By Noel T. Braymer
LOSSAN originally stood for LOS Angeles-SAN Diego for the route of the San Diegan Trains back in the 1980’s. Since then rail service on this corridor has expanded to Santa Barbara and later to San Luis Obispo. With the introduction of Metrolink and Coaster service sharing parts of the LOSSAN corridor the role of LOSSAN became even more complicated. To get the best passenger service there needs to be coordination between services and schedules where these trains often share stations and tracks with each other.
The new LOSSAN Joint Powers Authority has as a member Riverside County. Clearly the Pacific Surfliners which are the primary responsibility of the new LOSSAN doesn’t serve Riverside County; at least not directly. What is in Riverside County which is in need of better intercity rail passenger service? Palm Springs and the area around it comes to mind. Palm Springs is the gateway from Southern California to Southern Arizona.
Of course who is the gatekeeper to Palm Springs and Phoenix/Tucson by rail? Why the Union Pacific Railroad of course. The Union Pacific usually resists any talk of more passenger trains on their tracks. Between Los Angeles and El Paso the UP has had many problems. The harbors of Los Angeles and Long Beach are major traffic generators for both the UP and BNSF. The problem for both railroads was their mainlines crossed at grade at Colton. Today about 135 trains a day cross at Colton. Colton Crossing was controlled by BNSF which gave priority to their trains at the crossing so the UP trains were more likely to stop and wait. The average wait for trains at the crossing was 50 minutes although waits of up to 4 hours on some days was not uncommon.
This bottleneck created problems for the UP for traffic through most of Southern California. Adding to the problems are the many grade crossing which often are involved in grade crossing accidents between Los Angeles and Colton. These problems are going away, thanks in large part to government spending. Late this August the new Colton Flyover opened 8 months early allowing UP trains to go over the BNSF unplugging this major bottleneck. The Alameda Corridor East Construction Authority (ACE) is in the process of grade separating 22 UP grade crossing between Los Angeles and the Inland Empire (Riverside and San Bernardo Counties) for a cost of $1.4 billion dollars. The UP by law is suppose to pay 10 percent of the cost of the grade separation, but the railroad calculates their share as 10 percent of the cost on their property not the cost of the entire project so the real cost coverage of the projects is often less than 10 percent by the railroad.
Granted the public is getting a major benefit from these investments. Cleaner air with fewer train and truck diesel engines idling and reduced traffic congestion with fewer blocked streets are important. This will improve the California economy with more harbor business and international trade. It is only right that the government pays the majority of the cost for these projects. But the UP is also benefiting from this government spending. It isn’t too much to ask what can be done to add a few passenger trains into the mix with these major track improvements.
The UP last year came to an agreement with Amtrak for some changes to the Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and New Orleans in return that Amtrak not discuss a daily Sunset for 2 years. Well that was the time needed to finish the Colton Flyover. Now is the time to start talking again about a daily Sunset which would still not be ready for service before 2014.
Riverside County has long wanted local rail passenger service between the Palm Springs area and Los Angeles.With the Colton Flyover UP has less reason to continue to oppose additional passenger service between Los Angels and Palm Springs. Now is a good time to start increasing the pressure for the long sought service. For this service to really work it needs to be integrated into the LOSSAN Corridor both with Metrolink and the Pacific Surfliners. A stop at Fullerton would be needed to connect to San Diego and Orange Counties to Palm Springs.
Meanwhile support is growing for local rail passenger service between Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona. When this happens and is running it will make sense to extend service from Los Angeles past Palm Springs to Phoenix and Tucson. This will require some track work and a competitive operating agreement with the UP to make this happen. But it is now in the realm of the near future made possible with the ongoing track improvements being made in Southern California between the harbors and Inland Empire.