Monday, May 21, 2012

Surfliner ridership drops 10%, fare increases to come

From the agenda for today's LOSSAN meeting:

Ridership on the Pacific Surfliner has declined year over year each month from October 2011 through February 2012. Ridership increased slightly in March but preliminary numbers for April show a 10 percent drop. It should be noted that despite the drop in ridership, revenue has maintained positive growth.
Caltrans reported that the 10 percent drop in ridership in April was potentially a result of several factors since they were only anticipating a 3 percent loss due to the increase in fares. One issue that was identified is related to the January 9, 2012, schedule change when the new Train 790, which runs all the way between San Luis Obispo and San Diego, replaced two trains that previously required a transfer at Union Station. Prior to January 9, 2012, passengers were counted twice due to the forced transfer. However, this impact should not be unique to the April figures. Additionally April 2011 had one more peak day (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) than April 2012. There was also speculation that there may be residual effects of people not taking the train due to all of the track work service disruptions that occurred in December and January.
Metrolink and OCTA reported they have seen fewer Rail2Rail passengers, a decrease of 6.5 percent in January, February, and March. Caltrans agreed that a drop in Rail2Rail passengers may explain how ridership has been declining to a greater degree than expected revenue.
Caltrans announced that Amtrak and Caltrans are planning a fare increase in June in order to improve revenues on the Pacific Surfliner to meet Section 209 budget requirements. There are options for both a 2 percent across-the-board fare increase and a 5-10 percent increase for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday trains. There is a huge demand for travel on weekends so a fare increase would provide an opportunity to increase revenues. 
The 10% drop in ridership is a fairly major one, especially without major track work in April disrupting service, which was the major contributing factor to previous declines. Amtrak really needs to get a handle on what the drop in ridership is (whether it is actual revenue passenger decrease or Rail2Rail and double counting) and fix any issues. It is especially glaring in comparison with the regular 10+% increases in ridership for the San Joaquins.

As for the fare increases, I'd prefer to see the 5-10% weekend option being the one adopted, preferentially towards the 10% level. That should have the largest gain in revenue with the lowest ridership discouragement. There is quite a large number of riders on these trains with up to 900 anticipated riders between Los Angeles and San Diego even in the off-season for the busiest of them. Not bad for trains with only 500 seats.

Incidentally, I would also like to see this strategy of fare raising applied to the long-distance trains. There's no real reason that the fares should be as low as they are on a per mile basis, especially for those which have high ridership and load factors. Given that the Coast Starlight and Empire Builder are marketed as premier trains, they would be worthy candidates for a trial run.


  1. If Rail2Rail use dropped by 6.5%, fare increases caused reductions of 3%, and eliminating double-counting caused some reduction, that should account for roughly all of it.

  2. FY12 numbers are in... Surfliner ridership was down 5.3% but ticket revenue was up 5.7%