By Noel T. Braymer
A recent article in the International Railway Journal as part of a report of the “ERA Moving Towards the Single European Rail Area conference at Luxembourg”, wrote about Leo Express. Leo Express is a private, for profit rail passenger service based in the Czech Republic, which in Europe is able to lease time to use existing railroads so it doesn’t own trackage. “We operate our trains for 16 hours per day and average 500,000 km (310,000 miles) per train per year. We have zero reserve of trains, but we only cancel one service in 6000 on average,” said the President of Leo Express Leos Novotny. This means Leo Express trains average almost 850 miles a day, 365 days a year.That would be about 70 miles per hour average speed, in the course of running 12 hours a day.
Where else has this worked? Going back to the beginning of Southwest Airlines in the early 1970’s, it was a local Texas airline serving major Texas cities with low fares. It was also losing money. According to one story Southwest was considering laying off some employees and cutting back service to save money. According to this version the employees said Southwest should keep the existing level of service, but sell one of the 4 planes in the Southwest Fleet instead of laying people off. The question then was how to run the same number of flights with only 3 airplanes? The answer according to this version of the story was to turn the planes around in 10 minutes on the ground and get the same number of flights with 3 planes as they had with 4. Southwest did sell one of its 4 planes which gave it needed cash and turned around the planes between flights in 10 minutes and the airline started to make money.
It’s no secret that revenues go up with improved productivity and costs go down per passenger carried. In any transportation service, the planes, trains, buses or boats used are major capital expenses. The more time they are in revenue service, the more passengers they carry and the more productive the service, the greater the chance of making money. Most private transportation services use Yield Management Ticketing. What that means is they set the price of ticketing based not on mileage, but on demand for travel to places, time of day and time of year. That’s why it is often be cheaper to fly in winter than in August. This is also critical for many services that want to fill up seats when times are slow and get the most revenue when travel demand demand is high. Yield Management is used today by most passenger railroads today, except in the United States. But it was invented here by the airlines.
So is rail passenger service run with maximum productivity in this country?: of course not. Most of the surviving rail passenger service in this country since the 1960’s have been commuter services. The emphasis with commuter rail service is on carrying the most people during rush hours to “relieved traffic congestion”. Today they are all government funded services, often with limited service areas. As with most bureaucracies, they are often parochial and focused on their own issues while ignoring the needs and opportunities of serving the larger region. A good example of this is around the New York City Metropolitan Area with Metro-North, the Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit all operating independent services focused largely for travel to Manhattan. But there is little in the way of coordination between these 3 services, let alone cooperation. So for seamless rail passenger service between New Jersey and Long Island, or Long Island and Connecticut or Connecticut and New Jersey the answer is FORGETABOUTIT.
But things are not much better in California. BART and Caltrain are largely independent entities. There has been much written about the San Francisco Bay Area’s fragmented and disjointed public transportation services which are spread out among many small counties. But things are not much better in Southern California. With the help of “experts” from Back East, Metrolink has been operated not as a Regional Rail Passenger Service, which was its intent, but as a series of commuter services which terminated mostly in downtown Los Angeles. This mentality is reflected in the decision to first build a central maintenance facility near Los Angeles Union Station. This meant that Metrolink’s equipment spent most of its time at the end points at night in storage where little maintenance on the equipment could be done at night. During the day trainsets are dragged out to the main yard for servicing and storage to wait for the evening rush hour. No airline trying to make money would do this.Things are little better now with maintenance yards in Colton and Camp Pendleton. But still much time is wasted storing equipment around downtown Los Angeles.
Airlines do most of their routine maintenance at night when travel demand is low. They want to maximize use of their capital when they are busy. They don’t want expensive planes sitting idle when there is demand for air travel. Airports are busy well before 6 AM and after 9 PM. Going back to the decline of passenger railroading to at least the 1940’s was the habit of deferring maintenance for both track and train equipment to “save money”. Metrolink and other commuter railroads often try to deal with budget shortfalls by cutting back on maintenance, service and raising fares. This is the perfect formula for failure. Metrolink has been seeing ridership fall for the last few years as service has declined. There is a growing problem with locomotive failures due to deferred maintenance causing other trains to be late. Deferring maintenance on trains, ticket machines, stations, while cutting back service and raising fares is not a solution, it is the start of a death spiral.
Ideally rail passenger service should be run 7 days a week, frequently most of the day from the morning through the night. It should have connections to as many places as possible. In California there are obstacles to doing this. The main obstacle are track bottlenecks due to lack of enough double tracking. An example of this is the Coaster service in San Diego County. It has enough equipment to run trains roughly every half hour every day. But 3 sets of equipment sits idle most of the day near downtown San Diego. The reason for this is single tracking. When San Diego has enough double tracking, the plan is for Coaster trains to be run every half hour in both directions. This is still a few years away. It will be a few more years before we have full triple tracking between Los Angeles and Fullerton on the busy BNSF Mainline. Until that happens it is difficult to run more passenger trains on that busy rail line.
But there are things that can be done in the short run to increase service and ridership. A good place to start would be with weekend and holiday service. Since there is limited Metrolink service outside the normal work week, it is easier to change schedules and experiment with weekend and holiday service. First thing that should be done is add more service and connect all services to each other. The point is to run equipment and crews to get the maximum service during the day for the best productivity. As much as possible all trains should have connections to each other. Ideally on weekends the major Metrolink routes should have between 4 to 8 round trips a day spread out to run in the morning, mid-day, late afternoon and night. This will make regional travel possible and much more convenient than it is now.
Starting in Oceanside we could have weekend Metrolink trains connect with weekend Coaster Trains. At Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo we could have connections between Orange County Line trains with Inland Empire-Orange County Line trains. Passengers from the south could transfer to either line. If a person from Oceanside wants to go to the Inland Empire they could transfer there from an Orange County Line train. For a person on an Inland Empire train they could transfer to the Orange County Line it that’s were they want to go. This is like doubling service using half the number of trains south of Laguna Niguel/Mission Viego. At Fullerton transfers to and from the 91 Line, soon to be extended to Perris is possible on Orange County Line trains. At Los Angeles Union Station there should be timed connections between the Ventura, Antelope Valley, Orange County, San Bernardino and 91 Lines. As much as possible these should be cross-platform connections or no more than one platform apart. Improved timed connections between Metrolink trains and Surfliner trains are also needed at Union Station. At Burbank there should be timed connections between the trains of the Antelope Valley and Venture County Lines.
Wont’ this be difficult to do? Well the Swiss have been doing this for years and their trains have to run on time to make it work.They also have some of the highest rail passenger ridership per capita of any nation in the world. Their trains also have many more timed connections to not just their trains, but to bus service, airports, ferries, private cog railroads and aerial tramways. Think the Swiss don’t have single track railroads? They do, but they are able to run more trains on single track than some of our trains run on double track . They can do it because their trains have to run on time. If a train misses its time slot, it has to wait. They don’t screw up the entire system for one train. So isn’t this scheduling rather complicated. The Swiss spent something like ten years and gave up after scheduling one hour of operation. After that they run all their trains at the same time of the hour for every hour. The nice thing about this is people are able to remember when their trains will run without a timetable for every hour of the day. Before we can get to that point we need to finally do what should have been done over 20 years ago and connect all of the Metrolink services and run service most of the day and night. We can start on the weekends when the most trains are sitting idle and losing money.