Tag Archives: Amtrak

Progress Report: Downtown San Bernardino Passenger Rail Project

Work is humming along on SANBAG’s project to extend Metrolink service from the current terminus at San Bernardino’s Santa Fe Depot to the Transit Center in downtown San Bernardino. This move of a little over a mile will bring new options and connections to transit users from San Bernardino and many surrounding communities. Though it opened last year, the Transit Center currently only has connections with fixed route bus and BRT service. Once open, this project will provide the first passenger rail service to downtown San Bernardino in at least 70 years.

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The switch that will be installed just north of Rialto Ave. is under construction. All photos: author.

Over the last year or so, the construction phase of this project has been ongoing, with changes slowly manifesting themselves all through San Bernardino’s Lytle Creek neighborhood. By far, the biggest changes are of the transportation right-of-ways. The DSBDPRP is double-tracking the entire loop from the Short Way Subdivision, through the BNSF San Bernardino yard past the Santa Fe Depot, then onto [what remains of] the Redlands District to just past G St., where it splits to provide a third track at the Transit Center and otherwise rejoins the existing double-track segment. The double-tracking will allow trains to freely flow from the Transit Center to the yard that is located about two route miles away in Colton.

In addition to the double-track, two grade crossings are being closed by the project: 3rd St. at the tracks and I St. south of the tracks (the intersection with Rialto from the north remains as a right in/out). The closures aren’t completely bad as especially with I St., it provides a great opportunity for a modernization project on an otherwise chronically overbuilt street. However, it appears that they closures will also cut the neighborhood access off, so that is a bit of a loss to the community.

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One of the cross tracks from the Colton Crossing embedded in front of the Santa Fe Depot.

The Santa Fe Depot itself is also seeing some upgrades. The project is rebuilding the passenger boarding experience to be run-through to allow all trains to be able to continue on to the Transit Center. This includes an overpass of the tracks. But there have been other changes to the outside. Most significantly, the area in front has been altered to more parking away from directly in front of the building to showcase the entrance and really give a more stately look to the building. A nice walkway now leads directly to the front door and a crossover from the Colton Crossing has been embedded in the concrete directly in front of the building. There is also a pad and stop for the Amtrak Thruway bus service that makes daily stops at the station.

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The completed switch awaits installation as work on the second track continues.

Finally, farther west, work has begun on the full extent of the double-tracking. Just north of Rialto Ave., workers have been putting together the switch that will provide the start of the double-track segment that goes through to the Transit Center. Additionally, fencing has been installed at the end of King St. to seal the corridor and keep people off the tracks. While the IEOC Line is the only scheduled Metrolink service to use the Shortway Sub, it is also the connection to the yard, so nearly 50 trains per day will pass through the area to reach the yard in Colton.

Ideally, there will be no major snafus as the year winds down and soon after we ring in the new year, we can begin to take advantaged of one of the most important transit connections in the Inland Empire. Already three years behind, it can’t open a moment too soon. In tandem with the coming Redlands Rail, mobility options in the East Valley are really set to be substantially improved. Hopefully, the cities in the region will be willing and able to properly manage the opportunity that they’re being handed.

Evaluating RCTC’s Coachella Valley Rail Proposals

For a little over a year, the Riverside County Transportation Commission has been undertaking a study to explore the possibility of providing daily passenger rail service to the Coachella Valley. This is at least the seventh time in nearly 30 years that the concept has been explored. (Previous studies of all or parts of the potential route were the focus of or included in other efforts previously completed in 1991, 199319992005, 2010, and 2013.) But with this being take seven on the project, perhaps it’s time to figure out exactly what needs to be done to get this plan off the shelves and to see trains rolling.

The elephant in the room continues to be that the only truly viable alternative to reach the area is by routing passenger traffic through the Union Pacific Yuma Subdivision that heads east from the Colton Crossing. As one of the two principal freight rail arteries in and out of SoCal heading east, Union Pacific understandably has concerns about the proposition of running an increased number of passenger trains over their rails. Currently, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited operates through the corridor, but it is only thrice-weekly service with late night/early morning stops in the area–hardly usable by the majority of potential travelers.

The latest report provides five Alternatives along with reasons for/against them. As the Yuma Subdivision is the only existing route to the Coachella Valley, all the differences occur from the Colton Crossing to LAUS. The five Alternatives (resulting in six total possibilities) are to use the BNSF San Bernardino Sub (Alternative 1), use the UP LA Sub (Alternative 2); use the UP Alhambra Sub (Alternative 3), use two variations of the Metrolink San Gabriel Sub (Alternative 4), or use a hybrid option blending Alternative 4B and 3 (Alternative 4). Four of those options made it through the course level screening to a more detailed analysis and will be expounded upon: 1, 4A/B, and 5.

