By Noel T. Braymer
Besides the Coast Starlight, there are 2 other daily trains between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo. Both of these Pacific Surfliners travel from San Luis Obispo to San Diego. But the early morning train to San Luis Obispo doesn’t depart from San Diego. It departs from Los Angeles unlike the other train that does start in San Diego and ridership for this train northbound has been poor. But southbound to San Diego is another story for this train that starts in Los Angeles.This Thanksgiving Week the LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency and Amtrak will run additional service using existing equipment for 2 additional trains from San Diego to San Luis Obispo and 2 additional trains between Los Angeles and San Diego which also places the trains in San Diego for the early morning departure to Los Angeles and San Luis Opbispo. If this new service is successful, this could become a permanent service on the Surfliners. This would be the first service expansion on the Surfliner trains in years.
For about the last 20 years there has been little or no service expansion on the Coast Line.The goal for rail passenger service on the Coast Line for the future now is to extend service north of San Luis Obispo to San Jose. For years the plan was to extend service to San Francisco. But with expanded Caltrain service coming soon and plans to share Caltrain trains with future California High Speed Rail service, there won’t be track capacity for Surfliner trains north of San Jose on the Caltrain tracks. Connecting Coast Line trains to San Diego has produced major growth in ridership so it makes sense for future trains to start in San Diego. San Jose will be a good hub destination with connections to Caltrain, the Capitol Corridor , ACE, and in the near future with BART and California High Speed Rail.
The long term goal for the Coast Line should be for 2 round trip day trains between San Diego and San Jose, the Coast Starlight with connections to San Diego and overnight service from San Diego to at least San Jose. This will give 4 daily trains in this densely populated and traveled corridor. So why has passenger service been so difficult to expand in almost 20 years. In the 1990’s Southern Pacific was in such economic straits that it offered to sell the entire Coast Line to the State of California, which the state turned down claiming it couldn’t afford it. In 1996 the SP merged with the UP. Since then, the UP has made it very clear that they are not interested in allowing any additional rail passenger service on any of its rail lines. It allows rail passenger service it is legally obligated to run. Much of this is from service the SP agreed to during its fire sale days shortly before the merger with UP.
Not only has the UP not wanted more passenger service on the Coast Line,it had other plans for it. The plan was to run Oil Trains with either Shale Oil or Tar Sands to serve the oil refineries up and down the California Coast. These refineries, most near or over 100 years old were built to refine California Oil when California was a major Oil producer. With the depletion of California Oil, these refineries have been looking for new sources of Oil to refine and sell. The UP was counting on the Shale Oil boom to be a growing market to run Oil Trains to the refineries along the Coast on the Coast Line. Operating expanded Oil Train service and upgrading the Coast Line to also expand rail passenger service was something the UP wanted to avoid. But with the crash of high Oil prices from the current Oil glut, the Shale Oil Boom is over and Oil Train traffic is drying up. It makes more sense for California refineries to buy imported oil carried overseas by Oil Tankers than more expensive domestic by rail. California refineries have been refining oil from Alaska for years bought by sea.
This is a good time to talk to the UP about fixing up the tracks and adding more passenger trains on the Coast Line. First thing on the list should be to extend San Diego-San Luis Obispo trains to San Jose. Most of the population of California lives near or along the coast. This will require more equipment as well. But ridership will do well with decent service. Also longer train distance produce more revenue than carrying lots of passengers short distances. Maintenance facilities will be needed either in San Jose or San Diego for an extended Coast Rail service.
Longer term, in addition to the 2 San Jose-San Diego round trip trains (more may be needed later) and the Coast Starlight with connections to San Diego, a third San Jose-San Diego train is needed as an overnight train on the Coast. This should be operated as a connecting service to the California Zephry. This could be done with the Surfliner train extended to Emeryville at the current Zephry terminal, or extending the Zephyr to San Jose. Extending the Surfliner to Emeryville will result in better connections to the East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Coordination with all these extended Surfliners with local services in the Bay Area is important. This is particularly true with good connections to Capitol Corridor. Currently there are plans to extend the Capitol Corridor to Salinas. This will likely happen before the Surliners are extended from San Luis Obispo.to San Jose.