By Noel T. Braymer
I recently took a train ride from Oceanside to Los Angeles on the last Metrolink train of the afternoon out of Oceanside. While the equipment arrived on time, the train departed Oceanside 8 minutes late. There were other delays along the way, so by the time we got to Los Angeles we were just over 20 minutes late. The problem was with the Positive Train Control (PTC) system. The train couldn’t go forward until PTC would allow it. This added up to a few 5 and 10 minute delays which made the train late. This problem seems to effect the Orange County Metrolink line the most. The Orange County Line has some of the heaviest ridership on Metrolink. Metrolink has had PTC in operation for some time now and was the first service to have PTC in operation in this country. With any new technology problems and debugging are to be expected. The question is how soon can we expect PTC to work reliably and get the trains to run on time?
This is just one of the many balls that Metrolink now have in the air. Metrolink is in the middle of a $10 billion dollar SCORE overhaul. Between now and 2028 Metrolink is planning to add more double track, improve stations and overhaul passenger cars to have more equipment in service to allow frequent service each hour most of the day ,7 days a week. But to make this work, Metrolink will need to run their trains on time. Already Metrolink is adding new Tier 4 low emission locomotives to improve its reliability and expand new services. A contract has been signed to overhaul its original fleet of passenger cars to give them at least 10 more years of economic life. The 2 biggest barriers to achieving this will be delays to building run through tracks at Los Angeles Union Station and if problems continue with PTC.
One thing that can be said about Los Angeles Union Station is that it is growing as the main surface transportation hub for Southern California. The shuttle buses LA Metro run on game days to Dodger Stadium not only saves time for folks heading to the stadium. But it also pulls more people to take trains and buses while avoiding congested roads going to Union Station. As new services expand we will be seeing more connections made at Union Stations to even more places. One such new service being planned is to build most likely rail transit between LAX to the San Fernando Valley alongside the 405 to Westwood and Van Nuys. With the completion of the Purple Line subway extension From Union Station to Westwood this will connect to the Westside of Los Angeles between LAX and the west San Fernando Valley. The current cost estimates for rail service between Van Nuys and LAX run between 10 to almost 14 billion dollars. Of course the headlines from the Los Angeles Times emphasized the possible $13 billion dollars cost of the project.
The question is what kind of return do we get with an investments like infrastructure? Compared to the beginning of the 21st Century the economy and construction business is now booming in California. Much of this is the result of sales tax increases and the construction of rail transit. Much is written by critics of rail service about how expensive it is to build. But little is said about the effects its spending and operation has on the economy. The current plan for expanded rail transit service in Los Angeles County is somewhere in the range of $120 Billion dollars. Los Angeles County’s government budget is greater than for most States running now at $32.5 billion dollars for this fiscal year. Much has been criticized about the current estimate of $77 billion dollars to build High Speed Rail between Anaheim and San Francisco. This led to complaints of the rising cost of the project by the very people who have done all that they can to delay the project which is a major reason the costs for High Speed Rail and other projects go over budget. The current estimate for High Speed Rail service between Bakersfield and Merced is at $23 billion dollars for 174 miles of new High Speed Rail service by 2028.
While this is going on, Caltrain is proposing a $25 billion dollar project to expand Caltrain service with increased frequencies and reduced running times. This cost estimate would happen by 2040. The point is construction costs are always the highest in urban areas. Despite these or should I say because of these costs, the result is such projects stimulate the local economy. The San Joaquin Valley has some of the highest poverty rates in California. But with High Speed Rail construction unemployment has declined and the local economies have grown. We have seen in most urban areas with regional sales taxes for improved transportation a growing local economy. In the mostly rural counties of California their economies remain unchanged.
The challenge for California, and the United States is to build an economy with healthy economic growth, more affordable housing and an efficient transportation system. What California is currently planning is a first step for these goals.