By Noel T. Braymer
Increasing ridership and passenger revenues on the LOSSAN Corridor, particularly on the Surfliners should be the priority for LOSSAN. The question is how to do this? What is needed to get passenger growth is a combination of faster running times for trains with better on-time performance for better connections by train more often to more places.
In terms of running times, the Surfliner Trains today are slower than the San Diegans almost 40 years ago. On time performance today is nothing to be proud of either. Oddly on time performance is better on the LOSSAN Corridor north of Los Angeles than it is south of Los Angeles. Yet there is more double tracking and other major track improvements south of Los Angeles. Double tracking is valuable for smooth rail operations. But so is reliable equipment that is less prone to breakdowns. Also needed are cars that are quick to load and unload at stations.
A major problem providing punctual service on the LOSSAN Corridor is a shortage of Surfliner cars. There is also a shortage of F-59 locomotives, which are designed for faster acceleration needed on a corridor service like LOSSAN. To keep the Surfliner’s running Amtrak often substitutes long distance train locomotives which accelerate more slowly which is fine for long distances between stations. Slower acceleration means it takes longer for these locomotives to travel between stations with many stops than with the F-59’s.
There is one trainset used now only between Los Angeles and San Diego which uses a long distance train locomotive and the older low-level Amfleet/Horizon cars. It takes longer to load and unload on these cars since there are fewer available doors, the doors are narrower and there are more steps to the door on these trains. It is well known among regular riders on the LOSSAN Corridor that this equipment has the worse on-time performance between Los Angeles and San Diego. Often when a train is late, which often happens with this equipment, it also makes other trains late while waiting for this train to pass at a siding.
Additional double tracking is desirable in the future. But many of the current on-time problems can be solved now with modest improvements with the equipment on the Surfliners. In Switzerland, they often run more trains on single track railroads than this country does on a double track railroad. They can do this because they run their trains on time. They have to since almost every passenger train has dozens of connections to other trains as well as to buses and ferries. When a train is late in Switzerland, it makes the front page of the local papers.
Critical to running trains on time is proper maintenance of equipment and track. The Capitol Corridor in Northern California has the best on time performance of any Amtrak train. Critical to this performance has been attention to and funding for maintenance of equipment and tracks. Being able to run on time and reduce running times will give more flexibility in scheduling, which will make it easier to have reliable connections to other trains such as Metrolink and Coaster. It will also make for more reliable connections to rail and bus transit at all transportation centers.
Just as important is the kind of equipment used on a corridor such as LOSSAN. One solution to this problem would be to buy more new Surfliner equipment. This will take years to get delivery. While some new equipment is on order for California, it won’t be enough for current demand. Another solution would be to use surplus Metrolink bi-level cars. These could be upgraded and or mixed with the low level equipment. These Metrolink cars are designed for fast loading and unloading. They can be used with low-level equipment to speed up loading of these trains and are easier to use for passengers with limited mobility. These cars also have plenty of room for storing luggage, wheel chair, strollers and bicycles.
With improved punctuality, reductions in running times will be possible on the Surfliners. The Surfliner equipment is meant to spend no more than 2 minutes stopped at most stations .Because of the use of one old trainset the schedule still has station stops in the range of 4-5 minutes which is needed for this older equipment. Saving 2 minutes stopping at each station between Los Angeles and San Diego with 7 intermediate stops is a saving of 14 minutes. Between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara with 10 intermediate stops is a savings of 20 minutes.
With better punctuality, recovery time in the schedule could also be reduced for more time savings. The current running times on the Surfliners between San Diego and Santa Barbara is around 6 hours. With a tighter schedule, with no increase in speeds, 35-40 minutes could be taken out of the current schedule. Such reductions in running time will increase the productivity and ridership of the Surfliners. At the current running time the average speed between San Diego and Santa Barbara is less than 39 miles per hour. Running at 5 hours and 15 minutes is better at 44 miles per hour.
Between Los Angeles and San Diego with current running times ( when on time) of 2 hours and 40 minutes we have an average speed of 49 miles per hour. If we cut that down to 2 hours and 20 minutes that is an average speed of just over 55 miles per hour which is more competitive with freeway travel. To get travel times at an average speed of 60 miles per hour would require running time of 2 hours and 7 minutes. In the near term that might be possible with an extended express train from San Diego to San Luis Obispo using tilt train equipment. To successfully run express trains would need connections with all stop trains at major hub stations.