By Noel T. Braymer
Now that I have my weekends free, I am taking full advantage of Metrolink’s weekend day pass. For 10 dollars anyone can travel anywhere Metrolink goes to on the weekends for a day. This includes transit transfers to the same transit services a Metrolink ticket gives you during the work week. During the 4th of July weekend I decided to go to San Bernardino to check out the route and see the finished work at the San Bernardino Station of the new run through station tracks, platforms and pedestrian bridge across the station tracks. It was a busy and very productive trip.
I caught the first weekend Metrolink train to Los Angeles out of Oceanside. I also checked out the construction work at the station. The new third track and platform is now in service. Now they are tearing out the original platform from 1984 on the east side of the station to replace it with a higher platform to make loading and unloading faster and easier. This has been done already at the new 3rd track and will likely also be done at the 2nd platform on the west side of the station. Leaving Oceanside we had a fairly good crowd of people. By the time we left Fullerton the train was almost full with few empty seats to be found. One thing about the weekend Metrolink services is there is plenty of padding in the schedules. We arrived 15 minutes early into Los Angeles.That was how much padding there was in the schedule. I believe that shorter schedules and more reliable service will go a long way to increasing ridership on Metrolink, both on the weekends and weekdays. But I realize this won’t happen overnight.
My train was scheduled to arrive at 10:30 AM at Los Angeles. My connecting train to San Bernardino was scheduled to depart at 10:35 AM which could have been a tight connection if my train had been late. As it turned out I had plenty of time. One thing that concerns me is Metrolink should do more to improve connections between trains and to transit. This would increase both ridership and revenue. But it can be hard to find what is already available with Metrolink and what is available is often not promoted. Trains to San Bernardino run more often than Metrolink’s service to Oceanside. But the San Bernardino trains are shorter and had many more empty seats. I think LA/San Bernardino service has a great deal of promise, but it needs faster, more reliable service and better connections to more places.
One problem is much of the route in Los Angeles County is single tracked. This right of way was a lightly used former Pacific Electric line bought with the help of the State from the Southern Pacific shortly before it was bought out by the Union Pacific in the 1990’s. The right of way in many places is now too narrow to easily double track. The running time is very slow in places, particularly between Union Station and the beginning of the single track on the 10 freeway, There is a very needed siding for passing on the freeway. From there at the west end of El Monte is a single tracked viaduct connection to the old SP mainline which is double tracked and used by Metrolink for a few miles. There are stations on single track at Cal State LA and Baldwin Park. I’m convinced that the future of fast service between Los Angeles and San Bernardino will lie with dedicated double tracked passenger tracks on the old SP main line. This is the only route which serves the terminals at Ontario Airport and is the only rational route that can extend high speed rail service to the Inland Empire. This can be done with blended service on dedicated double tracks such as planned between Los Angeles and Anaheim for passenger and high speed rail service on the BNSF mainline. Much the same can be done on the broad former SP main line which is wide enough for 4 tracks and is a secondary route for the UP to the parallel Union Pacific’s historic main line.
At Pomona at the east end of Los Angeles County, the tracks of the old SP merge with the old ATSF tracks which use to connect San Bernardino to Pasadena and Los Angeles. From Los Angeles, Pasadena to Azusa the old ATSF right of way is now the Gold Line light rail service. By 2021 with the completion of the Regional Connector tunnel in Los Angeles, the trains will be reorganized to start at Long Beach as the Blue Line, serving Union Station and on to Azusa. Even before that happens work is planned to begin to extend the current Gold Line along the old ATSF to Pomona, Claremont and Montclair. The problem will be squeezing the 4 tracks needed for both services to serve joint stations at Claremont and Montclair. This is not a problem at Pomona since the ATSF right of way is on the north side of the former ATSF station and Metrolink is on the south side. At both of the other two stations the plan is to put the light rail station on the north side tracks which is now used by Metrolink. This will likely require grade separated track crossings. It will also be difficult to squeeze 2 stations next to each other. This is particularly true at Claremont. At Montclair even though it is roughly a mile from Claremont, it is in San Bernardino, not Los Angeles County, so funding east of the county line will be San Bernardino’s responsibility.
