Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Pacific Surfliner Express is a failure


The preceding image is courtesy of the agenda for the forthcoming March 5th, 2012 LOSSAN board meeting. As is readily apparent, ridership has been stagnant or even dropped on the Express train, rather the opposite of what one would expect. There are a few major reasons for this, in my opinion:
1. Far from being an express train, it's a limited train with only a few skipped stations, resulting in only a 12 minute decrease in total travel time from San Diego to Los Angeles.
2. On-time performance is piss-poor. Even after the January schedule change, which was supposed to help eliminate conflicts with other trains, it has continued to drop. It's performance is poor relative even to other Pacific Surfliner trains at 68.2% for January compared to 74.6% for LOSSAN-South Surfliners. These delays eliminate the goodwill of businessmen who it is supposed to be primarily marketed towards as well as the supposed time savings.
3. Quite frankly, I think it was the wrong train to try it with in the first place. What is currently 763, the first train of the day from San Diego, arriving in Los Angeles at 8:50am, makes for a far better candidate for business travel marketing with a Limited scheduling especially given the elimination of the 2pm southbound Surfliner. While it currently has an even worse OTP compared to the current Express, this is due to its activity on LOSSAN-North rather than its travel from San Diego to Los Angeles.

How to fix things:
1. Change the train. Switching to the earlier train should greatly increase its appeal to the business community for a more appropriate arrival time in Los Angeles.
2. Change the train set. Use some of the current ARRA and HSIPR funding to purchase Talgo train sets instead of rail cars and make sure to have one of those used for the Limited instead of ordinary equipment. In addition to possibly reducing travel times even more thanks to tilting, this grants a sense of novelty, a truly special train, and most importantly, free advertising. As it currently stands, not only is any available equipment used for the Express, but that includes even the Amfleet consist on the Surfliner route some days, which of course will butcher OTP and not enhance the travel experience.
3. Make it reserved. This is a Limited train, so again, we want to create an experience that it is a Limited train. Having it filled with Metrolink passengers, who contribute only $2 per ride to Amtrak when using their monthly pass, degrades the value both to Amtrak and the business community that this must be marketed towards, especially given the timing of the train itself which makes it prone to commuter traffic.
4. Invest in signaling and track work to increase speeds. There are large stretches of straight double or triple track which are currently traversed at 79 mph or less. These should all be upgraded to permit travel at 110 miles per hour, a fairly cheap investment on the order of approximately one million dollars per mile.

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