Metrolink’s Shrinking Ridership

By Noel T. Braymer


Dropping Metrolink Ridership
Graphic from LOSSAN


Why is ridership declining on Metrolink? There are many reasons. Much of the rise in ridership recently in public transportation is directly the result of spikes in the price of gasoline and cost of driving a car. Since last year the price of gasoline has more or less stabilized and even dropped a little. People are also buying new more economical cars to replace their gas guzzlers.The recent fare increase by Metrolink hasn’t helped either. Most of this decline in ridership is for commuters headed to Union Station. One factor that hasn’t helped were the problems of trying to transfer to LA Metro trains with new turnstiles that would require a TAP card. The use of Metrolink paper tickets with TAP chips embedded in them has solved that problem. Part of the problem is lack of job growth in downtown Los Angeles, government jobs in particular are shrinking.


Here are excerpts from  the Corridor Trends information item in the LOSSAN TAC agenda  for Aug 8, 2013


Metrolink Service Performance

Average weekday ridership on Metrolink trains in June 2013 recorded a 4.1 percent decrease from a year earlier. This decline is part of a trend that started last year when ridership growth began to decelerate in November 2012, and turned negative beginning in January 2013 (Figure 1). Since January, Metrolink has been experiencing a decline in average weekday ridership every month. Losses reached 4.1 percent in June, but could be limited to less than 1 percent in July 2013. Ridership losses are systemic and are impacting all lines, with the exception only of the Inland Empire Orange County (IEOC) Line (Figure 2.). Weekend ridership continues to be strong. Although weekend ridership has been growing by 30 percent annually, it has not translated into new weekday commuters…

Downtown Los Angeles lags the region in job growth, in part, because of the high concentration of the government sector, which has been shedding jobs.Downtown Los Angeles also experiences increasing office vacancy rates. “Negative absorption rates will likely continue, meaning the vacancy rate is not likely to drop any time soon.”(Los Angeles Business Journal, July 22, 2013).


Where ridership is growing on Metrolink is during the weekends and service between Orange County and the Inland Empire. In other words on the trains where most ridership doesn’t get off at Los Angeles Union Station. A major factor for ridership growth on the weekends is the $10 dollar pass. The fact that ridership is growing where there is no service to downtown Los Angeles says that there is a market for rail travel to and from other places besides downtown Los Angeles.Yet management at Metrolink seems to see this as a problem, instead of an opportunity.


There is good news, Metrolink is expanding service starting August 18th on Sundays from 3 to 6 round trip trains on the Antelope Valley Line. This will be the same number of trains for Sunday as on Saturdays between Los Angeles and Lancaster. Did Metrolink planners suggest this? No, this was the idea of Los Angeles County Board of Supervisor Member Michael Antonovich who represents the Antelope Valley. Supervisor Antonovich is also on the Boards of LA Metro and the SCRRA which oversees Metrolink. Increased frequencies usually increases ridership on any rail passenger service on all trains of that line. With the ability of the Weekend Pass to attract riders this should help too. Supervisor Antonovich as part of his request for this service also asked that connections be improved on the Antelope Valley Line to other Metrolink trains and Amtrak.


What is the best way to jump start Metrolink’s ridership? Certainly it isn’t with fare increases and slowing boardings by inspecting every passenger’s ticket at the platform. Metrolink should create a Weekday Day Pass for all of Metrolink. I would suggest a $35 dollar Pass good all day on all Metrolink lines. Will someone use this pass to ride all of Metrolink’s 512 route miles in a day. A few maybe but not many people would. I suggest $35 dollars because this is slightly higher than the highest round trip fare on Metrolink for a single line. There is no need to discount trips like from Oceanside to Los Angeles. But this will open up major new markets for longer trips transferring at Union Station. People are always looking for a good deal. At this price many more people will travel on Metrolink between San Bernardino and Oxnard, Lancaster and Riverside or Oceanside and Pomona plus all other stations in between.


Who would discount travel by train on a day pass? Well how about the Coaster Trains in San Diego County. They have a $12 all day pass good on the Coaster as well as the Sprinter Trains, the Trolley and all bus connections in San Diego County. This day pass wasn’t always $12 dollars. Originally it was $14 dollars but North County lowered the price to increase ridership and revenue. They also recently lowered their regular trains fares as well. The Coaster often has special prices for seasonal services. Now during the Del Mar Horse Racing season the Coaster has an $11 dollar pass called the Pony Express for rail and connecting bus service to Del Mar. Coaster Ridership by the way isn’t declining.


Now one objection to this idea is what about the crowding on Metrolink during rush hour? Well if you are losing ridership doesn’t sound like crowding is the problem. A Weekday Day Pass on Metrolink will increase ridership and revenues. This should lead to more promotion of existing  connections and to better connections where there is the most demand. Schedules can be improved for better connections and service in some cases can be expanded with more frequencies. So if during rush hours some trains get crowded what can be done? Run trains with more cars and fill them up. Metrolink has plenty of surplus cars now so lack of equipment should be the least of their worries.