By Noel T. Braymer
Over the last 2 years or so there has been much to praise about Metrolink. New Tier 4 low emission Metrolink Locomotives will soon be in service. This promises to improve on time performance and quality of service. Starting this summer Metrolink has been expanding instead of reducing service on holiday weekends. This is a first step for attracting more discretionary travel on Metrolink and increasing badly needed revenue. Getting people to ride for a first time will hopefully lead to more people riding Metrolink regularly. Not that long ago breakdowns with the ticketing machines which are over 20 years old was a constant problem. Since then in record time Metrolink under new management introduced on line ticketing which even Amtrak already had for a few years before this. This gave more options when people couldn’t buy tickets because of long lines at their station’s ticket machines other than running off the train at a station stop to buy a ticket under the supervision of the conductor and running back on the train before it left. While this is welcomed progress, Metrolink still has problems dating back to its earliest days which still need to be fixed.
Metrolink’s “real” name is the Southern California Regional Rail Authority. It has been in operation 25 years this October and is made up of 5 counties in Southern California. At least for me in the early 1990’s regional rail meant rail passenger service to and for the entire Southern California region. A major problem of what later was called Metrolink was there weren’t many people at least in this country who knew how to run a regional rail service. Instead many of the original staff members for what is now called Metrolink came from East Coast commuter rail services. They were not aware of the jump in ridership in 1988 on the then San Diegans trains after just one train was extended from San Diego and Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. They seemed unaware of what effect for the airlines the use of Hub and Spoke operations had on increasing airline ridership and reducing its operating costs in the 1980’s. I doubt that they paid attention to innovations in regional rail service outside the United States. Most regional rail services in the world run frequently day and night, 7 days a week. The East Coast commuter people seemed unaware that every time Amtrak skipped stations to run faster it lost ridership.
I remember I was with of a group of people attending a meeting on the creation of what is now called Metrolink. A recently hired planner for Metrolink from back east started glowing about the possibilities of running A/B trains on the future San Bernardino Line from the middle of the San Gabriel Valley. A/B trains are express commuter trains which skip half of the stations, some stations are A’s, the others B’s to carry people quickly to downtown. The reality was by the 1990’s fewer people were commuting downtown even along the East Coast since the construction of freeways. This is particularly true in downtown Los Angeles which is a regional hub for travel in California. But Los Angeles wasn’t a large rush hour destination compared to large cities on the East Coast.
Today even fewer people are commuting to downtown Los Angeles than in the 90’s. Downtown Los Angeles is one of the few places today it is possible to build new high density housing in Los Angeles County. Increasingly people who work downtown are living downtown. Commuter rail service was created to allow people who worked downtown to be able to buy high quality affordable housing and get to and from work in a reasonable amount of time. This was originally done in Los Angeles with the Pacific Electric trains. But while the Pacific Electric was a major commuter service for downtown Los Angeles up to the 1940’s, it also served other major areas of Southern California. Most Interurban rail services in the early 20th century traveled outside of downtown to beaches, amusement parks and inland resorts during weekends and off peak travel times to increase revenues and fill up their trains during the rest of the day. Maybe it is time for Metrolink to learn from the Pacific Electric. Their efforts to increase ridership on holiday weekends is a good start.
But a lot of damage was done when Metrolink was started in 1992. Instead of coordinating the schedules of the Metrolink lines to allow easy transfers between lines, it is still often impossible to transfer conveniently at Union Station on Metrolink. The first yard Metrolink bought was part of the old SP Taylor Yard near downtown Los Angeles. This had the convenience of allowing work on the trains of all the Metrolink lines in one place. But this also meant that much the equipment spent most of its time during the day at Taylor Yard and not in revenue service. At night equipment was stored at the end of the line after the last run of the night to be ready for morning rush hour. But this meant there was no way to maintain or service the equipment at night. No airline or profitable transportation business would let capital equipment sit idle and not in revenue service during most of the day. Airlines do most of their maintenance at night when travel demand is lowest. Airlines rotate planes for major maintenance to be done in the shortest time possible. Since 1992 Metrolink have an additional yard in Colton serving the San Bernardino and Inland Empire trains as well as sharing a yard in Camp Pendleton with the Coaster service for some of the Orange County and some Inland Empire trains. But most often trains spend time in storage at night the end of the line and on weekends.
There has been much said in the media lately that the Metrolink San Bernardino Line ridership has been losing riders to the LA Metro Gold Line since it was extended to Azusa. Construction will soon begin to extend the Gold Line east of Azusa to Montclair with 3 stations and rights of way shared with Metrolink. This opens up opportunities for increased ridership for Metrolink from transfers with the Gold Line. Instead of worrying about ridership to downtown Los Angeles, Metrolink should be looking to increase it’s passenger miles to increase revenues. One way to do that would be to improve the connections for the San Bernardino line to the Antelope and Ventura lines at Union Station. The advantage to using these lines is Metrolink has control over all three of them. This makes it easier to add trains or change schedules to improve connections at Union Station between these 3 lines. It might be possible to improve connections to the Orange County line at Los Angeles to the other 3 lines. But the schedule of the Orange County Line is harder to adjust since it uses part of the BNSF mainline which limits scheduling flexibility. What will be needed is the cooperation of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Ventura Counties. Once these counties understand this will increase revenues of those Metrolink lines in their counties and lower the costs of operating their trains, their support will be likely come around.
Basically this would create a hub and spoke service for Metrolink at Los Angeles Union Station. The reasons for doing this are the same why the airlines do it: to increase ridership, passenger miles and revenues. Los Angeles has always been more of a hub than a destination. The freeways have several major interchanges ringing downtown Los Angeles, but most of those cars are not going to downtown Los Angeles, they are going through it. Ideally when run through tracks are finally built at Los Angeles Union Station people will be able to travel between counties on Metrolink with less need to transfer. But the best way to increase ridership is to offer service to more places more often. The cheapest way to do that is to better use of existing services and capital.