Five years ago, at a time of robust economic growth, the board of the Orange County Transportation Authority approved a plan to expand Metrolink commuter rail service.At the time, officials predicted that by 2010, average weekday ridership on the three Metrolink lines that serve Orange County would grow from about 14,000 to more than 30,000.Then came the recession. Ridership levels are back near where they were five years ago, after rising in the intervening years. In October 2010, average weekday ridership on the three lines was 14,818, down 3 percent from a year earlier.Meanwhile, OCTA has delayed plans to add new trains. The agency initially envisioned adding 16 round trips between Fullerton and Laguna Niguel by 2009, but didn’t. It’s now looking at adding at most six round trips in 2011, with more to come later.The expansion, which was approved by voters as part of the renewed Measure M sales tax ballot initiative in 2006, ultimately envisions adding 34 new trains in the county, to bring the daily total to 76. The overall cost, which includes buying new locomotives and passenger cars as well as making improvements to stations, expanding parking lots, and making street crossings safer, is more than $400 million.Will Kempton, OCTA’s CEO, believes that once trains are running more frequently, more people will ride them.The idea is that, with trains running every half hour or so, “people won’t have to worry so much about a schedule,” Kempton said. “They can simply go to the station and know that there will be a train.”That, he says, should result in a “stable and expanding ridership base.”Still, it’s unclear who the new riders will be.“Voters always vote for rail,” said David Brownstone, an economics professor at UC Irvine who studies transportation.Brownstone noted that California voters in 2008 approved a $10 billion bond measure for a high-speed rail system that could one day compete with Metrolink and Amtrak on the Anaheim-to-Los Angeles route.“They think it’s going to cut congestion,” Brownstone said. “Time and time again, people vote for these things and I think they think someone else is going to take (the train). It doesn’t happen.”Yet studies have shown that increasing the frequency of transit service does yield an increase in ridership, said Marlon Boarnet, a professor of planning at UCI.The studies suggest that a 100 percent increase in service will result in a 50 percent growth in ridership, he said.“I think it’s a pretty good idea,” he said, of OCTA’s plan to expand service.One pitfall: while OCTA owns the tracks between Fullerton and South County, the tracks between Fullerton and Los Angeles are owned by freight-hauler BNSF. Metrolink gets a certain number of daily slots and on the Fullerton-to-Los Angeles rails, and those are already filled.That means L.A.-bound riders on new Orange County trains are likely to find there are no additional connections waiting for them once they get to Fullerton.
One thing that isn't brought up in the article is that expanding service on the OC line will make it far more convenient to go to Angels Stadium or the Honda Center. Right now, evening games and performances are pretty much an impossibility if you want to travel by rail as the last Metrolink train leaves Anaheim at 7:13pm and getting there isn't necessarily the most convenient either. Amtrak operates later, but is more expensive and has no evening trains at the Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo station, which makes it useless for those using that stop. Meanwhile, if memory serves, the expanded OC line service is supposed to provide service as late as 11pm. With a little bit of advertising, as simple as a message that accompanies ticket purchase advertising a lack of driving hassle or congestion and that a roundtrip ticket is the same or cheaper than parking at the Honda Center, ridership could easily make large gains.