By Noel T. Braymer
The current draft of the California State Rail Plans calls for most local passenger rail services to run at least every half hour by 2040. This would create good connections to rail service to almost anywhere in the State including future High Speed Rail service. So where are the places that are likely to see half hourly service in the near term? Once Caltrain is electrified in a few year, it is expected to run more frequent service. During the weekends now Caltrain runs service less than every hour and roughly hourly on off peak times during the work week. The first segment of High Speed Rail from the San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area is expected by 2025. High Speed Rail is expected to run several trains an hour most of the day, 7 days a week from the beginning and add more train frequencies later. The need for more frequent service for Caltrain will be needed to insure connections to other services like High Speed Rail. Where we won’t see half hourly service in the immediate future will be the local Amtrak run services in California: the Capitol Corridor, San Joaquin and Pacific Surfliner trains. All these lines will need full double and even some triple tracking to run half hour service mixed with freight and other services. So more than hourly service for many will be a few years off. This would include ACE service between San Jose and Stockton.
There are already plans to run Coaster service between San Diego and Oceanside every half hour most of the day in the future. Most of the route is expected to be double tracked in less than ten years. The Coaster runs trains almost every half hour now during rush hours, Monday through Friday. The main issue is track capacity between Coaster, Surfliner and freight trains all sharing the tracks in San Diego County. While half hourly service all day isn’t expected soon, the Coaster in the next year or two after more track improvements are finished plan to run more frequent service in between rush hours and in the evenings and weekends.
This leaves us with Metrolink. Metrolink is unlikely to add many more trains, let alone half hourly service on their rush hour only services. These include the Riverside Line on the UP to Los Angeles and the 91/Perris Line to Los Angeles as well as the Inland Empire/Orange Counties services which both use the BNSF mainline. These services depend on the host railroads. No new service can be expected without additional track capacity. Half hourly service is unlikely before 2025 on the Orange County or 91 Perris Lines with Metrolink . Before 2029 there are plans to finish dedicated double track between Los Angeles and Fullerton on the BNSF for passenger service only for use by Amtrak, Metrolink and future High Speed Rail. Orange County now has between Anaheim and Laguna Niguel full double tracking. More local Orange County service by Metrolink could be run on this double track. But the few local trains that are running now in Orange County don’t carry many people. At the very least to get more people on local Orange County Metrolink trains would require more bus connections and connections to Amtrak and other Metrolink trains to get more passengers. So far expanded local rail service hasn’t been talked about at the Orange County Transportation Authority.This leads up to the lines on Metrolink which it has the most control. These are the San Bernardino, Antelope Valley and Ventura Lines. All three of these rail lines terminate now in Los Angeles. The San Bernardino Line already has the most frequent service on Metrolink. Ridership on this line has been declining. Since the extension of the LA Metro Gold Line from Pasadena to Azusa which parallels the San Bernardino Line there have been Metrolink stations that have seen major ridership drops. The San Bernardino Line needs more double tracking and other improvement to reduce running times and improve service reliability.
This leaves the Antelope Valley and Ventura Lines. Much of the Ventura Line and all of the Antelope Valley Line are in Los Angeles County. Both lines travel to some degree in the San Fernando Valley with the Ventura Line ending in Ventrura Country and the Antelope Valley Line in the Antelope Valley at Lancaster. Both the San Fernando Valley and Antelope Valley have little or no rail transit which is something local residents complain about. The only rail transit in the San Fernando Valley are 2 Red Line stations in North Hollywood and by Universal Studios. Metrolink as an organization is dependent for much of its funding from the counties that are a part of it, and Los Angeles is the largest and richest county in Metrolink’s service area. Los Angeles County has already been planning for additional and relocated Metrolink stations in the San Fernando Valley and one possible relocated station in Santa Clarita. There has been much local pressure to add more service and reduce running times on the Antelope Valley Line. Also with the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, there are proposals to expand Metrolink being looked at to relieve traffic in time for the Olympics.
One of the issues is the longest rail tunnel in California which is on the Antelope Valley Line linking the San Fernando Valley to Santa Clarita. Built in the 1870’s, it is single tracked. Adding more double tracking on both the Antelope Valley and Ventura Lines will be needed and is being planned to allow expanded Metrolink service. Half hour frequencies can be run with some segments of single tracking. The slowest part of the Antelope Valley Line is north of Santa Clarita to Palmdale. Short of buying tilt trains, track improvements will be needed for faster service. There is also interest in electrifying Metrolink on the Antelope Valley Line. This would be expensive, but would be faster with improved acceleration and create much less pollution. For service every half hour for most of the day, operating service only as far Santa Clarita would be the most economical. With construction of High Speed Rail, there will be a double tracked electrified passenger railroad between Los Angeles and Burbank Airport. This would be available for Metrolink service too.
Electrified service with track and stations improvements would be possible if Los Angeles County is willing to largely fund the work on the Antelope Valley and Ventura County Lines. In the case of the area around Lancaster/ Palmdale, there are plans to have High Speed Rail service with a station in Palmdale, which will be much faster for travel to Los Angeles direct than by Metrolink. It would make sense to extend frequent Metrolink service to at least Moorpark in Ventura County. Moorpark and Simi Valley are in Ventura County, but many of these residents commute to the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles. Expanding Metrolink service past Chatsworth to Moorpark would have a major impact for increased ridership on the Ventura Line. There are several miles of single track and tunnels between Chatsworth and Simi Valley. This can handle 2 trains an hour service with more double tracking in Ventura County and the San Fernando Valley. Such track work is already overdue for improved Surfliner service along the coast north of Los Angeles.
One thing that is overdue on Metrolink is better connections and seamless ticketing between Metrolink trains and Amtrak. The same is true when High Speed Rail is operating only more so since there will be very frequent service when High Speed Rail gets to Los Angeles. Just as important will be well planned timed connections between trains. Even before High Speed Rail gets to Los Angeles, Metrolink should do more for the Ventura and Antelope Valley Lines to connect with each other. These two lines with frequent service should also connect to the San Bernardino, and Orange Lines. Maybe not hourly connections, but almost every hour as service can be expanded. More frequent Metrolink trains will also make it easier to connect to Surfliner service which will likely also see some additional service in the future.
Along these same lines on the agenda from this same board meeting are preliminary plans to add electrification on several Metrolink Lines