Analysis and Photos by Noel T. Braymer
LOSSAN started out as a loose coalition, a network really of local elected officials, mostly city council members and mayors along the route of the San Diegans in the early 1980’s. Most of these elected officials were from cities that had or were planning to build or improve stations in their towns served by the San Diegans. Two issues which drove the networking were plans by Amtrak to turn an existing train into an express which meant a loss of service for several cities. The other issue was a proposed “Bullet Train” that would have been built between San Diego, Los Angeles and LAX. This scheme was also done without consulting local officials or thought given to how this “Bullet Train” would serve places it went through but didn’t stop at. The express San Diegan was a flop and the Bullet Train scheme died for lack of support.
Evolving from this beginning, legislation was passed in 1989 creating LOSSAN as an agency for the rail corridor between Los Angeles and San Diego. This created a forum for people representing the cities and counties served by the San Diegans as well as Caltrans and Amtrak to meet and work together in planning for future of local rail service. By 1995 service had been expanded to Santa Barbara and Metrolink and Coaster service had been added to the corridor. Planning for service and track improvements from the early days of LOSSAN is finally getting funding for construction. This includes run-through tracks at LAUS and double and triple tracking for much of the corridor.
With the growth of services such as Metrolink, Coaster and improved rail transit services in much of Southern California, it is more important to plan how these other services with work together with Pacific Surfliners to make it easier for passengers to travel. In many cases Metrolink Trains miss by minutes connections to Amtrak, Coaster and other Metrolink Trains. Much of this is caused by lack of joint planning by the different agencies. A major effort by LOSSAN to overcome this was the recent creation of a common timetable for all the services showing the connections between the different trains. Having the different agencies work on a common timetable encourages the different agencies to jointly adjust their schedules to improve connections. It is a slow process changing schedules since track improvements some years in the future will be needed to make many changes to improve connections.LOSSAN has set up working groups to inspect and rate the many stations on the Corridor for user friendliness, station information such as signage, station services and station condition to find ways to improve the stations. Another issue LOSSAN has been working on is creating joint ticketing. Metrolink’s ticketing machines have been selling Amtrak Surfliner Tickets now for years. Plans to extend Metrolink service in a few years to San Diego and Coaster service to Fullerton will require joint ticketing between these two services. A growing problem is the introduction of transit debit cards. Transit agencies are now turning to plastic cards with a electronic memory chip to store information on the card holder’s transit pass and ticket information.This will become more complicated as use of these cards increases. In Los Angeles County many rail transit stations now have gates which can only by opened with a valid “TAP” card. This is a problem for Metrolink riders who transfer to rail transit since Metrolink doesn’t issue “TAP” cards or have Ticket Machines to do so. Increasingly as rail service expands a person should be able to travel anywhere in California by rail with connections with a single ticket. A person shouldn’t have to buy several “TAP” like cards to travel around the State.
With the growth of Metrolink and Coaster service ridership has been stagnant on the Pacific Surfliners which is the name for local Southern California Amtrak service since 2000. A major factor for this stagnation is expanded commuter service in the corridor. Ridership on the Surfliners now include passengers from the Rail 2 Rail Program which Amtrak honors commuter passengers passes for trips where Surfliner and commuter trains share stations. Despite stagnant ridership Surfliner revenues have continued to increase. Some of this is the result of higher fares. But much of this is the longer average trips now on the Surfliners. Much of this is the result of improved bus connections to both the San Joaquin and Capitol Corridor Trains as well as more passengers traveling beyond Los Angeles on the Surfliners. There has long been plans to run additional frequencies over the 11 round trips on the Surfliners between San Diego and Los Angeles. But justification for this is hard to find given the lack ridership growth of the Surflners. The other problem is the shortage of equipment to operate the Surfliners now at 11 round trips. The Surfliner equipment introduced in 2000 was designed for fast acceleration and braking with short station stops while handling large volumes of passengers. However the schedules for the trains have had to be compatible with non-Surfliner equipment which is needed to run the current schedule which adds running times for all trains. The Surfliner service has had time keeping problems in large part due to the use of older single level equipment, the use of substitute locomotives which didn’t have the acceleration of Surfliner locomotives and because of mechanical breakdowns caused by lack of preventive maintenance.
With the passage of SB 1225, LOSSAN can be reorganized as an authority instead of an agency. This is modeled after the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority. This would give LOSSAN a large independent budget so it can take control of administration of the Surfliners from Caltrans. The problem now is many issues such as which government body would administer this new JPA should have been settled before the legislature passed SB1225. Both Los Angeles and Orange Counties want to be the lead agency for the new LOSSAN. San Diego County which has administered the LOSSAN agency since it was created in 1989 wants to hold on to the job and the North County Transportation District which operates the Coaster Trains has voted against creation of a new LOSSAN Authority. Clearly some compromises are in order. My personal opinion is that Metrolink which both controls much of the railroad on the corridor and represents most of the counties of LOSSAN would be a good neutral body to be in charge of the new Authority. San Diego County should be encouraged to have a greater role in Metrolink.
The biggest issue facing a new LOSSAN other than first getting organized, is what to do about the Surfliners? There have been long range plans to run Surfliners at 110 miles per hour and cut running times to under 2 hours between Los Angeles and San Diego.To do this will cost billions of dollars for tunnels under San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente, Del Mar and through the University Towne Centre in San Diego. Without these tunnels it will still be possible to reduce running times to 2 hours and 10 minutes in the foreseeable future. But to do this will require more equipment designed for corridor service and kept in good shape. The new LOSSAN JPA will have the power to contract operation of the Surfliners with a service provider. That means a new LOSSAN Authority could contract with an operator other than Amtrak. This would require LOSSAN to either buy the Surfliner equipment from Amtrak or buy new equipment someplace else and handle equipment servicing and maintenance. Clearly none of this is going to happen overnight. But the future of the Surfliner Trains is one of faster, longer distance service. This means faster trains with fewer stops and shorter station stops. This will require good connections with commuter trains to serve all stations and the right equipment to deboard and board passenger quickly at stations and to accelerate and brake quickly. Service needs to be increased and extended past Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo to San Francisco. Connections by Surfliners to improved service coming to the San Joaquin Valley by 2018 and future High Speed Train service needs to be planned now so Californians and visitors to the State can travel about without being dependent on the auto.The best market for the Surfliners is longer distance service not between Los Angeles and San Diego but beyond Los Angeles. This produces more revenue passenger miles than high passenger counts on short distances. Reduced running times is needed for the Surfliners to improve productivity and increase ridership. Commuter service is critical for local regional travel and for connections to Surfliner and future High Speed Rail service. What is needed is a system with all these services working together and feeding passengers to each other. Making this happen is the Mission of LOSSAN.