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Metrolink Needs a Plan, and some Leadership

By Noel T. Braymer

Metrolink has failed to fulfill its mission to be the Southern California Regional Rail Passenger Railroad. The official name for Metrolink is the Southern California Regional Rail Authority. Instead the management of Metrolink at its inception was under the impression that they were running a commuter railroad to primarily carry people to downtown Los Angeles. Instead of being leaders, the people hired to run Metrolink (the very name reflects the downtown LA mentality) turned out to be expensive bureaucrats. Instead of bold action, Metrolink senior staff fretted over avoiding possible turf wars with other rail service agencies instead of working to create an integrated train service between providers.

A good example of this comes from a now retired civil engineer of Metrolink’s. On his own he wrote a feasibility study for fixing up the publicly owned former Santa Fe Harbor Line to create a Metrolink connection to the LAX area with connections to downtown Los Angeles and possible connections to the Inland Empire and Orange County. He was told in no uncertain words by top management never to mention this idea again or to tell anyone outside of Metrolink about. He was told that there was an “unwritten rule” that Metrolink couldn’t go south or west of downtown Los Angeles and Union Station: that this would infringe on LA Metro territory. The old Santa Fe Harbor line is now being used for the Crenshaw Light Rail Line to LAX and proposed for a bike path.

I can’t think of any healthy rail transportation system with such a stupid “unwritten rule”. Look at most rail service maps in major cities in Europe where intercity, regional and transit rail services often overlap each other and help to feed and distribute passenger to and from each rail service. What is needed is a spirit of cooperation and joint purpose between the different rail services, not to create rival bureaucratic empires that avoid each other’s “turf”. To sell an idea like Metrolink service to LAX, the emphasis has to be the advantages to all the services by doing so.

The defensive nature, lack of vision and incompetence of the former management of Metrolink is directly responsible for the climate at Metrolink which led to the mess Metrolink is in today. Metrolink management have been hiding accounting problems and cash shortages from its board for years. Metrolink hasn’t had a plan to replace aging and unreliable station ticket machines that often failed. Only after much unfavorable publicity in the news about the problems with the ticket machines did the board vote money to replace them recently. At the same time the board started a major shake up of Metrolink management.

The biggest problem at Metrolink which management has failed to address is ridership. Instead of growing it has been shrinking. This is a failure of marketing. Marketing is not advertising. Marketing is identifying the different markets for your service and finding ways to make your service more appealing to these markets. Instead Metrolink management has complained that there are fewer people commuting to work in downtown Los Angeles which is the reason for ridership decline. No word about other markets in a region with over 18 million people.

What is needed to increase ridership on Metrolink is with better service connecting to more markets all day, 7 days a week in Southern California. Most drivers go past downtown Los Angeles not into downtown. Downtown is a natural road junction, but not the destination for many travelers. The same is true of many potential riders for Metrolink. Downtown Los Angeles is a good hub to transfer from, not the only place passengers are headed. Many simple improvements can be made on Metrolink with better connections between trains and better bus connections to increase ridership. Discount ticketing for off peak trains should be used to fill up otherwise underused trains. We need management at Metrolink that produce results, not excuses.

An example of what can and should be done is on the Inland Empire-Orange County Metrolink Line. This line has 8 round trips between Irvine and Riverside.Six of these trains also serve Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo, 3 of these 8 trains also serve San Juan Capistrano, and 2 of the 8 goes as far as Oceanside. Also 4 of the 8 trains also serve San Bernardino. By simply running connecting round trips buses on 4 of these trains between Riverside to San Bernardino there could be 8 round trip services between San Bernardino and Irvine. With 6 round trips by buses south of Irvine to Oceanside there could be round trip service 8 times a day between Oceanside and San Bernardino. At Oceanside with some scheduling changes we could also see many connections on the Coaster to San Diego to the Inland Empire-Orange County Line. These bus connections would add more passengers to all of these existing trains. This would also create a new corridor between San Diego and San Bernardino in an area of about 8 million people. This should have been done years ago.