By Noel T. Braymer
Metrolink ridership has been in a slump for several years. Efforts are being made to boost ridership with discounted tickets. Metrolink though needs to increase revenues too, not just to get higher passenger totals. Are there any models to copy that Metrolink can use to increase ridership as well as revenues? Of course there are. And you can find them here in California, with local passenger trains such as the Pacific Surfliner, San Joaquin and Capitol Corridor. One of the problems that has held ridership back, is many of the people hired to manage Metrolink used traditional East Coast Commuter Rail service as their model for Metrolink. This model doesn’t apply to regions that have seen most of its growth after World War II. Even Back East travel patterns are not dominated with people going to work downtown. In Los Angeles the number of commuters to downtown is falling. Downtown Los Angeles is now becoming a hot spot for new housing: both for people who work downtown and people commuting from downtown.
So where to start? Let’s look first at the Surfliners. Going back to the 70’s the train then was called the San Diegan. Under the Santa Fe it was primarily a feeder to the Super Chief going between Los Angeles to Chicago. In 1975 Amtrak was running 3 daily round trips on the San Diegans between Los Angeles and San Diego. At this time the State of California started financially supporting the San Diegans. Amtrak at this time also replaced the old equipment handed down from the railroads with new more reliable F-40 Locomotives and Amfleet cars. Around 1976 the State of California through Caltrans supported the start up of a 4th round trip. By 1979 there were 6 round trips between Los Angeles and San Diego. Ridership grew by over 300 percent from around 300,000 passenger annually with 3 round trips to over a million annually with 6 round trips.
In 1987 after years of resistance from the Southern Pacific Railroad, California and Amtrak were finally able to extend one round trip of the 7 San Diegans from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. Overnight this became the train with both the highest ridership and passenger revenues. Today we have 5 Surfliner trains from Santa Barbara to San Diego and 4 from San Diego to Santa Barbara. Mixed in this is one train from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. One of the 4 daily trains to Santa Barbara is a round trip train between San Diego and San Luis Obispo. This single round trip has the highest ridership and produces the most revenue of the Pacific Surliner trains.This Thanksgiving Amtrak will run a second round trip between San Diego and San Luis Obispo with the equipment coming down the night before as an extra train in revenue service from Los Angeles. The train will depart San Diego at 4:40 AM. This will be repeated on Monday of the Thanksgiving Weekend. If this proves successful, this might be made a permanent service bringing the number of round trips between Los Angeles and San Diego up from 11 to 12, the number of round trips between San Diego and Santa Barbara from 4 to 5 and between San Diego and San Luis Obispo to 2. With the Coast Starlight will be a third round trip between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo, with connections to San Diego.
When the San Joaquin Trains first ran under Amtrak, it was as a single round trip. Ridership wasn’t great and around 1979 it was being considered for abandonment by Amtrak. The State of California stepped in, with Caltrans managing the service. What was done was a major overhaul of the schedule. Instead of one round trip, there were now 2. Trains left Bakersfield and Oakland in the morning and left again in the evening. Connecting bus service was also added to serve more markets. Today there are 4 round trips from Bakersfield to Oakland and 2 to Sacramento. Half of the passengers ride connecting buses on the San Joaquin trains to Southern California, San Francisco, Sacramento and other places. Many passengers also transfer to other buses to get their final destination. Sacramento is a major bus hub for San Joaquin passengers.
The Capitol Corridor started in late 1991 with 3 round trips between San Jose and Sacramento. Today the Capitol Corridor has 15 round trip trains during the week with 7 round trips between San Jose and Sacramento and 8 round trips between Oakland and Sacramento. One round trip northeast of Sacramento to and from Auburn to Oakland is part of the 8 round trips between Oakland and Sacramento. Since 1991 ridership on the Capitol Corridor has more than tripled. Also the Capitol Corridor is served with connecting bus service to San Francisco, Truckee, Eureka, South Lake Tahoe, Redding, Santa Cruz, Salinas and the many points in between. What is also notable about the Capitol Corridor is they have a policy of spending money to maintain the tracks the trains run on to a higher standard than needed for current speeds. The result of this is on-time performance is usually over 90%. This was done as running times and station dwell times were reduced allowing for faster service. Efforts are also made to insure that the cars and locomotives are in good mechanical shape and run trouble free.
So, what are the lessons from this for Metrolink? First run more frequent trains. Rail service is of no use if there isn’t service when a person wants or needs to travel. The more frequent the service, the more likely people will be able to travel by train. The second lesson is to extend routes. Longer routes means more stations which gives more places for more people to travel by train. Also this means more and longer trips. Since ticketing is generally based on distance, longer distance travel means more ticket revenue. The third lesson is connections: both between trains and with buses. Connecting bus service feeds a substantial number of riders and opens additional markets to the Surfliners, San Joaquins and Capitol Corridor. Buses are also used to serve the same stations as the trains providing additional service when it isn’t possible to run trains. For example there are buses that serve stations along the coast between San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles which transfers passengers to trains headed for San Diego. People can ride the bus part of the way on one leg and take the train the whole way on another leg, giving additional frequencies for traveler. These buses operate at a profit and are not subsidized. Fourth, reliable service and shorter running times are a major draw for attracting new ridership.
What is the most important lesson Metrolink, or any commuter rail service can learn from these California trains? That would be to stop thinking your only purpose is to carry passengers to and from work. That is only one market of many. People travel for many reasons. Many people travel for fun. Running trains without connections to more markets or concentrating your service only during rush hours limits the number of travel markets you serve. If we look at the busiest month for travel on the Surfliners, it is in August. Why? In part it is because more people are on vacation in August than most months and more likely to be traveling. August is also during the Racing Season at Del Mar Race Track, and since 1937 people have been riding the train to the races. If we look at the busiest travel times for Amtrak in general, it is during holidays. Metrolink and most commuter railroads normally run limited or no service on holidays and weekends. Thanksgiving is the busiest travel week by cars, planes and Amtrak trains. But there is usually no service on Metrolink.