By Noel T. Braymer
While we wait for High Speed Rail service to get to Southern California, there is much we can do to create faster service to more places in Southern California. An additional $2 Billion dollars will be available from the California High Speed Rail Authority to upgrade tracks in the near future between Anaheim and Burbank. The secret to increasing ridership isn’t the speed the trains travel. It is the travel time getting from where you are to where you want to go. In too many cases you can spend as much or more time waiting than traveling by train. To often you can’t get to where you want to go or at the time you want to go or at the time you want to get to where you are going by train in Southern California. The way to fix this is with good connections between all the rail services, more frequent service, connecting bus service and faster trains.
A major turning point is coming in Southern California with the construction of the Southern California Regional Interconnector Project (SCRIP) which are the new run-through tracks at Los Angeles Union Station coming in about the next 4 years. SCRIP will make two important things possible. First, we can have more direct service to more places because more trains will be able to continue past LAUS instead of terminating there and reducing the need to transfer between trains. Second, at the same time making transfers between the newly extended lines will be easier to coordinate. Take for example the 4 busiest lines on Metrolink. These would be the Orange County, Antelope Valley, San Bernardino and Ventura County Lines. Combining Orange County and Antelope Valley Lines and the San Bernardino and Ventura County Lines into 2 mega lines makes sense. Having these two mega lines meeting each other at the same platform at LAUS would make transfers between lines much faster and easier. This will greatly increase ridership on all existing 4 lines and improve travel to more of the region. Extension of other Metrolink service such as the 91 and Riverside lines to Bob Hope Airport are also possibilities.
Another service needed in Southern California is a combination of express and local trains. This is done in many places around the world in one way or other. The express trains would be Pacific Surfliners that go north of Los Angeles to Santa Barbara or San Luis Obisbo. The simplest way to save time on trains is to skip stations. But you don’t want to bypass passengers at those skipped stations. The way this can be done is with sweep trains. This can be done by coordinating Metrolink and Coaster trains to connect with express Surfliners.
Outbound the Metrolink and Coaster trains would leave ahead of the Surfliner making all stops and picking up transferring passengers. At a station where the Surfliner catches up with a sweep train, passengers can transfer to the express Surfliner, which will pass the sweep train when leaving the station. Inbound the express Surfliner would stop at a transfer station with a waiting sweep train for passengers to transfer to get to their local station after the Surfliner passes the sweep train. In order to do this will require more track work, much of which is already planned. Sweep train service would be needed in San Diego, Orange and Ventura Counties as well as the San Fernando Valley. Also needed will be a high level of track and trainset maintenance to insure a high level of on-time performance to make dependable transfers possible. More can also be done at Los Angeles Union Station to improve connections from Metrolink’s other lines to Surfliner trains.
Efficient transfers brings up the issue of joint ticketing. We need universal ticketing between Amtrak-Metrolink-Coaster-LA Metro-San Diego Trolley and many other agencies. For some time airline tickets have been sold that are basically bar codes. Airline passengers often print their “tickets” at home or leave it as a file on their smart phone. We now see the same thing for the past couple of years on Amtrak and Coaster trains. Metrolink will finally be catching up on on-line ticketing with Amtrak and Coaster next year. Metrolink is also paying to add bar code readers for the turnstiles at LA Metro train station to use future bar code Metrolink tickets to transfer to LA Metro trains. Joint tickets are planned in the near future between Surfliner trains and local transit. What is needed is a computerized system to sell tickets between all trains and transit services. Passengers should be able to buy and download a bar code to travel on as many services as they need before they leave on their trip. Such services have been available for years for airline passengers where they can reserve flights on several airlines, reserve a rental car and a hotel room all on the same website.
Of course trains can’t go everywhere and every time people need or want to travel. What is needed to increase convenience and shorten trip travel times is a system of connecting buses. This is already done quite successfully with bus connections to the Amtrak trains supported by the State of California. These connecting buses are self-supporting: they don’t need a subsidy. Using these connecting buses adds additional frequencies north of Los Angeles for Surfliners that end at Los Angeles for passengers going north. Adding dedicated bus service to Metrolink adds frequencies or new destinations which are not now available will increase ridership. Bus connections could be used to add frequencies to many existing routes when there isn’t track capacity or equipment. It can also expand service on Metrolink to LAX, West Los Angeles, Palm Springs and other places in Southern California not accessible by Metrolink.
What can these steps do with extending train routes, improved timed connections between trains, combined local and express train service, seamless ticketing between trains and transit as well as expanded bus connections? These steps will allow people to travel by train faster, more often to more places more easily than they can today. These steps will increase ridership on all services as well as public support for more rail passenger service.