By Paul Dyson, RailPAC President
3rd September, 2008


Imagine that Southwest Airlines is run by a public board, and members of that Board includes say the Mayor of Yuma AZ, and the Mayor of Rancho Mirage, CA. Because of their power on the Board, and because those cities have municipal airports, they insist that all flights between Los Angeles and Phoenix must stop at Palm Springs and Yuma airports, even if only a handful of people use the service. The extended journey time discourages patronage of the end point service and the additional stops add to the cost of operations. And what if Southwest were run by a number of autonomous regional boards, each of them procuring different aircraft and engines, instead of saving millions by standardizing? What if Southwest sold you a ticket from LAX to Phoenix then told you to buy another ticket say from Phoenix to Tucson instead of allowing you to book through to your destination? Would Southwest be as successful as it is today?

Unfortunately our intercity and commuter rail services are not run like Southwest Airlines. Instead of a standard passenger car body, (with internal layout and seat type customized for intercity and short distance service) we have at least three different railcar types, four if you include the otherwise standard car chosen by one agency but delivered with a different electrical system. If you want to make a through journey, Caltrain to BART for example, you need two tickets. And increasingly, no matter where you want to go, it’s taking longer and longer as each local Satrap adds stops to satisfy local politics without regard for the overall good of the region. That’s what I mean by Balkanization.

In southern California Orange County, having invested significantly in the right of way between Fullerton and Laguna Niguel so that Metrolink trains form the spine of their transit system (an excellent and cost-effective investment) now believes that they are entitled to have the Surfliner trains stop at every station in the County. And as my tongue in cheek analogy suggests, Los Angeles to San Diego passengers have their journeys extended (about 5 minutes for every extra stop) the reliability and punctuality of the predominantly single track service deteriorates, and business is lost, especially the higher fare paying business passenger. Every passenger that reverts to his car to go from San Diego to Los Angeles causes more pollution and congestion in Orange County, but we must stop the train at Orange for a highly subsidized transit rider to Santa Ana!

Back in 1980 when I joined RailPAC there was a group of elected and professional public officials who believed in passenger rail as one of the solutions to our regional mobility problems. More specifically these people, Senator Mills of San Diego, Jacki Bacharach from Los Angeles, and many others, wanted to see the incremental development of the San Diego – Los Angeles – Santa Barbara – San Luis Obispo corridor (now known as LOSSAN) so that it could provide regional passenger service for journeys of say 60 miles or more. Such a service would give new travel options for those without access to automobiles and, it was hoped, encourage drivers to leave their cars behind, thus having an impact on the parallel interstate and state highways, especially 5 and 101. We now know from experience that even a small percentage of traffic diverted from car to rail improves speeds on adjacent freeways and so everyone wins.

These people, including RailPAC founders Byron Nordberg, Adrian Herzog, Noel Braymer and Russ Jackson, were not focused on what rail could do within their own counties. They had a regional view of the transportation problems, and promoted a regional solution. They were aware that for example a double track project in Orange County benefits passengers from Los Angeles and San Diego by improving travel time and punctuality throughout the corridor, and so were not concerned about whether the allocation of funds was “fair”, i.e. evenly distributed among the counties. What was needed was a long term plan to constantly upgrade the corridor with each project justified by its cost-effectiveness in improving the system as a whole.

Fast forward to 2008 and unfortunately we see a completely opposite trend developing in LOSSAN. In addition to the corridor “inter-city” Surfliner service we now have two commuter agencies with very parochial outlooks. The San Diego NCTD seems particularly turf conscious, having deliberately purchased commuter rail cars whose electrical systems are incompatible with Metrolink. Metrolink itself, while officially the “Regional Rail Authority” for Southern California, seems to be determined to relegate the Surfliner trains to transit status, to give them low priority and poor schedules, and to hijack them for extra stops to fill in gaps in their own services.

We are now in a situation which many rail advocates have hoped for, that is growing demand for passenger rail triggered by increasing fuel prices and traffic congestion. Yet what are we doing with this opportunity? We have overcrowded trains, with poor reliability and punctuality, running on slow schedules with equipment that is showing its age. How many new riders say “never again”? Why are trains overcrowded at weekends when Metrolink and Coaster trains stay parked in sidings? How many passengers miss a train while queuing to buy a second ticket at an interchange station?

We are now paying the price for our failure to put in place a permanent funding mechanism to provide dollars for a continuous program of incremental improvements. Bond issues are all very well, but occasional chunks of borrowed money are no substitute for the kind of program needed to double track and modernize this railroad. We want to add Metrolink and Surfliner trains, but we already have a quart in a pint pot. The punctuality statistics speak for themselves. In addition to a funding mechanism, the greatest need is for management. The current setup is simply not working. The LOSSAN Board has little power and often has difficulty in finding a quorum for meetings. I believe that it is impossible to run a successful passenger railroad business through a dozen public agencies, committees and boards without a full time, empowered, Executive Director.

It’s time for a thorough review and overhaul of the public agencies that provide commuter and intercity rail in California. Neither the passenger nor the taxpayer is well served by the patchwork of organizations, many with purely local concerns, that now “controls” the LOSSAN corridor. It’s time for radical change, and a return to a truly regional mission. We need Southwest Raillines!

Paul Dyson