By Noel T. Braymer
I recently checked the agenda of the latest LOSSAN Board Meeting held on March 18, 2019. I was pleasantly surprised by how much good news there was for rail passenger service in California. A major source of good news was the copy of LOSSAN’s new Business Plan for fiscal years 2019-2020 and 2020-2021. Most of the agenda was about improvements and expansion of rail passenger service in Southern California. One of the first topics addressed was the need to improve and in some cases enlarge the 3 layover facilities at San Diego, Goleta and San Luis Obispo. Of the 10 trainsets used on the Pacific Surfliners service, 4 of these are serviced and stored in San Diego while 1 trainset each is serviced and stored at Goleta and San Luis Obispo. For 2 of these layover sites the plan is to enlarge and improve them. At San Diego there is pressure from local residents living near the Santa Fe Depot for a new facility far away from the Depot built to service the trains. There was talk a few years ago of building such a facility south of San Diego at National City where there is a freight yard of the BNSF. One advantage of this site is 1 or 2 additional stations could also be added south of downtown San Diego. This could include a stop near the Convention Center and Petco Baseball Park. Further south a Surfliner station could be built next to a San Diego Trolley Blue Line station. This would create a good connection south of downtown to the Blue Line. This would save several minutes of slow street running in the southern part of downtown San Diego to connect to the Surfliners. These and other topics in the latest LOSSAN agenda spoke about planning underway for rail service expansion for the Surfliners in the next year or 2.
In the fiscal years 2019-20 and 2020-21 the LOSSAN Business Plan is set to expand Surfliner service from the current 12 round trips San Diego/ Los Angeles to 13 and then 14. This will include an additional round trip from San Diego to Santa Barbara for a total of 6 and to San Luis Obispo for a total of 3 round trips by 2020. This level of service north of Los Angeles was introduced in Fiscal Year 2016-17 which led to a jump in fare box cost recovery with 12 round trips to Los Angeles, 6 Santa Barbara and 3 San Luis Obispo round trips from San Diego. In early 2018 the 12th train was stopped at Los Angeles and a new local train service instead was run between Ventura County and Santa Barbara to provide service in the aftermath of heavy flooding and mudslides in Santa Barbara County in early 2018 which blocked Highway 101. This reduced 6 round trips to 5 between Santa Barbara and San Diego and from 3 to 2 between San Diego and San Luis Obispo.
What will be needed to get a 13th train between San Diego and Los Angeles is a full third track between Fullerton and the BNSF Hobart Yard near Los Angeles. Limited track capacity has been a major roadblock to running more trains between Los Angeles and San Diego. Most of the BNSF line now is triple tracked. The expectation is by 2021 an additional 13th and 14th Los Angeles to San Diego round trips will be running on the Surfliners. With the 13th Los Angeles/San Diego service is expected to also bring back a 6th round trip from San Diego to Santa Barbara and 3rd to San Luis Obispo. Another constraint on ridership growth is equipment. By 2020 the first of the 49 new Siemens low level passenger cars for California are expected to be delivered. There has been talk that this equipment might go to the Capitol Corridor/San Joaquin pool. There has been some discussion by the Capitol Corridor JPA of building high level platforms at their stations to speed loading and reduce dwell times at stations. This would free up the remaining bi-level California Cars in Northern California to be shipped south for use by the Surfliners. Currently there is one low level trainset in use out of the 10 Surfliner trainsets which usually have 6 cars. Loading and unloading low level equipment at low level platforms is much slower than with the low floor loading and powered wide doors of the bi-level cars. Currently the Pacific Surfliners have access to up to 82 cars. 39 Surfliner cars of these are owned by Amtrak and 10 of these are State owned Surfliner cars. This also includes 19 Amtrak owned Superliner cars. Many of these are used as a Business Class spillover car when the regular Surfliner Business Class car is full.
One factor which will help improve on time performance and reliability of Surfliner service are the new Siemens Charger Locomotives. California owns 20 of these new locomotives of which 14 will be used in Southern California. These clean burning locomotives have over 4,000 horsepower which should have better acceleration than the locomotives they replace and should be more reliable as well. The combination of reliability and better acceleration should reduce the number of late running trains.
