Appetite for imports; RR crossings delaysBy Patrick May
The trains are haunting Fred Arm's dreams. Night after night, the Richmond resident bolts upright in bed. Sitting in the silence, he wonders why he woke up. Then the horn blasts again. And he knows.
"It's every day and every night," says Arm, who lives in a city sliced and diced daily by as many as 70 trains. "They blow the horn when they back up, they blow it when they go forward. It never ends."
It may sound like horns, but what the retired attorney is really hearing is an explosion. While many Americans may think railroads have been rusting away the past 30 years, the nation's tracks are red-hot, especially in California and right here in San Jose.
Commuters are trading in clogged freeways for a fast train ride to work. And as products meant to feed the American consumer's appetite keep pouring into California ports on ships from Asia, those goods are increasingly rolling across the country on a million steel wheels.
Railroads in the state are "hauling more freight today than at any other time in their history," says Kyle Wyatt, a curator at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. "With intercity passenger traffic increasing and competing with freight, they're running out of track space."
Asia's manufacturing boom is flooding the state's shipping ports, and freight trains are being tapped more to help clean up the clutter. While the lion's share of freight is still moved on highways, the railroads' surge is helping to relieve a trucking system grappling with driver shortages, highway congestion and pollution woes.
The locomotives have their work cut out for them -- the number of trailers and containers on rail cars nationwide grew by more than 60 percent between 1990 and 2003, while the total number of rail carloads grew by 35 percent.
And Union Pacific, which along with Burlington Northern Santa Fe moves most of the cargo coming into California from Asia, has set volume records year after year since 2002, last year pulling a new record of nearly 10 million rail cars loaded with products such as lumber, coal -- and 3.45 million containers filled with cargo.
Meanwhile on those same 6,000 miles of track, passenger traffic has exploded in California. The state now claims three of the five busiest intercity rail lines in the nation.
Yet for a muscle-bound transport mode defined by double-decker trains and locomotives pulling 10,000 tons without breaking a sweat, the rail network has become surprisingly fragile.
"With everything so interdependent," says Jennifer Bronson of shipping giant APL, "any little wrinkle can screw up the entire chain."
An assortment of wrinkles -- labor shortage, faulty projections by the railroads -- is what led to the so-called "summer 2004 meltdown" in freight traffic at the twin ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the nation's main spigot for cargo from Asian manufacturers. The estimated price tag for those 11 days of idling ships and trucks, cargo back-ups and empty railroad tracks was $70 billion. And experts worry if the ports or railroads or shippers fumble again, the next meltdown could be even messier.
"We're not far from a crisis of some kind," says Bob Wolf of the Southern California Leadership Council. "The challenge is not only to move all these goods east, but to do it without paralyzing the communities they're moving through."
Capitol Corridor - Congestion means more trains are late
Two railroad stories capture both the triumphs of the California's train system and the trauma it faces as it struggles to keep up.
The first is the 170-mile Capitol Corridor, an intercity passenger route between Auburn and San Jose. The Capitol celebrated its 15th anniversary in December, championed by a passionate fan base who call themselves the CC Riders, and shepherded by a respected railroad veteran.
Managing Director Gene Skoropowski dishes out numbers like a proud dad boasting his kid's baseball stats: from three round-trip trains a day in 1991 to 16 today and 460,000 passengers eight years ago to nearly 1.3 million in 2005. Fare-box receipts that couldn't cover a third of expenses several years ago now cover one half, which along with a government subsidy -- like most passenger lines receive -- has allowed the Capitol to grow.
"It's clear that in California the passenger train has been discovered," says Skoropowski, tracing the creation of the Amtrak-operated system to a 1990 bond measure, a response to the state's increasingly congested highways. "It's taken us 15 years to carry out that mandate, and now the state has delivered to voters what they voted for."
Lower home prices
The Capitol Corridor, like its sister lines in Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley, is breaking one ridership record after another. Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham says "once people find out about us and step on board, they're converted." Between cheaper prices for homes farther from city centers, and the ease of telecommuting aboard a train, she says many suburb-bound Californians now include intercity-rail access in their home-buying considerations.
Many who have swapped cars for the Capitol's comfort love their train, getting to know crew members on a first-name basis, gloating over gridlocked traffic on I-80 as they fly by.
To Capitol convert Marcus Zafarano, 49, train-commuting from his Oakland home to his telecom job in San Jose spares him steep gas prices and the potential for road rage.