Alternative 1

As mentioned above, west of Colton is where the differences lie. Of the four potential routes advanced to fine-level screening, Alternative 1 was the only one looked on favorably and advanced to the level of further planning/EIS. Several factors in its favor exist including most principally, a corridor population that is around 25% higher than the others have or would provide in the near-term. Though all study is being done using the assumption of Amtrak service similar to the existing Pacific Surfliner, this proposed route would be the functional equivalent of extending the Metrolink 91 Line out to the Coachella Valley and would in effect, be adding a limited stop train from LAUS to Riverside. Ideally, the Rail2Rail program should be implemented over that portion of the route to allow people to take advantage of that option. From Riverside, the train would then continue north to the Colton Crossing, where it would turn east to reach Indio as outlined above. RCTC currently still has quite a few unused daily allotments for the route, so implementing service via Alternative 1 would only require buying (or leasing) the trainsets and building a few stations. This route also has the second-fastest projected travel time and high ridership.

Alternative 4A

The second Alternative considered at the fine level is branded 4A. This option would be routed primarily over the San Gabriel Subdivision, which is owned by LA Metro and SANBAG for operating Metrolink’s San Bernardino Line. However, the San Gabriel Sub is at present, not directly connected with the Yuma, so this option requires several things be done to make that connection. The proposal calls for squeezing a track to connect to the northbound BNSF line between I-10 and the Colton Crossing and also just continue it through Colton to connect to the Metrolink Short Way Subdivision that is used by the IEOC Line to reach San Bernardino and Metrolink to access their Colton yard. A flyover would then be built to connect that track with the San Gabriel Subdivision and the report also calls for the two segments of double-tracking already underway to be built. This Alternative would have Inland Empire stops at Rialto and Montclair before heading to LA over the same route used by Metrolink. According to the analysis, this option would produce the fastest travel time of 3:06 as well as the second-highest ridership.

However, it was ultimately, it was not selected for further study due to requiring a minimum investment of $141mn more than Alternative 1 and potential ROW issues, including relocating a trucking facility at the BNSF San Bernardino yard. But looking at the reality of the area, a connection could probably be built to connect to the existing flyover and thus avoid relocating the majority of the trucking yard. Presumably, some of the money would also go into the double-tracking projects mentioned above, but it’s primarily slated for providing the connection to the BNSF tracks and Short Way in Colton as well as the flyover to connect with the San Gabriel Subdivision. Additionally, at least two actual bridges would be required (one over La Cadena, one over Lytle Creek) and though there is a little room for it, adding a fourth track through Colton will require a couple things to be moved and at least two more grade crossings be expanded. Though not studied in the report, the Colton track does provides an opportunity for a Colton stop to be added to the IEOC Line and potentially the CV train as well.

Alternative 4B/5

The last two Alternatives, 4B and 5, are functionally the same, so they’ll be looked at in tandem. Both would use the same connection in Colton as presented by 4A to reach the Short Way, but would instead utilize the San Bernardino Downtown Passenger Rail extension to continue all the way into the recently completed San Bernardino Transit Center located downtown. Going to the SBTC would provide connections with numerous transit services serving the San Bernardino Valley, Mountain communities, and Victor Valley areas. This option also avoids the need for a flyover in the BNSF yard, but leaves the recommendation for the double-tracking along the San Gabriel Sub. However, the train would have to switch ends in San Bernardino before being able to continue to LAUS. According to the report, this maneuver can take up to half an hour, so accommodating it is projected to likely necessitate another layover track be added to the site. The layover also effectively cuts the journey into two separate trips. That could be great for station-area businesses in San Bernardino, but results in a major hits on ridership and travel times. Unsurprisingly, these two options have the longest scheduled travel times but lowest ridership.

The rest of the route is for Alternative 4B, identical to Alternative 4A. Alternative 5 instead uses the UP Alhambra Subdivision into LAUS from near the El Monte station which provides a potential bypass of the single track line on I-10. Both 4A and 5 would differ from 4A in that they would not stop at Rialto, only at Montclair. Additionally, 5 require second flyover in El Monte to provide access to the Alhambra Sub without running into freight congestion. Course-level screening indicated that Alternative 5 would require double-tracking of the Alhambra, but the ongoing Alameda Corridor East San Gabriel Trench appears to be taking care of that. Still, in comparison to Alternative 1, these two options have a potential cost of $130mn more for 4B or $162mn more for Alternative 5. Due to both the cost but especially the turn time depressing ridership, these two Alternatives were also nixed from further configuration.

