Editorial by Noel T. Braymer
Recently I was watching on a local access cable TV channel a discussion about plans to add 4 more lanes between Del Mar and Oceanside on the I-5 Freeway. The panel had representatives from Caltrans and SANDAG the planning agency for San Diego County. These 4 new lanes would be a combination HOV lanes and toll road for single occupancy vehicles. What got my attention was the fact that traffic on the I-5 is 10 percent heavier on the weekends than during the workweek and another 10 percent heavier in the summer than the rest of the year.
Anyone who has been on the I-5 in San Diego County knows traffic is getting worse every year. What is causing this heavy off-peak travel? It comes from people north of San Diego County coming as tourists to San Diego County and northern Mexico. This show did mention the Coaster rail service between Oceanside and San Diego. But there was no mention of the need for more double tracking to expand rail service in San Diego County or of rail service from Amtrak Surfliner or Metrolink.
It is ironic given the potential demand on the weekends and off peak that Metrolink recently announced service cutbacks to “save” money as of February 15th. The largest cutbacks were for service out of Oceanside on the weekends. For now there is one round trip each from Oceanside on the weekends to Los Angeles and San Bernardino. These new schedules are in place until summer so there is hope service may increase latter. Current track work on the weekends between Mission Viejo/Laguna Niguel and Irvine is making a mess of on time performance this winter. Let’s hope that with summer the Coaster, Metrolink and Amtrak can start to get their act together to increase ridership and revenue by capturing more of the traffic to San Diego County.
Let’s look at what works to increase ridership and revenue for regional passenger train service. The most recent example of this would be the Capitol Corridor which runs 170 miles between San Jose and Auburn with the majority of the trains running the 134 miles between San Jose and Sacramento. Back around 1998 the Capitol Corridor had 4 round trips a day and annual ridership was around 463,000. Ten years latter service was 16 round trips on weekdays, ridership rose 245% to 1.6 million and revenues were up 276% from $6.25 million to $23.52 million. The cost per passenger mile went from 33 cents per mile to about 18 cents per mile and future service expansion can drop that to at least 13 cents per passenger mile.
So what happened? In 1998 the Capitol Corridor had 4 sets of equipment for 4 round trips a day. This equipment was capable of running a second round trip a day. A second round trip had the potential to bring in double the revenue over the increased costs from the second frequency. Well what happened as frequencies increased so did ridership because it became more convenient to take the train. When service went from 6 to 7 round trips a day ridership jumped 40%! When ridership went from 8 to 9 round trips a day the ridership jumped another 40%! To get past 8 round trips a day additional equipment was needed and the operating subsidy for the Capitol Corridor went up a little. Since then the Capitol Corridor’s operating budget has stayed the same as service increased from 9 round trips up to 16 round trips on weekdays. The last 7 round trips were not paid with taxpayer’s money but from increased revenue from ridership!
This is not a unique experience. Way back in the early 1970’s with the creation of Amtrak ridership between Los Angeles and San Diego on the “San Diegan” trains was just over 300,000 annually with 3 trains daily. In the mid-70’s the State of California under Caltrans started paying Amtrak to add more trains on the San Diegans. By 1979 there were 6 round trips a day and ridership more than tripled to over a million riders annually. More interestingly after years of battles with the Southern Pacific service on the San Diegans was extended north of Los Angeles to Santa Barbara with one round trip in 1988. This one service extension dramatically increased revenues for the San Diegans. So much so that the new service eliminated the subsidy the State paid for a few years for the San Diegans. What this illustrates is improving ridership and revenue for corridor services needs a decent level of frequencies. Maximum effect seems to be from 8 to 12 round trips a day. Just as important is the need to expand service either by extending the trains or providing better connections to other trains to maximize revenue and ridership.
In the case of Metrolink, it seems to look at itself as a commuter railroad not a regional railroad. Ridership is very heavy during rush hours. But there is plenty of potential capacity on the weekends and off peak when ridership is now much lower. In order to capture this off peak market however will require decent levels of frequent service (between 8 to 12 round trips a day) and extended service or connection to other markets. While the longest route on Metrolink is 87 miles, it has 512 route miles in total, so that the potential for connections just within Metrolink is great. Metrolink and Coaster could jointly operate non-rush hour service from San Diego to Orange County and up to San Bernardino. Some trains might only operate as far as Riverside or even northern Orange County but the service could be connected by bus to Riverside and San Bernardino. Coaster and Amtrak could provide easy connections to each other. In the summer and holidays Amtrak and San Diego County could work together using Coaster equipment to provide increased capacity to carry more riders between Los Angeles and San Diego.
In these times of both budget shortages and crowded highways we can still get better use and improved revenues from exiting rail passenger service. There is a travel market to and from San Diego County from Lancaster, Palmdale, Ventura, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange County and the rest of Southern California. Minor service adjustments and new weekend service that connects and is frequent will quickly fill up trains. There are over 7 million people combined in San Diego and the Inland Empire counties. For Southern California as a whole there are 24 million people. To get more of these people to ride the train more often there needs to be more service to more places people want to go.