"This commute turns into a little party every evening," he says, riding the Capitol to work one recent morning. "You drink wine in the club car and forge a lot of strong relationships. In the morning, the train ride gives you time to wind down if you wake up cranky."
Yet shadows are gathering -- cast by those passing jam-packed freight trains.
Unlike rail systems back East, designed in the 1820s to move people between large population centers, rail carriers in the West often run passenger and freight along the same congested lines. In California, the sharing does not always go smoothly.
As it has added trains and attracted riders, the Capitol has gone from being on-time nearly 90 percent of the time to last year barely hitting 80 percent, says Patrick Merrill of Caltrans Division of Rail. "You approach a tipping point as you give people more options and add more service, because it's a fragile balance."
Add too many commuter runs to entice riders, and you bump up against cargo trains and on-time performance could suffer, experts say.
"The morning trains to work are usually on time, but coming home is a different story," says Chuck Robuck, who commutes between Auburn and Sacramento. "The trains can be a half-hour late and we've lost some riders to carpools and buses because of it. But it still beats sitting in traffic."
Skoropowski added three new trains a day into San Jose by upgrading signals and, in some cases, replacing sidetracks ripped out years ago when the freight railroads were floundering. But even with such improvements, rail carriers say there's only so much they can do to accommodate commuter routes and still protect their bottom line.
"If you want to add passenger service, which seems to be the trend, but it'll jeopardize freight growth, you can't do it," says Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis. "Nearly all of our revenues are generated by freight."
Making existing trains longer and faster will help, says Skoropowski. So will the $400 million earmarked in the state's recent bond measure for new passenger-rail cars, although it won't buy all the cars needed. And the passage of Proposition 1B clears the way for the sale of $19.9 billion in general obligation bonds to fund transportation projects, including upgrading freight rail service.
Southern California - Rail expressway cuts truck traffic
Moving freight efficiently along railroad tracks is a huge challenge, especially in a densely urbanized area like Southern California's Inland Empire. With the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles staggering beneath the weight of Asian cargo, everyone along the shipping chain knew something dramatic had to be done -- and in April 2002 they had their solution.
It's called the Alameda Corridor -- a $2.4-billion, 20-mile-long rail expressway linking the ports to the big train yards near downtown Los Angeles. From there, trains continue their long journey deep into America's heartland, while trucks pick up much of the short-haul cargo. With half of the corridor set into a 33-foot-deep trench, its three tracks now shoot 50 trains a day eastward, and in the process remove 8,500 containers that otherwise would have been trucked from the ports along already congested highways.
Like the Capitol Corridor, the Alameda is another train tale that underscores the promises and perils of an overworked transportation grid, in this case the ports, railroads and communities in Southern California that shoulder 40 percent of the nation's cargo traveling by ship.
While America once relied on rail to move its goods, mostly from eastern ports out west, trains from the 1930s on began losing market share to trucks, thanks to bigger rigs and better highways. The 1980 deregulation of the trucking industry was a further blow. But by the mid-'80s, as the railroad industry got legislative breaks of its own and carriers figured out a system to move two containers on one flatcar, Port of Long Beach spokesman Art Wong says "almost over night the railroads came back to life."
The Alameda Corridor is the postcard of that renaissance. The streamlined marvel replaces the tangle of street-surface tracks that once took freight trains over four different branch lines and 200 railroad crossings at 20 mph, half the speed trains now move through the trench.
Trains vs. trucks
Trains today, says Alameda Corridor Chief Executive John Doherty, "can't compete with trucks on trips under 800 miles. It takes $200 to truck a container 20 miles, but it's $450 on a train. So Las Vegas and the Southern California market are better served by trucks."
For long hauls, though, trains are becoming more crucial than ever, as volume explodes. In 2000, railroads nationwide moved 9.2 million containers; last year, that number climbed to 12.3 million. And California's getting a hefty piece of that action: Between 2000 and 2005, the number of containers reaching the United States from China doubled, with the majority of them arriving at Southern California ports.
Last year, the Alameda Corridor handled 25 percent of the nearly 9 million containers that passed through the twin ports, a number of boxes expected to more than double by 2020, assuming the ports and railroads can handle it. They're getting ready. Experts say the next generation of cargo ships will carry more than 10,000 containers. That's the equivalent of 21 trains, each a mile-and-a-half long, bobbing and weaving through the increasingly congested Inland Empire.
