Take the Train, not MagLev to the Airports

by Noel T. Braymer, RailPAC President — SCAG, the Southern California Association of Governments continues to promote its plan to build a regional MagLev system in Southern California. This would start with a 54 mile starter line connecting Ontario Airport with Downtown Los Angeles and West Los Angeles. Eventually this starter line would be part of a 92 mile corridor connecting LAX, Ontario Airport and March Air Base which would be part of three corridors of an even larger network. SCAG wants to build their MagLev mostly above freeways at an estimated cost of 80 million dollars a mile. SCAG wants to bet the farm on MagLev, which is an unproven technology. The only operating MagLev service is a 19 mile, 1 billion dollar airport connector in Shanghai, China that started passenger service in January of this year. The German Government spent over 120 million dollars helping to build this project as a showcase for MagLev Technology which the German Government has already spent billions to develop. Despite its best efforts the German Government has been unable to build a MagLev service in Germany or anyplace else besides Shanghai. The hope was that this starter line would be part of a bigger project running from Shanghai to Beijing. Two weeks after the opening of the Shanghai MagLev the Chinese Government announced the new Shanghai-Beijing service would be built as High Speed Rail.

Most of the major airports in California were built intentionally near rail lines. The railroads are closer to the airports than the freeways. Fixing up the existing railroads and connecting them to the airports will be much cheaper than building MagLev. Also, using existing rail lines will be less disruptive than building elevated structures over the freeways. One of the arguments SCAG uses to promote MagLev is that Metrolink doesn’t carry enough people to meet future travel needs, so something else is needed. Metrolink is running at near capacity! With modest investment Metrolink’s capacity can be greatly expanded. For Metrolink to expand its capacity it needs to run more trains, get more equipment, more track capacity and more station parking.

Station Parking? One factor that many planners seem to ignore is parking. Look at any train or transit rail station in California and the parking lots are full! Parking is the biggest constraint on rail ridership. Don’t believe me? Look at the Los Angeles Red Line. Ridership for the first two segments of the Red Line was below expectations. The final segment to North Hollywood had the biggest jump in ridership. It was the only segment that had parking. The Green Line has many shortcomings. While people may say it goes from nowhere to nowhere, ridership exceeded expectations. What the Green Line has is parking.

The assumption about MagLev is that its speed of over 200 miles per hour will draw people to ride it and get people out of their cars. But where will these people’s cars go? To run MagLev fast, you can only have a limited number of stations to stop at. To carry large numbers of people will require very large parking lots or parking structures. This means that if MagLev gets the projected ridership, its stations will be major traffic generators. Much like a large shopping mall next to the freeway, these stations will increase congestion around the freeways they serve.

There are existing rail lines near LAX, Ontario Airport and March Air Base. We can fix up these rail lines to carry as many people as we want, to run trains as fast as we want depending on how much money we want to spend. Even the fanciest rail system will be cheaper than MagLev because we will be using infrastructure we already have. Using more, smaller stations for rail will mean a faster trip to the Airport than MagLev. Passengers will save time with more direct service than driving further to a limited number of MagLev mega stations. Smaller trains stations being more numerous and spread out will have less traffic impact than mega stations. They will be closer to where more people live and more convenient for people to get to. Using many smaller stations will get more non-auto dependent ridership. This is because it will be easier to build more housing near local stations and attract more transit transfers than at a few mega-stations. We can quickly start up a basic rail service as a demonstration project on a limited budget and then expand it on a pay as you go basis. You can’t do that with Mag Lev. Metrolink can easily be expanded to serve other airports. It already serves Burbank Airport, and will serve Palmdale Airport. With a good connecting service Metrolink can serve John Wayne Airport out of the Tustin Station. There is even a railroad that goes to the Long Beach Airport.