From Me to You
Each year for the last 33 or so, on St. Nicholas Day, I prepare an annual message to my staff. This year I am expanding this letter to be this year’s fourth Message to Riders and it is directed to you, who really are “the Capitol Corridor.” As we approach the holiday season, I want to say a heartfelt “thank you” to each of you for your patronage, especially through some not-so-good times this year, and to extend my personal greetings to you and your families for the Holiday Season. We do have much to be thankful for, and this is a good time of year to remind ourselves of that. Like our service sometimes, things are not always perfect. We live in a land that is not perfect, but in that imperfection still lies the reality that we are fortunate to live in “the best place the world has to offer”, and that with our collective determination and persistence, we can make things better than they are today. If this were not true, there would be no reason to continue to try to make things better. Sometimes we need to stop and remind ourselves of why we are living, and the holiday season provides that opportunity.
This certainly has been an eventful year. Most of it was “good”, some of it “not so good”. Overall, however, we have kept the Capitol Corridor in growth mode, with another record year for ridership and revenue. Ridership was up 6%, and the revenue-to-cost ratio is hovering just below 40%. In the last 60 months, ridership has grown a whopping 146%, and revenues have more than doubled, and the revenue-to-cost ratio went from about 29% to as high as 40%.
More service was added (33% more) on the busy Oakland-Sacramento segment, and plans are in the works for added trains to Roseville and Auburn, and to San Jose (when the construction projects are completed). Keeping our “nose to the grindstone” has allowed us to make this happen and still keep our costs within the same state funding allocation. We have implemented several service expansions over the past few years with a flat state budget allocation, an enviable accomplishment.
While the “on-time” reliability of our trains has slipped to well below where it must be, the response of the Union Pacific in establishing the Corridor Improvement Team is most encouraging. Starting in early November, most trains saw a substantial improvement in reliability. Keeping this effort going will be our on-going challenge.
Our strong positive relationship with Amtrak is being further strengthened with a Mechanical Department restructuring, and preparations for moving into the new maintenance facility next fall are well along and on-schedule. At the national level, Amtrak’s new President, David Gunn, has given Amtrak a credibility with Congress that has not been seen in many a year. The level of interest in Congress for a capital source of funding, for intercity passenger rail, for the first time ever, is escalating and we may actually see a funding source for capital projects made available to states who have “local match”. We have a local match through the State’s current investment in our capital improvement program. We have cash in hand so that when such a program is created, we will be in a position to seek funding quickly. This infusion of new funds will allow us (CCJPA, Caltrans, Union Pacific, Amtrak) to implement major beneficial projects along the Capitol Corridor that we can now only dream about. All improvements to date have been made almost exclusively with state funds.
We have seen the start (and almost completion) of our first major capital projects with Union Pacific. One is at Yolo Causeway, the other between Oakland and Elmhurst, including the tracks and signals for the new Oakland Coliseum Station. The completion of the Yolo Causeway by February 2004 will increase reliability by reducing conflicts and improving velocity, keeping the railroad more fluid for both passenger and freight service. Coliseum Station will bring to reality a project on the books for almost 20 years, providing another direct BART connection, as well as access to Oakland International Airport.
The new Oakland Maintenance Facility will transform the environment and facilities for our rolling stock maintenance from “steam-era” to “space-era”. Combined with the restructuring of Amtrak’s Mechanical Department, we should see some dramatic improvements in servicing of the rolling stock, particularly locomotives.
Our challenges remain several. First, there have been major changes at the state level, both with a new administration and a revenue crisis, which present some unknowns. However, with the documented success of the Capitol Corridor, I am optimistic that we will continue to be provided the resources we need to keep up our momentum. The recent discussions with Caltrans regarding alternate ways to acquire additional rolling stock are evidence of this. Second, we must find a means to acquire additional rolling stock if we are to reach the service goals established by our Board, and which are included in our Business Plan. Third, provision of on-going capital funds to invest in the railroad is a must. While we have much work going on right now with Union Pacific, after the end of 2005, there is presently no funding for new capital allocations in the State Transportation Implementation Plan (the STIP). There are several possibilities, including a turnaround in the state economy (and more revenue coming in to the state), protection of Proposition 42 funds for their intended purpose (transportation), and passage of the high-speed rail bond measure (CCJPA would get an immediate infusion of at least $47.5 million, and can compete for an additional $47.5 million). Any of these state funds can also be used as “match” to draw down federal funds for capital investments if, as mentioned above, a federal source of intercity passenger rail is created. Fourth, we need to continue to work with Union Pacific to increase the level of track maintenance, and work towards a dedicated Maintenance-of-Way gang. Only when the 170-mile Capitol Corridor Route is in top condition can we operate service with a minimum of slow-order delays (still our largest cause of delays). Lastly, on-time reliability remains an elusive goal. Much of it is dependent upon Union Pacific, and some of it is dependent upon Amtrak’s vehicle maintenance. Both Union Pacific and Amtrak goals are reachable, but it will take a continued team effort to accomplish them.
On the bright side, our riders remain incredibly enthusiastic and supportive advocates for the service. What you ask is for the trains to be on time and to make your trip time as short as possible. This request is not incompatible with the goals of the CCJPA, nor Amtrak or Union Pacific. Getting trains across the railroad as quickly as possible increases the capacity of the railroad, and keeps trains moving (‘fluidity’). You also want timely and accurate information, both at the stations and on the trains. We have made some pretty big strides here, and we are close to accomplishing our goal and satisfying most of your requests. You know there will be occasional delays, and what you have asked for is timely and accurate information. We can do this. Your advocacy as riders can also be an effective source of support in Sacramento and Washington DC for our efforts to continue, and grow, the level of funding for operations and capital improvements.
Our Marketing efforts are paying off “big time”, on weekends especially. Also, the Train Treks school group program is introducing a whole new generation of riders to train travel. These young folks actually think our trains are kind of “space-age”. As we have often said, today’s trains have about as much in common with a steam engine as your car today has in common with a Model T. The technology of both has been around a while, but the technological advances would make each unrecognizable today by their inventors.
Lastly, the potential for a redefined CCJPA is also on the horizon. The work of our member agencies on regional rail service, and the work with Union City and the proposed Dumbarton Rail Project also could significantly increase the visibility, use and value of Capitol Corridor service. Yes, we have come a long way, yet we have only just begun to scratch the surface of the potential market. Things like City Car-Share and Wi-Fi will only serve to attract more and more riders to our trains. With success comes money, as we have found out. Our mission is indeed NOT impossible, and we have the team that can do it. Continued funding is the essential ingredient.
Again, I want to extend my sincere thanks and appreciation to each of you for being Capitol Corridor customers. I want you to know how much your patronage is appreciated. In that spirit, the CCJPA wants to wish you and yours a very Happy Holiday Season and extend to you our best wishes for a Happy, Healthy, and Prosperous New Year.