Old rail coaches get new life on Amtrak valley lines

tsheehan@fresnobee.comJune 22, 2013 

AMTRACK COMET 5

Amtrak is planning to use 14 renovated, 1960s-era Comet 1B rail cars, like the one seen here at the Railroad Museum.

STEVEN HELLON — Caltrans

— Amtrak's San Joaquin route, the fifth busiest passenger train corridor in the nation, is getting more cars this summer to serve additional riders on the 12 daily trains.

The California Department of Transportation, which underwrites the Amtrak San Joaquins and two other intercity passenger train services, expects to take delivery in the coming months of 14 renovated, 1960s-era Comet 1B rail cars. Caltrans bought the coaches for about $75,000 apiece from New Jersey Transit, and is having them refurbished for use on the San Joaquin line.

The new/old 64-seat, single-level Comet cars initially will replace 90-seat bilevel coaches on one of the four daily round trips by the San Joaquin trains between Bakersfield and Oakland. The bilevel "California cars" will be added to the other five daily trains on the San Joaquin route, including two that run between Sacramento and Ba- kersfield.

"This is one of the least expensive ways to increase capacity on the line," said Bill Bronte, chief of Caltrans' Division of Rail. "We can run the same number of trains and not have to pay extra to the freight railroads to use their tracks."

The total price to buy and refurbish the Comet cars comes to a little more than $1 million per car, Bronte said. By comparison, new 90-seat passenger coaches ordered by California and three other states have an average price of more than $2.7 million each.

Some rail supporters in the valley, however, are dismayed at the prospect of the San Joaquin trains being stuck with hand-me-down, decades-old rolling stock.

"We're not keen on this," said Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea, who is the vice chairman of a new regional agency that is taking over administration of the San Joaquin trains from Caltrans. "We don't want 1960s train cars.

"There's no question you get more bang for your buck if you buy something used," Perea said. "But if you take a used 1960s Volkswagen and refurbish it, it's still a 1960s car … and you're more likely to have problems with it."

Modern amenities

The Comet cars were built in 1968 and 1969, but Caltrans officials say the renovations at Amtrak's shops in Indiana are turning them — at least on the inside — into modern coaches, with reclining seats; work tables; new flooring, carpets and curtains; bicycle racks; Wi-Fi Internet access; restrooms that comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act; and power outlets at each seat. The wheel/axle assemblies are all-new, and brakes and suspension systems are being overhauled.

"It's going to be a really good-looking piece of equipment," Bronte said.

Caltrans had hoped to put the first Comet cars into service in time for the Fourth of July holiday. But time is needed to train fire and police departments along the route about the Comets and to make test runs with the coaches. Now it's likely that the first train set with the Comet cars — the northbound 711 that leaves from Bakersfield at 4:55 a.m. and the southbound 718 from Oakland, which departs at 5:50 p.m. — won't run until later this summer.

As additional cars arrive, a second train set on the Bakersfield-Oakland run will be converted to the Comet cars, with the larger 90-seat cars redistributed to the remaining San Joaquin trains with greater ridership demand.

Caltrans recently placed an order for 42 all-new passenger cars for use on its three state-supported Amtrak California routes — the San Joaquins, the Capitol Corridor trains that run between Sacramento and San Jose, and the Pacific Surfliner trains between San Diego and Los Angeles/Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo. Those cars are part of a $352 million, 130-car order being shared with Illinois, Michigan and Missouri. But they won't begin arriving in California until late 2015.

The Comet cars are a short-term fix until those new bilevel cars are delivered to California through 2018. As the new coaches come into service, Bronte said, the Comets will be used as part of a "surge fleet" on Northern California Amtrak routes to boost capacity during peak ridership periods, including busy holidays.

More riding the rails

Ridership on the San Joaquin trains began to increase quickly in the mid- and late 2000s, prompting Caltrans to start exploring ways to increase ridership capacity. The San Joaquin ridership surged 18 percent, from 804,785 passengers in 2006-07 to almost 950,000 in 2007-08 — then a record. "We looked at those numbers and basically realized we're in trouble if that growth continues," Bronte said.

That growth has indeed continued. In 2011-12, more than 1.1 million passengers rode the San Joaquin trains. From October through April, ridership on the line was almost 680,000 — about 40,000 passengers more than the same seven months from 2011-12.

Perea said he and other leaders of the San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority, made up of representatives of the 13 counties along the San Joaquin route, want to make sure that when the new bilevel cars are put into service, the older Comet trains aren't permanently relegated to the valley.

Perea said he believes there will be a political fight about where the new train coaches are deployed. "If Caltrans is telling us this is temporary, we want it in writing," he said, calling for a formal agreement to ensure that the valley route gets its share of the new bilevel coaches.

There are other concerns about the Comets besides their age. A report last month to the San Joaquin JPA noted that the design of the coaches may make it more difficult for some passengers to board the trains.

In the current California cars, most passengers climb stairs to reach the main seating level, but the lower seating level for passengers in wheelchairs or with limited mobility is only a few inches higher than the station platform. On the single- level Comet cars, all passengers have to navigate four steps to reach the seating floor. Wheelchair lifts must be used to help those passengers get into the coaches.

"These trains could take longer to load and unload passengers," the San Joaquin JPA report said. "The San Joaquin makes 13 stops between Bakersfield and Oakland. Even short additional delays at stations could lead to increases in San Joaquin travel times."

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