Analysis by Noel T. Braymer with photos
Recently Los Angeles City Council member Bill Rosendahl called for the creation of Metrolink service between downtown Los Angeles and Ontario Airport in a Motion at the City Council. Mr Rosendahl’s district surrounds LAX and his views reflect his constituents demand that regional air travel be spread out to other local airports. This Motion calls for “A direct Metrolink connection to LA/Ontario airport would link Santa Barbara, Palmdale, Ontario and Palm Springs to the regional transportation network. It would allow international passengers to fly through Ontario and get to Downtown Los Angeles in 20 minutes, as compared to a 40-minutes commute to LAX.” Things appear to be moving quickly on this proposal. The LA City Council subommittee on Transportation which Rosendahl chairs has asked the city’s airport agency which runs both LAX and Ontario Airports to work with Metrolink on a proposal to implement this plan and asking them to report their preliminary findings in 30 days. Metrolink is already on record that they can’t achieve this goal under current conditions. It is 57 miles from Union Station to Ontario Airport which would require an average speed of around 170 miles per hour to travel in 20 minutes. Travel to Palm Springs and Santa Barbara are also out of the service area of Metrolink and would be best handled by LOSSAN. So what can be done that is reasonable to improve rail connections to the airports and reduce local traffic congestion around them?
This picture shows the railroad that already run right in front of the terminals at Ontario Airport
As you can see from this picture much of this railroad by Ontario Airport has a single track on a right of way with room for more tracks
A problem that Metrolink has with serving Ontario Airport from Union Station is of its two rail lines in the area the one between Los Angeles and San Bernardino is 2 miles away from the airport at its closest point. The second Metrolink Line is on the UP Mainline to Riverside which goes along the side of the airport on the opposite end of Ontario Airport’s terminals. This Metrolink service is generally limited to rush hour traffic on this busy UP mainline. The UP is highly resistant to additional passenger service on its railroad. There is a railroad with only Amtrak service now 3 times a week that runs right in front of the terminals of Ontario Airport. It is owned by the Union Pacific which acquired it when it bought the Southern Pacific Railroad. The UP Line that is now used by Metrolink runs parallel in many places with the old SP railroad that runs in front of Ontario Airport. The old SP line is largely single tracked and the right of way has room for additional tracks. A short segment of this old SP route is already used by Metrolink for the current San Bernardino Line in El Monte. Where this old SP line has congestion problems is at Colton Yard which is near the interchange with the BNSF Railroad and to the busy UP Colton cutoff which connects the UP mainline between Arizona and the San Joaquin Valley. Because of this passenger rail service might not be able to go further east than the Ontario Airport on the old SP Line. However there is a connection from the old SP Line to the Metrolink San Bernardino Line east of Ontario at Fontana near the California Motor Speedway in an industrial area. Improvements to this currently very slow connection could extend service past San Bernardino.
This is the view of the downtown Pomona Metrolink Station. On the right is the UP rail line to Riverside used by some Metrolink trains. On the left sharing this broad right of way is the old SP line that goes directly to Ontario Airport.
To have decent Ontario Airport rail passenger service would require building a new railroad next to the present UP tracks on the old SP Line from Los Angeles Union Station to Ontario. Even this will require the cooperation of the UP which won’t pay attention to any proposal unless they see the money first and receive a great deal of political pressure. However using this new fast railroad has many advantages. Metrolink has capacity problems now between LA and El Monte which is hemmed in for most of this segment in a narrow right of way for only one track in the middle of the I-10 Freeway. Additional express trains could be run through Alhambra on this old SP Line and share existing Metrolink stations at El Monte and Pomona where Metrolink has a station on the UP Mainline which shares the right of way with the old SP line. There is also a downtown Ontario Amtrak Station which could be upgraded fo Metrolink service. With a connection to the San Bernadino Metrolink Line express trains could also stop at the stations at Fontana, Rialto and San Bernardino and be extended past San Bernardino. Such an upgraded passenger railroad could be used for additional Metrolink service and for the Inland Empire leg of future High Speed Rail service. It is unlikely that trains will run at over 200 miles per hour on this line or in any urban area. But speeds over 100 miles per hour with additional grade separation is quite possible.
This photo from the 1980’s shows the tracks that still butt right up to LAX . This publically owned right of way will also be used to extend light rail on the Green and future Crenshaw Lines to LAX
What would make this Metrolink service to Ontario Airport more productive would be to extend it to LAX and as far as the Harbor area of Los Angeles. Fast express trains rarely carry many passengers because they don’t serve enough markets. The longer the route with the most stations is where you will find the busiest passenger trains. The key to ridership and revenue growth for Metrolink or any transportation service is to maximize the number of markets at the lowest cost over the longest distance. Extending train routes adds markets and increases passenger miles which is the basis of revenues. The best way to do this on Metrolink or any rail service is to copy the airlines by extending routes through a central hub. A plane from Burbank to New York would likely stop at a hub like Denver. Not only does this plane serve 2 markets by stopping but it can connect to several other markets and gain many additional passengers at the hub. This also reduces the number of flight the airline needs while serving many more cities. Metrolink should do much the same thing by running extended trains through Union Station once run through tracks are built in the next 5 years and schedule trains to connect with other routes.
