What’s Up with the Coaster?

By Noel T. Braymer                                                                                                             For the past few years there has been almost constant ridership growth on the Coaster, the rail service on 41 miles of track between Oceanside and San Diego. Other California services have seen ridership go up and down while ridership has generally been constantly growing on the Coaster. One factor for this steady growth could be the excellent on time performance, generally better than most other rail services in California. Another could be the Day Pass for $12 dollars.

Coaster Ridership

The Day Pass not only offers unlimited service on the Coaster. It also gives unlimited service on the Sprinter, the DMU service between Oceanside and Escondido as well as all 3 lines of the San Diego Trolley. The Day Pass also provides unlimited bus service on most of the transit buses in San Diego County. The full rail fare on the Coaster between Oceanside and San Diego is a good deal at $11 dollars round trip. For just a dollar extra you get additional service to the entire County. This compares to fares of about the same length 42 miles  on Metrolink between Irvine and Los Angeles which at full fare is $11 dollars one way and $22 dollars round trip. On Caltrain 4 zones will take you 40 miles or more at $9 dollars one way and $18 dollars for an day pass on Caltrain but without transfers to local transit. The Metrolink ticket includes transfers to most local transit.

Fares on the Coaster today are lower than they were a few years ago. The Day Pass originally was $14 dollars and then was still a good deal. There was also originally 4 zones between Oceanside and San Diego but now there are 3. By eliminating one zone the price of a ticket between Oceanside and San Diego went down. Why did the Coaster lowered fares? Because it has increased ridership, and with increased ridership this has increased Coaster’s revenue.

The Coaster’s on-time performance is remarkable considering that almost half of the railroad in San Diego County is still single tracked. This is a very busy railroad with up to 50 trains most weekdays with Amtrak, Coaster, freight and some Metrolink trains between Oceanside and the county line to Orange County. Coaster operates 5 peak period trains in the morning and evening about 30 to 40 minutes apart along with 2 reverse commutes at the same time. During the work week there are usually trains every 2 to 3 hours during the off peak periods. On the weekends there are usually 4 daily trains during the fall and winter and 6 in the spring and summer as well as extra trains during baseball season.

Coaster on time

The long range plan for the Coaster is to expand service with trains running every half hour in both directions most of the day. Holding back such improvements is the existing single tracked railroad. San Diego County plans to spend $820 million dollars over the next 20 years for track improvements including double tracking most of the rail line along the 60 miles between the Orange County boarder and downtown San Diego.

LOSSAN San Diego 2013 A


LOSSAN San Diego 2013

Oside 3rd track

In the next few years the plans to expand Coaster service include construction of a Transportation Center in Camp Pendleton. This will include platforms for Coaster Trains and bus bays to connecting buses which already serve the base to the trains. Camp Pendleton is the largest employer in North San Diego County and major traffic generator with congestion problems.

Also planned in the near term is a new stop south of the downtown Santa Fe Depot by the Convention Center and Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres Baseball team. This saves passengers a long walk or transfer to the Trolley to this major traffic center. This stop was originally proposed in the early 90’s by Byron Nordberg, a former President of RailPAC.

The San Diego Airport is planning to build a future High Speed Rail Station on the tracks alongside part of the airport. This station will have direct connections to the terminals as part of a major rebuild of the airport. Both Coaster and San Diego Trolley will serve this future Airport Station before High Speed Rail in just a few years.

PacSurfling Projects 8 6 10

Also in the works are plans to extend some Coaster Trains north to Fullerton and Metrolink trains to San Diego. There is a growth market for travel between Orange County and Northern San Diego County, particularly for commuters. The main hold up to expanding such service are the many miles of single track railroad between San Juan Capistrano and Oceanside. More double track in the near future is planned particularly through Camp Pendleton to allow more trains in this current bottleneck. Such extended service will not only increase ridership but also longer distance ridership generates more income than short distance travel while providing service to destinations not available on the Surfliners.

While there is much to learn and copy from what is happening in San Diego County, not all is perfect. Case in point the San Diego Trolley has for years been planning to extend the Trolley north of Old Town to serve UCSD and nearby University Towne Centre (UTC) shopping center and business park. This area is part of the largest job center in San Diego. However there are no plans to build a joint station between the extended Trolley and Coaster (which will share some right of way) for Coaster passengers to connect to UTC or UCSD. There was a plan a few years back to build a Coaster Station near UTC with a Rapid Bus service that now connects UTC and UCSD. This plan was dropped years ago to transfer money to other projects. The MTS, operator of the Trolley has shown no interest for such a connection even though such connections at Old Town and downtown provide many passengers to it from Coaster trains.

The busiest station for the Coaster is at Sorrento Valley not downtown San Diego. This is because the the business parks around Sorrento Valley as well as by nearby UCSD and UTC form the largest job center in San Diego. Most commuters using the Sorrento Valley Station depend on shuttle buses to get them to and from work. As it is there is no connecting bus service between Sorrento Valley, UTC and UCSD in this highly traffic congested area.

Other recent problems North County Transit District (NCTD), operator of the Coaster has had include problems building a new double track railroad bridge over the Santa Margarita River in Camp Pendleton. Under construction off and on since 2010 this critical segment for double tracking the line has had flooding destroy bridge construction while major parts have had to be torn up and rebuilt because of defects. Finally this bridge should be in service next year in just a few months.

Earlier this year the NCTD had the embarrassing problem of suspending service on the Sprinter trains between Oceanside and Escondido for a few months because of excessive brake wear. It seems this problem was known for some time by at least one supervisor but a solution wasn’t found before the PUC accidentally discovered the problem which lead to the shutdown of service. This required an expensive special rush order of new brake routers for just the center truck before the trains could go back in service.

There have also been press reports of high turnover rates of managers at NCTD with reports of low morale. The problems with the Sprinter according to some news reports reflect what some claim is dysfunctional management at NCTD. There have also been criticism of salary of the General Manager at NCTD which is much higher than most agency heads of transit agencies of about the same size as NCTD.

While nothing in life is perfect, there is  much to learn both the good and the bad of the rail passenger service in San Diego County as well as the other rail passenger services in California.


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