The current status of passenger rail in Southern California:

Commentary by Paul Dyson, RailPAC President

Overcrowded Trains? No New Cars Available? Time to Use our Brains!

Here are a few statements that I believe reflect the current status of passenger rail in Southern California:

Demand is outstripping currently scheduled supply on most days.

While scarce Amtrak (Surfliner) equipment operates up to 18 hours a day, most Metrolink and Coaster trains sit idle in the middle of the day and at weekends.

Surfliner service on a good day is mediocre, based on speed, punctuality and reliability.

Most of the County transportation administrations, and Los Angeles County MTA in particular, fail to recognize the untapped potential of intercity rail to remove longer distance car traffic from the freeways.

Amtrak, Metrolink and Coaster do not cooperate to provide a seamless passenger rail system for Southern California.

Well, I hope that will throw a rock in the pool, agitate a few gray cells. The usual reaction to these kinds of comments is a whining sound, and much hand-wringing. “We need more money, it’s all much more complicated than you think, it’s not in our charter”, and so on. Upon hearing this I like to quote the celebrated nuclear physicist, Ernest Rutherford. When asked how he designed his experiments with very little resources he notably said: “We didn’t have the money, so we had to think”. We all know that money is scarce and that the State faces a budget crisis. On top of that, even if we had a pot of gold tomorrow we couldn’t spend it very quickly because of the lead time to order rolling stock or to design capacity enhancements.

So here’s some suggestions based on a little thinking on my part, which I believe some smarter people than me could translate into an action plan to carry us forward for two or three years:

Immediate Action:

Dump the existing Surfliner, Coaster and Metrolink OC line schedules and start with a clean sheet.

Reduce the number of Surfliner trains between Los Angeles and San Diego.

One approach, a basic two-hourly Surfliner service, with fewer stops than now, alternating with a new Coaster/Metrolink combined service stopping at all stations.

Use Metrolink sets to run many more weekend beach specials ahead of the Surfliners to scoop up the short haul riders.

Eliminate the rail-to rail program, which fills Surfliner seats with minimal revenue short haul passengers. Allow Metrolink ticketed passengers to prepay a supplement to ride Amtrak trains.

Medium term:

LACMTA must fund double track from Burbank to Sylmar and from Van Nuys to Chatsworth, including adding a second platform at Van Nuys. There is no excuse for Los Angeles to neglect the needs of the San Fernando Valley. Given the desire of the Los Angeles politicians to extend the Red Line subway and various light rail projects the only way the “Valley” will see any real improvement in rail transit is to follow the Orange County model and use Metrolink as the spine of an integrated bus-rail system. The cost? About the same as a quarter of a mile of subway.

Release Prop 1B money to order railcars. Here’s another rock in the pool. In addition to calling for bids for more “Surfliner” type cars, which will be very expensive, Division of Rail should encourage “non-conforming” bids from the commuter car builders. These cars would be intercity variants of the bi-level cars offered by Rotem, Bombardier, Kawasaki and others. In the same way that a 737 aircraft can be a Southwest “bus” or a luxury business jet, it should be possible to design an interior for a bi-level car that provides better seating for the longer distance intercity rider, a business class section, and a cafe, at a much lower per seat cost. A fleet of these cars could displace the Surfliner sets for longer distance service such as the Coast Daylight and the San Joaquins, and almost certainly be available sooner than a new build of California Cars.

Long Term:

Begin an electrification program for the region. Start with unique Metrolink trackage such as Los Angeles to San Bernardino.

Think Switzerland. Start work on an integrated system approach to pull together all public transportation services in Southern California. SB 53 may help to accomplish this, if the existing agencies are unwilling to work together voluntarily.

It’s too easy to whine and do nothing. We have taxpayer funded resources that are not being intelligently utilized and we have a golden opportunity, with a flood of new passengers, to grow passenger rail into an important component of this region’s transportation. Let’s put those gray cells to work!

Paul Dyson, President, RailPAC