Why I oppose the plan to reopen the Santa Paula Line

By Paul J. Dyson, RailPAC President — It may come as a surprise that a 40 year veteran of passenger and freight rail advocacy is opposed to the idea of reopening the former Southern Pacific line linking Santa Clarita with Ventura (“the Santa Paula line”). The line parallels the busy state highway 126 for most of the route and would also appear to be an outlet for freight to and from Port Hueneme. Much of the route right of way is still in existence. So why the opposition?

My opposition is founded on the principles that RailPAC has expounded for over 25 years. We believe in projects that are doable. Yes, anything can be done if you throw enough money at it, so we define doable as being a project that can be physically executed at an economically viable cost. We believe in projects that give value for money. Society cannot afford to invest in expensive rail facilities to run trains that are mostly empty, most of the time.

The Santa Paula line connects the Antelope Valley Metrolink route with the Coast Main line at Montalvo. The Coast Main is also a Metrolink route as well as the route of the Amtrak Surfliner corridor. Probably the biggest physical barrier to reopening is the loss of the right of way at the Santa Clarita end of the line. A critical section of the route from the junction with the Antelope Valley line to just east of interstate 5 was abandoned and has largely succumbed to the extraordinary growth of the city of Santa Clarita. This section parallels Magic Mountain Parkway. A power line right of way has been proposed as an alternative but this would require a new bridge over the South Fork of the Santa Clara river and an at grade crossing of San Fernando road, or a very expensive “flying junction”. The remainder of the right of way would require all new track and passing sidings to bring the line up to passenger standards.

Both Santa Clarita and the Ventura and Oxnard areas are mostly “new” communities, with a very dispersed pattern of residential and commercial development. It seems unlikely to me that this demographic mix will attract much ridership other than a couple of weekday commuter trains with subsidized riders from the public sector. Thus the cost per rider, both capital and operating, will be extremely high.

The idea that Port Hueneme is likely to generate a sufficiently large amount of traffic to justify the construction of a new freight route is absurd, in my opinion. I was Southern Pacific’s commercial representative for the Coast Line in the early ‘90s and am quite familiar with the operations at the Port. Most of the cargoes for which the port is best suited and which are in their plans to pursue are not transferable to rail. These include commodities such as imported bananas and export citrus fruit from the San Joaquin valley, which are either too time sensitive or travel too short a distance to be appropriate for today’s rail freight service. The other big business at the Port is imported automobiles. These generate quite a few carloads for distribution in Texas and the Central States and this business could expand significantly. There are some import facilities at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles that many planners would like to close to make room for more containers and transfer that business to Port Hueneme. The importers that use those facilities would probably like to stay where they are to have the benefit of competition for their business between BNSF and UP, (Port Hueneme is served only by UP). But even if they moved to Port Hueneme the additional carloads generated could easily be handled along the Coast Main, especially if a fraction of the money needed for the Santa Paula line were to be invested in the Coast Line instead. In any event it’s difficult to see how freight from Port Hueneme will reach its destination efficiently via Santa Paula. Will there be a new junction to the northbound Antelope Valley Line?  If so, will there also be a new connector south of Palmdale onto the eastbound Palmdale cutoff?  All that does is bring the traffic into West Colton.

This brings me to my main point. It’s not that I’m totally opposed to new train service along this route. There is some potential there and it’s possible that, given time, the line may attract a reasonable amount of business. The issue for me is that both of the existing lines at each end of this route are in serious need of investment. The Coast Main handles the Ventura Metrolink service and the Amtrak Surfliner. Much of the route is still single tracked resulting in extended journey times and inherent reliability problems. The Antelope Valley line is similarly situated, being single track from Burbank Junction north. Both of these lines are operating well below their potential to attract patrons currently using the highly congest 101, 14 and 5. Both need additional double tracking or passing sidings to improve reliability and provide capacity for additional service, as well as reduce journey times. There is a finite amount of money available for investment and the Santa Paula line would suck up too much of what is available in the region, leaving us with three second rate services instead of two successes.

I for one am tired of seeing lines on a map that planners and politicians believe represent a service, while the reality on the ground is slow, unreliable trains with far too many empty seats. RailPAC and other advocacy groups have to tell the story in plain language. We have to make the routes that we have work properly. We must not spread our resources so thinly that the end result  becomes another target for our critics.

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