By Noel T. Braymer
These added services have been a long time coming. What made these additional services possible was construction of a 3rd track on the BNSF between Fullerton and BNSF’s Hobart Rail Yard in the City of Commerce. Improvements such as additional tracks are difficult to build on a busy railroad such as the BNSF mainline. Its a little like trying to make a bed, with people still in the bed. This effort goes back over 30 years ago when the State started supporting grade separations at most of the busy grade crossings on this mainline. All of these new grade separations are being built to handle 4 tracks of mainline railroad which is how wide the BNSF is between Hobart and Fullerton. With completion of this third track, long awaited services can now be run with fewer conflicts between passenger and freight trains. As more track work between San Diego and San Luis Obispo is completed in just the next 3 years or so, additional service can be expected on the Surfliners, Metrolink and Coaster trains.
With the new Surfliner service this brings the number of round trip trains between San Diego and Los Angeles to 13. This will be done by using a single low level trainset now used for one roundtrip daily. This trainset will run round trips twice daily of 13 San Diego/Los Angeles round trips. A 14th round trip is planned by 2021. This will likely use Surfliner equipment and be extended past Los Angeles to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Additional future service will depend on more equipment being transferred from Capitol Corridor/San Joaquin service as it is replaced with the new Siemens passenger cars.
Metrolink is also adding more service between Los Angeles and Orange County as well as one additional train to Perris via Fullerton in Riverside County. Two new round trips will be added between Los Angeles and Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo in Orange County. Most of the current Metrolink trains between Orange County and Los Angeles will see changes to their current schedules. San Diego County will be busy this October for station and track improvements on the weekends of October 19-20th and October 26-27th. This is for expanded rail passenger service which will include in the future hourly Coaster service between Oceanside and San Diego, with service every half hour during rush hours. This will include additional, new locomotives which are in the process of being ordered. This should be fully up and running by 2024 which is when the new locomotives are planned to be in service.
Metrolink is planning SCORE, which calls for frequent service on all of its lines, 7 days a week with most lines running 2 to 4 trains an hours in both directions. Frequent, dependable Metrolink service with good connecting service will attract ridership. A major issue to making this happen is the need to double track more of the right of way used and much of it controlled by Metrolink. A major goal for Metrolink is to have much of this expanded service running by 2028 which is when the Summer Olympics are planned to be held in Los Angeles. A major key to that will be to get built the long awaited run through tracks at Los Angeles Union Station. This will greatly increase the rail passenger service capacity at Union Station as well reduce running times by not needing to reverse direction when leaving the station where the tracks are now at a dead end. Major funding for the run through tracks is coming from the California High Speed Rail Authority which plans to use Union Station for future HSR service. As part of this a fourth track will be needed between Fullerton and Hobart Yard. With these and other improvements it will be possible to run more Metrolink and Surfliner Trains.
This will create a separate double tracked passenger railroad alongside the BNSF tracks.This will allow smoother service with passenger trains allowed to go faster than the freights which will be on separate tracks. The speeds on these new passenger only tracks will be about 110 miles per hour. There is really no need to go much faster since the trains travel short distances in urban areas between stations and this 19th century right of way wasn’t designed for speeds much faster than 110. To get even this much done will require the grade separation of a few more crossings. Two grade crossings are ranked high on number of collisions between Hobart Yard and Fullerton. One is on Los Nietos Road and the other is at the intersection of Rosecrans Ave and Marquardt Ave. Work is already underway building a grade separation at Rosecrans and Marquardt. This is being built with funding from the California High Speed Rail Authority which plans to use this route in the future. In this area are also grade crossings at Santa Fe Springs Road not far from a grade crossing over nearby Telegraph Road. With 4 running tracks will come more frequent trains and greater chances for grade crossing accidents in a area with heavy road traffic.
Metrolink has been in the news lately trying to get High Speed Rail funding for a new “high speed rail” alignment between Burbank and Anaheim. By speed, this segment won’t go much faster than 110 miles per hour. This is particularly true if there are grade crossing on the route. The tracks between Union Station and Burbank are half owned and operated by Metrolink. Metrolink acquired their half of the railroad from the Southern Pacific shortly before the SP was bought out by the Union Pacific. The full right of way has room for 4 tracks, but for now is double tracked. What it doesn’t have are many grade separations in an area with quite a bit of road traffic. Much of this could be improved by putting in quiet zones which include more barriers to reduce the chance of damage and injuries for people and vehicles at a grade crossing. There are plans by Metrolink to greatly increase the frequency of train travel on the segment between Union Station and Burbank Junction. This would mean at least 8 trains an hour in each direction, likely more. This could include possible use of Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) trainsets which each car would carry a diesel engine. This is lighter and cheaper to run for Metrolink than using trains hauled by a locomotive. What might also be used is adding batteries and running MU electrical trains instead.
Much of the reporting about Metrolink seeking High Speed Rail Funding focuses on transferring funding away from HSR construction in the San Joaquin Valley. It is difficult to get a clear picture of what is going on since many media outlets are more interested in sensationalism than the facts. One recent example of this are headlines that the Governor had transferred money for road projects to rail passenger service. (Read “Sleepy State Interregional Transportation Plan Sparks Passionate Response” Streetsblog CAL Oct 11, 2019)
The real story is that the Highway Projects in the San Joaquin Valley are still in the planning stage and not ready to start construction. So the HSR projects in the San Joaquin Valley which are ready for construction will put the available money to immediate use. Money is planned to be available when the road projects are ready. The media has been predicting the immediate downfall of California High Speed Rail for almost 20 years. Complicated projects, particularly when first tried in California or anywhere will have additional problems and opposition from people who don’t see any benefits for them. This was the same in 1817 when New York Governor Dewitt Clinton ordered construction of the 363 mile Erie Canal. It was called “Clinton’s Folly” by his critics. But it secured New York State and the Port of New York becoming the gateway to the “West”.
Now things get interesting. At a recent meeting of the Clark County Commission videoed in Las Vegas, managers in charge of the Virgin Trains USA project gave an interesting presentation saying their Las Vegas Train will be electrified and run at speeds up to 180 miles per hour. Their Florida service uses diesel locomotives and have a top speed of 125 miles per hour. They plan to start service between Las Vegas and Victorville by 2023. Their next goal is to extend service from Victorville to Palmdale. This will not only open connections to Metrolink services at Palmdale. But could also allow HSR service to be extended to Los Angeles. No word what route Virgin Trains USA would take to get to Los Angeles. The current planning for the California High Speed Rail Authority is to dig miles of tunnel between Burbank and Palmdale. This would be a major challenge for a private company like Virgin Trains USA to do on their own. The State of California is already issuing millions of dollars of tax free bonds for Virgin Trains USA to be used to fund rail construction between Victorville and Las Vegas.
It makes sense to extend HSR service from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and Anaheim. But that doesn’t mean that work can’t continue to build High Speed Rail in the San Joaquin Valley. What is needed is a network of connecting services to make High Speed Rail service profitable and popular. High Speed Rail can carry millions of people hundreds of miles throughout California. California has plenty of congested roads with cars and trucks spewing tons of Greenhouse Gases. Transferring people to fast, frequent well connected trains goes a long way to reducing pollution and congestion.