By Noel T. Braymer
People travel, by train or by other modes for many reasons. These include work, business, pleasure, to visit family, friends or for an once in a lifetime experience. Any mode of transportation that someone depends on a carrier is a service. People like good service and are unhappy when service is poor. Many factors make up good service with rail service. For a commuter going to work, a major factor is getting to work on time. For someone getting a sleeper on a long distance train, service includes a good meal, great scenery, working toilets and the chance to talk to interesting people on the train. For many people in between its being able to go where you want to go, when you want to be there with reasonable comfort, safety and price. This all sounds so basic, but is not always available.
Recently Metrolink started accepting surfboards on their trains. What took them so long? There have been beach trains on the Inland Empire/Orange County trains for years to beaches at San Clemente and Oceanside. Carrying surfboards should encourage more passengers to ride Metrolink. Metrolink also has storage for bicycles, in fact the bicycle storage areas will be used for surfboards too. There are lots of times when people want to travel besides during rush hour. Many of these people want to go to the beach or to go somewhere that will be a place for a good bike ride. People travel all through the day and not just during rush hours. Getting more of this discretionary travel is critical to filling up trains and bringing in revenues that keeps rail critics at bay. On the Surfliners and the San Joaquins I know that Fridays and Sundays are very busy. But what can be done to increase ridership on these and other passenger trains when traffic is light? The key is to provide service for markets that people are more likely to want to travel when they have free time and ridership is light. Also discounting tickets is a common practice to fill up empty intercity buses and airplanes.
Metrolink is offering discount tickets on the Perris Valley Line in Riverside County. This service has potential. A major problem with using it is, about the only place you can use it is for trips to northern Orange County and Los Angeles in the morning and returning to Riverside County at night. This makes making connections to other trains at other locations like Riverside very difficult. There is bus service to San Diego County from Perris. But there is only one bus to Oceanside and another to Escondido in each direction in the morning and evening, and it requires a change of buses from both cities in San Diego County to get to the Perris Metrolink Station. Discount tickets can help, but for discretionary travelers, destinations are as important as economy. You can’t go if the train won’t get you from where you are or to where you want to go.
Comparing Metrolink trains to the Surfliners, what is noticeable is Metrolink trains are busy during rush hours, while Surfliner are busiest during the weekends. This is particularly true during holiday weekends which Amtrak in general to their credit prepare to carry as many people and bring in as much needed revenue as possible. By comparison, Metrolink has rather limited weekend service, and that is often reduced or eliminated during holiday weekends. Now it is understandable that we don’t want Metrolink and Surfliner trains competing against each other. But Metrolink serves many places that Surfliner trains don’t. This includes the San Gabriel Valley, Antelope Valley and the Inland Empire. Even if passengers want to travel to or from these places to places served by Surfliners, it’s okay on the weekends to ride Metrolink to them. That’s because the Surfliners are usually full on the weekends and Metrolink trains are mostly in the yard out of service.
Metrolink has generally ignored discretionary travel since its beginning. But this is a major travel market with people traveling to have a good time or visit family and friends outside of rush hour. Metrolink for years has sold Amtrak tickets at its ticket machines. But how many people transfer between Metrolink and Amtrak? I see very little information on line or at the stations letting people know about connections between Metrolink and Amtrak. At least when you order airline tickets on line, you are shown many prices and combination of connections to get to when and where you want to go. These often include listing connections between different airlines that cooperate to carry passengers to more destinations. I know both Amtrak and Metrolink have on line search engines on their websites that list trains and routes to get you to where you want to go. But I don’t think these services will show connections between Amtrak and Metrolink or offer joint ticketing for both services. Why hasn’t this been done?
This Memorial Weekend we may be seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. This coming holiday weekend Metrolink will run regular service Friday through Sunday during the Memorial Day Weekend, instead of reducing service as they have done in the past. On Memorial Day Metrolink will run a normal Sunday schedule on all lines except the Ventura County and Riverside Lines. Also there won’t be service between Perris and Riverside. During the holiday weekend Metrolink is promoting Beach Train service and service to downtown Los Angeles with free connections to rail and bus service at Union Station to many attractions in the LA Metro area.
If you want people to take the train, it must go where and when people want to go. In most of California people are traveling from early in the morning to late at night, 7 days a week. San Diego is a popular destination by train for many people. So is San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. But there are places Metrolink travels to which are also worth going, many of which Surfliner trains don’t go to. There is Magic Mountain in Santa Clarita and Knotts Theme Park in Buena Park and Disneyland at Anaheim. There is old downtown Orange, Claremont, Riverside, San Juan Capistrano, Oceanside and Fullerton all near their train stations. These towns all have charm and things to do and see for tourists, This is short list of places to go on Metrolink which could also connect with Amtrak. Most people who see a twenty dollar bill on the ground would pick it up and put in their wallet if there was no sign of the owner. Well ignoring the potential of discretionary travel with Metrolink to so many places on the weekends and off peak travel times is like ignoring thousands of twenty dollars bills just lying there waiting to be picked up.