in justifying the JPA takeover. Heretofore the most prominent example of co-operation between modes was the Rail2Rail program between Amtrak and NCTD and Metrolink. These allow folks with Metrolink monthly passes and NCTD upgraded passes the flexibility to ride either a commuter or Surfliner train within the limits of their pass. Comments mentioning a desire for an integrated fare accompanied my article on the coastal route joint timetable and Steve Hymon’s pick up post on The Source. RailPAC has noted its support for the bill is predicated on it being a step toward eventual unification of all coastal rail services under one super-agency.
I doubt the JPA formation is meant to facilitate this level of “integration”, because generally local government entities jealously protect their sovereignty. Tensions between regionalism and local control are nothing new. The latest issue of Access, magazine of the University of California Transportation Center includes Louise Nelson Dyble’s article “The Defeat of the Golden Gate Authority: Regional Planning and Local Power” about such a conflict that played out over 50 years ago (summary: local control won).
The elephant in the room in the whole affair is just WHO would manage the Surfliner? Amtrak would still operate it using the existing pool of equipment. The changes wrought by passage of the bill would be instead of Caltrans that policy decisions would be made by a new JPA Board and day to day management would be handled by one of the members of LOSSAN that is selected as the managing agency (see item #7). Then a Managing Director, to be appointed by the JPA board, shall be hired to actually manage the Surfliner and shall be an employee of the Managing Agency.
Noel Braymer asks what I imagine would seem a logical question: Should Metrolink operate the Surfliners? Except my impression from the get-go is that there is a strong contingent among the stakeholders that most emphatically do not want Metrolink to run it. This is evidently the origin of obscure language in one of the last revisions of the bill adding language that “……. if the intercity passenger rail service is operated by a contractor, the contractor shall, as a condition of entering into an operating agreement with the LOSSAN Corridor … agree that its labor relations shall be governed by the federal Railway Labor Act (45 U.S.C. Sec 151 and following)….” I’m told this eliminates Metrolink from consideration as the operator.
The San Diego Association of Governments, which has administrated LOSSAN for years, has stated they do not plan to apply to be the managing agency. My vague impression is the managing agency (whoever it is) will undertake a role similar to what BART does for the Capitol Corridor JPA providing a home for the management (director) that is hired by the JPA Board and who in turn hires a staff. Who will be the Director? Your guess is as good as mine.
And if the LOSSAN bill is signed answers will not be forthcoming overnight. The Sept. 17 Board meeting has been cancelled. The Technical Advisory Committee is meeting Oct. 4 and the Board will be meeting next on Monday, October 15 at the Metro headquarters building. At that meeting draft amended bylaws and JPA documents will be presented along with a finalized Managing Agency RFP if the bill is signed by the Governor. The deadline for action on both bills is September 30th.
During the many months I have monitored this tortoise-like paced drawn out process I have shared many conversations with local rail/transit enthusiast Ken Ruben (among others), who has confirmed via his extensive involvement with rail related meetings and entities just how much this process has been under most folks radar screen. And Ruben’s perennial question is “How will this affect the users”. And also what benefits could accrue to users from the transfer of management. And I must confess I am unable to offer any concrete answer. In itself forming a JPA doesn’t necessarily change the fundamentals of operating a service like the Surfliner in a challenging environment like the coast route.
While much welcome new equipment is in the pipeline to provide relief for overcrowded trains more frequency isn’t in the cards anytime soon. Plus there is nervousness about whether local politicos grasp just how vital the Thruway network is to the success of the service and how fragile this painstakingly built up network is and how easily a few short-sighted decisions could make it unravel. Yes, the bill includes what sounds like protections for the service but as budgets tighten in the years ahead (as many of us anticipate happening) could politicians on the JPA Board simply feel “Who cares about this bus that serves areas far from my county?” Noel Braymer has similar thoughts as he asks What Could go Wrong for California’s Intercity Trains.Richard Tolmach (Vice President of the Train Riders Association of California) in an recent e-mail sent to the TRAC membership headlined “not necessarily the official view of the TRAC Board” urges messages be sent to the Governor asking the bills be vetoed citing coordination and Thruway concerns.
During a joint meeting of the Boards of LOSSAN and the Coast Rail Coordinating Council (item #3) it was noted:
Caltrans staff currently performs several rail planning and capital activities that may not be directly related to administering one of these specific state supported rail corridors, including:
*Statewide equipment procurement
*Planning and implementing the connecting motorcoach bus network
*Special studies such as new intercity rail corridor feasibility studies, studies of options for delivery of intercity rail service, updates of the rail right‐of‐way inventory, and evaluations of abandoned railroad, etc.
*Rail capital programming
*Federal grantee and statewide liaison with the Federal Railroad Administration
*State Rail Plan
*Coordination with the High‐Speed Rail Authority
There is also something to be said regarding the potential loss of institutional memory and structures in what seems a headlong rush toward local control for its own sake. Caltrans Division of Rail (whatever its faults) has successfully operated these two routes for decades and arguably can take pride in the success they have grown into being. If it is downsized in the aftermath of these bills passing will it retain the staffing to handle the responsibilities outlined above? Once experienced state employees are let go or reassigned it will damn hard to recreate that organization. Which again makes the question of WHO will manage the Surfliner such a gaping and daunting question shadowing the likely success of the local takeover. The risk of what we may be losing makes it all the more important to ask what are we gaining and is it worth that risk?
I hope I am wrong and all goes smoothly. Frankly I have selfish reasons for doing so — from time to time I rely on the Surfliner to get to far flung places in comfort, at not too much expense and in a fairly quick manner. Losing that would diminish not just my life but that of many others.
Legislation doesn’t just happen. It takes a lot of effort to pass a bill in Sacramento, so obviously some very important interests are committed to the takeover. And it is they who bear the responsibility to make sure it results in something positive and isn’t a mere power grab. Everything seems to indicate this is a well-intentioned effort and has laudable goals. But the many challenges I have documented should give one pause and an understanding that it may have a positive outcome but that is by no means pre-ordained and will only happen with enlightened leadership, adroit decisions and a savvy choice of the Director and agency selected to manage the Surfliner. Hopefully that is what we will see unfold in the coming months.
If blog readers wish to weigh in with the Governor pro or con regarding the two bills – AB 1779 (San Joaquin), SB 1225 (Pacific Surfliner) e-mail messages can be sent via this form, choosing the particular bill as the subject.