By Noel T. Braymer
It had been too long since I have had a train ride, particularly to the Los Angeles area. The only way to find out what’s happening with rail service is to see what going on by getting on a train. My favorite northbound train is Metrolink 800 which actually is the morning train to Riverside from Oceanside. Since I like to stay in bed as long as possible, I like taking the last morning Metrolink train out of Oceanside. At Laguna Niguel I catch a connecting Orange County Line Metrolink train 687 at 8:43 AM which usually gets me to Union Station by 10:04 AM or earlier if everything goes well. At $16.50 for a round trip with a senior’s discount that’s a heck of a deal for a roughly 90 mile trip in each direction between Oceanside and Los Angeles. The first sign of trouble this recent morning was when I parked my car at the Oceanside Transit Center. My train wasn’t parked at platform 2 as usual when I arrived about 15 minutes before train 800 departure’s at 7:39 AM. One sightly annoying thing every time I buy my ticket for my trip with this connection to Los Angeles is a question on the ticket machine asks. “Do you really want to buy this ticket? There are no trains running to where you want to go at this time” or words to that effect. The Metrolink timetables shows this connection which adds passenger to both trains. Metrolink should have more connections to get more riders. But the old 20th century ticketing machines haven’t been reprogrammed to know that. Just as well as new improved ticketing machines are being ordered.
Well I and the other passengers waiting on the platform waited and waited for the arrival of train 800 from the nearby Stuart Mesa train yard at Camp Pendleton. The train was late for its departure from Oceanside to Riverside. Finally from the north a Metrolink trainset was seen headed for platform 2. When the train arrived, passengers started getting off of the train! At the same time the train’s PA announced “Do not board this train! It is going out of service.” This train was actually the 803 morning departure on the Inland Empire Line out of San Bernardino to Oceanside due in at 7:03 AM and it arrived over a hour late! So what happened to my train? Communications at platform 2 were not very good. The PA system which is on platform 1 is easy to understand from there. But since there are no loudspeakers for the PA system at platform 2, it is not as easy to hear the announcements even though the two platforms face each other. Also where most of the passengers wait to catch their trains on platform 2 is not close to where the loudspeakers are where the passengers wait for trains at platform 1.
Finally it was announced that Metrolink train 800 had been cancelled and the passengers for it needed to walk back to platform 1. It was later announced that Amtrak would accept Metrolink tickets on the next northbound Amtrak train which it turned out was also late leaving San Diego. It was disconcerting seeing on the electronic departure boards at Oceanside showing the next northbound Amtrak train arriving well over an hour away. This display shows only the scheduled times for the trains, not the current running times when a train is running late. So it doesn’t show the status of a train after the time it is suppose to arrive or depart at Oceanside. In less time than I expected the next northbound Surfliner finally arrived into Oceanside. It was the late departing Amtrak train 565 for Los Angeles due in Oceanside at 7:55 AM. It was over a half hour late into Oceanside
As we entered southern Orange County the Amtrak conductor got on the PA to announce to the Metrolink ticket holders that Amtrak would not be able to make all the local Metrolink stops in Orange and Los Angeles Counties. But Metrolink was holding train 687 at Laguna Niguel, the train I usually transfer to, which would follow behind Amtrak train 565 to get Metrolink passengers to their intended stations. These Metrolink passengers the conductor said should get off at Irvine, the first joint station to transfer on the next Metrolink train which would stop at their preferred stations. Since I was headed to Los Angeles I could stay on the Surfliner at quite a discounted price all the way to LA. The conductor also announced that several trains where delayed due to PTC (positive train control) problems this morning in late February. Another Metrolink passenger from Oceanside had an uncommon problem. He didn’t want to go to Orange County. He wanted to go to San Bernardino which Metrolink train 800 would have had connections to with Metrolink 803 . This passenger asked a conductor would he need to get off at Orange or Anaheim to get the 803. The conductor didn’t know the answer and asked if anyone knew the answer. I did, he needed to get off at Orange. Just as I told the conductor that I noticed we had just passed the junction at Orange used by Metrolink between Orange County and the Inland Empire train routes.
When I arrived in Los Angeles the train had plenty of empty seats. Despite all the waiting time I arrived at Union Station fairly close to when I would usually arrive by riding Metrolink. Scheduled arrival time for Metrolink 687 is 10:04 AM. On Amtrak 565 it is 9:56 AM. This morning the 565 arrived in Los Angeles at 10:28 AM. I have no idea when the 687 arrived. What this experience showed me is that several improvements are still needed to get rail passenger service to the quality level it should be in Southern California. But what this also demonstrated was how a sweep train connection could work in California, or many other places. One of the biggest problems riding a train is getting to where you want to go, when you want to go as quickly as possible. Any train can travel faster between 2 places if it makes fewer stops. The problem with this is you bypass passengers at many stations the train doesn’t stop at. What happened when there were experiments eliminating station stops on Amtrak trains in the past was the train lost more riders and revenue by skipping stations than they gained by running faster.
The solution to this problem is a very old idea of sweep trains. This was demonstrated on my recent trip to Los Angeles. A sweep train is a local all stops train on a rail line. To have your cake and eat it too, future Surfliners could run faster express service with fewer stations but with connections at joint stations for passengers living close to or headed for smaller local stations. The most difficult issue for this will be which stations would lose how many Surfliner trains to reduce running times between just Los Angeles and San Diego. The last thing most cities want to see is less train service: they want more! A better solution might be to run express Surfliners as additional trains so existing train levels would be maintained at current Surfliner stations. But even on a limited scale, coordinating schedules between Surfliner trains with Coaster and Metrolink trains would allow faster service to many more markets. There is nothing new about sweep trains and they can be very successful in increasing ridership and revenue. But first we need to finish many track projects to do this right as well as have more frequent Metrolink and Coaster traffic.