Besides needing additional equipment, track and signalling improvements are needed to run more trains faster and more reliably. This is already underway on the UP between Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties. The biggest project for this is the almost $1 billion dollar rebuild of Los Angeles Union Station with run-though tracks for Metrolink and Pacific Surfliner trains. Several station improvements and double tracking projects are already underway on the LOSSAN Corridor. This includes the triple tracking of the BNSF main line. The final plan is to eliminate all grade crossings on this route and add a 4th track. This will allow double tracking for both passenger service and separate double tracks for freight. Other station improvements underway include a new double track center platform at Van Nuys, as well as several double track projects underway in San Diego County. Most of the projects now underway in San Diego County will be finished by 2021 as well as the new Van Nuys platform.
lossan corridor list of capital projects
A major player in improved rail passenger service is Metrolink which will share many track improvement projects with LOSSAN. Metrolink has a $10 billion dollar SCORE project which when completed by 2028 will create service that runs all day and all week long with most trains running 2 up to 4 trains an hour most of the day. This will connect all its lines and to other services such as Amtrak, LA Metro and other regional transit services. A long overdue project that is now starting up is the extension by Orange County of double tracking south of Laguna Niguel 1.8 miles to the north edge of San Juan Capistrano. Southern Orange County has long been a rail service bottleneck with few passing sidings. An other project being funded by Metrolink will be a replacement of a 304 foot long single track bridge from Serra Siding over the San Juan Creek Bridge into downtown San Juan Capistrano. There is no mention if the replacement bridge will be a single or double track bridge. Why the answer is important is Serra Siding ends just south of the Creek. But there is an old segment of double tracking at the south end of San Juan Capistrano from the north side of the creek the to the south end near to the San Juan Capistrano Station.This would leave a short gap at the station of double tracking in Orange County between Fullerton and northern San Juan Capistrano to the south end of the town all the way to the end of Serra siding. It would make more sense to build a new double track bridge than to just replace a single tracked bridge so near to Serra Siding.
One interesting fact is of the 10 counties in his country with the most pedestrian deaths along the railroad rights of way: 6 of them are in California. What is more amazing is that Orange County isn’t one of them. Orange Counties is the third largest county by population in California with a population almost as large as San Diego County. So why are the number of pedestrian deaths so much lower lower in Orange County compared to the other major counties in California or the 4 other counties outside of California. I think it might be because almost all the grade crossings in Orange County are now “Quiet Zones”. Quiet Zone grade crossing are where safety upgrades are made so that the trains don’t have to warn drivers and pedestrians by blowing the train’s horn at all grade crossing.With the proper safety upgrades the only time a train horn is sounded is if a person or a car is seen in the crossing. Then the horn is sounded to warn the people in the crossing. With a Quiet Zone come more barriers to discourage people to drive through gates when a train approaches or for people to try and run across the tracks or walk on the railroad rights of way. It appears the Quiet Zones are useful in preventing deaths on the railroads.
Another graphic in the new LOSSAN Business Plan is the plan to run a “Coast Daylight” as an all local day train between Los Angeles and San Francisco. This has been in the works for over 20 years. What is different is now is the UP is willing to upgrade their tracks for passenger service, if they get paid for it which is fair enough.The problem now may be Caltrain. With electrification of Caltrain between Gilroy and San Francisco,the extra Caltrain trains and future High Speed Rail trains may not leave much track capacity for a diesel locomotive hauled train, particularly north of San Jose. Also experience with Pacific Surfliners shows there is a lot of traffic south of Los Angeles on the Surfliners traveling north of Los Angeles as far as San Luis Obispo. Another factor to consider is the longer the route miles and number of stations the more passenger miles are created which turns into more revenue. San Jose will be a major hub for Caltrain, ACE with service to the northern San Joaquin Valley and in the future to Sacramento. Also Capitol Corridor service will increase at San Jose as will extension of BART service to San Jose.
Also in the works are plans by LOSSAN to run service between Palm Springs/Indio to Los Angeles. This has been in the works for some time and is still pending approval from the Union Pacific. What is interesting about the route is that the train is planned to stop in Anaheim first instead of the direct route on the BNSF to Fullerton. To do this the train will have to split off of the BNSF mainline on the route to the City of Orange. At Orange there is a wye track which the train can connect to Anaheim and Fullerton and up to Los Angeles. This will likely allow good connections to Surfliner and Metrolink trains at Los Angeles, Fullerton and Anaheim.