What is Metrolink’s Problem?

By Noel T. Braymer

Metrolink’s problem is money; or rather the lack of money. Metrolink is in the red because ridership is below projections. Metrolink blames this on declining commuter ridership to downtown Los Angeles. What Metrolink needs to do is increase its ridership to more places in Southern California for more revenue.

In the early 90’s when what became Metrolink was being formed, I was with a group which included some of the “experts” hired to plan and run the future Metrolink. These “experts” generally came from commuter railroads back east. I was appalled to hear one of these “experts” going on about how great this new service would be with A-B trains and mid-route turnbacks. These are classic commuter train operations. A-B trains mean running trains on a route with the A train serving half of the stations while the B trains serves the other half. This gets people into downtown and back home faster. But does nothing for travel between stations. Turning trains back at roughly mid-point of a route allows you to run more trains where commuter traffic is heaviest at the stations nearest to downtown. But these are also the stations which produce the shortest trips and the least revenue.

These operations make sense for a classic commuter train railroad. The problem was this was the 90’s and commuter trains had been going downhill since at least the 1950’s after the construction of freeways. People by 1990 no longer commuted as much to jobs or shopped downtown like they did in 1940. Because of freeways they often didn’t even live where they did in 1940. These are some of the reasons so many commuter railroads had shut down by 1990. Fortunately, the ideas proposed by this early Metrolink planner were never used.

But the assumption that Metrolink was a commuter railroad has held it back. This despite the official name of Metrolink being the Southern California Regional Rail Authority. Commuter railroads have terrible problems with high operating costs, low revenues and poor equipment utilization. In other words they are inefficient. This is because they are idle most of the time except during rush hours, 5 day a week. Railroads have high fixed costs, when they are idle their costs don’t go away, but revenue does.

The model for Metrolink should have been as a regional rail service along the lines of what in the 90’s was still called the “San Diegans”. The San Diegans between Los Angeles and San Diego as of the mid-70’s had three round trips. With State support this had risen to 7 round trips by 1980. Increased frequencies, new equipment and effective advertising more than tripled ridership by 1980. This included a “commuter” round trip to Los Angeles with discounted ticketing.

There were 3 things that could be learned about regional service from the San Diegans by 1990. Ridership and revenues increased due to increased frequencies, adding new markets with more stations and extending routes to increase average  passenger travel distances. The point is people were traveling to and from more places than just downtown Los Angeles or San Diego by the 90’s. In the early 80’s Amtrak ran an express train to save a few minutes between San Diego and Los Angeles. Amtrak was certain this would have great ridership. RailPAC predicted that by eliminating stations, ridership would be poor because of the loss of the travel markets in between Los Angeles and San Diego. Ridership on this experiment was terrible and it didn’t last long.

The other eye opener was the extension in 1987 of the first San Diegan to Santa Barbara. The trains to Santa Barbara quickly became the largest revenue generators and most ridden trains on the San Diegans. People didn’t all get off at Los Angeles. Many passengers from San Diego and Orange Counties went to stations in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. These passengers bought the most expensive tickets and brought in the most revenue.

But when Metrolink started running in 1992, most of the lessons for regional rail passenger service learned from the San Diegans were ignored. Metrolink is serving a small percentage of the total travel market in Southern California. There is a huge untapped potential market with better connections to other Metrolink, Surfliner and Coaster trains.To this day the timetables printed by Metrolink don’t show what transfers are available between Metrolink trains, or to Surfliners or Coaster trains. This year because Metrolink couldn’t get the extra money from San Bernardino County that it asked for to balance its budget, it dropped 4 frequencies between Los Angeles and San Bernardino to try to save money.

Fortunately, things are not all grim for Metrolink. With the creation of the LOSSAN Joint Timetable, the regional passenger railroads are now working together on their timetables to create connections between them. It is slow but real progress. The construction of SCRIP- the run-through tracks at Los Angeles Union Station will make it easier to combine routes to quickly run one train on two routes for more one seat service to more places on Metrolink. Modest adjustments to Metrolink schedules can open many more connections to more trains and increase ridership and train revenues at little additional costs.

In the near future Metrolink could have a connecting train on the San Bernardino Line to a Ventura, Antelope Valley or Orange County line train. There are plans to add more frequencies to the 91 Corridor train service between Riverside and Los Angeles via Fullerton in the near future as these trains are also extended to Perris. This may include having connections with these trains to the Orange County Line trains that terminate at Fullerton. Connections to these trains would allow transfers for passengers on the Orange County line going past Fullerton. This should also be done between the Orange County Line from Oceanside connecting with more Inland Empire line trains south of Orange to add more passengers with more frequent service from Orange and San Diego Counties to the Inland Empire with little additional costs.

By 2022 SCRIP should be finished and many Surfliner and Metrolink trains will be extended from Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley also serving Bob Hope Airport and the future High Speed Rail Station by the airport for the initial High Speed Rail service between Burbank and Merced. When this happens, Metrolink could have internal connections for passengers to all of its lines as well as easy transfers to Surfliner and Coaster trains.

The traditional commuter railroads are learning that they also need to expand their services beyond the traditional commuter rush hours to downtown. Two good examples of this are Metro North in New York and Go Transit in Toronto. Both operators are running more “reverse commutes” trains as well as more frequent service all day long, 7 days a week. In the Bay Area, Caltrain is jammed now most of the day 7 days a week in both directions. There is a massive travel market waiting in Southern California for Metrolink to tap into. All they need to tap into it is to make the right connections.

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