By Noel T. Braymer
The good new recently was the budget deal in the California Legislature to fund ACE to extend it first to Modesto and finally to Merced. This extension will link places in the upper San Joaquin Valley to most of the San Francisco Bay area. Just at Ace’s terminal at San Jose by the time service is extended to Modesto by 2024 there will be connection for ACE to Caltrain, Capitol Corridor, BART as well as VTA light rail and bus transit service in Santa Clara County in the San Jose metro area. But tying up the biggest connections will come by 2027 or earlier with connections at Merced to California High Speed Rail. Central to increasing ridership on all rail passenger services is expanding the number of connections rail has to more places and services.
The reasons roads continue to become more congested is because when more roads are built, people drive more. This was understood in the 1980’s with the construction of the 105-Century Freeway, the last freeway built in Los Angeles. In order to reduce future congestion (it was know when it was built it would be congested from day one) this freeway has fewer on and off ramps per mile than freeways in the past. Also to reduce auto traffic it was built with High-Occupancy Vehicle Lanes to encourage more people to ride share as well as the construction of the Green Line Light Rail service on the 105 freeway. This freeway was also built with fewer lanes for general traffic to discourage single passenger vehicle travel. The key to increasing ridership on rail service is to make it possible to get to more places at more times in the day. The more choices drivers have to drive, more people will drive. The same is true to have more people ride by rail.
Merced to San Jose is not the only missing link for rail service in California which is needed to increase ridership and revenue. Right now there are only 2 round trip trains between the San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento. There are connecting buses between Stockton and Sacramento on the San Joaquin trains which do very well. There is a large potential market for rail travel to Sacramento from the San Joaquin Valley and points south now served with connecting buses. Part of the problem is San Joaquin service to Sacramento doesn’t have as many stations as it does between Bakersfield and Oakland. More stations mean more riders. So does more frequent service. A major problem with these two underused trains is there is no mid-day service which is a popular time to travel. Also the morning train arrives in Sacramento at 11:20 AM, after the start of the business day when many travelers want to travel. The other arrival comes into Sacramento in the late evening. These problems are understood by the planners for the San Joaquin trains. The problem, much like it was with getting ACE to Merced is lack of money which is needed for more train equipment and track work to allow more rail service on this line. The need for more service will increase when High Speed Rail service is running in the Valley by 2025. There will be a connecting station in Madera between High Speed Rail and the San Joaquin trains. Having increased and faster service between Madera and Sacramento would carry many passengers for the San Joaquin trains and connections to High Speed Rail.
There is great demand for more rail passenger service along the California Coast. A major underserved market is for travel north of San Luis Obispo up to San Jose. Today the Coast Starlight runs daily as the only train between San Luis Obispo and San Jose. It has a limited number of stations which bypass several communities along the Coast. Again the problem is lack of funding to get the track work needed to extend more service. This would likely be done by extending the current Pacific Surfliners from San Diego to San Luis Obispo to San Jose. Local leaders along the Central California Coast have been working to expand rail service in their region for over 20 years. With service from major hubs such as San Diego, Los Angeles and San Jose, it would be possible to connect to most of the population of California by rail service along the Coast.
One place you can’t get there from here is the Inland Empire of Riverside and San Bernardino Counties by rail to southern Orange County and San Diego County. There is limited track capacity holding back running additional rail passenger trains between Orange and San Diego counties. But what can be done quickly and cheaply is to create connections with existing rail passenger service connecting at Irvine for convenient travel between the Inland Empire to San Diego. Monday through Friday there are 8 daily round trip Metrolink trains between Irvine and Riverside. Four of these trains also terminate in San Bernardino. With 12 round trip Pacific Surfliners daily, most of these 8 weekday Metrolink trains can connect with Surfliner trains with connections of under an hour. What will be needed is an agreement for joint ticketing and some timetable adjustments to improve connections. Between San Diego and San Bernardino is a market of at least 7 million people.
Another largely ignored market for rail connections are the counties of Orange, Riverside and San Diego to the coastal west side of Los Angeles County, particularly to LAX. There are long term plans to extend the LA Metro Green Line to the Metrolink Station at Norkwalk/Santa Fe Springs. By 2023 the Green and Crenshaw/LAX lines will share a station with a LAX People Mover for direct connections to the LAX Terminals. This may not happen before 2050. What can be done in the near term is to extend the existing LAX to the Disneyland area bus service to stop at the nearby ARTIC transportation center and train station in Anaheim so rail passengers can get a direct connection to LAX. Another simple solution at least for Metrolink passengers would be a bus connection at the Norwalk/ Santa Fe Springs station to LAX. Such a service might also serve the LA Metro Green, Blue, Expo and future Crenshaw/LAX and extended Purple Lines. This would greatly increase connecting rail ridership with this connecting bus.