By Noel T. Braymer
Rail Passenger Service isn’t the same as transit. Transit provides transportation in this country mostly to people who have few travel options. It is often viewed as a form of welfare needing subsidy. The result is every attempt is made to save money by limiting service to running mostly during the day when ridership is heaviest for commuting with the least amount of service possible. Service is slow and connections are needed for long trips which are very time consuming. On many American transit services, lines in urban areas with the most demand are often very crowded. But in an attempt to serve everywhere, many bus lines in suburban areas are often lightly patronized and need major subsidy. Most transit trips are charged by the trip, not by the mile. So people often pay the same for a mile trip as for a ten mile trip. This saves money and simplifies ticketing for transit with mostly short trips. For this reason the total passenger counts are more important for transit than passenger miles.
A major difference with rail passengers compared to transit is rail passengers are usually discretionary travelers. Rail passengers have choices how they want to travel and are often traveling not because they need to go someplace, but because they want to. Such travel is often not during “rush hour” or during the work week. The destinations for rail travelers are also not always the same as for transit. Experience has shown that the 3 major factors which increases rail ridership are good on-time performance, service frequency and connections to more destinations. These 3 elements are major factors for the ridership growth of the Pacific Surfliner trains on the LOSSAN Corridor. Starting in the 1970’s with just 3 trains a day between San Diego and Los Angeles, there are now 11 daily trains from San Diego to Los Angeles, with 5 of those trains extended to Santa Barbara with one round trip to San Luis Obispo. There is also Los Angeles service to San Luis Obispo which southbound goes on to San Diego. The Surfliners also provide connections to the Coast Starlight to Seattle as well as the Southwest Chief to Chicago and Sunset to New Orleans. By extending service and having connections, many more markets are served. These many destinations and added frequencies make riding the Surfliners more convenient.
There are many good transit connections at the Surfliner station stops which are often also transit centers. What is often missing for the Surfliners are good connections to local Metrolink or Coaster trains despite sharing stations. What connections exist are more by accident than by design. Service on Metrolink and Coaster trains is often spotty with long time gaps between trains outside of rush hour service. The Coaster has tried to bridge some of these gaps by paying Amtrak to accept Coaster tickets and to stop at all Coaster stations on some Surfliner trains in San Diego County. On Metrolink there is limited weekend service, even though it is the only rail passenger service for much of Riverside, San Bernardino and major parts of Los Angeles Counties. Often there is limited or no holiday service on either Metrolink or Coaster.
On Amtrak in California, their busiest travel days are Fridays and Sundays. This is because many people like to take weekend getaways to visit people or places like San Diego or Santa Barbara. Amtrak to its credit often adds additional cars and even more trains during holidays. Thanksgiving is the busiest travel weekend in America, and Amtrak does all it can to increase ridership and revenues during this holiday. In 2015 Amtrak and LOSSAN worked together to add a 12th train during the Thanksgiving between San Diego and Los Angeles at the same time as running a second round trip between San Diego and San Luis Obispo. This was done with existing equipment by turning the equipment around faster in Los Angeles and running this new service in the evening and early mornings. The plan is to make this a permanent service, but that will have to wait until more third tracking is available on the BNSF mainline between Fullerton and Los Angeles.
Something else Amtrak is doing soon, will be to run more trains during the weekend of Com-Con in July to San Diego from Los Angeles. Traffic is always heavy during Comic-Con in San Diego. San Diego’s transit agency MTS to its credit runs additional service during Com-Con and has stations for its Trolley Green Line both at the main venue at the San Diego Convention Center and at the Santa Fe Depot which is the terminus for the Surfliners. The MTS does very well financially due to serving Comic-Con and helping convention goers get around San Diego during this busy time.
As of now Metrolink and Coaster have limited weekend service and sometimes no service on holidays with heavy holiday traffic. Both Metrolink and Coaster could work together to add more “Beach Trains” during the summer. Metrolink is the only rail passenger service for most of Riverside, San Bernardino and large parts of Los Angeles Counties. Together Metrolink and Coaster could bring Beach Train service from the San Gabriel, San Fernando and Antelope Valleys to the beaches of southern Orange and all of San Diego Counties. Additional bus connections can create Metrolink train service to major theme parks such as Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm and Universal Studios. Improved bus connections can also bring improved service to regional airports.
Added weekend and holiday service won’t replace the core travel market for Metrolink and Coaster. But this will add new markets and use often idle equipment during the day and weekends. This will introduce more people to rail service and can be part of the fun of travel. It will also bring in more money. Any transportation service that charges by distance make more money the greater the distance people travel. For Metrolink in particular, this means having more people making connections, not terminating at Los Angeles. The Surfliner trains that bring in the most revenues are the ones that travel north of Los Angeles. One interesting fact I recently learned was the most profitable airlines are the low fare airlines. This is because they are the most efficient. Being no frills reduces their costs and simplifies their operation. They usually standardize on one airplane model. When they order airplanes, they place big orders to get major discount prices when buying planes. Having the newest planes in the industry means their operating costs are lower than traditional airlines. But central to their efficiency is they keep their planes flying full of paying passengers and not on the ground. Learning from the low fare airlines will help improve the image and finances of rail passenger service in this country.