By Noel T. Braymer
This summer LA Metro extended service for both the Gold and Expo Light Rail Lines from Pasadena to Azusa and from Culver City to Santa Monica. The result was ridership jumped on both lines and these trains are often crowded. Efforts are underway to get more equipment in service sooner to add cars to these trains and to run more frequent service. Earlier this year there were stories in the newspapers that LA Metro ridership was down from previous record highs from a few years ago. What these news stories failed to report was the declining ridership numbers followed reductions in service in an attempt to save money. It’s hard to ride a train or bus if it isn’t there to go where you want to go. It has been observed for years that usually when service is improved either with faster service, service extensions to more places, better connections with other trains or buses to more places or just more frequent service: ridership and revenues usually goes up. But when for budget cuts to “save” money rail service is cut back or on-time performance goes down because of equipment problems: ridership and revenues often decline more than predicted.
An example of this, one of many would be Metrolink in Southern California. After years of deferred maintenance and deferred capital improvements have come equipment break downs and attempts to cut costs with service cuts and increase revenues by raising fares. The results of doing this have driven away even more passengers and revenues didn’t increase. In April 2015 Metrolink reached a low point and brought in recently retired CEO of LA Metro Art Leahy to turn Metrolink around. In an interview in the September 2016 issue of “The Planning Report”, Art Leahy spoke of some of his goals for turning Metrolink around. So far he has been more successful than his predecessors in raising money for long overdue new locomotives and some other projects. He makes the point that Metrolink may not carry the same number of people as say LA Metro, but it produces far more passenger miles because average trips are much longer and usually include trips between counties unlike the shorter trips on LA Metro or most transit services. Because of this Metrolink recovers much more from the farebox than transit and has a greater impact reducing freeway congestion. He also implied that he would like to run more frequent service on Metrolink. He pointed out that in 1990 when the Blue line was first opened between Los Angeles and Long Beach, service began before construction was finished. This meant at first the last train of the night left at 7:00 PM, What he noticed was the last train of the night always had low ridership. But as service expanded with later trains more people rode the trains at night. The last train of the night usually had poor ridership, but it encouraged more riders to travel later knowing they wouldn’t get stranded if they missed their train.
Here are some simple ways to increase ridership and improve revenues that will use Metrolink as an example. But these generally apply for any rail passenger service or transportation service in general. First off where possible, add more frequent service. When the State of California increased passenger train service in the 1970’s between Los Angeles to San Diego from 3 to 6 round trips, ridership tripled. A problem with Metrolink and many public transportation services is they concentrate service during rush hours and store equipment much of the rest of the time. Good times to add service is later in the evening, the weekends and holidays. There is plenty of travel during these times. But it is not work related. Many people travel for pleasure, to connect to other travel modes or personal business.
One market rail service is missing is to the airports. For some people the airport is some distance from where they live and parking fees are high for trips lasting days or weeks. With Flyaway Bus service at Los Angeles Union Station getting to LAX is easy. This works well for passengers transferring from the San Bernardino, Antelople Valley and Ventura County Lines. But what is a problem for many of these potential passengers is limited frequency of service, particularly on the Ventura County Line. People often have to get to the airport before 5 AM and land after 10 PM. It won’t be possible to attract all of these passengers, but for many it is hard to catch the train because there is no service when their planes are flying. For passengers from Orange County and even San Diego County to LAX, rail connections are not good. Catching the Flyaway bus at Los Angeles Union Station is round about and time wasting. A simple solution for this is to run a connecting bus from Fullerton or Norwalk which is shorter and faster than than riding all the way to Los Angeles. Providing bus service at Fullerton has the advantage that both Amtrak and Metrolink passengers would be able to make LAX connections by bus. Also such a service doesn’t have to be an express to LAX. There are other places in the South Bay and West Los Angeles area that lack good connections to Metrolink and the LOSSAN Corridor.
Other airport connections include Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. It already has a train station on the Ventura Line and soon will have a station on the Antelope Valley Line. A major factor why more people don’t take the train to Bob Hope Airport is limited frequencies. Also limited connections to other Metrolink Lines like the San Bernardino Line hold back potential ridership. There are shuttle bus connections to John Wayne Airport now from the Tustin Metrolink Station. But service is generally limited to rush hour service and most useful for commuters but not air travelers. Also it is part of a connecting service to the Irvine business park area, not a direct service to the airport. The San Bernardino Line runs close to the Ontario Airport but doesn’t have bus connections to it. There are plans by the County of San Bernardino to take control of the airport from LAX and increase passenger service. These include plans to run bus service between the closest Metrolink Station and the airport terminals. As an aside there are plans to build a future High Speed Rail station at Ontario Airport.
Another under served travel market is for entertainment. Metrolink and most other regional rail services do a good job with train service to baseball and football games. Metrolink also has had beach trains for years. The beach trains can be expanded with additional service on the weekends, and connections to other regions. The Metrolink beach trains now mostly serve the Inland Empire to beaches at San Clemente and Oceanside. There are plenty of people in the Antelope, San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys who would love to cool off at the beach. This can include connections to the Inland Empire/Orange County trains to the Antelope Valley, San Bernardino and Ventura Counties trains. Service could be extended south of Oceanside to all the stops to the other beach towns in San Diego County. Beach trains could be run on the Ventura Line to beaches to connect to the San Fernando, San Gabriel and Antelope Valleys. This would need connecting bus service to get to some beaches from Metrolink Stations in Ventura County. If beach train service could be extended to the Amtrak downtown Ventura station passengers would be in walking distance to the beach. Bus connections at Santa Ana in Orange County could get passengers to beaches at Newport and Huntington Beach. More train service for holidays such as more service to the Rose Parade on New Years Day are also good possibilities.
A major ignored market is service to major theme parks which there are several in Southern California. The classic example is Disneyland. There is now good connecting bus service between the new Anaheim ARTIC station for Amtrak and Metrolink to Disneyland and the rest of of the nearby resort area. But not many people are using this service to take the train to Disneyland. This is because there is no train service during the times people are most likely to travel to Disneyland or other theme parks. Most people come to the park for a day trip in the mornings after rush hour traffic and leave often in the late evening. These are times when there are almost no trains. Clearly working with the different theme parks to create package deals to combine a day at a theme park and travel would go a long way to carry more people on the trains and have fewer people on the crowded freeways. Bus connections would be possible at theme parks beside Disneyland with bus connections to Knott’s Berry Farm from the Buena Park Metrolink station. There is also Magic Mountain which is near Metrolink stations at Santa Clarita or Via Princessa for bus connections. There is also Universal Studios which is not too far from the downtown Burbank Metrolink Station for good shuttle bus connections.