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Train breakdown on Metrolink. Train was pushed to destination at Oceanside by an other  train. Photo by Noel T. Braymer

By Noel T. Braymer

Metrolink didn’t get into the trouble it is in overnight. It won’t get out of it overnight either. To get Metrolink to where it should be, first we must define its mission. The way Metrolink has been run, management thought that it was a commuter railroad for downtown Los Angeles. The general focus at Metrolink was that its job was to run trains.That’s the problem! Metrolink’s job is to carry people to places they want to go to at times they want to go in Southern California.

To do this, we can learn a great deal from the Swiss. The Swiss have train schedules that are easy to remember. Their passenger trains run frequently, quickly, on-time, and have connections to as many places as possible. These connections are not just between trains, but also to buses, ferries, cog railroads, airports, and aerial tramways. These connections are coordinated with each other for timed transfers. The result is the Swiss have one of the highest level of per capita public transportation usage in the world. Its citizens also have one of the highest per capita incomes in the world.

The most pressing problem now for Metrolink is with its ticket machines. Because of the constant breakdowns of these 23 year old machines, passengers often find their train leaving without them as they wait in line to buy a ticket. It doesn’t help that the few working ticket machines, which are slow to start with, often reject valid credit and debit cards adding to the time wasted and to passenger frustration.

The fastest solution to this problem is to adopt online ticketing as soon as possible. Anyone with a “smart phone” would be able to buy their Metrolink tickets with their phone and not worry about waiting in line. Online ticketing also opens up more flexibility in ticket pricing. Metrolink has plenty of empty seats on its trains, particularly during the middle of the day. Different forms of online discount ticketing would go a long way to attracting riders to trains with empty seats. New ticket machine are still needed. But online ticketing would reduce the need for more ticket machines and bring in new riders to Metrolink.

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A common sight on Metrolink trains between rush hours with plenty of available seats. Photo by Noel T. Braymer

he biggest problem potential Metrolink passengers have is Metrolink often doesn’t go to places they want to go to. Even when Metrolink goes to places people want to go, it doesn’t go when people want to go. What is missing and stopping more people from riding Metrolink is lack of frequent service and good connections to many Southern California destinations. There are plenty of track improvement projects in the works now which will allow more train service in the future. But there is plenty that can be done in the short term to add more markets for Metrolink. The economical way to do this in many cases is to run connecting buses. This has been successfully done for years with Go Transit in Toronto. This has also been a success with Thruway Buses connecting with Amtrak trains in California.

Buses can be added to serve Metrolink Stations at times there isn’t train service there now. Many Metrolink Lines don’t run trains for the entire length of the route all the time. This is true in southern Orange County where several of the Orange County and Inland Empire/Orange County Lines trains terminate at the Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo Station. At much less cost than extending the train, existing stations at least as far as Oceanside can be connected by bus to trains from Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo. Extra frequency and additional stations are major factors in growing ridership.

This can also be done on the other Metrolink Lines with buses connecting to more Ventura County line stations to existing trains and well as on more of the Antelope Valley trains. At Riverside and San Bernardino buses could connect to serve the Victorville and Palm Springs areas. Bus connections at Norwalk and Van Nuys Stations could link with LA Metro stations in West Los Angeles and the area around LAX.

Much can be done on Metrolink to increase ridership during the weekends and holidays. Service now is rather limited on the weekends and almost nonexistent on most major holidays. The $10 dollar weekend day pass is very popular on Metrolink. What is needed to greatly increase ridership on weekend and holidays is to add more frequencies on the weekends on Metrolink. Travel demand on the weekends and holidays is different than during the work week and time of travel demand is different too. Every line on weekends and holidays should have rail service, with trains running in the morning, midday and evening. All these trains should have connections with each other for regional wide travel.

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The Metrolink Laguna Niguel/ Mission Viejo Station. This has a layover track for trains terminating here and gets it off the double track mainline. Photo by Noel T. Braymer

Just as important, there needs to be good connections by bus to major destinations. Weekend and holiday travel tends to be leisure related.What’s needed are better connections at the right times to entertainment venues and airports. Metrolink already does a good job of running special trains to match peak travel times for county fairs and sporting events. Major leisure destinations include beaches, Hollywood, Disneyland, Knott’s, Universal Studios and others Train times should reflect travelers needs. People going to Disneyland or the airports often head home much latter in the evening than people coming home from work.

Much of the information about connections and discounted fares should be easily available online. More promotional material can be produced, more on board announcements made and more information posted on signs and posters at station and on trains. But for one stop shopping for tickets and detailed information for connections to the many places to go to from stations: an interactive website is needed..

In the short term, Metrolink needs to get online ticketing, start with a few bus connections to existing lines, add bus connections to more destinations, improve connections between trains and promote the ones that exist. Weekend/holiday service should be reorganized and expanded soon and will have the most dramatic growth if they serve leisure travel. Longer term as planned track work is completed, more trains can be run during the day and should connect with each other and Surfliner and Coaster trains.

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