Analysis by Noel T. Braymer
Trains can’t go everywhere, but buses can go to many places or when trains can’t. Buses can economically carry passengers to trains when it isn’t possible to use trains. Combining trains and buses can make travel faster for passengers to more places while increasing ridership and revenue for trains. This has been proven with bus connections in California to State supported Corridor Trains. The buses connecting with these trains do so at a profit. If they don’t the bus route is eliminated.
Where buses have made the greatest impact have been on the San Joaquin Trains. Many passengers travel long distances on both trains and buses between Southern and Northern California to Reno and up to Redding. The connecting buses at Stockton are very busy. This connections also adds 4 round trip frequencies from the San Joaquin Valley to Sacramento giving passengers 6 different times to go or leave Sacramento. In about 5 years there will be big changes to rail travel in the San Joaquin Valley. With the first leg of 130 miles of construction of High Speed Rail finished by 2018 or so there will be express rail service between Madera and Bakersfield. This will include increasing the number of round trip trains from 6 to between 12 to 20 trains.
The 12 trains include 1 all stops round trip to Oakland, 3 express trains to Oakland, 2 express trains to Sacramento, 4 express trains to Richmond and 2 all stop trains from Bakersfield to Madera. To get 20 trains there could be 3 more possible all stop Bakersfield to Madera trains on the BNSF plus with the uncertain cooperation of the UP 2 additional express trains to Oakland and 3 additional express trains to Sacramento. With only 2 local trains and one all stops train, for the towns between Bakersfield and Fresno these 3 trains will be a service reduction from the 6 trains they have now. This will not go over well with those towns losing trains service. Even with 5 local trains that gives them 6 out of 10 to 14 trains going past Madera. At the very least additional buses to these and other cities in the San Joaquin Valley should be run to connect and feed these new express trains to the Bay Area and Sacramento.
To fill these new trains will require more bus service and more potential markets. Hopefully faster express buses will connect to express trains with less padding in the schedule with faster ticketing and loading. These express buses can connect with both Amtrak and Metrolink trains to serve most of Southern California. Expanded bus service will also be needed at Sacramento to Reno, Lake Tahoe and Redding. New bus services could connect at Merced to Gilroy, San Jose and to Salinas to Monterrey. The biggest problem is connecting a new terminal on the BNSF at Richmond. A shuttle bus will be needed to go to the Richmond BART Station for transfers to both BART and Capitol Corridor Trains.
Ferry service would be the best way to connect Richmond to the peninsula. This would require a new dock at a new Richmond Station. But this could connect with several existing ferry docks at Pier 41, and China Basin near the Caltrain terminal in San Francisco. There is an existing bus stop for the Amtrak Ticket Office by the Ferry Building in San Francisco. The buses that stop there could be used for transfers from ferries for passengers to get around downtown San Francisco to and from Richmond. There is also a Ferry dock near SFO Airport at Oyster Bay and one in Marin County at Larkspur which one day will be served by SMART trains.
Well what can go wrong if you lack stations, buses or other connections? Consider local service on Metrolink in Orange County. There are a total of 5 round trips between Oceanside and Los Angeles on this line, with an other 4 between Los Angeles and Orange County and 5 from Orange County to Los Angeles. In addition there are 4 trains that run just in Orange County between Fullerton and Mission Viejo/Laguna Niguel northbound and an extra southbound train that goes on to Oceanside. These newest trains between just Fullerton and Mission Viejo/Laguna Niguel are not doing well often carrying less than bus loads of passengers.
Orange County is trying to get more passengers to take connecting buses and shuttles to and from the train stations because they can’t build enough parking structures to meet the demand if everyone drives to the stations. Also Orange County wants local residents to make more local trips using trains in the County. They hope by using connecting services people will travel all over Orange County with combined bus and train travel.
Lets compare Orange County’s local trains with a similar system that is more successful. It is roughly 27 miles between Fullerton and the Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo Stations with a total of 7 stations. The Sprinter is a diesel Light Rail service in northern San Diego County between Oceanside and Escondido which is 20 miles long and has 15 stations. The Sprinter runs on the same schedule twice an hour in each direction most of the day and evening 7 days a week.There are 14 trains in one direction and 15 in the another direction on the Orange County Metrolink Line and not all trains go to the same stations. Plus the schedule isn’t regular with some trains bunched up in rush hour and some spread out several hours apart and there is little weekend service.
