How to get more Tourists on Trains in California

By Noel T. Braymer

Tourists come to visit California from all over the world. Many of them would love to take the train here; just like they do back home, if they knew how. Most tourists would prefer to travel without getting stuck or lost in California traffic. But little is done to help visitors to get around by train. There is the California Rail Pass. It is good for 7 days of travel in California on most Amtrak trains over a period of 21 days. At $159 dollars for an adult and $79.50 per child it is a great deal! Many more tourists would ride the trains in California if they knew about the California Rail Pass.

On March 19, 2014 the British newspaper “The Independent”, published a letter to its transportation columnist from a reader asking about family discounts to travel by train for a planned vacation in California. The columnist gave a rather negative reply pointing out that train fares in America were higher than in most of Europe and the trains slower. The columnist also pointed out that Amtrak had few discounts or family specials unlike most world railroads. There was no mention of the California Rail Pass which would have been perfect for this family for their future vacation in California.

It isn’t the easiest thing in the world to buy a California Rail Pass. First you have to call Amtrak Reservations or contact an authorized Travel Agent. You can’t order the California Rail Pass online, even though this is how most train tickets are bought just like airline tickets now around the world. At the time of purchase you must also reserve your travel dates and the trains you will ride with the pass. This makes it difficult to travel spontaneously, but only after you make your reservations do you get your pass.

There are other issues to address to encourage rail travel in California for tourists. Most importantly are the connections (or lack) to the trains from the airports where most tourists arrive in California. For now the best way to get to Los Angeles Union Station from LAX is by Flyaway Bus. Bob Hope Airport in Burbank is the only airport so far with direct service to Amtrak. BART serves SFO to downtown San Francisco, but Amtrak only connects there by bus from Emeryville. The Oakland Airport does have connections to BART and Capitol Corridor Trains. But that’s about it for connections for now in California between air and rail. Improved bus connections in the short term would go a long way.

In San Diego by next year the Airport plans to have a new internal road for shuttle buses to the terminal from a new airport rental car center. This will take traffic off the congested city street to the airport. There are also plans to use this new road for shuttle bus service to a nearby Trolley station. Adding buses to use this new airport road from nearby Old Town or downtown to pick up rail passengers would help and be a simple thing to do.

There are other issue that need to be addressed to attract more tourists to ride the trains in California. These include package deals including hotels and destinations such as Hollywood, Disneyland, Yosemite, Sea World, San Francisco, Old Town Sacramento, the Gold Country and so on. Also connections to local transit to get around is needed as part of a package deal.

Each local transit agency has different forms of ticketing. Los Angeles has the TAP card, which several LA County transit agencies use but not all. LA Metro has a $5 dollar a day pass for Metro trains and buses. But first you have to buy a TAP card for a dollar for the Day Pass. In San Diego they have the Compass Card which like Los Angeles also is used for Monthly Passes. But San Diego also has both local $5 dollar local transit day passes and a $12 dollar all day pass all printed on paper. The $12 Dollar day pass is good for unlimited travel on Coaster Trains, Trolley, Sprinter and most local bus service in San Diego County. The Bay Area has the Clipper Card which is a debit card honored by most agencies. This is faster to use when transferring between services than paying cash. But there are few day passes or transfers between Muni, BART, Caltrain and AC Transit to my knowledge.

In other words traveling car-less is difficult for most people in California who are not regular commuters of local rail and bus service. It is more difficult for visitors to use transit since they know even less about local travel options needed to go carless which often is hard to find or understand . Better cooperation between agencies, packaged deals and better connections would go a long way not just for tourists but also California residents to get more riding the trains.

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