By Noel T. Braymer
Riverside County has as a priority the creation of passenger rail service with 2 to 3 roundtrips in the next couple of years or so between Los Angeles and Palm Springs/Indio. All of this will hinge on the cooperation of the Union Pacific. Commuter service was suppose to be running between Santa Barbara and Ventura County several years ago and there is still work ongoing for this project. But the main sticking point has been the Union Pacific. For that matter, efforts to expand service along the entire Coast Line between Los Angeles and San Jose have been in the works for over 20 years. But Union Pacific has usually not been interested, or seen this as a priority for them. So what can this mean for service to Palm Springs?
The LOSSAN Joint Powers Authority is the main body coordinating start up of Palm Springs service. LOSSAN is also working on improvements and future additional service on the Coast Line to San Jose.The Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority is also seeking to extend service south of San Jose to Gilroy on the Coast Line. The Capitol Corridor uses only Union Pacific trackage for its services. It has the advantage that before Capitol Corridor trains ran, it had a trackage rights agreements with the then owner of the tracks,Southern Pacific.This was just before it was bought out by the Union Pacific. Union Pacific cooperates with the Capitol Corridor in large part because it has legally binding rights to use their tracks. But the relationship the Union Pacific has with Capitol Corridor has benefited the Union Pacific. The Capitol Corridor has been paying the Union Pacific to maintain their tracks at a higher level than before Capitol Corridor service began. The track improvements will allow 90 miles per hour speeds when there is signalling available to run passenger trains at that speed. But this higher level of track maintenance has resulted in reduced running times and better on time performance for Capitol Corridor and Union Pacific trains. Union Pacific also likes getting money from the Capitol Corridor JPA to keep their tracks in excellent shape. But to get to this point the management of the Capitol Corridor spent a lot of time getting to know the management of the Union Pacific responsible for the San Francisco Bay Area and developing a working relationships with them.
Not much is known publicly about the state of negotiations between LOSSAN and Union Pacific. Most if not all of the Union Pacific is double tracked between Colton and Indio. The LOSSAN plan is to use the BNSF from Los Angeles to Riverside by way of Fullerton before connecting at Colton to the Union Pacific. There has been stories that the Union Pacific is claiming that to carry more passenger service between Colton and Indio it will need a third track. Is this a negotiating tactic for more money, or an attempt to block any additional service? Who knows. This is nothing new with the Union Pacific. This could lead to long drawn out track studies which delays the process of expanding rail service which the Union Pacific is quite happy to have. There is also the question of how productive 2 or 3 round trips between Los Angeles and Palm Springs will be at an average speed of about 40 miles per hour? What will be critical to ridership will be good connections from most of Southern California to Palm Springs to fill up these trains.
Are there any alternatives? How about talking about one additional train. By that I mean 2 daily trains, a morning and evening departure from both Los Angeles and Palm Springs. How can that be done? First, get daily service on the Sunset Limited. The best option would be to get daily service on the Sunset all the way to New Orleans. This would increase ridership on that train. If this is not possible, the time slots for the Sunset Limited could be used 4 days a week with a local service between Los Angeles and Indio to create daily service. That leaves just one new time slot for a daily train which would leave Los Angeles in the morning and return at night. One more train is less of an issue for the Union Pacific than 3 new additional trains.
Now the question is how to get the most revenue and utility from this future daily service? Well the key to success for most transportation service including rail service is increased passenger miles. This usually means longer routes and serving additional markets. The best way to do this would be to extend service east of Palm Springs/Indio to Tucson with bus connections to Phoenix.This is already a major traffic corridor. Not only could passengers get to Palm Springs from Arizona, but also to Santa Barbara or Orange County with connections. Service to Arizona will add many more markets for these trains and create a major increase in passenger miles, which translate into more revenue. And to do this we are only asking for one additional train a day.
So what about mid-day service and connections? Lets look at what has been done on the LOSSAN Corridor for years. Most trains to or from San Diego which terminate at Los Angeles have connecting buses to at least Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo and even San Francisco. If these buses didn’t pay for themselves, they would be eliminated which has happened to other bus connections. Buses could be run between Palm Springs and Los Angeles in the mid day to improve options for travelers, just like what is done now on the LOSSAN Corridor north of Los Angeles. Should this bus service be extended to Arizona? The distance between Los Angeles to Tucson isn’t that much longer than between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Extending this rail service and bus connections to Arizona would make it more likely to be self-supporting and would bring more people from 2 major population centers instead of just one. And all we would be asking from the Union Pacific would be for one more time slot for an additional round trip train. No doubt this can be done with modest improvements to the Union Pacific tracks without the need for triple tracking.