Now also include 8 round trip trains in Orange County that run to Riverside. Some of these trains also go to Oceanside and San Bernardino but they don’t go to Anaheim, Fullerton or Buena Park in Orange County. This is all rather messy and confusing for someone who wants to go from Westminster to John Wayne Airport. The Sprinter has been successful with good connections to local buses so that travel with connections for many to rail are faster than the old bus only travel. North County Transit which runs buses and the Sprinter has been able to save money by cutting bus service and still have transit ridership grow on both rail and buses.
What is unusual about the Sprinter is the parking lots at the stations are rarely full unlike most rail services. Most riders are not driving to the train unlike most rail services. The major draw for the Sprinter is beach traffic at Oceanside, at the major transportation centers at Oceanside, Vista and Escondido and stations at Palomar Community College and Cal State San Marcos. What the Sprinter lacks is connections to major job centers. This could change with connections next year to a Bus Rapid Transit service on the I-15 HOV Lanes from Escondido to San Diego which will serve several major job centers. There are plans to extend Coaster rail service in the near future to Camp Pendleton which is a major job center which will connect to the Sprinter at Oceanside.
So what can be done to increase ridership on the Orange County trains particularly the ones with only 7 stations? By adding bus service to connect passengers at Fullerton to Buena Park, Norwalk and Los Angeles as well as from Mission Viejo/Laguna Niguel to San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente and Oceanside. This will add 6 additional stations almost doubling the number of stations these trains can serve. If we also extend buses to the trains that serve Los Angeles but not Oceanside we could have up to 14 trains throughout the day which would have connections between Oceanside and Los Angeles. This will increase ridership on all Orange County Metrolink trains.
Convenience is a major factor in attracting passengers, and added frequencies greatly increases convenience and saves passengers time by reducing the time waiting for trains. For many passengers the trains now may leave Orange County at a good time for them but the return trains may not. Additional connecting bus service will give passengers more choices and reasons to take Metrolink for a trip. One thing that was noticed years ago when passenger trains were being cut back on corridor and commuter trains from attempts to save money by dropping the trains with the least ridership. The results were that ridership and revenue dropped more than expected from eliminating trains usually in the late evening. The reason for this it was found was passengers felt more secure taking the train if they knew there was a late train home in case for some reason they missed their train they wouldn’t be left stranded.
What also can be done is to extend buses to Oceanside and the cities in between to the trains in Orange County that go to the Inland Empire. By also adding buses to connect trains that stop at Riverside to San Bernardino for very little money you can create overnight a rail corridor of 8 round trip trains between Oceanside and San Bernardino. What if the trains get a little crowded? Well Metrolink has stored older passenger cars with the introduction of new cars, these old cars can be added to run longer trains and bring in more revenue.
By combining these 8 trains with bus connections at Orange to Anaheim, Fullerton and Buena Park this bring up to 22 local Orange County train/bus services that can serve the length of Orange County as well as increase ridership to these trains from other counties. What can be done with buses from Riverside to San Bernardino is to extend them east on the I-10 to Indio to serve the cities along the 10 freeway including Palms Springs. Amtrak has bus connections at Fullerton to Palm Springs which are doing well. For Metrolink trains at both San Bernardino and Riverside bus connections to Indio can add many more riders to their trains while serving more residents of Riverside County which is a part of Metrolink.
There are several bottlenecks on the railroads in Southern California such as between Fullerton to Los Angeles, San Juan Capistrano to the San Diego County border and between Riverside and San Bernardino. It will be a few years yet until construction and politics can fix these problems and more passenger trains can be run. In the mean time buses will work to increase ridership by attracting new riders from new markets. This will increase the popularity of rail passenger service and increase support for more track improvements. In Orange County this will allow more trains to be run on their double tracking between Fullerton and Mission Viejo/Laguna Niguel. This will allow Orange County to close the gaps in service and attract more local residents to travel about the County using bus and train connections. Also the trains could be scheduled on a more regular interval to make it easier to memorize a schedule such as a train every half hour at their local station station.