By Noel T. Braymer
It’s all about getting where we need to go, when we need to go. If the train can’t do that, people won’t take the train because they can’t. Recently LA Streetsblog.org posted an analysis of why ridership on LA Metro’s trains and buses has been declining over the last few years. The general assumption was that the reason less people were taking LA Metro was due to the declining cost of gasoline. But what was shown on LA Streetsblog at the same time gas prices where going down in the last few years, fares had been increased and there hadn’t been an expansion of LA Metrorail since 2012. On top of this, to save money some LA Metrobus service had been cut back.These, as well as declining gasoline prices had all been factors in declining LA Metro ridership.It might be noted that in the last 2 years ridership in San Diego for its MTS buses and light rail increased as service was improved. A great way to improve rail service is to add connections to more places.
But too often we have poor or no connections on existing services either between the same service or with other services. Much of this can change by 2020 in Southern California. By 2020 the Southern California Regional Interconnector Project (SCRIP) will be finished. Or as people have been calling it for years the run-through tracks at Los Angeles Union Station. With SCRIP it will be much faster and easier to extend the Surfliners to Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and hopefully in the not to distant future to San Jose. Instead of layovers at Union Station for 20 or more minutes, the dwell time can be reduced to 5 minutes with SCRIP. For Metrolink, this could and should mean combining train lines. This could mean combing the San Bernardino Line with the Ventura County Line with more trains running (after double tracking is finished) to Chatsworth. All trains from Ventura County could run to San Bernardino. This would also mean the Antelope Valley Line could be extended on the Orange County Line. At Union Station these services should be scheduled so passengers can connect to all these lines in all directions. If this is done it will dramatically increase ridership on Metrolink. What will also increase ridership is regular service most of the day and week without the large service gaps for most lines between rush hours.
There are major connections on Metrolink missing where there isn’t track capacity now to add more trains. This includes rail congestion problems for now between Fullerton and Los Angeles, between southern Orange County and San Diego County and west of Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley to Ventura County. Metrolink stations between these places can be served by connecting existing trains with new bus service that don’t exist now because of track congestion. This is a cheap way of increasing service frequency which grows ridership. Other bus connections would work on Metrolink to connect it to the densely populated and traveled LAX, West Los Angeles and Westwood areas of Los Angeles County.
High Speed Rail will have good connections with Metrolink and Surfliner trains by 2022 at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. This is due to SCRIP and plans to extend these trains to Bob Hope Airport to connect with High Speed Rail. Connections will get even better by 2024 with plans now to extend High Speed Rail to Los Angeles Union Station 5 years sooner than originally planned. But for much of California, connections to High Speed Rail as of now will be rather skimpy.There are no joint stations now planned with San Joaquin Trains to High Speed Rail in the San Joaquin Valley. The San Joaquin Trains run on the BNSF Railroad in the San Joaquin Valley, The planning now for the High Speed Rail Stations in the San Joaquin Valley have none of them near the San Joaquin Train Stations. This despite much of the High Speed Right of Way being near or shared with the BNSF. This will make it difficult for passengers to transfer between these trains without connecting buses between stations at Bakersfield and Merced.
There are also no plans to expand either rail or bus service between Merced and Sacramento to connect with High Speed Rail. There are long range plans to extend High Speed Rail to Sacramento sometime after 2030. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t demand for service than can’t be served now. There are plans by 2022 for the start up of High Speed Rail to extend 6 round trip Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) trains from San Jose to Merced. Four of these trains will be on the BNSF in Merced at the Amtrak Station which isn’t easy walking distance to the planned Merced High Speed Rail Station. The other 2 trains will be on the UP, but it is not known if the trains will stop at or near the High Speed Rail Station. This makes 6 round trip trains to connect with 32 round trip High Speed Trains planned in 2022 at Merced which will increase to 64 round trips by 2029. This won’t go far enough to put people in the many seats on the High Speed Trains.
What could be done is to build joint San Joaquin/ High Speed Rail transfer stations in the San Joaquin Valley. In the area around Madera a station along the BNSF could be built for transfers between San Joaquin, ACE and High Speed Trains. Only the High Speed Trains with a transfer with ACE or the San Joaquin Trains would need to stop at this station. Another transfer station north of Bakersfield could be built for transfers between High Speed Rail and the San Joaquin. These transfer stations will increase ridership for ACE, San Joaquins and High Speed Rail trains.This will also provide rail service for more of the San Joaquin Valley to more of California. Also needed are more ACE and San Joaquin Trains. ACE can provide better connections for passenger to the area around Fremont and more direct service to the East Bay sooner than waiting for High Speed Rail to connect to the Bay Area. We shouldn’t have to wait until after 2030 for faster connections to Sacramento. More San Joaquin Trains are needed now. We need more than the 2 round trips that we have now to Sacramento on the San Joaquins.
The goal now for the Surfliners is to extend some trains to San Jose. The plan for years was to run “Coast Daylight” service from Los Angeles to San Francisco. With High Speed Rail sharing tracks with Caltrain between San Jose and San Francisco it is doubtful this will be an option now. Also the experience with the Surfliners is ridership on the trains between San Diego and San Luis Obispo is a major travel market. After all the combined population of Orange and San Diego Counties is almost equal to the population of the combined San Francisco and San Jose areas. At San Jose, the Surfliners would have connections to High Speed Rail, Caltrain, BART, ACE and the Capitol Corridor trains. With improvements of all of these services and better connections to each, we can see much greater ridership on all of them and service to more places in California. This includes service and expansion of service to the existing bus connections to Amtrak Trains in California with these other services.
What are the prospects for service on the Surfliners to San Jose? The process to extend rail passenger service north of San Luis Obispo has been ongoing for at least the last 20 years with no signs of progress. The main problem is the owner of the tracks, the Union Pacific (UP) has no interest is letting more passengers trains on their tracks. The UP certainly won’t allow more passenger trains on their tracks unless they see major track improvements paid for by the government and not them. The UP for some time has been planning to use the Coast Line between Los Angeles and Richmond as a major carrier of oil from shale oil and tar sands to California oil refineries along the coast of California. Besides growing opposition by communities along the coast to oil trains, there is a major drop of oil train traffic on all the railroads as the price of oil has collapsed and made unconventional oil moved by rail uneconomical. With the right financial incentives, it would be in the UP’s best interest now to allow more passenger service at a time they are seeing their freight traffic dropping, particularly from reduced oil and coal traffic.