By Noel T, Braymer
The interview in the June 30th Los Angeles Times by reporter Dan Weikel with Art Leahy gave some hints of what the future plans for Metrolink are. What was missing in the interview was background information about what was discussed. Leahy in the interview makes it clear that his priorities are dealing with the problems with the ticket machines, on-line ticketing, and new replacement locomotives. Other topics which were brought up were efforts to increase ridership, Wi-Fi on the trains, Metrolink’s relationship with its member Counties and future expansion plans.
The advantage Art Leahy has at Metrolink over his predecessors is that he has been a part of the transportation scene for many years in Southern California. In the past most of the CEO’s of Metrolink had been “commuter rail” experts brought in often from the East Coast. They generally didn’t have working relationships with many of the political leaders in the region. There has been a timid culture at Metrolink with “unwritten rules” to avoid other agencies “turf”, instead of reaching out to other agencies to improve passenger service with cooperation.between agencies.
Leahy in the interview makes clear that Metrolink expects to save money by having on-line ticketing. He also hinted that new locomotives are needed because of increasing numbers of breakdowns from the existing, aging fleet. One thing that wasn’t brought up was that new locomotives are needed to haul longer trains. The Rotem cars bought in response to the deadly 2008 Chatsworth crash are heavier than the Bombardier cars they are meant to replace. This is one reason the older cars are mixed with the newer cars on Metrolink. The existing locomotives don’t have enough power for a longer consist with heavier all Rotem cars. The new locomotives will need to have more horsepower.
What was tantalizing was talk by Leahy of possible future expansions of Metrolink to San Diego, Redlands and the Palm Springs area. There have been plans for years to extend some of the Metrolink trains between Oceanside and Los Angeles to San Diego. With the completion soon of more double track in San Diego County, it will soon be possible to run more trains in the county. Extended Metrolink trains to San Diego would be combined with extended service by the Coaster trains from Oceanside to Fullerton. There is a large untapped commuter market south of Oceanside for travel to Orange County, particularly around Irvine..
It was interesting that Leahy made a point that Metrolink has a low subsidy per passenger, a high farebox recovery and generates a large number of passenger miles compared to transit in the region. Passenger miles are a good indicator of revenue. Service extensions will increase passenger miles and revenue for Metrolink. San Diego is a major market which can attract new riders to Metrolink. The problems to doing this are the bottlenecks on the heavily traveled BNSF Mainline between Los Angeles and Fullerton as well as the single tracked bottlenecks between San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente. Extending more trains on either or both bottlenecks will be difficult until more triple and double tracking is built. New service from the Inland Empire to San Diego would likely do well, but track capacity for such service is a problem in southern Orange County.
Metrolink service to Palm Springs will be years in the future. What would increase revenue and passenger miles now are better connections between Metrolink trains to serve more places with more distance trips. By 2020 with LAUS run through tracks. lines could be combined for direct service without transfers. Leahy talked about his plan to lower fares between stations to $2.00 to get more short distance passengers going only between 2 stations.This will be a period of experimentation at Metrolink for now to see what works and what doesn’t. When asked about the crossing at the recent crash in February in Oxnard, Leahy doubted that Ventura County would have the money to grade separate that crossing. He thought adding sensors at the crossing to stop trains if the crossing was blocked was more likely.
The interview ended with this quote from Art Leahy. ” In the 1980s people would say, ‘We don’t need rail here.’ They don’t say that anymore.”