By Noel T. Braymer
The original LOSSAN Rail Corridor (Los Angeles to San Diego) has come a long way since the State of California in the mid 1970’s started paying Amtrak to add more trains to the 3 round trips it was already running. Back then most of the LOSSAN corridor was single track. Most of the tracks dated to World War II which were on wooden ties with bolted rail. The trains had to be wyed to reverse directions which required miles of non-revenue travel in San Diego and a slow back up move out of Los Angeles Union Station. Today most of the line is doubled tracked with more planned in the future. Today the corridor has more trains beside Amtrak’s. Many Metrolink trains operate between Los Angeles and Oceanside with more Coaster trains between Oceanside and San Diego. Even more trains are planned in the near future.
Despite this progress, the running time between Los Angeles to San Diego is still slower today than it was in 1979. Most of the Pacific Surfliner equipment is at least 17 years old or older. Equipment shortages are holding back ridership growth. But efforts by the State to buy 42 new rail passenger cars for the State’s supported Amtrak services is going nowhere. This is because the company with the car order is years behind schedule just building a prototype. It is increasingly looking like this contract for a total of 172 cars for several States will soon be cancelled.
A long sought goal of the LOSSAN Corridor is to reduce running times between Los Angeles and San Diego on the Pacific Surfliners to under 2 hours. This will be a major change compared to Surflines trains now running in 2 hours and 40 minutes or more now between Los Angeles and San Diego. Raising top speeds from 90 to 110 miles per hour will be needed to operate trains in under 2 hours. Shorter dwell times at station stops would also be needed. There are also 3 expensive, major bottlenecks that need to be removed to greatly reduce running times on trains between Los Angeles and San Diego. These are at Del Mar in San Diego County, as well as at San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano in southern Orange County. At Del Mar and San Clemente the right of way is very narrow for a second track and local residents are demanding tunnels be built to double track the railroad in their towns.
The opposition to double tracking in San Juan Capistrano is largely an effort to limit the number of trains running through that town. Another bottleneck is in northern San Diego with 2 miles of 25 miles per hour operation in the canyon area by Miramar. There are plans to double track this area by 2030 with a new alignment raising speeds to 40 miles per hour which will save several minutes of running times. At $100 million dollars this is the most expensive project (other than a billion dollar tunnel in Del Mar) planned to double track the LOSSAN rail corridor in San Diego County. The Del Mar Tunnel is not planned before 2050, if by then. San Diego County is now working on rebuilding the I-5 Freeway the 27 miles between Del Mar and Oceanside. The size of this project was cut back due to homeowner’s opposition to having their property condemned for the original plan. Out of this SANDAG included double tracking for most of the coastal rail line in San Diego County as part of the highway project. A common question asked by homeowners opposing expansion of the I-5 was why wasn’t more being done to expand rail passenger service?
When you look at the current plans in San Diego County for this 27 miles of freeway construction, the estimated cost is in 2011 dollars is $3.1 billion. There is need to rebuild this segment of freeway which include many freeway bridges which are over 50 years old and need to be replaced. San Diego County is not alone in spending billions of dollars rebuilding the I-5 in their counties. The problem is the justification for expanding the I-5 freeway to handle future traffic growth on the I-5. What has been shown time and again is that expanding roads doesn’t reduce traffic congestion. Increased road capacity encourages drivers to drive more which creates more traffic congestion.
The LOSSAN corridor can go a long way in pulling traffic off of the I-5. One project which should be finished in about 10 years is the complete grade separation of the railroad between Los Angeles and Fullerton. This is where LOSSAN passenger trains share the tracks with the busy BNSF mainline from Los Angeles to Chicago. Building grade separations are very disruptive to both road and rail service, so only 1 or 2 can be built at a time. This process of building grade separations between Los Angeles and Fullerton has been on going since the 1970’s. We are now down to just a handful of grade crossings that need grade separating. But of course these will be the more difficult and expensive to build. As grade separations have been built, segments of triple tracking has also been built to allow more passenger trains. In about 10 years when the last grade separation is finished it will be possible to build 4 tracks between Los Angeles and Fullerton. This will separate freight and passenger trains, allowing more passenger trains to go faster than now possible sharing tracks with freight.
If we can run frequent, economical and faster trains in under 2 hour between Los Angeles and San Diego, that would create a dramatic increase in rail ridership in the region and divert major auto traffic off of the I-5. What is needed for this to happen is a network of rail and transit services to make carless travel care free. Much of this is in place with stations used by Surfliner, Metrolink and Coaster trains. These stations are often destinations as well as major transfer points between rail and transit. What will be needed is easier transfers for travelers between Surfliner, Metrolink and Coaster as well as to local transit. This is common in many places such as Europe. The more connections to rail the more places on the Los Angeles-San Diego Corridor people will be able to quickly travel to without worrying about parking.
This still leaves the problems of tunneling at Del Mar, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano. This will need billions of dollars. But expanding decent rail service will be more economical than trying to expand roads. One thing the city of San Clemente is opposed to besides surface double tracking in their town, is expansion of roads nearby as well. The County of Orange has been trying to build a toll road to bypass San Clemente to deal with traffic congestion in southern Orange County. This continues to be blocked by local residents in southern Orange County. Traffic congestion is bad and getting worse in southern Orange County as well as in Camp Pendleton in northern San Diego County. Building wider or new roads isn’t a solution.
Long term we need to deal with this problem on a regional, not a county level. That means raising the money to eliminate the major bottlenecks on the Los Angeles-San Diego rail corridor in order to run more and faster trains. These trains need to be faster than it is possible by driving by car. This won’t happen overnight. In the near term we need new and more equipment and faster running times with what is possible in the near term. We need to reduce dwell times and improve equipment reliability. We also need easy transfers to all services to reduce wait times between travel modes. This can include express Surfliner trains with connections to Metrolink and Coaster trains to feed passengers from stations that can be bypassed to reduce running times. This will help get us to the point that we have Surfliners running hourly or better day and night in under 2 hours between Los Angeles and San Diego with connections to all the Metrolink and Coaster stations in between.