Issue 35, April 2009

Linsey Ettlin Message To Riders

Dear Capitol Corridor Riders & Friends,

We are three months into 2009–more than five months into our Fiscal year–and, aside from the track project between Suisun and Davis, our overall performance is meeting our Business Plan standards. With completion of all programmed track work by Union Pacific on March 15, as scheduled, we can look forward to train service returning to the high level of on-time performance we achieved before the track work.

Although track maintenance work causes some disruption and inconvenience, it is essential in keeping your trains on-time. The condition of the Union Pacific rails over which the Capitol Corridor service operates gives you the best ride-quality of any passenger service in the county. Additionally, it protects and preserves the initial State capital investments made on this route in the early 1990s.

This is the fourth year of Union Pacific’s incremental program to maintain and upgrade the rail track structure (ties and ballast). Union Pacific Railroad–owner and maintainer of all but two miles (in San Jose) of the 170 miles along the Capitol Corridor route–pays for and implements this program. Also, Union Pacific used the work period to have their street-crossing crews do improvement work at road crossings, thereby avoiding disruptions to service for maintenance work later in the year. All this work was accomplished in a four-week period, as planned. Additionally, over the weekend of March 21-22, Union Pacific replaced worn rail on curves between Fremont and Santa Clara. Your patience during these construction periods is always appreciated.

What else is coming?

By May, you should begin to see advertisements promoting the return of the “Kids Ride Free on Weekends” promotion. Why is the program limited to weekends? Answer: There is no room to accommodate any additional riders on most weekday trains. Our plan is to offer affordable travel to family groups at the times when we have seats available, which is usually weekends. Check upcoming issues of the CC Rail Mail (our e-newsletter) for details on this family-friendly–and budget-friendly–promotion.

Why don’t we just add more cars to the existing weekday trains to add capacity?

This is the million-dollar question, but with the growth of ridership on both the Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin trains, there are simply no more available coaches to add. We employ as many coaches as possible to these trains, while still allowing time for servicing and maintenance of the fleet to ensure that you have clean and reliably operating coaches for your trip.

Why don’t we just buy more coaches?

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), the owner of the Amtrak California fleet is in the process of doing just that. California voters have already approved the bond funds to buy more trains. However, it is not like buying a car–there is no railroad car ‘show room’ where you can drop by and purchase railcars and have them delivered in a week, month or a year. This process can take up to four years. Caltrans has started the process, but it will take time before we see the first new passenger rail cars roll off the assembly line.

So what do we do in the meanwhile, ride on the roof?

No, thankfully. As a stop-gap measure, Caltrans has purchased at least two trainsets of 1970’s stainless steel coaches from New Jersey. These coaches will be renovated to be suitable for California’s intercity rail market and will likely replace existing trains on the San Joaquin route on an interim basis. The Amtrak California trainsets being replaced on the San Joaquin route will then make as many as 10 Amtrak California coach cars available to add to other state-supported trains, including some of the most crowded Capitol Corridor trains. These trains will be in addition to the five leased Amtrak coaches already in operation in Northern California.

Is the Capitol Corridor getting any of the $8 billion “Stimulus” funding designated for High Speed and Intercity Rail Service?

We certainly hope to. These new federal capital funds are part of the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). Allocating federal capital funding for intercity passenger rail is a new role for the federal government. The Capitol Corridor, San Joaquin and Pacific Surfliner route improvements (locomotives, coaches, tracks, stations, parking, maintenance shops, etc.) have been almost exclusively funded by State of California voter-approved investments since the 1990 bond initiatives were passed.

Highways, public transit, airports, ports & waterways, bikeways, etc., all have had federal capital funding programs for decades, so there are formulas for distribution of ARRA funds for these modes of transport. The allocation of ARRA funds for these established programs is largely a mathematical calculation based upon long standing distribution formulas. Not so for the intercity rail capital funds. The US Department of Transportation is trying to figure out that process now.
We believe the Capitol Corridor is eligible for capital funding from several sections of the ARRA Stimulus Bill, including most components of the $8 billion designated for High Speed and Intercity Rail services. We are working with Caltrans and our sister rail agencies in California to present the federal decision makers with a solid, coordinated case for funding high speed and intercity rail in California. We will keep you posted on our progress. Caltrans Director Will Kempton (a regular Capitol Corridor rider, too!) is leading this charge for California’s share of these ARRA capital funds.

How is everything else going?

While ridership growth has slowed (some of this is a seasonal trend, along with the trackwork disruptions), Capitol Corridor ridership has increased +4.6% above a year ago in the five months since the start of our fiscal year last October. Revenue has grown +8.6% in the same period, keeping us just about on budget. We do hope to see a larger ridership and revenue growth in the coming months, as we approach the busiest travel part of the year. Our revenue-to-cost ratio is a bit below plan at 45%, but we hope to be on-target at 50% recovery by the end of our fiscal year at the end of September, per our Business Plan. Our fares, even with the usual adjustments, are still among the best ‘travel buys’ on a per mile basis anywhere. We want to keep it that way. We only increase fares in small amounts, and only to keep pace with costs. Our goal is to keep up your service frequency and the quality of service that we, and our partners at Amtrak, deliver to you.

On-time performance has never been better–I always hate writing this for fear of jinxing things! Even with the disruptions from the recent track work, after five months, Capitol Corridor trains are averaging 91% on-time. Since the track work has been completed, that rate has jumped back to the 93-94% on-time level, and we expect this good reliability to continue. All these efforts to get additional rolling stock and to make track improvements are part of our plan to deliver to you the best quality transportation service we can. We focus on you, our customers. Even though our train service is supported partially with public dollars, I believe we should still operate a customer-focused and efficient rail transport service designed to serve and attract more riders. After 10 years of improvement and customer focus, I hope you, and all our riders, feel the same way.

Are we there yet? No, not by a long shot. We still have slip ups, and we can identify many situations where we can do something better. When those situations arise, none of you are shy about letting us know. Maybe surprisingly to you, we actually appreciate your feedback when things are not as they should be. We can only fix what we know about.
Although my staff and I do ride the trains often, we cannot always be on every train, or at every station. We do rely on you to be our eyes and ears. After all, the Capitol Corridor is your service, as your fares and tax dollars provide the resources to deliver it. The CCJPA staff exists as your advocacy organization, and we want to improve your service any way we can. We do continually strive to provide you with a quality product of good-value-for-money-paid. Progress is being made.

At-Seat Cart Service? What’s that?

We are trying something new that is designed to be both a convenience for our riders, as well as relief for passengers waiting in the long lines at the café car during busy travel times. You will start to see At-Seat Cart Service offered on select heavily traveled Capitol Corridor trains. The cart attendant will come down the upper-level aisle of each car, offering beverages and snacks for sale as the train travels its route. From our food and beverage revenue reports, this cart service should make it easier for those of you wishing to purchase a beverage and/or snack. So, if you see the At-Seat Cart Service “trolley” (as they call it in Britain) making its rounds through the train during your trip, let us know what you think. We keep trying reasonable ideas that riders suggest that we think make good sense, and will make our service more attractive. If riders like the At-Seat Cart Service and use it, we will keep it.

Thank you for riding your Capitol Corridor trains!