What is the Future of the Pacific Surfliners?

Opinion by Noel T. Braymer

With the Governor’s signing of SB 1225, LOSSAN now has the legal authority to reorganize itself into a Joint Powers Authority. This will give it administrative control over the Pacific Surfliners instead of Caltrans as well as financial responsibility for those trains. Since the legislation allows but doesn’t mandate the creation of a Joint Powers Authority, it will be up to the Counties belonging the current LOSSAN Joint Powers Agency to work out an agreement before taking over administration of the Surfliners which isn’t likely before 2015. Already LA Metro (the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority) has applied for the job of Managing Agency for the Surfliners. Soon we will see how the other Counties feel about LA Metro’s proposal. San Diego County in particular but other smaller counties as well in the past have expressed concerned about Los Angeles County dominating the agenda of a new LOSSAN JPA. Hashing out these issues has been an ongoing process all this summer.

So lets look at the state of the Surfliners as of now from the agenda of the October 4th Technical Advisory Committee of LOSSAN from the minutes of the TAC meeting on September 6.

“Mr. Veeh (SANDAG) discussed the recent LOSSAN corridor trends summarizing the ridership, revenue, on-time performance (OTP), and customer satisfaction index. Ridership on the Pacific Surfliner was down nine of the past ten months including a 5.0 percent drop in July. Revenue on the Pacific Surfliner was also down 4.9 percent in July which marks the first drop in revenue since November 2009. Caltrans and Amtrak indicated that the reasons for ridership and revenue declines are from a 17 percent drop in Metrolink Rail2Rail passengers compared to last year, the 4th of July holiday fell on a Wednesday so there were less people traveling on that day with premium holiday fares, and the possibility of residual impacts from the past six months of major track work.”…

“Mr. Veeh reported that OTP took a hit in July that was primarily caused by the BNSF Railway track work between Fullerton and Los Angeles. The Pacific Surfliner OTP was down to 58.3 percent while the Metrolink Orange County line was down to 92.9 percent in July. BNSF completed the replacement of 60,000 ties on July 26. During construction there were slow orders which resulted in average delays of 14 to 18 minutes for Pacific Surfliner trains which resulted in cascading delays throughout the corridor as trains arrived out of slot.”…

“Jay Fountain (Amtrak) added that the September OTP is much better and there was even one day of 100 percent on-time. The end of the Del Mar race season will also improve OTP since a second low level train can be removed from the equipment rotation. The low level trains take more time to load disabled passengers and bicycles which effects OTP.”

“The October 1, 2012, schedule change will have the single level train set operate on the Express train every other day rather than every day and we can expect better OTP. Amtrak is also looking at dwell times and there may be some revisions.”

The Corridor Trends Report as an information item of the October 4th TAC meeting had this information.

“In August 2012, the Surfliner Express ridership was 36 percent lower than August 2011 with an average of 179 passengers per train. OTP improved to 69.9 percent in August which is a substantial improvement over the 47.6 percent in July. The BNSF Railway tie replacement track work between Los Angeles and Fullerton was completed in July but OTP on the Surfliner Express is still a bit low due to the use of the single level train set every day as well as other track work and slow orders throughout the corridor. The OTP should improve in September due to a new equipment rotation that limits the use of the single level train set to every other day.”

“When compared to the previous year, the Pacific Surfliner has had declining ridership in ten of the last eleven months including a 4.5 percent decrease in ridership in August. The reasons for the drop in ridership on the Pacific Surfliner are a 17 percent drop in Metrolink Rail2Rail passengers compared to last year, there could be residual impacts from the low OTP due to the extraordinary amount of track work over the past nine months, and there was a 2 percent fare increase in August.”

From this we can see that ridership on the Surfliners is stagnant at best. Ridership numbers have included many short distance Metrolink riders from the Rail2Rail program. Revenues had been improving in large part due to rising fares and high average distance traveled on some trains. What has not done well and has reduced ridership is the experiment with the express train.The State Rail Plan calls for increasing the number of Surfliner Trains from 11 round trips between San Diego and Los Angeles to 18. This won’t happen until there is ridership growth. The way to increase ridership is from a combination of increased travel value and expended number of markets served by the Surfliners. Examples of improved value include lower fares and improved quality of service such as more comfort, better food and amenities or reduced running times. The problem with skipping stations to reduce running times is it also eliminates travel markets and potential ridership. Having only one train running a few minutes faster in one direction was unlikely to do well even if it ran on time. It would be better to cut dwell times and reduce running times by 5 to 10 minutes on all Surfliners and run them on-time. A major factor for on time performance which was not addressed in the agenda of the LOSSAN TAC is the reliability of the equipment, particularly that of the locomotives. Good equipment maintenance is critical to run trains on time. Since Surfliner equipment is in short supply to meet growing demand low level equipment will still be needed. Boarding and deboarding times with low level equipment can be greatly improved by borrowing or leasing bi-level cars from Metrolink which now has surplus older cars and adding one or two to a low level trainset. Adding bi-level cars to a low level car trainset will reduce dwell times and by removing seats on the lower level increase storage space for luggage, bikes and tied down spaces for wheelchairs. The bi-level cars have handicap bathrooms and low level doors for easier loading for wheelchairs and people with mobility problems. Food service for people with special needs can be handled with at seat food service which the Business Class Attendant could help out with.

