Commentary

Metrolink Safety and Passenger Rail in Southern California

Reply to a Los Angeles Times report
by Paul Dyson

We should be grateful to the Los Angeles Times for bringing up the topic of rail
safety, even though the pieces that filled your columns last Sunday 27 September
seemed to be more concerned with causing a sensation rather than examining the
causes of the problem. I would be the first to agree that the Buena Vista
crossing at San Fernando Road in Burbank needs to be grade separated. But since
plans are already advanced to do just that, why pick on that location when the
map you published on line indicates as bad or worse problems in Anaheim, Corona,
and other communities? Or why not pick on Caltrans for their dilatoriness in
completing the plans and beginning construction in Burbank rather than the City
engineer who has to work within the rules imposed by the FRA, the California
PUC, and other regulatory agencies?

Your reporters failed because they did not dig deep enough into the problems of
Metrolink as a whole. They failed to highlight the fact that we have three
taxpayer funded agencies providing “main line” passenger train service in
Southern California, (Amtrak, Metrolink and Coaster). Nor did they make clear
that the rights of way are owned either by the County transportation agencies or
the Class 1 private railroads (BNSF Railway and Union Pacific). Metrolink is
little more than an operating agency beholden to the counties that formed it and
a stepchild when it comes to funding. If there is blame to be attached for
safety lapses there are plenty of targets. Federal, state and county agencies
and stockholder owned railroads are all involved in the administrative mess that
is railroading in Southern California.

In addition to dangerously divided responsibility for safety issues, especially
at grade crossings, this “structure” results in the complete failure to provide
Southland residents with a viable, user-friendly alternative to the passenger
car. No attempt is made to coordinate schedules in order to provide seamless
journeys around the region. Indeed, Metrolink cannot even provide good
connections between its own routes. Such is the lack of cooperation between
Metrolink and Amtrak that a so-called intercity train from San Luis Obispo waits
at Moorpark for over thirty minutes for Metrolink trains in the opposite
direction. This is especially ironic as the Chairperson of Metrolink is a City
Council member for Moorpark. His townsfolk must really enjoy the additional air
pollution from a large diesel locomotive every day!

In reality the combined Amtrak, Metrolink and San Diego County Coaster and
Sprinter services are still boutique operations, amounting to less than 300
trains per day serving 83 stations in eight counties with a combined population
of about 21.5 million (2008 census estimate). I estimate that there are about
15 to 18 million passengers per year on these trains. Let’s contrast this with
Switzerland, which, coincidentally, is similar in size to the southern
California area served by passenger rail. On a map it would fit roughly between
Palm Springs and Santa Barbara. The population of Switzerland is about 7.5
million, and the people are served by 2,000 miles of railroad at over 800
stations. As a result of a plan laid down in 1982 Switzerland now has a unified
timetable and ticketing system which provides through journeys and connections
between almost any two points in the country, including local buses and even
lake ferries. Imagine buying a
through ticket from Santa Clarita to Avalon with guaranteed connections by
train, light rail and ferry! As a result the Swiss and their visitors made over
350 million train journeys in 2008, or nearly 50 per head of population.

Now the Swiss did not build this system up overnight, nor was it inexpensive.
But had we in Southern California embarked on such a plan in 1992 when Metrolink
was formed we would have a far more user friendly and productive system, even if
we were running no more trains or had no more stations than we do now. Without
connections the journey options for passengers are limited to the stations on
their line. With connections those options increase exponentially.

Unfortunately we have suffered from a lack of vision and a lack of leadership.
For years the lead planning agency, the Southern California Association of
Governments, was mesmerized by Maglev technology which may or may not have
worked well, but was completely unaffordable. In contrast Metrolink and Amtrak
were barely considered in their plans even though we had miles of existing
rights of way that could have been exploited and improved.

Perhaps the problem with these conventional rail systems is that they are not
ultra expensive, and can be improved incrementally as small amounts of funding
become available. Is it the lack of big ticket projects, with accompanying
campaign donations, that has caused affordable improvements to be neglected in
favor of a subway to the sea? Or perhaps the issue is that the majority of
public funds for transportation are given to the counties, and this is a
regional project requiring the counties to give up some of their authority to a
Joint Powers agency? That’s for the politicians to answer. All I can tell you
is that, as a taxpayer, I am paying for trains that don’t connect, and for
bureaucrats that don’t cooperate with each other.

The good news is that it is not too late to make the necessary changes that will
give us a public transportation system that we can use. A unified passenger
rail authority for Southern California could quickly generate schedules and
start work on a ticketing system that will connect those 83 stations into 3,403
travel options for would be passengers. At the same time it could afford the
best safety training and systems, and speak with a unified voice to ensure that
dangerous locations such as The Times correctly highlighted are given immediate
attention instead of being shuffled around multiple agencies. Over the years
taxpayers have voted for taxes and bonds with the hope of enjoying a safe and
usable passenger rail system, but they have been badly let down by these
multiple agencies. It’s time for these “Berlin walls” to come down. It’s time
we enjoyed value for our money.

Paul Dyson, 9/30/09

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