How Not to Run Rail Passenger Service

In the United States, we have been running rail passenger service the wrong way for years. What we need is a rail passenger system. What we have instead is a fragmented series of services that that don’t connect with each or serve places when and where people want to travel. Often service providers look at each other as competitors for passengers and funding, instead of valuable providers of transferring customers. They tend to be focused on existing and often shrinking travel markets while ignoring new ones.

The roots of these problems goes back when many different rail services began as unconnected local services. Over the years American rail passenger services have ignored changes in rail passenger service around the world and have shun efforts to innovate and learn from them. To often Rail Passenger service is a political football as social welfare and not as a valuable service vital to a growing economy.

The New York Times recently ran a story about the problems traveling around the San Francisco Bay Area by public transportation. It pointed out that the Bay Area has 9 counties and 20 public transport operators which often don’t connect or provide transfers to each other. This can make it difficult to get around the Bay Area, particularly if you are not travelling to downtown San Francisco. Even if you are going to San Francisco it is difficult to transfer to your final destination. But one can find many of the same problems in New York. There instead of counties not cooperating with each other, you have states with different services not working together to attract passengers.

What is needed to get different organizations to work together is a single umbrella organization that oversees all of the member agencies. By nature such an oversight organization should be neutral and fair so no agency feels it is being taken advantage of. But at the some time it is impossible to get anything done without sometimes upsetting someone. Such oversight organizations in one form or another have been around for years in Europe. In California there have been some efforts for oversight at the regional and county levels.

One example of this is the Metropolitan Transportation Development Board (MTDB) of San Diego which was created int 1976.It was responsible for planning all transportation for the metro area of the city of San Diego. Besides roads, it oversaw several local bus services and San Diego Transit which was then the largest bus carrier in San Diego County. By 1979 the San Diego Trolley project was approved . The bus operators, particularly San Diego Transit opposed the Trolley project fearing it would take funding and passengers away from them. The MTDB had to take responsiblity for building and operating the future Trolley. One of the first things noticed after service started up on the Trolley was that bus ridership also increased on the lines connecting to the Trolley.

In 2003 San Diego Transit was reorganized into today’s San Diego Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) which operates and builds extensions to the Trolley and operates most of the Bus service in the San Diego metro area. Service and operation of bus and rail service from northern San Diego County is handled by the North County Transit District (NCTD). The MTDB was phased out with it’s jobs split between the MTS which handles operation of both the Trolley and much of the bus service in metro San Diego. The planning and service coordination for both the MTS and NCTD where taken over by the County’s planning agency SANDAG.

Many of the issues that San Diego went through happened in Los Angeles County and its rail program. In 1976 the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) was created. Its job was to oversee planning for all forms of public transportation and highways in the county. One of its jobs was to rule on whether or not to allow Culver City Bus to extend service on one of its bus lines to Westwood and UCLA. This effort was opposed by Santa Monica Bus which had many riders in Westwood. The LACTC approved Culver City Bus service to Westwood.

Shortly after the successful start up of the San Diego Trolley in 1981, local efforts in Los Angeles County were begun to build Light Rail on the old Pacific Electric Line between Long Beach and Los Angeles. At the same time Los Angeles County had a problem with having money and no project. There was State and local matching funds for a Federal Match for a “Downtown People Mover”. In the early 1980’s the Federal People Mover project was killed by the Reagan Administration and the local money for it had no place to go. Without a project the County of Los Angeles would have to return money to the State. This was the beginning of the Blue Line.

At this time the Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) was responsible for both most of the bus service in Los Angeles County, plus planning and construction of the future “Heavy Rail” transit system for the region. The RTD was opposed to Light Rail because it feared it would take money away from its future very expensive Heavy Rail projects. As a result the LACTC ended up taking over the planning and construction of the original Blue and Green Lines. The Red Line subway project had many problems during construction and early ridership was below projections. What did happen was as Light Rail service expanded, ridership increased for the Red Line.

In 1993 the Legislature reorganized the LACTC and SCRTD by merging the two organizations. This resulted in the new Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It not only operated the buses and trains of the RTD, but was responsible for all transportation planning in Los Angeles County, including highways and oversight of the many local municipal bus companies in Los Angeles County. There are still bus services in Los Angeles County which don’t accept transfers between other bus services.

The closest thing we have today in Southern California for an oversight agency for Rail Passenger Service is the LOSSAN Joint Powers Authority (JPA). Just by having regular meetings between the different government agencies both within this JPA and the other 2 JPA’s in the State has gone a long way in improving communications and creation of common goals.

But progress is still very slow. With the construction of run-through tracks at Los Angeles Union Station by 2020 will bring 50 % of all trains at the station being extended to other end points. This will create a more efficient service for both Surfliner and Metrolink trains. This will also improve revenues and shorten running times for all of these trains.

But what is missing and have been advocated for some time in Southern California are better connections between trains and seamless ticketing with a single ticket for connections on a trip. Many connections that do exist are not highlighted on schedules and many potential connections have yet to be made. No major schedule changes have yet been proposed, let alone made to create more and better connections within or between Metrolink, Coaster and Surfliner trains.

You can buy Amtrak tickets on Metrolink Ticket Machines, But there still isn’t information about existing connections or one place ticketing between Amtrak, Metrolink and Coaster trains. By comparison airline passengers can go online and not only get tickets of a full itinerary over several carriers, but also reservations for hotels and car rentals.

On a State Wide basis the closest thing we have to a State wide oversight agency for rail passenger service is LOSSAN. LOSSAN started out as the Los Angeles-San Diego Rail Corridor Agency back in the late 1980’s. Today it represents counties from San Diego north along the coast as far as San Luis Obispo and as far east as Palm Springs.

Still LOSSAN is a local JPA. The other 2 rail passenger JPA’s serve the area of the Capitol Corridor Trains now from San Jose to Oakland, Sacramento and Auburn, and the San Joaquin trains from Bakersfield , Oakland and Sacramento. These three JPA’s share connecting buses with each other and these bring in many passengers between these 3 services. With the creations of 3 JPA’s for these California Trains, much of the attention of the JPA’s are on local issues and service. What is often missing are efforts to connect all these services to each other and connecting services of each for intrastate passengers.

This becomes even more important as High Speed Rail passenger service is built. For example there is only one joint station planned on the San Joaquin Trains with High Speed Rail. This would be the Bakersfield Station. The reason there are so few joint stations was from the desire of the local cities in placing their High Speed Rail Stations near areas in need of redevelopment. Now the city of Bakersfield is proposing a new station site that won’t connect to the San Joaquin trains. There is a simple solution to this. This is to build transfer stations in the south and north of the San Joaquin Valley were the San Joaquin and High Speed Rail tracks are near to each other. High Speed Trains could stop there when there are San Joaquin Trains to connect to. High Speed Rail will be running several trains an hour with some as local and other as express trains. Adding 2 stops to a local High Speed train shouldn’t be that difficult.

For the public to get their best value and most economical service from Rail Passenger service, we need services to be connected to each other and have seamless ticketing with stations providing good connecting services. This will only happen if there is planning and coordination between services. This may not always be done voluntarily by the different agencies. This is why we need a small oversight agency to make the final decisions to insure that we have a true rail passenger network of many parts and not a feudal patchwork of independent fiefdoms.

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