What would jump start ridership on the Surfliners are lower fares. Not all the time but with discount fares using yield management, This is widely used by the airlines, bus companies and passenger railroads including Amtrak on reserved trains. This is why prices for air travel have such a wide range on the same route. Discount fares could be given for tickets bought on-line and several days in advance for certain days and trains. The basic idea is to fill up trains with lower fares during slow times of the year or on trains with extra seats while getting the maximum fares the market will bear on busy trains. Also needed are better connections to commuter trains and buses. Connections are an inexpensive way to add markets and destinations to trains. It is hard to find a flight on any airline without multiple connecting flights. Improved Surfliner/bus connections to airports, attractions, activity centers without rail service such West Los Angeles are some examples. A good example of what can work is connecting Amtrak Train 761 at Union Station with Metrolink. The 761 departs Los Angeles at 7:35 AM for San Luis Obispo. Of all the trains to travel north of Los Angeles along the Coast its ridership is the poorest. Some people think it is the early morning departure. Yet between 5 and 8 AM is one of the busiest times for most airports. This means people often get up by 4 AM to fly. What is different about the 761 is it is the only train going north along the Coast which either doesn’t have a connecting train from San Diego or origination from San Diego. A simple solution would be to use Metrolink train 603 from Oceanside at 5:16 AM which arrives in Los Angeles at 7:25 AM. This would be an easy connection. All that is needed would be through ticketing and letting people know about this connection. It would be better if the Metrolink train ran 7 days a week. To extend the 603 from San Diego would require a departure time of around 4:15 AM.

The best way to increase revenue and ridership is to extend the length of a train’s route. Revenue for a train is based on passenger miles. The best way to increase revenue is to increase passenger miles by increasing the average trip length which happens when a train’s route is extended. This can be seen already with the trains which run from San Diego through Los Angeles to Santa Barbara and up to San Luis Obispo and back. Can we run more Surfliners to Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo? Maybe although adding more trains past Moorpark requires the cooperation of the UP which is often hard to get. More trains could be run as far as Venture County, But a major market without direct service from San Diego is the area from the northern San Fernando , Santa Clarita and Antelope Valleys. There is strong political support for such a new service and this would fit into the blending of high speed rail and local intercity rail. Adding a few trains which bypasses local stops north of Los Angeles would provide a faster service than Metrollink. The new traffic with higher average trip lengths will make up for business lost by-passing some stations on the route.

What would greatly increase revenues  from extending Surfliners to the High Desert would be better connections  to the San Joaquin Trains. Right now only half of the 6 round trips for the San Joaquins connect with Surfliners. The other San Joaquins connect only by bus. Even the San Joaquins that connect with the Surfliners require a 100 mile bus connection and often have long wait times between services. Running Surfliners connecting with the San Joaquins at Santa Clarita would cut almost 40 miles out of a 100 mile bus ride while improving reliability by avoiding busy LA traffic. This and tighter connections between the trains could save more than an hour between San Diego and Bakersfield. This would help boast the ridership for both trains and build up the future market for High Speed Trains.This likely will have to be done in stages as improvements are made for high speed rail. Extended Surfliners to Palmdale will work better with additional trackage between Fullerton and Sylmar and run through tracks at LAUS. A faster San Joaquin and additional frequencies would also make it easier to connect new Surflners to the San Joaquin Valley. But this is a mostly ignored market. The key to the future of the Surfliners is while still running between Los Angeles and San Diego, is looking beyond to expanded service along the Coast as far as San Francisco and up to the High Desert with connections to Bakersfield and further. All the pieces need to fit into place for the Surfliner’s ridership to grow. They need to run on time and go faster one step at a time. Surfliners need to offer more value with improved service and better travel deals. Surfliners need better connections to more places both locally and regionally by bus and commuter trains. To really live up to their potential the Surfliners need to be extended to more places and more markets while still anchored between LA and San Diego. Buy doing this the State and the Taxpayers get more value for their money which improves the economy and the region’s transportation.

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