One would think that this rail service would be an obviously strong proposal. Such a line would connect Los Angeles not only with a large number of regular commuters, but also with an important tourism location and a developing urban region in its own right. Traffic is also regularly terrible and, as I begin to write this around 3pm on a Friday afternoon, Google Maps is projecting more than three hours from Los Angeles to Indio. Indeed, among all of Metrolink's lines, the Riverside line has the highest occupancy rate, with an average of 264 passenger miles per train mile. But with all of these advantages going for it, the Alternatives Analysis paints a grim picture of the line's potential ridership and revenue, one so grim that it is highly unlikely to ever receive funding.
The preferred alternative identified in the analysis, Alternative 1, runs along Union Pacific's Yuma Subdivision for 72 miles before crossing onto BNSF's San Bernardino Subdivision by which it makes its way to Los Angeles by way of Fullerton. By running through Fullerton, it picks up quite a bit of additional traffic without an actual slow down compared to the other alternatives though the question is whether it's actually traffic that the Coachella Valley line is intended to address or whether it is Orange County-Los Angeles traffic that would be better taken care of by more Surfliners and Metrolink trains. I expect it's rather more of the latter.
Even though it picks up a substantial amount of additional traffic by essentially poaching from the Surfliner, the forecasted ridership is extremely low with only 189,100 forecasted for 2022. The trains themselves will be quite empty, averaging only 79 passenger miles per train mile. Only Amtrak's Piedmonts and Hoosier State average less than that (page 9) and of all the Surfliners, only 761/1761, which is the sole Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo train, has worse occupancy and the Surfliner as a whole averages nearly double this proposed train with an average of 150 passenger miles per train mile.
This low ridership is accompanied by low revenue, with only $3,245,000 projected for the line, which amounts to a farebox recovery of just 21.5% based on the Pacific Surfliner's O&M costs per train mile. Even if we were to calculate based on avoidable costs, that's less than a 50% cost recovery. There is no earthly way that this line will ever be funded based on such pitiful ridership and revenue levels. There simply isn't enough of a public benefit to justify that level of spending.
So what could be done to make it more reasonable and likely to be funded and to be more useful in general? The simplest answer is to run more trains. As the FRA noted back in 1978:
A rail passenger corridor must have certain minimum definable characteristics if it is to be seriously considered as an alternative to expanding highway and air capacity. The following characteristics are suggested:
Frequency: Minimum of 10 trains daily in each directionRationale: Most city-pairs subject to becoming corridors are receiving some level of service by long and/or short-haul trains. Such service is too often typified by infrequent and inconvenient departure times which are not amenable to the need of either the time or fare sensitive traveler. In general, frequency and scheduling should be structured to meet the demand of the traveler desiring to make a one-day round-trip with sufficient time at the point of destination. To provide an alternative to automobile transportation, and limited diversion from air travel, a minimum of five (5) a.m. and five (5) p.m. daylight departures should be scheduled. A variable in the p.m. departure schedule would be an evening train where demand demonstrates such a need. The recommended frequency considers the relative high frequency and volume of other modes of public transportation in suggested corridors. It also assumes that the fare sensitive/nonbusiness automobile traveler is secondary in importance to the higher income business trip traveler. This assumption, nevertheless should not detract from the benefits received by the fare-sensitive passenger and other rider. The suggested frequency represents a minimum level of service for an emerging corridor and is keyed to the frequency level in the Northeast Corridor at which significant diversion began to occur.
[A Reexamination of the Amtrak Route Structure, page 7-26, emphasis added]
This would require, of course, that the study abandon what appears to be a frequency level based on a preordained conclusion to use the San Bernardino Subdivision. It's quite interesting how four trains per day just happens to line up quite nicely with Riverside County's four revenue slots between the Colton crossing and Riverside. Make no mistake, this would result in a significant capital expense. Union Pacific may very well want an additional track along the entire Yuma Subdivision to Indio (~$720 million) and another track may very well be needed between Colton and Fullerton (~$420 million). This would also consume almost all of the slots created by the Los Angeles-Fullerton triple tracking project, though the shared use passenger corridor currently projected by the California High Speed Rail Authority should create sufficient additional capacity for Surfliner and Metrolink expansions.
Given the low ridership per train currently projected, using a consist like the Surfliner is overkill: The current projections wouldn't even fill up a single coach car! With appropriate waivers, a DMU such as NCTD's Sprinters, but with an interior designed for intercity travel, would be much more appropriate and offer a lower cost travel method. SPRINTER's operating cost comes out to about $25 per married pair train mile (Quarterly Ridership and Financial Performance Update, page 10), about one-third that of a Surfliner's fully allocated cost. Assuming that these figures are reasonably apples to apples comparisons, this would either lower operating costs to a reasonably supportable level or allow for a substantially more frequent and useful service without breaking the bank in the process.
As it stands, this alternatives analysis is just one more in a decades long legacy of studies which never go anywhere. Coachella Valley rail service will remain just a regional aspiration until and unless planners take it seriously and put forward plans for a genuinely useful rail line. Of course, at that point, one might as well simply wait for, or pay for the acceleration of, California's Phase II high speed rail, which will include a stop in the Riverside area. This would serve the Riverside and San Bernardino region much better than the Coachella Valley rail line would while frequent bus or rail shuttle service would still provide a useful two seat ride to the Coachella Valley.