By Noel T. Braymer
LOSSAN’s goal should be to increase ridership by providing better rail passenger service with faster trains serving more destinations.This is done with coordination of the different services to feed both local and express trains. By doing so all the trains on LOSSAN will improve their efficiency and be more economical for passengers to use. This is a tall order but one that is doable and depends on expanding service and faster running times.
In terms of running times despite almost $2 billion dollars of improved infrastructure on the LOSSAN Corridor, the trains are slower today than they were 35 years ago. The next big project starting construction are run-through track at Los Angeles Union Station at the heart of the LOSSAN Corridor. This project with construction underway by 2017 should shave off 5-10 minutes off of running times for all trains using LAUS by eliminating back up moves and providing shorter and faster approaches in and out of Union Station.
San Diego County will also be adding several miles of new double track to the Corridor in by 2020. San Diego County has committed $400 million dollars for track improvements and plans to have most of San Diego County double tracked in 16 years. Also in 6 years there will be additional triple tracking and grade separations on the BNSF between Fullerton and Los Angeles. These improvements will greatly reduce traffic conflicts which delay trains. Will LOSSAN be ready to take advantage of these improvements with faster trains by 2020?
Why reduce running times of passenger trains? First doing so will attract more passengers. Second faster trains improves efficiency. Faster trains can run more trains miles in a day with no additional crew costs which can carry more passengers at a greater distance making the service more productive and economical.
The issue isn’t raising the top speed of the trains. The solution is not going as slow or spending as much time stopped as the trains do now. With the Surfliner equipment dwell times can be reduced by a minute or two at each station. Because some of the old equipment is still used all trains have to wait the same amount of time at the stations as they did in the past. For trains coming and going north of Los Angeles there is now a 15 minute station stop at Union Station. This is an example of excessive padding which makes it easier to claim a higher on time record for the Surfliners while hiding when trains are late. Better on-time performance and reduced running times are the result of a combination of better preventive maintenance and tighter operational discipline. When one train is late for a meet this cascades and disrupt the schedule all along the line for other trains.
To expand and improve LOSSAN rail service we need to look at equipment. How much more equipment for future growth will be needed for the Pacific Surfliners? What to do about the old equipment which is slow to load and unload? What kind of equipment is needed in the future and what new markets can be served with more equipment in the future? Unlike the Capitol Corridor or San Joaquin Trains which the State owns the equipment for, Amtrak owns most of the equipment for the Surfliners. Currently LOSSAN has little direct control over the maintenance or availability of the equipment on the Surfliners. Should LOSSAN replace the current equipment with their own and either have it serviced it like the other State Trains under contract with Amtrak or hire someone else to do the job? Equipment reliability and appearance are important for customer satisfaction.
For some time there has been planning to extend one round trip Pacific Surfliner north of San Luis Obispo to San Francisco. This process is going very slowly because of delays by the Union Pacific. However more and faster service is needed along the Coast. This project should be a priority of LOSSAN in cooperation of the other agencies involved in rail service along the Coast. With future expanded service along the Coast the use of Tilt-Trains and or DMU trainsets for express service between San Diego, San Luis Obsipo and San Francisco should be considered.
This should be combined with expanded conventional Surfliner, Metrolink and Coaster services which would increase ridership for all trains by feeding more passenger to the expresses and increasing the markets the LOSSAN Corridor serves. This includes sweep trains which can transfer passenger on the same line as the expresses by picking up passengers for the express at stations the express would bypass. At shared stations passengers would quickly transfer between local and express trains. The local train would run ahead of the express and passengers would transfer before the express passes the local. In the other direction the local would pick up passengers just after the express passes the local.
In the near future we should see improved, faster rail passenger service in the San Joaquin Valley to the Bay Area. Depending on many factors in the next 10 to 20 years we should see direct rail service between Bakersfield and Los Angeles. LOSSAN’s role is to coordinate Surfliner, Metrolink and Coaster services to connect with improved bus connections to San Joaquin Valley rail passenger services in the near future. As high speed rail service is extended south connecting rail passenger services in the LOSSAN service area will be needed.
Another future intercity train service long in the works on Union Pacific tracks is service to the low desert around Palm Springs and Indio. This is also a high priority service and recent track improvements like the Colton Flyover makes this easier for the railroad to run. This will also require inter-agency cooperation to get it running. Like additional service north of Santa Barbara this will require more equipment and coordination with other services such as Metrolink and Coaster. This can’t be seen as just a few trains between Indio and Los Angeles. This has to connect with the entire matrix of the LOSSAN Corridor with Amtrak intercity, Metrolink and Coaster trains.
With faster service to more markets and connections with other trains and buses there is potential for greatly increased ridership. The combination of longer trains capable of carrying more passenger and running in less time greatly increases the productivity of future LOSSAN trains. Price is always major factor in travel choice and lower fares attract riders. In most countries today rail passenger services use the same ticketing methods of the airlines. This is called Yield Management. What this is, is to price seats based on demand. In other words charge more when the trains will be full and discount tickets when business is slow. The price of tickets are different from day to day and between trains on the the same day based on demand. The point is to insure planes, trains or buses carry good passenger loads and yield the maximum revenue possible.
Rail passenger service has a huge potential market in Southern California and LOSSAN is in the center of this market. Coordinating the different services will be needed to serve the maximum markets people want to travel too. The future is bright for future rail passenger service in Southern California. But for that to happen LOSSAN is going to need a plan.