Can Metrolink be a Thruway Bus?

Opinions by Noel T. Braymer

Train 761 is the only Amtrak Train to travel north of Los Angeles that doesn’t have either a connecting train or origination from San Diego. Train 761 travels to San Luis Obispo and has connecting Thruway Bus service there to San Jose. The plan is to extend the 761 all the way to San Francisco some time in the future. Ridership on the 761 could be better. Some think the problem is 761 leaves Los Angeles too early at 7:35 AM. Considering how crowded airports, freeways and commuter train stations are at 6 AM and earlier I have my doubts that is the problem. There is a connecting Thruway Bus that leaves Santa Ana at 5:25 AM with one stop at Fullerton which gets to Los Angeles at 6:35 AM. But from Oceanside I can catch Metrolink 603 at 5:16 AM and arrive at LAUS by 7:20 AM. I did this once and my biggest worry was arriving early enough to catch the Amtrak Train. Turned out I didn’t have to worry the two trains shared the same platform and it was a guaranteed connection. In order to get a time slot during morning rush hour in the opposite direction of rush hour train traffic, Caltrans and Amtrak had to borrow an existing Metrolink slot to start up service to San Luis Obispo. As part of the deal train 761 is a joint Amtrak/Metrolink train and Metrolink tickets are accepted on the train. Not only does the 761 connect with Metrolink 603 from Oceanside during the work week but also the 204 at 7:26 AM from Lancaster and the 307 at 7:20 AM from San Bernardino.

The trainset for train 761 leaves San Luis Obispo as Train 790 arriving in Los Angeles at 7:10 PM. This train goes all the way to San Diego now with no need for passengers to change trains. There are also connecting Metrolink trains at this time of night during the work week to Lancaster at 7:40 and 9:25 PM and San Bernardino at 7:20 and 8:30 PM. With these existing Metrolink connections to trains 761 and 790 it should be easy to expand service from these connecting trains to Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and beyond to the Bay Area. For now on the weekends Metrolink doesn’t connect in the morning at Los Angeles with Amtrak 1761 from Oceanside, Lancaster or San Bernardino. But for the work week these connections should be all done on a single seamless ticket. As it is I doubt most people are even aware of these connections or how to get tickets to use them. I bought 2 tickets, one from Oceanside to Los Angeles and had a second ready to get to San Luis Obispo. When riding a connecting Thruway Bus to an Amtrak Train, Amtrak tickets are used to ride the bus. Why can’t the same be true to ride Metrolink to Amtrak on a train that already accepts both Amtrak and Metrolink tickets?

Layover tracks like this allow for easy transfers seen here at Laguna Niguel /Mission Viejo

There is an effort to make this happen. Caltrans, Amtrak, Metrolink and Coaster have been working together through the LOSSAN Joint Powers Agency to create a combined schedule. This super schedule will show how all these services connect to each other. As part of this process the different agencies are working together to improve or create more connections between trains and to buses. But even now when trying to get a ticket for a connection within Metrolink the system often doesn’t recognize connections that exist. Here are some examples of this from the Metrolink web site. For trips from Oceanside to Los Angeles only one suggestion involves a transfer and that is by way of San Bernardino which is almost a 5 hour trip. What is ignored is a connection on Metrolink 850 leaving Oceanside for Riverside at 7:30 AM. You can connect to train 687 at Laguna Niguel and get to Los Angeles by 10:02 AM in 2 hours and 32 minutes. For trips from Oceanside to San Bernardino the web site has the one direct train and 2 alternatives with transfers. Both alternatives leave Oceanside on the same train and transfer to 2 different trains at Union Station for San Bernardino. What is ignored again is train 850 out of Oceanside to Riverside. Following this train by about 45 minutes is Metrolink 800 from Laguna Niguel for San Bernardino. This is an easy transfer but the Metrolink web site has nothing about it nor do the ticket machines when you want to buy tickets. No doubt there are more examples of this just on Metrolink. This problem will grow as more trains are added not just to Metrolink but also to Coaster and Surfliners. To make connections like these to work we need seamless ticketing for transfers . We have much of the hardware to do this now. Metrolink has had ticket  machines that sell both Amtrak and Metrolink tickets for up to 5 years.  Several of these machines are in places not directly served by Metrolink such as San Diego and San Luis Obispo. But can a person get a seamless ticket to ride from San Bernardino to San Jose via San Luis Obispo? It seems unlikely when you can’t get a ticket to Los Angeles from Oceanside with a connection after 6:36 AM until noon for a 7:30 AM departure that connects to Los Angeles.

Metrolink Ticket Machine also for Amtrak Tickets in San Luis Obispo

There are plenty of other opportunities for new connections between services. For Metrolink riders Thruway Bus connections will be possible to Bakersfield, Palm Springs, and Santa Barbara among others. Metrolink riders should be able to connect to more trains to all the Coaster Stations in San Diego County. With Amtrak most of California and the United States would be available from a local Metrolink Station in areas that don’t have an Amtrak Station. Simple connections can create additional frequencies to routes making them more convenient and increase ridership. Extending Coaster and Metrolink Trains to San Diego and Orange Counties will allow more transfers. This can mean more riders from San Diego County can transfer to Metrolink Trains to the Inland Empire in Orange County. By simply running shuttle buses between Riverside and San Bernardino additional frequencies can be created between Orange and San Diego Counties to San Bernardino. The airlines learned long ago that connections are critical to ridership and revenues if an airline wanted to stay in business. For rail service as a whole to grow and reach its potential there needs to be coordination between services to provide connections. But so far many connections remain ignored and are not being marketed. That is throwing away easy money.

There are problems that need to be fixed to creating a coordinated system of different rail and bus services to provide seamless services to all potential markets. A combined schedule that shows all the connections is a good start with the different agencies working together to improve connections. Improved software is needed that will show connections and print tickets so an occasional rider has no trouble getting tickets and making connections between services. I have met people who waited for a train at a platform not knowing they had a ticket for an Amtrak Bus and ended up missing their bus. With eticketing more people can buy tickets online and not have to wait in line for tickets from a ticket machine and worry about missing their train. Very important is educating  the employees of the different agencies particularly at the stations and on the trains to help passengers make connections. There is a lot of material to cover to know all the possible connections even now let alone what we can have in the future. The more people know the easier it will be to make this work. Passengers won’t try a connection if it is too complicated or use it a second time. But in terms of increased market, ridership and revenue it is well worthwhile by getting better use of existing resources with and improved connections .

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