Issue 24, Feb. 10, 2006

Linsey Ettlin Message To Riders

Message from the Director

From me to you…

What has happened to the reliability of our Capitol Corridor train service???
To borrow a line from The Kingston Trio’s 1950’s hit song Charlie on the MTA: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
This Message is, without a doubt, the most difficult one I have had to write to you-our riders and our customers. A year ago, on-time Capitol Corridor performance was higher than it has ever been, and Union Pacific’s dispatching performance was nearly 100%.

How far down have we dropped?

From February 1, 2005 right up until February 3, 2006, it has been a downward spiral, with this past October, November and December being bad, and January being particularly horrific. Hundreds of you have written to me asking for an explanation, and asking when you can expect things to get better. I have stayed at the office late most nights so I can read your letters. I apologize to each and every one of you.

You have asked fair questions, and you deserve answers.

While I do not have a ‘crystal ball’ to predict the future, I can tell you what we have done, what we are doing, and I will try to give you a timeline for recovery. First, the ongoing track improvement program (replacement of deteriorated wood ties by Union Pacific crews) between Oakland and San Jose should be completed February 14. I guess we can call that “a St. Valentine’s Day present”. While we expected SOME disruption and delay, and we did put out an advance notice telling everyone about it, virtually every train that travels south of Oakland has been delayed, and not just by minutes, but sometimes by hours. Even trains that should NOT have been impacted at all by the trackwork, those that start or end their run in Oakland, have been badly delayed as well.
Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) owns the entire 170 miles over which we operate, with the exception of about 2 miles. UPRR dispatchers control Capitol Corridor trains. While Union Pacific’s freight business has grown substantially in the last two years, this growth has had a negative impact on the reliability of your passenger service. UPRR’s handling of Capitol Corridor trains is not simply a matter of ‘convenience’ or ‘preferential priority’ for passenger trains. Union Pacific has a contract to operate our passenger trains at 90% on-time or better. UPRR also has the opportunity to earn an incentive payment when Capitol Corridor trains achieve an on-time monthly average of 92% or better. Disappointingly, no incentive money has been earned by UPRR since January 2005. This is the one check we WANT to write.
When the State of California made its initial $57 million investment into the then- Southern Pacific (SP, now UPRR) tracks between Oakland and Sacramento, on-time contractual provisions were included. Since then, the state through the CCJPA, has invested about another $60 million in capacity and reliability improvements to UPRR property along the Oakland-San Jose and across Yolo Causeway. These capital investments were made with the concurrence and support of UPRR, and each publicly funded project included a provision to accommodate additional growth of UPRR’s freight business. The public now owns the right to operate 22 trains in each direction between Oakland and Sacramento. Only 16 of those slots are currently being utilized, and with the proposed Capitol Corridor train service increases in late August, 20 of the 22 publicly owned slots will be utilized.
UPRR has an obligation to the people of this state, who have paid for the improvements to UPRR’s property and facilities, to operate these passenger trains at least 90% on-time, as per their contract, and on the schedule to which UPRR previously agreed.
Two years ago, almost to the day, UPRR crews completed building a second track across Yolo Causeway, eliminating the last major single track congestion point between Oakland and Sacramento. Everyone benefited from this investment. The following April, we reduced travel time by 10 minutes between Oakland and Sacramento, thereby getting Capitol Corridor passenger trains out of the way of freight trains 240 more minutes per day than in the previous schedule. The CCJPA’s top priority for funding is now the installation of a universal crossover at the west end of the Yolo Causeway, a project that was planned but not initially constructed due to limited state capital dollars available when the second track across the Causeway was being built.
What happened to UPRR’s Capitol Corridor performance following the April 2004 schedule change? The service never ran so well. UPRR delivered our trains on time for eight consecutive months at 90% or better, to you, our customers. UPRR’s dispatching performance was between 96% and 98% on time. However, since February 2005, that top quality service performance has continually eroded, and is still in decline. During this entire time period, there was no change to the number of scheduled Capitol Corridor trains. Our train frequency is the same as it was in April 2003. January 2006 brought new havoc: rain, mudslides between Martinez and Pinole, and a BNSF track ‘blitz’ in the Central Valley that caused BNSF freights to be added to UPRR freights out of Oakland.

What have we done to try to improve the situation?

We have continued regular meetings with UPRR through the Corridor Improvement Team, but these meetings have not yet accomplished their intended goal of better reliability. The Chair of the Capitol Corridor Board, Roger Dickinson of Sacramento (and a Sacramento County Supervisor), went to Omaha and raised the issue of poor on time performance face-to-face with Mr. Dennis Duffy, Executive Vice President of Operation of UPRR. Mr. Dickinson conveyed his concern and displeasure with the UPRR’s performance of our trains, based on his own experiences in using Capitol Corridor trains. Mr. Duffy explained the complex problems UPRR is facing in the growth of its freight business, but he did state that UPRR will make a concerted effort to deliver Capitol Corridor trains more reliably, and that this objective would be more likely to be achieved once the current track renewal work south of Oakland is completed. As I said earlier, this track work is slated to be complete by February 14.
Additionally, the crescendo of complaints has now reached officials far above my office. Many of these officials deal with issues involving freight service across the state and across the nation. Many participants in formulating state policy now actually ride the Capitol Corridor trains to/from Sacramento, and their personal experiences are coloring the public perception of UPRR among major California public funding agencies, agencies whose jurisdiction includes consideration of major capital funding programs that will also benefit freight railroads and goods movement. We have worked hard to establish a real partnership with Union Pacific, and we remain hopeful that Union Pacific will be able to deliver on its share of that partnership, as it was delivering a year ago.

So what’s next?

Following February 14, we expect to make an announcement that regular riders, who have endured day-after-day of less-than-expected reliability, will be offered a substantial discount on monthly and 10-trip tickets for an upcoming month-most likely April. We recognize that it will do us no good to reduce the price of a ticket if the service doesn’t get any better. We will monitor closely UPRR performance for a few weeks after February 14 before we say to you “come on down” and buy a ticket. The last thing we want is to have lots more folks coming back to our trains with bargain-priced tickets and then getting continued unreliable service. When you pay to ride our trains, you should get what you are entitled to: a train that runs on its published schedule, at least 90% of the time–maybe more, but certainly not less.
We will continue to work for you until you have the level of on-time service you deserve, and it is sustained. You have my personal commitment to this goal.
Again, this has been a very difficult Message for me to write, both because the news is not as good as it could be and because this situation has strained our good working relationship with Union Pacific. I would not normally talk about this in public. However, the current circumstances are not normal, and the conditions of Capitol Corridor train unreliability have become painfully public by themselves.
I do believe we will get through this difficult time by March or April, and that your service will once again be restored to the level of reliability you deserve.