Saturday, April 30, 2016

Thoughts on Chaffee Zoo Expansion and Roeding Park (with pictures)

I haven't been a huge fan of the expansion of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Not because I hate zoos, but because the expansion required taking a huge portion of a public park and fencing it off. What used to be free public space now requires a ticket, and is only open during business hours (until 4pm for most of the year).


Unfortunately, Fresno has one of the worst park systems in the country, and the expansion reduced the size of the system further. It makes sense to expand the zoo in a contiguous fashion - you can't have half the zoo located three blocks away. Also, it's cheaper to replace grass and benches then it is to replace an elephant habitat. However, no mitigation was put in place. No effort was made to replace the park space anywhere else, including across the street, in a lot that has sat empty for decades.

That being said, I did visit the zoo a couple of months ago to see how the expansion fit into the park. I also looked around the park to see what other changes were made, especially the new dog park.

Let's take a look.

This image shows the zoo expansion. The area in red was converted from public park space to private zoo space. 



I visited on a crowded day. Parking was extended into an "overflow" lot, which also happens to sit in the middle of the park. I believe the zoo should consolidate all parking into a garage across the street, leaving the park as a park.


The new expansion is the African Adventure.


The first set of pictures are the trail to the left. Then you return to the large brown area, which is the cafe and seating area, to go to the trail on the right.



One aspect of the expansion that I was very happy to see was the preservation of many, if not most of the mature trees.


The old trees make it seem like the expansion has been there forever (because the park has been).



 Most animals in the new area have giant habitats. Unfortunately, the cheetahs do not.



One of the problems with zoos, especially the Fresno Zoo, was the use of very small enclosures. The new expansion rectifies it. While the expansion added a dozen or more animals, they all share one massive habitat.



Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A look at Amtrak California ridership - February 2016

The recent news that the Amtrak San Joaquin line is getting a 7th daily train inspired me to ask, how is ridership doing? Long-time readers might remember that Amtrak ridership updates used to be a frequent (quarterly) feature on this blog, but the last one I did was in December...of 2012! Oops. Well, I've updated my spreadsheets, so let's take a look at how ridership has been doing on California's three state-supported Amtrak lines.

We begin with a chart showing all three California lines over the past 15 months. That allows us to see seasonal changes over the course of the year, and get a brief reference of year-on-year progress.




One thing popped out at me immediately.  See July 2015? See how close the San Joaquin is to the Capitol Corridor line? Turns out, that month, the San Joaquin had 90% as many riders as the Capitol Corridor. That's huge. For reference, in July of 2009, the ratio was 66%, and in 2010, 63%. I did some additional digging and it looks like the highest it has ever been was July 2015, when the ratio was 94%.

This is even more impressive, because while the San Joaquin has been fighting for a 7th daily train, the Capitol Corridor line gets 15 round trips a day.

That indicates to me, that with the new train, the San Joaquin might surpass the Capitol Corridor in ridership for the first time ever - with half as many trains, and operating some hand-me-downs.

It'll be hard to keep giving the San Joaquin 3rd tier status when ridership starts to exceed what has been a model corridor. As the new service starts in June, the July numbers will be very interesting indeed. I'll report them when they get released in late September.


Viewing all three lines over 7 years shows how they've all grown and changed over time.



Now we see that the San Joaquin is showing the fastest growth, but the Pacific Surfliner is very healthy. Capitol Corridor is not doing so amazing. However, part of that reason was a change in accounting. In September of 2013, Amtrak changed how they calculated ridership from sales of 10-ticket packs. According to their reports.

In FY14, Amtrak began counting actual lifted ridership for multi-ride tickets (due to eTicketing), rather than the estimated multi-ride ridership used previously.
This impacted the Capitol Corridor line more than any other in the country, because so many riders are commuters. This change didn't impact revenue at all however. What appears to have happened was that commuters were buying 10-packs, Amtrak was assuming they were riding - but they didn't. Either they lost their tickets, or kept them in a drawer, or they expired. So Amtrak gets the money, but the seat went empty.

So in October 2012, ridership was reported as 150,461, and in 2013 for October, just 125,807. That's a lot of expired tickets!


Here we can see each line, individually, from 2011 to now. July of each year has been highlighted as it tends to be the month with highest ridership.

San Joaquin:




Capitol Corridor




Pacific Surfliner





How does this compare nationally? Here are the top ten lines around the country for January and February of this year - the latest data available.





