By Noel T. Braymer
The good news for Ontario International Airport in San Bernardino County is the extension of regular bus service every 15 minutes most of the day and week. Not only will Omnitrans route 61 connect to most of the other buses in the Inland Empire. But it will also stop at Metrolink stations at downtown Pomona served by the Riverside Line and Fontana on the San Bernardino Line for connections to the Airport. Such connections are long overdue between trains and buses. Amtrak has been busy in the last year or two adding bus connections to several of its trains.There are Thruway bus connections on Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer between Oklahoma City and Newton,Kansas with connections to the Southwest Chief that’s doing very well. Recently there was expanded bus service for the Sunset at Maricopa, Arizona for direct bus connections to Tempe, downtown Phoenix and the Phoenix Airport. Amtrak has also expanded bus connections in 2017 to the Cardinal at Charleston, West Virginia to other towns in the region. Amtrak has also this year added connecting bus service to several towns in Vermont to connect to trains at Albany-Rensselaer, New York. Most of these new bus connections are joint projects with existing bus services. These buses must be doing well for Amtrak to keep adding bus connections to their trains.
We have of course plenty of examples of successful connecting bus services to Amtrak in California. The San Joaquin trains have roughly half of their passengers at some point connecting to it by bus. The Sacramento Station is a local bus hub for Amtrak for bus service on 4 lines to Redding/Stockton, Lake Tahoe, Sparks,Nevada, and Martinez. The Bakersfield Station is also a major Amtrak Thurway Bus station for several bus lines to Southern California as well as Las Vegas. On the Pacific Surfliner route there are buses to and from Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo with some which also serve the Bay Area. But there are still plenty of other places you can’t get to by train and bus in California.
One of the most successful rail/bus connections is the Flyaway Bus to LAX from Los Angeles Union Station. But there are other places without rail service where there are no bus connections to rail. For people wanting to go to West Los Angeles or LAX from Orange, San Diego or Riverside Counties: there are no direct bus connections. The closest is LAX bus service to the Disneyland and other nearby hotels, but it doesn’t stop at the Anaheim station. Running a connecting bus from the Fullerton station to LAX and West LA would create connections to most of the population of Orange, San Diego and Riverside Counties for both Amtrak and Metrolink trains. One thing that is years away is better rail service between Burbank Airport and LAUS. There is already one train station at the Burbank Airport for both Amtrak and Metrolink on the Coast Line. A second station at Burbank Airport is already under construction for Metrolink service on the Antelope Valley Line and will be the site for the future High Speed Rail station. But there are often gaps during the mid-day and night for rail service between LAUS and Burbank Airport. In the meantime running additional buses so there is regular service between LAUS and Burbank Airport all day and week long would economically fill in those gaps.
One of the big problems in Southern California is traffic on the I-5 Corridor. By that I mean the combined 5/405 corridor since between them they share most of the north/south traffic in Southern California. The big problem is both freeways are often congested and enlarging them is not a solution to congestion. Rail service is a valuable alternative for travel in the 5/405 corridor.The problem is the railroad has miles of single track in southern Orange County and San Diego County. Some of this will require miles of tunneling needed for double tracking in this area for which no money has been budgeted in the foreseeable future. We will see increased track capacity coming into service in Los Angeles and San Diego Counties in the near future. But the main bottleneck is between San Juan Capistrano and the southern border of San Clemente at the county line with San Diego County. What could be done now is create bus bridges between Metrolink and Coaster trains. Many Metrolink Orange County and Inland Empire/ Orange County trains don’t go to Oceanside which is the Metrolink terminal in San Diego County. While not ideal, busing can be done much sooner for much less money than building rail tunnels. With increased rail travel from the connecting buses, money will be found sooner for tunneling.
Basically every Metrolink train that terminates in Orange County would have bus connections at the Metrolink stations along the way to Oceanside. This will allow connections with Coaster trains running between Oceanside and San Diego. This will also allow travel combinations not available on the Surfliner trains which make fewer stops than Metrolink or the Coasters trains. This would make possible much more frequent and faster travel to and from San Diego County with Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. This will also increase travel capacity in this corridor for a fraction of the cost of expanding the freeways and long before we will see double track tunnels in Orange and San Diego Counties.
So who will operate these buses? They don’t all have to be run by one organization. Caltrans has been responsible for years for the Thruway Buses connecting to local Amtrak trains in California. These services had to operate at a profit or else the service would be cut. The cash surplus from these buses has been used in the past to go to the rail program, but not much of this money went for experiments for start ups of additional bus services. Also by law such bus service is suppose to include travel by train and to not compete with intercity bus service. The buses and drivers come from private bus companies working under contract to connect with Amtrak trains. The Flyaway Buses are managed by Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) which is the LA City agency which controls the city’s airports including LAX. They run the buses to reduce traffic congestion to and from LAX. Both Metrolink and Coaster ticketing includes local transfers to transit rail and local bus service between their trains. In Orange County the local Anaheim Resort Transportation (ART) buses connect to Disneyland from the train station. The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) also run connecting shuttle buses at the Tustin station to John Wayne Airport. The greatest weakness of these services is Metrolink generally runs a commuter service which aren’t running when many people want to go to or leave Disneyland or fly in an out of the airport.
What could work to expand service is connections with existing bus operators for expanded service. This would be along the lines of interline agreements between airlines to allow passenger to transfer to their final destinations with tickets bought at the same time. In other words not all the bus riders would have to also take the train to ride. Not only more people would ride the train, but more people would not need to drive a car to get to where they want to go. This could be used for expanded local connecting services such as by rail/bus to LAX/ West LA, connections from San Diego County to the Inland Empire, expanded service from coastal Southern California to Palm Springs, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Reno and more cities in the San Joaquin Valley and Northern Sacramento Valley. The biggest issue will be who will organize such services? Most bus services tend to be local connectors operated by county transit agencies or in the case of Amtrak Thruway buses in California by the agencies managing the regional Amtrak train services. With the prospect of traffic from rail passenger services, private bus companies would be more open to experiment with new lines and expanded services.
Amtrak is open to more bus connections with agreements from existing operators. In the San Joaquin Valley, the San Joaquin JPA is looking at using a new locally financed bus service open to the public between Redding and Sacramento to replace the existing Thruway bus. Metrolink has to answer to all of its member counties. But Los Angeles County as the richest and biggest county in Metrolink’s service area has the most influence over Metrolink. North County Transit which operate the Coaster Trains, also operate bus service in Northern San Diego Counties. Trying to get different agencies such as Metrolink and Coaster, let alone counties to cooperate and work together is never easy. Future expanded connecting bus service will likely evolve rather than be part of a master plan. But it will likely come about as more demand for transportation on limited road capacity forces the issue.