By Noel T. Braymer
The LOSSAN JPA recently published data on ridership of passenger trains on the LOSSAN Corridor as well as other passenger trains running in the State of California. This data is from the 4th quarter of the fiscal year 2015-2116 which is the most recent information that is available. Ridership was down from the same time last year on several California trains. Ridership was up 7.5% over the same quarter last year on the Capitol Corridor with 399,009 riders. The San Joaquin train’s ridership on the other hand was down 7.4% with ridership at 279,442. But if we look at the revenue for these trains during the same quarter, revenue for the Capitol Corridor was $7,329,823. But revenue for the San Joaquin trains was greater at $8,467,016.
So why did the San Joaquin trains bring in more revenue with fewer passengers compared to the Capitol Corridor trains? The answer is passenger miles, which is the total miles passengers travel on a train, plane or bus. Most of the passengers on the Capitol Corridor trains only travel between San Jose and Sacramento which is a distance of 133 miles. On the San Joaquins most passengers travel between Bakersfield and Oakland which is 315 miles. This also includes the passengers miles of the 45% of San Joaquin passengers who transfer to and or from buses on their trip. The San Joaquin trains generate more passenger miles and revenue with fewer passengers traveling longer distances than with passengers on the Capitol Corridor.
The Capitol Corridor JPA is very aware of this. They want to extend service to Salinas and have more trains go to Auburn and eventually to Reno/Sparks. Now let’s look at the LOSSAN Corridor. Metrolink ridership is down 6.2% on the Ventura County Line at 219,930. On the Orange County Line it is down 8.6% at 553,664. The Coaster ridership is down 5.8% at 405,356. So how is the Pacific Surfliner service doing at the same time? Ridership was up 2.6% at 739,764. But compare revenues for the Surflners at $17,998,742, which is more than double the revenue of the San Joaquin trains at $8,467,016. The big difference though is with the Coast Starlight, which “only” carried 116,114 passengers, but brought in $10,157,672: second only to the Surfiners during the same 4th quarter of 2015-2016.
Any rail service must balance utility, in other words how many people use their rail service, versus the economic impact their rail service has. The best solution to this issue is to do as much with both as possible.
Back in the 1980’s the late Dr. Adrian Herzog, then Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Cal State Northridge was doing computer simulations of existing and potential Long Distance Amtrak routes to see which factors caused ridership to go up or down. He calibrated his computer simulations by seeing if they replicated ridership on existing services. The key to ridership growth on Dr. Herzog’s computer simulations was the number of markets (or stations) served or connecting to trains. Dr. Herzog was able to greatly increase ridership and revenues in his simulations by using a combinations of extending train routes, of adding sections to existing trains to split off to serve new markets and by creating hubs for trains to connect and transfer passengers to more markets. Running sections on trains is common in much of the world as is guaranteed connections at stations to other trains. But this is rare in this country.
At the heart of increasing ridership and revenues for rail service, Dr Herzog found it was the need to link a rail service to the most markets as possible, while using the least amount of equipment and labor. A simple way to do this is to extend an existing rail service to serve more stations and increase average trips lengths which doesn’t require major capital improvements and has good labor productivity. An example of this was the effort by the Sate of California in the 1970’s and 80’s to extend “San Diegan” service between San Diego and Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. This was resisted by the Southern Pacific, but one train was finally extended in the late 1980’s to Santa Barbara. The result was an immediate increase in revenue for the then San Diegan trains. This was largely a result of the increase in station combinations which added more riders and passenger miles to these extended trains. Of the 12 round trips on the Pacific Surfliners today between San Diego and Los Angeles, 5 round trips are extended to Santa Barbara, or which 2 of these trains go as far as San Luis Obispo. It is these extended trains which have greatly increased revenues and ridership for the Surfliners.
What also can be done to increase ridership and revenue which is done in most places with rail passenger service are good connections between trains and to other travel modes. This is what the airlines do with their hub airports, so passengers are able to travel to or from almost any place on earth with only one or two connecting flights. Airlines often have agreements between themselves at hubs to transfer passengers to other airlines that go to places the other airline doesn’t serve. This was a result of deregulation of the airlines in the 1970’s in order to survive the airlines had to reduce costs and increase productivity to stay in business.
What about skipping stations and running trains faster to attract more riders and revenues? Faster rail service attracts more riders and improves a train’s productivity because it means carrying more passenger miles in less time. But Amtrak over the years has tried to increase ridership and revenues by skipping station to reduce running times between major cities. The result was always the ridership went down. Any additional passengers gained with faster speeds also caused the loss of more passengers who lost service from or to stations they wanted to travel.
What steps can be made to increase ridership on other passenger trains such as Metrolink, Coaster, ACE or the San Joaquin trains? Increased frequencies usually work. When the State of California paid Amtrak to increase the number of round trips between Los Angeles and San Diego in the 1970’s from 3 to 6, ridership more than tripled. Where possible more stations help. Since 1979 there are more stations serving Amtrak trains between Los Angeles and San Diego which has added more ridership. Metrolink could extend service to serve more station combinations and run more frequent service (track capacity permitting). Metrolink could run more frequent service on weekends and holidays on a schedule to serve the weekend and holiday market compared to commuter rush hour service they run on the work week. Such service has been found popular on the Surfiners, it should work on most of Metrolink’s lines. With construction of run through tracks expected by the early 2020’s at Los Angeles Union Station, Metrolink could easily combine existing rail lines. This could see trains from Oceanside to Los Angeles running to the San Fernando Valley and up the Antelope Valley to Palmdale and Lancaster. Would many people ride this train from Oceanside to Lancaster? Probably not, but the increased numbers of station combinations will increase ridership on this combined train service. The same could be done with trains from San Bernardino to Los Angeles extended to Ventura County. These 2 extended trains should share the same platform at Union Station arriving at the same time to allow passengers to easily transfer between these 2 extended trains.
What is long overdue are timed connections between Surfliners, Metrolink and Coaster trains with seamless ticketing (one ticket, ticketing) to allow rapid and easy connections to as many markets as possible by rail. Passengers should be able to catch a Coaster in Encinitas to transfer to Metrolink at Oceanside to travel to Tustin or many other combinations of stations which are now almost impossible to connect to. Connections could be made between Metrolink Inland Empire/Orange County trains and Surfliner trains in Orange County to allow easy transfers for travel between San Diego County and Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. Many of the problems to doing this are more institutional than physical. In other words it is hard to get bureaucracies to work together even when doing so would improve their bottom line. But if we are to see ridership growth such changes will be needed. The best way to get financial support for expanded rail passenger service is to be successful. When you have full trains there is more support and less opposition to spending money to improve service. Also busy stations create economic growth in their towns which increases support. Much of this is what has happened in the LOSSAN Corridor since the 1970’s. By connecting more places to existing rail services ridership grows and so does revenues and popular support for more rail passenger service.