 
The order hasn't moved much since 2012. One service that saw significant declined was DC-Newport News, but I believe that's because Virginia added trains to other destination, so the ridership is now split between 3 lines instead of one.

What jumps out as always is that California makes a lot of sense for High Speed Rail. Always assumed to have low rail ridership by East-Coast media, train ridership in California is always strong. 

I hope to do these updates a little more often again, especially to see if the added service draws more riders thanks to a more convenient schedule.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Amtrak San Joaquin finally getting 7th daily train!

June 6 is the planned date for when a 7th daily train will begin service on the Amtrak San Joaquin route which serves California's Central Valley. Currently, 4 trains a day run from Bakersfield to Oakland, with two running from Bakersfield to Sacramento. Additional thruway bus service offers connections to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and a dozen other cities. The new train will run between Bakersfield and Oakland.

Final preparations for this addition to the schedule have been underway for about 6 months now. Although the service is run and branded by Amtrak, it is funded by California and currently managed by the "San Joaquin Joint Powers Authority" which took over from Caltrans in 2015. Since they took over, they have pushed to make the new 7th trip a reality. The new service will cost $7.4 million a year.

A new train, 709, will leave Bakersfield bright and early at 4am. Currently, the earliest train leaves at 4:45am. It will arrive in Fresno at 5:53am and Oakland at 9:53am. This schedule is designed to allow those in the Valley to enjoy a full day in the Bay Area.

Presumably, there will be a bus from Los Angeles which will meet the train. Currently the bus meeting the 4:45am train leaves LA at 1:30am. The new bus would leave LA at a more comfortable 12:45am, which allows bus riders to arrive at Union Station using the subway.

A new return train, 708, will leave Oakland at 3:55pm, arriving in Bakersfield at 10:04pm. This schedule closely mimics an existing bus connection that ties in with a Sacramento train.

I assume other train times, including the Sacramento departure, will be adjusted, but the full schedule is not online yet. The current schedule can be seen here (PDF). I will post when the new one is ready. The new schedule will show us if the goal of this service was to expand the coverage or to lower headways.

Caltrans, the previous boss, had been talking about adding a 7th daily train for well over a decade. Unfortunately, the start date kept being pushed back.

In 2002, the state predicted: 












 2004!

In 2004, as that goal was obviously missed, it became:










2010!

In 2006,  the goal for the 7th train remained the same, but the goal for the 8th slipped two years...












  And in 2008, as that goal was becoming unreasonable, it was pushed back again:












 Well, it is finally here, and better late than never. Oddly enough, while every report called for a Sacramento train to be added first, followed by an Oakland train, the reverse has happened.


The last time the route got an upgrade was in 2002, when it attained its current level of service.

History of route:

Before 1971 - Two daily trains (one by each freight railroad)
1971-1974 - No service
1974 - One daily Amtrak train
1979 - Amtrak proposes elimination, state steps in to fund a single train
1980 - Second daily train
1989 - Third daily train
1992 - Fourth daily train
1999 - Fifth train, first to serve Sacramento
2002 - Sixth train, second to serve Sacramento
2016 - Seventh train, fifth to Oakland
2018 (predicted) - Eight train, third to Sacramento
Late 2020's - High Speed Rail begins, San Joaquin future unknown (although service to Sacramento is almost guaranteed, from at least Fresno)


An 8th daily train is also being planned, however, there are significant roadblocks. New bi-level equipment that was scheduled to arrive this summer has been delayed a year, and the line cannot add more service without additional equipment. In 2013, Amtrak California purchased 40-year old New Jersey Transit trains to support demand on the route until the new trains arrived.At that time, the new trains were expected in 2015.

In addition, because the rail is owned by freight companies, they force the taxpayers to build capital improvements in exchange for a train slot. A layover facility and additional double-tracked segments are required for more trains to run. As with the new 7th daily train, these capacity improvements have been in the work for over a decade. Some have received funding from the initial HSR bond, while others are looking to Cap and Trade money. Still others are unfunded.

That is, don't expect the 8th train before 2018, even if the 7th is a runaway success. 

The committee will also be using Cap and Trade funding to optimize current schedules and make plans for future growth. The committee also realizes that low gas prices have hurt ridership, and this May they plan on launching new discounts aimed at groups, along with a new advertising campaign.


All this information was gained from the March board meeting presentation.
You can view the full packet here (PDF)
The November board meeting presentation is here (PDF

You can find the PDFs of the various State Rail Reports here.