RailPAC has been urging LA Metro and Metrolink to double truck the line between Burbank and Santa Clarita for more than two decades. We finally have a down payment from the State, with some matching funds from other sources. Why am I less than excited by this news? Two and a half decades have passed since the start of Antelope Valley service after the Northridge earthquake, during which time hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into widening Interstate 5 and State Route 14. This weekend (April 25) Burbank Boulevard is closed while the bridge over I-5 is demolished for the second time to accommodate two more freeway lanes. Meanwhile Metrolink has struggled for over twenty years with a predominantly single track railroad with consequent lack of capacity to build a robust, reliable service.
The 2020 Transit and Intercity Rail Capital Program (TIRCP) award still leaves single track between Sheldon Street and San Fernando/Sylmar station. Between Van Nuys Boulevard and San Fernando Metro intends to build the East Valley light rail in the Metrolink right of way, and I am very concerned that they will use this as an excuse to defer this last bottleneck indefinitely. In my view the Light Rail route is a mistake and a high risk idea, given that the route also hosts 15,000 ton Union Pacific rock trains from Little Rock on the Palmdale cutoff. No doubt the consultants have demonstrated that it is possible, in theory, to run a certain number of frequencies over that single track, just as they have with Raymer Bernson on the Coast route through the San Fernando Valley. The problem is that Metrolink has demonstrated that it is almost impossible to run an on time service in an urban area with poorly protected grade crossings and unreliable equipment. Thus an early delay to the service will result in late trains all day.
In the report presented to the Metro Board in 2019, the route is broken up into sections for costing purposes. The two gaps in double track that will be left after this round of construction are priced as follows:
Sheldon to Van Nuys Blvd.: $67 million.
Sylmar to Van Nuys Blvd. including Sylmar station: $47 million
It’s a lot of money for a little over 5 miles of track with no property acquisition. One certainly wonders if it would be less if the contract were to be let as a single project from Burbank to Sylmar now, rather than break it into segments and then come back in a few years to bridge the gap. I can only guess at the mobilization, demobilization and general overhead costs of multiple stages versus a continuous program.
But still, it’s a step forward. It’s hard to believe that it has been 25 years since Mike McGinley and his team threw up some “instant” stations and bootstrapped a service while Caltrans rebuilt the 5/14 interchange. These 25 years have been wasted, the agencies failing to capitalize on growing rail traffic and instead continuing the failed policy of investing in more lanes on the parallel freeway. Let’s hope this investment will be successful in growing the passenger count, and not be too little, too late.
Vice President, South, RailPAC