This graphic shows the route of the LAX People Mover as the red line planned to connect light rail passengers and those renting cars to the airport. This People Mover will go as far as the railroad at the airport and could be used to connect rail passengers to LAX. To enlarge this or other images on this page just click on the image.
The easy part of getting to LAX by rail is that there is already a railroad near it. This railroad by LAX is owned by the Los Angeles County and goes from the edge of Downtown Los Angeles to LAX down to Torrance and the Harbors. However it now doesn’t have a connection to get to Union Station. A new track connection for Union Station from the LAX tracks can be built but that and dealing with several grade crossings in urban LA will have to be addressed to use this line for Metrolink service. Extending this “Airline” to LAX can use the railroad along Aviation Blvd to connect with nearby future LAX people mover for passengers going to LAX. The Green Line does and future Crenshaw Line will share right of way with this railroad. Service as frequent as every 30 minutes is possible with some single track segments. But saving at least one track for Metrolink will be needed if the railroad is used to connect LAX to Union Station. Running Metrolink service on this route and serving LAX will reduce traffic congestion not only at LAX but for much of the region along the 405.
This image shows the right of way of the railroad along LAX. This shows how the Green and Crenshaw lines will share this right of way to get towards LAX.
Connecting airports at Ontario, LAX as well as Bob Hope in Burbank and at Palmdale with Metrolink is very viable. To insure good ridership these trains shouldn’t exclusively serve just airport travel in order to have more markets to insure good ridership. The trains from LAX should serve as far as Wilmington with connections to the Green, Crenshaw and Blue Lines. Not only will these connections increase ridership on Metrolink but also to these Light Rail Lines. These trains should run through Union Station which will be possible in a few years with the construction of run through tracks and connect with many services there. Service to Bob Hope Airport should be part of extending trains from the current San Bernardino Line to Chatsworth. Service to Palmdale should be done by extending Orange County Line service to serve a second trains station for Bob Hope Airport planned at Hollywood Way. This will increase ridership on Metrolink in general and provide a larger potential market of people travelling to all regional airports. Extending both the San Bernardino and Orange County lines to Bob Hope Airports as well as Chatsworth and Palmdale would greatly increase travel to the Airport and on all 4 of these routes. Creating a new line from Wilminton to LAX, Union Station Ontario and San Bernardino would bring more business to Ontario and reduce traffic congestion around LAX. Compared with some of the transit projects underway in Los Angeles County this is not as complicated but would serve a much greater area and population.
This is the planned additional Bob Hope Airport Train Station which will connect Metrolink’s Antelope Valley Line to Palmdale to Bob Hope Airport. This station might also be used for future High Speed Rail service to the San Joaquin Valley.
There are plans to extend Green Line and future Crenshaw Line Light Rail service to serve LAX. Also planned in the distant future is Gold Line service from downtown Los Angeles to Ontario Airport. It will be a long, slow trip from downtown to Ontario by light rail. Also there are no planned connections downtown on the Gold Line to either the Crenshaw or Green Lines. Metrolink can be used to connect downtown Los Angeles to LAX, Ontario, Bob Hope and Palmdale Airports as well as to each other. This can be done fairly quickly and at a modest price. Metrolink trains are better suited for longer travel with luggage at faster speeds than Light Rail. Light Rail is needed at airports for shorter trips and for the many people who work at or near airports. Travel speed is not the only issue for people headed to the airport. The biggest hassle is often the time spent getting into and out of the airport and then getting to and from the terminals. And that doesn’t include the time just spent waiting since for most domestic flights you should get to the terminal at least an hour before flight time and 2 hours for International flights. Where Metrolink service can save travelers time is providing an easy and quick connection from the platform to the terminals. Having airline baggage check in, pick up and issuing boarding passes at Union Station and other trains stations would save time and hassles for passengers. Having baggage check in at the platforms or platforms near terminals or transportation at the platform directly to the terminals will make Metrolink faster and more convenient than driving a rental or personal car to the airport.Things that people have to do 1 to 2 hours before arriving at the airport should be down when they get on the train to the airport. People are often more motivated by price, safety and the attractiveness of the airport than how close an airport is to them or how quickly they can get to it. People are known drive out of their way to get a better deal or a nicer airport than fly to one closer to them. Saving 30 minutes on a trip between downtown Los Angeles and any airport is not as important to passenger as convenience and value of an airport.
This is the view from the Green Line of the old Santa Fe Harbor Line that runs along LAX. Below are the remains of the start of work to extend the Green Line towards LAX that was abandoned over 10 years ago due to budget cuts.
This is another view of the Green Line and that start of construction in the late 90’s to extend it towards LAX.