By Noel T. Braymer
Metrolink has a lot of problems. It took years to get into the mess it is in. It will take more than a year to fix all of their problems. Right now Metrolink ridership is dropping. The reasons are easy to see. Equipment breakdowns have been rising making service less reliable and more frustrating. Ticket machines are unreliable, there are not enough available at many stations and they are slow. Too often trains leave before passengers can buy their tickets after waiting in line. Connections to many destinations don’t exist. Trains often aren’t running at times or to places that people want to travel to.
A major problem is the lack of connections between Pacific Surfliner trains and Metrolink. I’m not talking about the Train 2 Train program which Metrolink and Coaster uses Surfliner trains as stand in commuter trains when their services are not running. I mean connections for the Surliners to Metrolink’s Antelope Valley, San Bernardino and Inland Empire/Orange County Lines. Among the problems facing Metrolink is the question of Ventura County staying in Metrolink. Each county member of the Board of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (Metrolink’s corporate name) pay Metrolink to be a part of it. Without a transportation sale taxes like most of the counties in Southern California, Ventura County may not in the near future be able to afford to continue to be a part of Metrolink. What will Ventura County leaving do to Metrolink and its service? Metrolink needs to expand service to Ventura County and extend direct and connecting services from Ventura County to the rest of Metrolink and the Pacific Surfliners to increase ridership and revenues.
Right now Metrolink is trying to increase ridership by discounting tickets on short distance trips. Since its trains have plenty of empty seats, that’s better than leaving them empty. But this ignores the basic fact of life in transportation. The money is always in long distance, not short distance travel. Airlines use subcontractors to fly small planes with their names on them to serve smaller towns that are short distances from major cities. Airlines don’t make money with flights from Santa Barbara to LAX. While some passengers are only going to Los Angeles, airlines make their money from passengers from Santa Barbara making connections to places like London, Tokyo, or New York. The railroads have generally turned over the operations of their branch lines to short line contractors to save money. But they keep the revenues of customers on branch lines with cars going long distances on their mainlines. Until Metrolink does more to improve connections between their own lines and with Pacific Surfliner trains as well as expanded bus connections; their revenues and ridership won’t grow. In a market of over 15 million people, being unable carry more than 50,000 passengers a day is pathetic.
There are glimmers of hope. Testing of a new on-line ticketing service for Metrolink is underway. This should speed up ticketing and could mean joint ticketing with Amtrak. This can’t come fast enough. LOSSAN is working on creating better connections for the Pacific Surfliners with Metrolink and local transit agencies in Southern California. Where Metrolink and Amtrak share stations, they could also share upgraded transit service connections as well. Improved bus connections to major destinations without rail service will open up new markets for both Metrolink and Surfliners. Metrolink has plenty of empty seats, particularly on its non-peak hours trains. Metrolink can improve their revenues by filling more of those seats. Again, in all transportation services the money is in longer distance services.That is why Metrolink already has a much better farebox recovery than transit buses: it travels greater distances and can charge passengers more. Discounting tickets on Metrolink’s longer distance destinations that are possible with transfers is the best source of increased revenues. Look how successful the Weekend day pass has been on Metrolink. You would want and can charge more than $10 dollars on work week trains for unlimited long distance travel on Metrolink.
The big advantage Metrolink has and hasn’t taken advantage of, is it is near or at many places in Southern California that don’t have service between them. As of now Metrolink doesn’t provide connections between many of the places that are possible. The airlines after deregulation in the late 70’s learned that the best way to increase ridership and revenues was to serve as many travel markets as possible using the least amount of equipment or employees as possible. The result of this was the hub and spoke system. All major airlines now have connecting hubs allowing flights to connect to as many places as possible. Almost every flight has connections to international flights and to short distance flights at the same airports. Metrolink is in a great position to use Los Angeles Union Station as its main hub to most of its other stations. Additional connections are also possible to other Metrolink lines, Surfliner and Coaster trains as well as bus connections to many destinations at all stations. This is now underused. Better organized, this would allow travel with Metrolink to connect to almost any place in Southern California. More markets, more passengers, more revenue, that how the airlines do it.