Once this is all worked out, both Metrolink and Light Rail will benefit with increased ridership with passengers transferring between services. As we rode through San Bernardino County I saw possibilities with available land for new housing near Metrolink Stations. San Bernardino County could use an economic stimulus. Affordable housing with access to Metrolink would be a shot in the arm for the county to say nothing about how it would help Metrolink. As we approached San Bernardino the train crossed over the BNSF mainline and yard tracks on a high flyover which gave a panoramic view of the BNSF at work. We stopped at a new platform and track at the station. The track and platform we were on was across from the run through track and platform alongside the station. There is a pedestrian bridge with stairs and elevators to serve passengers on the platform we were on. However the bridge was not opened yet to the public at this time, so passengers had a long detour supervised by station personal to cross tracks at a grade level crossing to get to the historic old station.
Looking back it seems rather odd. The track and the platform alongside the station was available. So were the old stub end tracks and platforms on the westside of the station which were all empty. The only train that now goes east of the station is the daily Southwest Chief westbound in the morning and eastbound in the evening. In the near future all San Bernardino Metrolink trains will be extended to a new station downtown which will also be a transit center.Test runs on the tracks to downtown started this April, with passenger service expected latter this year. Besides buses there will be regular Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) rail service connecting at the Metrolink downtown San Bernardino station from Redlands by 2020. There will also be rush hour Metrolink service from Redlands as well. But my question is why didn’t my train stop at an available platform next to the station and avoid a long detour?
The old San Bernardino Station looked in fairly good shape. A major attraction at the station is, it is the home of the San Bernardino History and Railroad Museum with plenty of material on both the history of San Bernardino and railroads. Across the street from the station is a small fairly new shopping center. It included a few places to eat and it was now lunch time. I settled for the “Hong Kong Express” for Chinese food. I got a very filling meal for $7.01. The area around the station is slowly looking better with new construction.
After lunch I planned to take the 1:05 PM departure back to Los Angeles. While I was waiting around the station I saw a Metrolink train eastbound coming to the station which had come from the south were the Colton Metrolink yards are and turned right towards the station. I knew there weren’t trains from Orange County running on the weekends in the middle of the day to San Bernardino. The train looked clean and some of the windows were wet. Well it turned out to be the 1:05 PM departure for Los Angeles. Before the train arrived in Los Angeles the conductor over the PA told the passengers to get to the exits before the train stopped because there was going to be a large crowd of people on the platform wanting to get on the train. What had happened was the train departing at 1:45 PM out of Los Angeles was cancelled due to mechanical problems. It was now around 2:45 PM and the trainset I was on was put into service to pick up the passengers who’s train was now over an hour late departing.
After I was able to get past crowds of people blocking the path to the ramps to the station tunnel leaving the train, I had over an hour before the last Metrolink train to Oceanside left. I didn’t want to go to far and miss my train home, so using my Metrolink day pass I was able to catch the Gold line train to East Los Angeles. On my return leg I got off at the station just east of the Los Angeles River. I followed the Gold Line tracks in the median of 1st St down to Little Tokyo. The current tracks on 1st street have a temporary shoo-fly track to connect the Gold Line north to Union Station out to Azusa. As part of the Regional Connector project there is a new subway station being built in Little Tokyo where nearby portals will be built so future trains from Santa Monica will emerge at 1st St to East Los Angeles. There will also be a portal next to Alameda St near were the current surface Little Tokyo station is now where future Blue Line trains from Long Beach will surface on their way to Union Station and past Azusa.
Once I left Los Angeles the train trip was rather humdrum until we were between Fullerton and Anaheim stations when the train came to a full stop for several minutes. I don’t know why. There was an announcement on the PA but I couldn’t hear it. I usually hear PA announcements on the train with no problems. But on the PA with some crews I hear sounds but can’t make out what they are saying. Finally we started moving. But lost more time as we had to wait for 2 northbound trains to clear the sidings before we could continue. We were about 7 minutes late leaving San Clemente. But because of the padding we arrived almost 10 minutes early.
The good news is Metrolink have new locomotives to replace their old ones. But it will still be a few months before these new locomotives will be ready to go into service. Metrolink’s marketing is improving with a major effort to increase ridership during holidays. This is a largely untapped market of discretionary travel by rail which is outside normal commuting patterns. Metrolink is the only rail passenger service in northern Los Angeles County and most of the Inland Empire. Connecting with other regions of Southern California will open new markets for people to travel. But for this to happen there have to be trains running on time and when and where people want to travel.