What is the Future of Passenger Rail Service in California?

By Noel T. Braymer

In my opinion in one word: Good ! We have come a long way since 1979 when I first became involved in rail advocacy and no one was sure then that there would even be any Rail Passenger service in 2015. The question is no longer if there will be any Rail Passenger service, but how much and to where. The places where ridership and service are the strongest are in the most densely populated areas of California.

No one can fully predict the future. But by 2029 there will likely be High Speed Rail service between Anaheim – Los Angeles- Fresno- and San Francisco. Despite the rantings of media pundits, this densely populated corridor will carry a great number of passengers once it gets running. This core service will serve or be able to connect to most of the future population of California of over 50 million.

Metrolink right now needs a major shake up. It has been poorly managed for years and ridership has been at best stagnant or declining. But given the interest and demand by local governments in Southern California for better regional rail service, it looks like we will soon see some major long overdue changes at Metrolink. Metrolink is poised to be a major feeder of passengers to High Speed Rail, first at Burbank, then later at Los Angeles and Anaheim. Metrolink has a huge underserved market for regional travel throughout Southern California it has yet to tap.

Caltrain is already jammed to the gills. The Bay Area is a very prosperous and job rich region. Traffic is also a mess. There is no end in sight of the ridership growth of Caltrain or of development around Caltrain Stations which will feed even more ridership. The Altamont Corridor Express (ACE) will with improvements will see more ridership with commuters and day travelers between the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area as demand for more affordable housing increases in the Bay Area. What will be needed and will be coming in the Bay Area are better coordination and transfers between the Capitol Corridor, BART, Caltrain, High speed Rail and ACE. All can expect greater ridership and expanded service in the future.

Much the same can be said for Southern California. Ridership on the Pacific Surfliners will continue to grow. The big question is how much new equipment will be available to expand service and how well will the Surfliners connect to Coaster, Metrolink and High Speed Rail. The Coaster is set as more double track is built in San Diego County for more frequent trains. There are plenty of people to move in San Diego County and congested roads. The big unknown now is how soon will there be fast service between San Diego and Los Angeles. There are plans now to build High Speed Rail up the I-15 from San Diego through the Inland Empire to Los Angeles. There is no firm date as to when this will happen. Even when this is built there is still a need for faster train service between Los Angeles, south Orange County and coastal San Diego County.

The trains in the less populated areas of the State need more attention. The San Joaquin Trains need to be expanded and have better connections to High Speed Rail, the Bay Area and Sacramento. The services which are having the least progress for expanding or start up are on tracks owned by the Union Pacific. There are strong markets now for more train service on the Coast Line between Los Angeles and San Jose. More service is also needed as far north as Redding, east to Reno/Sparks, and southwest to Palm Springs as well as Phoenix and Tucson.

The area of greatest uncertainty is the future of the Long Distance Trains. The best hope of the Long Distance Trains will be increased interest and political support by local communities that have or want Long Distance Passenger Train service. Transportation is central to a healthy economy no matter how large or small a community is. Most community leaders understand how important transportation is to their economy. But major changes to the way Long Distance Rail Passenger service is operated and presented to the public is needed before we will see any major improvements.

The reason I am so optimistic about the future of rail passenger service is that increasingly the powers that be are rediscovering how important rail service, both freight and passenger is to the future economy.The 1950’s are long over when we had cheap oil, cheap open land and fewer people when the freeways were being built. High Speed Rail would not be under construction now without the political support of powerful interests. One need only look at many of the train station/transit centers in California to see how much they have changed since 1979 and the effect of development surrounding these surface transportation centers. Transportation is the engine of the economy. Rail is the fastest and most economical form of surface transportation available. Rail Passenger service is the only way to move large numbers of people to dense, highly profitable traffic centers. The days of dropping leaflets on the seats trains to “save the trains” are thankfully long over.

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