Room to grow
To keep that cargo moving out of the ports, the Alameda will be a lifeline. Fortunately, it's now using only a third of its total capacity of 160 trains a day, since most cargo still is loaded directly onto trucks at the ports.
Union Pacific spokesman James Barnes points to "the voracious appetite of the American consumer," this insatiable hunger for cheap goods that nations like China are happy to oblige.
The Asian manufacturing boom benefits from an increasingly fluid and "just-in-time" supply chain -- larger and larger ships off-loading containers directly onto longer and longer trains.
But if American consumerism is an insatiable hunger, the digestive tract starts here, on the docks of Long Beach, where Rudy Rael stands on a recent morning, staring up at a canyon of in-bound containers awaiting their journey to points east.
"We're bursting at the seams," says Rael, assistant operations director for ITS, one of the port's oldest container terminal operators. "We've doubled our terminal in the past three years and it's already filled up, and this mountain of boxes keeps growing."
So do the trains moving them east.
"Our average train is less than 7,000 feet long, but we're preparing for 10,000-foot trains," says Steve Branscum of Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the state's other major rail carrier. "We're investing more on our transcontinental line to Chicago and hope to have that double-tracked by early 2008."
Railroads are adding track as fast as they can, though at times causing a ripple effect for passenger trains. Union Pacific, for example, is scrambling to upgrade its California tracks. But Amtrak's Coast Starlight, which uses UP's lines, has had to cope with four-hour delays because of track repairs or passing freight trains. And there are other challenges: consider the unexpected demand for much-needed rail cars that has caused a manufacturing backlog, requiring railroad companies to wait 15 months to have orders filled that used to take three.
The Alameda Corridor shows that the transportation system defies easy fixes. Some have criticized it for not getting even more trucks off Southern California's congested freeways, while others say it only shifted the crowding problem 20 miles inland. As one train after another is shot from the Corridor's cannon, communities in its eastern path have had to scramble to deal with the fallout -- noise and shaking, smoke and dust, and worst of all, blocked city streets.
The gridlock is something Sharon Neely and her colleagues at the Alameda Corridor East project are trying to address. By organizing cities along the rails through Los Angeles County, and working with lawmakers in Sacramento and Washington for funding, Neely's group is lobbying for the construction of underpasses or road separations at 20 of San Gabriel Valley's 54 railroad crossings.
But Victor Sandoval, owner of the 2nd St. Bistro in downtown Pomona, says even with the new underpasses, sharing a business district with more and more trains poses problems for an entrepreneur. There are the blaring horns that can ruin a romantic candlelit dinner. "It's hard to create a nice atmosphere with mile-long trains rumbling by outside," he says. And there are the deliveries that show up late because trucks got caught at a crossing.
"Each morning," Sandoval says, "we come in and sweep up the mortar that fell from the bricks in this building because it gets shaken all night long by the trains."
But Neely says the railroads, which historically have tended to wield power with arrogance, remain an obstacle. By law, she says, carriers are only required to chip in 5 percent if a city wants to construct a grade separation to ease traffic, leaving the communities to foot the rest of the bill. Neely points out that while highways get dedicated funding from gas taxes, railroad-crossing projects don't.
The railroads make no apologies. Why should they pay for something benefiting motorists and not trains? says Union Pacific's Davis. "I hate that idea of 'railroads were here first,' but the rail industry did help develop this country, it helps bring the goods that support our day-to-day lives, and it continues to help with the construction of America. Is is right that people continue to build right up against the railroad tracks?"
"Yes, the railroads were here for 100 years and cities developed around them, but they weren't carrying 90 trains a day and blocking intersections for 20 minutes. We want to be a partner with the railroads, because a lot of the clothes we're wearing and food we eat is brought to us by trains. We're trying to find a happy medium."
Good luck. Fred Arm, sleepless in Richmond, has spent years fighting the railroads for the establishment of no-horn "quiet zones" at some of the busier track crossings in a city that has seen a sharp increase in passenger and freight traffic.
Arm sees himself as an innocent bystander in what he calls the "global-vs.-local" clash. "We all benefit from this cargo," he says. "But especially in California, we're also paying a price for a global economy and this Wal-Mart way of life."
See http://www.mercurynewsphoto.com/train/ for photos.
Copyright ©2007 San Jose Mercury News. Published 02/25/2007.