Results

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alternative 1 has been selected for further study and advancement to the EIR/EIS stage. This is the only Alternative that would actually serve the City of Riverside, which, notwithstanding the relative lack of necessary investment compared to the others, likely was a part of the deciding factor for its favorable consideration in a study commissioned by RCTC. Progress toward those environmental documents is undoubtedly being worked on now. Additionally, though Measure A doesn’t put much money toward rail, cap and trade money might provide the ability to acquire equipment and start the service. With new locomotives on the way for the Surfliner and Metrolink, there will probably be some surplus power available in the LA area soon that, pending funding, can be leased for a decent price to get things rolling within a few months of final approval of the environmental documents. Hopefully, that can happen before the 40th anniversary of the first study.

Interstates of Steel

Is this the light at the end of the tunnel to ensure efficient passenger service?
Could government ownership and maintenance be the light at the end of the tunnel to ensure more and more efficient passenger service? Photo credit: adamr.

For years, Amtrak has been getting delayed by freight traffic on the tracks where it runs, which in itself is ironic because those very same railroads prided themselves in timeliness when they operated passenger services. However, this isn’t just about Amtrak. Transportation agencies looking to add commuter service to relieve congestion on their crowded freeways, but often run into a railroad unwilling to allow those trains to operate over their tracks.

As such, perhaps it time for the government to own, maintain, and dispatch all  the major rail corridors in the country, just like is done for major roads and airports that are also critical components of our transportation system. Could that be the answer to the problem of providing more efficient passenger service as well as just getting more  passenger service period?

Benefits

Several benefits  could emerge from such a proposal. The first is clear: the ability to provide more passenger service, especially for commuter agencies. The second, though perhaps not quite at all as obvious, is that it would open up the rail industry to the winds of the great free market in a way not possible in the past. The third is that regions could provide the best rail infrastructure appropriate for their area. All of those are benefits that both SoCal at large and the IE would greatly appreciate.

Better passenger rail options

With the Inland region continuing to grow, our transportation agencies are running out of ways to keep people moving. Yet, while the area is crisscrossed with hundreds of miles of track and is investing hundreds of millions of dollars of its own money into projects that at least in part, benefit the railroads (aka grade separations, especially the Colton Crossing), a lack of capacity from the freight railroads means that the ability to further pursue rail options. For example,  RCTC is looking to provide passenger rail service to the Coachella Valley region and is interested in making good use of the imminent Perris Valley Line by offering more connections. However, that would require operating on either BNSF’s or Union Pacific’s tracks, something which UP is not known for being extremely open to and BNSF is not particularly  famous for either. Other projects around the IE would also greatly benefit from the ability to better operate over the regions rails. Proposals to provide train service to destinations such as Ontario International Airport, the High Desert, the Temecula Valley, and other points in the area all continue to run into the same problem.

More competition among, less regulation of carriers

New ownership can also lead to increased competition among carriers. As it is, many railroads have varying agreements for ‘trackage’ and ‘haulage’ rights on each others’ lines. With a single owner entity in charge of the rails themselves, every railroad would in effect have trackage rights everywhere and the race would be on. There would be direct competition among the carriers because they would all have the option to serve all customers. Such a move could also even spur entrepreneurship in the sector as a startup railroad would no longer have to try to find a right-of-way to buy and refurbish or go through the arduous process of establishing an entirely new one, one that is perhaps right next to an existing line. Additionally, it could greatly reduce or completely eliminate the need for the Surface Transportation Board to set rates for some services as they do now.

Regionally-appropriate infrastructure

The ability for regions to provide the right rail infrastructure for their area is another huge area of opportunity and one that would be exceptionally beneficial to SoCal and the IE. In addition to the aforementioned congestion benefits that could come from increased passenger operations, this area is the home to the worst air quality in the nation and the residents of the IE and the LA Basin have suffered the ill effects of bad air for decades. While some of it may certainly be due to China, most of it is homegrown, with transportation accounting for a significant source of that pollution. Improvements are occurring, but a lot more needs to be done to meet emissions targets that are quickly approaching. While certainly not the only strategy necessary, one large area of opportunity rests in a reduction in use of diesel locomotives, especially in the LA Basin area, by way of electrification. Currently, the major freight railroads in the region (BNSF and UPRR) are not extremely interested in paying to electrify a small portion of their extensive national networks. However, it could be accomplished on the local scale by transportation commissions or MPOs such as SCAG.

Sooner = better

There’s no time to waste, tomorrow beckons. As it is, billions of dollars are to be poured into the rail network of this country over the next couple decades, with a significant amount coming from government already. While some of the proposal will certainly be quite controversial and require lots of lawyers in long meetings, the end result would be a system that is optimal for industry, customers, and purposes of the public good. As such, the process should begin as soon as possible so that those can be realized in a reasonable amount of time. We owe it to ourselves to do so.