Metrolink – Where to from here?

The interview of Art Leahy, Metrolink CEO, by Dan Weikel was revealing.  (LA Times, June 30th) The revelation is that there is no long term movement to make Metrolink a vibrant, relevant mobility option for large numbers of citizens. Nothing that Leahy said indicated a desire to do anything more than business as usual, except with better execution, and no doubt that is the direction he has been given by his Board. One would like to think that there is a desire among decision makers in Southern California to have something better than sporadically scheduled diesel powered trains carrying a miniscule number of commuters on weekdays and little else, but there is precious little sign of it.

After gaining momentum as a substitute for the automobile post the 1994 Northridge earthquake the system was allowed to atrophy.  The Glendale accident (unfortunate, unavoidable) followed by Chatsworth (probably avoidable) set the agency back and led to a lack of confidence among would be patrons. Key investments, such as the SCRIP tracks at Union Station, the Van Nuys new platform, and double track to Sylmar and Chatsworth, are still not complete, although they are finally in the pipeline, a decade late.  The result is today that patronage is static or declining, with barely one tenth of one percent of the five county population choosing the train for their transportation needs each weekday.

After more than twenty years of service it is still not possible to travel by Metrolink train between the San Fernando Valley and Orange County without changing trains, and the connections are poor to non-existent, even on weekdays.  At weekends the Orange County line and the Antelope Valley run round trips, but most don’t connect with each other at Union Station, so the market between northern Los Angeles County and Orange County attractions is simply not served. Why is Metrolink even thinking about service to San Diego, Palm Springs and other places when the journey opportunities on existing lines within the five-county area are so poor?

Southern California as a whole has three agencies providing regional passenger rail service.  The services are familiarly known as Coaster, Surfliner and Metrolink.  By any definition they are boutique operations, with combined daily ridership barely exceeding 60,000, about the same as the Caltrain route between San Jose and San Francisco.  Each has its own administration, marketing, customer service, ticketing, procurement and maintenance facilities.   The trains do not connect, delays are frequent.  The system maps look impressive but the ability to travel is limited by the lack of consistent schedules. How many agencies should we have?

One hesitates to use the word failure, but clearly the current patronage reflects the fact that passenger rail is not meeting the needs of the vast majority of people.  We need some vision here.  We need to start with a plan, and an organization that can execute it.  This plan needs to include all of the agencies in Southern California, be they bus, transit rail or regional rail. The objective should be half hourly service at every station, all day, every day, with timed local transit connections providing door to door service.  Switzerland began this process in the 1990s and today, with a single integrated fare structure the system is in place and working. And Switzerland, a country which could fit between Palm Springs and Santa Barbara, has just as many geographic and institutional challenges as we do here in the Southland.

I had hoped that the High Speed rail project would have acted as a catalyst to jump start a modernization program, initially between the San Fernando Valley and southern Orange County. Electric regional trains would share tracks with Intercity (High Speed) trains between the end of the High Speed line, Union Station and a southern terminus at Mission Viejo. Electrification can later be extended to Chatsworth and San Bernardino. The current Metrolink Board is not interested and probably thinks that the High Speed Rail project will not succeed. Time will tell.

An integrated system will take time and money to implement. Most of all it will require institutional changes that subordinate some local concerns to the regional good. It will require its own source of funds since clearly the Counties have neither the will nor the means. But surely we must do better than today. The three passenger railroads receive $180 million a year in operating subsidies, plus capital grants. Are we getting value for money or can we deploy these resources in a more cost effective way, building on service integration to give Southern Californians an alternative to the automobile? Not only do I believe that we can do better, but that we must if we are to enhance mobility and clean the air.

Paul Dyson is President of the Rail Passenger Association of California, a non- profit volunteer advocacy group and is recently retired after 46 years in the railroad industry on both sides of the Atlantic.