By Noel T. Braymer
LOSSAN is the rail corridor between San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. The LOSSAN Joint Powers Authority is responsible for oversight of the Pacific Surfliner trains and coordinating rail passenger services for most of Southern and mid Coastal California. The July 18, 2016 LOSSAN JPA Board Meeting agenda had a report on ridership of the passenger trains running on the LOSSAN corridor for the 3rd quarter of LOSSAN’s Fiscal 2015-2016 year. For this latest quarter, ridership for the Surfliners was up 3.8% over last year’s 3rd quarter with revenues up 5.1 %. Ridership in general was down on the LOSSAN Corridor. On Metrolink’s Ventura County and Orange County Lines, both saw ridership drops of just over 14% compared to last year’s 3rd quarter. Coaster train ridership was down 5% this last quarter from last year’s 3rd quarter. Much of the ridership downturn for the Coaster was credited to 3 weekends during this last quarter when all rail service was shut down for track and new bridge construction in most of San Diego County. This didn’t effect Metrolink’s Orange County Line service but did impact Surfliner ridership. So without this track work it is likely that Surfliner ridership would have been even higher.
What explains the major ridership loss for Metrolink? Metrolink has many problems that have been ignored for several years which now there are major efforts to fix. Problems with the ticketing machines causing people to miss their trains, driving passengers away and reducing repeat business. There have been problems getting the new Positive Train Control (PTC) signaling system to work at times which have caused delays in service. Aging and under maintained Metrolink locomotives have been unreliable. There was a suggestion that the lower price of gasoline was a factor in lower ridership. However lower gas prices didn’t cause the Surfliners to lose ridership. What has been happening is commuting to downtown Los Angeles which is the main market for Metrolink is a shrinking market. Government jobs downtown in particular have been declining. Also we are seeing a major housing boom in downtown Los Angelels, so many people working downtown are moving to downtown Los Angeles instead of commuting.
What Metrolink should do is learn from the Surfliners how to attract riders and increase ridership and revenues. Metrolink today is primarily a commuter railroad for people working in downtown Los Angeles. Much of its service runs into downtown Los Angeles in the morning and leaves in the late afternoon. A major difference between Metrolink and the Surfliners is the level of frequency of service and the average distance of trips. The Surfliners run 7 days a week and on holidays with 11 round trips between San Diego and Los Angeles. Four of those trains from San Diego are extended to Santa Barbara, with one round trip extended to San Luis Obispo. There is also one train which leaves Los Angeles for San Luis Obispo and on the return trip terminates at San Diego. The Surfliners heaviest travel is on weekends and holidays. Its most crowded train is the 784 southbound departing Los Angeles at 5:10 PM. This trains starts at Santa Babara and is often at 140 percent of capacity. Often one third of the riders are Metrolink Passholders which Amtrak honors their tickets under the Rail 2 Rail program. The trains between San Luis Obispo and San Diego are the most productive trains of the Surfliners. This is because the ticket revenue is better because ticket prices are higher for longer trips. Also longer routes serve more stations which create more market pairs for people to ride. Express trains usually don’t do well, because by skipping stations, they lose markets.
By comparison, Metrolink routes often has no service on holidays and limited service on weekends. There are large gaps during most of the mid-day and limited service at night on Metrolink. In theory a person could travel most of Southern California by Metrolink, but this is often impossible due to limited service to many locations and limited or no connections between Metrolink routes or to the Surfliners to travel around the Metrolink service area. Ideally many of the routes on Metrolink could be extended through Union Station at Los Angeles like the Surfliners between San Diego and San Luis Obispo. This won’t be practical for another 4 to 5 years when run-though tracks are planned to be completed. For now at least 20 minutes is needed to bring Surfliner trains into Union Station, then reverse direction to provide through service north and south of Los Angeles.
What can be done in the short term is timed connections for passengers between different Metrolink routes and connections to Surfliner trains. This should include shared platforms of connecting trains and adjacent platforms when more than 2 trains are connecting. Such connections are possible between the San Bernardino Line to Ventura County and Antelope Valley lines and Surfliner trains . Orange County line trains should have good connections to Antelope Valley trains and the San Bernardino Line. There are now 8 round trips between Orange County and the Inland Empire. With connections to the Surfliner trains, most of the Inland Empire/Orange County trains could have service to San Diego and most of the stations south of Irvine. Expanded Weekend service is needed with all Metrolink lines connecting with each other and Surfliner trains at Los Angeles Union Station. Better connections are needed on Metrolink 7 days a week to the beaches, airports, major theme parks as well as towns which are popular destinations such as San Diego from the Inland Empire.
LOSSAN is busy with improvements to the Surfliner service. There are plans to run a 12th round trip between San Diego and Los Angeles by October of this year. This would also create a second round trip between San Diego and San Luis Obispo. This will be done with existing equipment and getting more productive use of equipment. This will be done by adding an evening departure from Los Angeles to San Diego. This will be turned around as an early morning departure from San Diego for an early arrival into Los Angeles at the start of the business day. It will be run to San Luis Obispo replacing the existing Los Angeles morning departure. This schedule has already been tested as 2 extra round trip trains run last Thanksgiving weekend. LOSSAN is also planning to adjust existing schedules between Ventura and Santa Barbara for commuter service for Santa Barbara. LOSSAN is also working on running special trains over three weekends next year to serve the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival next April. Similar efforts by Metrolink would greatly improve its ridership, revenues and public image. Maybe more trains for the Rose Parade with connections to the Gold Line?