Opinion by Noel T. Braymer
The experiment with running the morning Surfliner Express from San Diego to Los Angeles isn’t going well. The train has a poor on-time record and ridership is lower than the train it replaced. What would be better is to run all Surfliners between San Diego and Los Angeles in 2 hours and 25 minutes which is 3 minutes faster than the express. This could be done with 7 stops instead of the 4 for the express. This doesn’t require running the trains any faster but spending less time stopped at the stations. If you save 2 minutes at 7 station stops that is up to 14 minutes saved on the running time. In addition if you take out some of the padding in the schedule then more time is saved. So if all the Surfliner trains are run with 7 stops which now are scheduled at 2 hours and 40, cutting out 15 minutes from the schedule is a running time of 2 hours and 25 minutes.
So what’s the catch? Why hasn’t this been done already? In order to shorten time at stations which now can run between 4 to 5 minutes per station requires the use of passenger cars with automatic opening and closing low floor doors like the ones on the Pacific Surfliner or Metrolink/Coaster bi-level equipment. To run the current 11 round trip trains today there is not enough equipment to run all trains with Surfliner equipment all the time. Because of this Amfleet equipment which is slower to load and unload is still used on some trains which determines the schedule for all trains. There are 2 solutions to this problem. One is to use commuter equipment either leased or to turn over some scheduled Surfliner runs to Metrolink and Coaster. The other is to borrow commuter equipment to use with the Amfleet equipment which would allow faster loading times. There are other problems that will need to be addressed. There are busy days when it is hard to load everyone on time. Much of this can be handled by being more organized. Making sure people are waiting for the train near the train door where they want to get on. Making sure people who need help with luggage or getting on or off the train get it will also save time. Tighter management is also needed to insure equipment is maintained and ready to run on time. Schedules may need to be adjusted to prevent conflicts with other trains. Money will have to be spent to insure the trains run on time which will in turn brings in more money from greater ridership.
What if you still want to go faster and still run express trains? Well there is a better way to do that. The problem with express trains is that they bypass stations and customers. But if you stop at every station you can’t go very fast. The solution has been know for years which are called sweep trains. It is connecting local trains with express trains to make it easier for people to transfer between trains. A Coaster Train leaving San Diego can get a head start on an express Surliner train while making all stops. By the time the express trains gets to Oceanside it will catch up with the local. At Oceanside passengers from Encinitas, Poinsettia,and Carlsbad Village Stations can transfer to the express train. If the express train stops at Solana Beach then passengers from the local train could transfer there from Old Town and Sorrento Valley. With 2 stops the express train has already served 5 additional stations. A Metrolink train can also leave ahead of this express. If it starts at Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo it can pick up passengers at all stops for them to transfer at Irvine and Anaheim. The express could then pass the local at Fullerton. In the other direction the local trains would follow the express out of Fullerton and out of Oceanside.
At this point the express Surfliner trains gets to Los Angeles. Now what? The money in transportation is made in generating passenger miles. To get the full advantage of an express service you should run it as far as possible. Currently there are 4 round trip from San Diego to Santa Barbara with one of those going as far as San Luis Obispo. There is one additional San Luis Obispo to San Diego train and one Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo train. This last train has a connection with a morning Metrolink train from Oceanside but this is never advertised. What would save a great deal of time is reducing the layover for these trains coming and going from San Diego to north of Los Angeles from the 15 minutes used today sitting at Union Station. The point is faster running time is not only useful for trips to Los Angeles but also to Oxnard, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Now there are still 7 round trips that don’t go past Los Angeles which would do better if they did. More trains on the coast are a possibility although not easy to arrange with the UP. One market that has yet to be tried is extending Surfliners north to Sylmar, Santa Clarita, Palmdale and Lancaster. This can be part of plans to run faster service from Los Angeles to the High Desert. For all Surfliners there should be connections at LAUS with Metrolink to the west San Fernando Valley and Ventura County as well as Metrolink to San Bernardino.
The issue facing LOSSAN which is made up of transportation agencies of Southern California is what is the future of the Pacific Surfliners? LOSSAN is looking at taking over operation of the trains and contracting the service possibility to Amtrak. But it will face many questions : will it need to buy equipment and what kind and how much? The trains need to be as productive as possible since LOSSAN will be responsible for paying for the operation of the trains. Not only does the Surfliners have to connect with Metrolink and Coaster but also the San Joaquins, Capital Corridor, Starlight, Southwest Chief, Sunset and many connecting Thurway buses. Improving the running times and the connectivity of the Surfliners with the longest average trips lengths will provide the most productive and efficient service. It will be a major job ahead for LOSSSAN.