By RailPAC Director and Review Editor Noel T. Braymer — Major airports generate lots of traffic. LAX alone averages over 160,000 passengers a day. Airports are also major employment centers, with many airport employees commuting to the airport every day. Further, airports are commercial centers with many businesses that want to be close to the airport. Traffic congestion is common around airports, and parking at most airports is expensive and hard to find. Airports are often second “downtowns” in their region. Caltrans Rail Division has been getting many letters for years asking about connections to California airports via Amtrak trains. Caltrans has on their web page an extensive list of the transit connections between rail stations and California airports at www.amtrakcalifornia.com/airports/access.htm.
The reality is that few people are now using trains to go to the airports in California. While it is possible, it is not very convenient in many cases and often requires several transfers. Yet this is easy to change. An example of this is the new FlyAway bus service between LAUS and LAX. A short walk from the platforms at LAUS, passengers can catch a direct FlyAway bus to the airport which drops them off at their terminal. There is room for luggage under the passenger compartment, so you don’t have to sit on your bags. At $3.00 one-way the bus saves time and money over parking at or near the airport. What is exciting about this new service is that its success could lead to new rail/air connection from other stations and to other airports. It could also lead in the future to direct rail service to LAX and other airports.
How much you must walk, particularly with luggage, is a major factor in choosing how to get to the airport. Even the strongest person soon wearies walking up steps carrying bags. This is compounded when forced to get in and out of vehicles and climb stairs when forced to make transfers. In Europe there are many examples of direct rail service at major airports. Often you can check your bags and confirm your flight at a train station when going to the airport. It may be some time before we get to that level of service.
LAX isn’t expanding their FlyAway bus service out of the kindness of their heart; it’s being done to settle a lawsuit. Los Angeles needs to reduce traffic to LAX and encourage passengers to use other airports. The cities around LAX and the local residents rose up in opposition to proposals to expand LAX because of noise, traffic and air pollution. Simply moving traffic to other locations is no solution. More buses is not a long term solution. LAX is swamped with shuttle vans and buses already. Every car rental, hotel, off-site parking lot and airport shuttle service has its own vehicles, which at LAX and other airports are often at near gridlock.
Simply parking cars outside the airport and busing or using a “people mover” to the airport does little to reduce traffic or air pollution around the airport. Rail can pick up people closer to their homes and reduce traffic in the entire region-not just around the airport and for trips to the airport. Inside the airport there will be a need for better connection at the airport to rail. Running a transit bus to the airport doesn’t meet the needs of a person with luggage or a tight connection to make. Increasingly airports have “people movers” to deal with the traffic congestion inside the terminal areas. Planning will be needed to insure there is a seamless connection to all terminals to regional rail and rail transit. The situation at SFO is an example of what not to do.
Much of the air traffic at major airports is with small planes going very short distances. For example, many of the flights from San Diego are going to Los Angeles. Using rail as a “connecting flight” (for which it is used in Europe) is possible and would be a more efficient use of limited airspace and airport use. Rail is the solution to many of the problems facing California and future airport service. Starting with simple, modest improvements we can expand rail’s role while making travel more convenient, less polluting, and less wasteful of resources.
(For other commentaries by Mr. Braymer on this subject see the Archives section of this website.)