Another close call and Metrolink comes through again

Editorial by Noel T. Braymer

On a wet Friday October 12th night we relearned how vulnerable California’s transportation system is. In a truck by-pass tunnel underneath the I-5 freeway one truck hit another truck which created a chain reaction causing several trucks to catch fire. The good news was “only” three people were killed. Working feverishly Caltrans crews were able to clean out the tunnel and shore it up so the main freeway overhead could be reopended for the Monday rush hour. The fire damaged tunnel could take months to repair. It could have been worse and the entire freeway would have been closed for months. Even so, the already often jammed freeway has lost capacity which means more trucks will have to share the freeway with cars on the steep downhill slope of the southbound lanes.

Monday morning the 15th Metrolink was ready with additional cars for the rush hour traffic and two additional round trips during the off peak period. This is no small feat with Metrolink already short on equipment during rush hours. This isn’t the first time Metrolink has come through in an emergency. Back during the Northridge Earthquake in 1994, the Highway 14 connection to the I-5, right next to the disaster of this October, was cut. Metrolink was almost the only way to get to Los Angeles from the Antelope Valley and prevented the area from being cut off. Monday the 15th Metrolink was jammed with new riders while other people stayed home because of fears of traffic jams on I-5. People were surprised that traffic moved rather well that Monday. On Tuesday the 16th, ridership on Metrolink was down and that morning traffic was in a snarl.

How much longer additional Metrolink service will be needed is unknown. This current crisis brings up many issues that should be considered. The I-5 corridor is the transportation spine of California. Not everyone traveling on this corridor is going to downtown Los Angeles or Santa Clarita. Not just people but also freight travels on this corridor. Between the San Fernando Valley and the Grapevine there aren’t many alternatives to the I-5. There are also few connections on Metrolink now to the West San Fernando Valley, Westwood, West Los Angeles, LAX or San Diego County. This rail line is largely single tracked, dependent on a single track tunnel hand built by Chinese immigrants over 130 years ago. Even if there was track capacity to add passenger service to Bakersfield, the current alignment takes hours more than by road. 

Building a new rail alignment between Los Angeles and Bakersfield makes a great deal of sense for both freight and passenger service. Truck traffic is growing on the I-5 between Los Angeles and Sacramento. Trucks are a major source of air pollution, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley. Trucks have a major impact on traffic because they are large and slower than cars. Truck accidents in particular often shut down freeways. To provide a rail alternative in California for truck traffic will require a high capacity rail line, with fast service; in other words, a railroad that would also be perfect for good passenger service.

Freight and passenger service have shared the railroads form the beginning. The railroads today generally are not equipped for the fast, frequent, short haul traffic carried by most trucks. The Tejon Pass is subject to closure from bad weather from snow and high winds. Earthquakes have affected the area around I-5 as well as fires. This area is a bottleneck that affects transportation for not just northern Los Angeles County, but the entire State.

The railroads are benefiting from cooperating with local government for improvemments to the rails. That State of California is helping the railroads improve the Tehachapi Loop area which will improve freight service in that congested area. While a good start, more will be needed for the transporation needs in California. Railroads can carry more passengers and freight at less cost than a freeway. Think of the construction cost differences of a double track railroad versus a typical 8 lane freeway. Both can carry about the same amount of people and freight. But which alternative needs less land, concrete and has less impact on the enviroment? A  new rail alignment isn’t going to put the I-5 out of business. But rail can provide an alternative which will be less sensitive to weather or disasters in an area where increased capacity is badly needed.

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