Monday, June 25, 2012

Surfliner continues its bipolar ridership and revenue trends

Ridership and revenue numbers for May are now out in a presentation for the next LOSSAN meeting. The decline in ridership continues once more with a 6.1 percent decrease, relative to May 2011, against increases of 3.4%, 4.3%, and 4.4% for the San Joaquin, Coast Starlight, and Capitol Corridor respectively. Meanwhile, revenue continued to increase, this time up 9.1% with 4.1%, 3.4%, and 9.6% for the other California trains. Nationally, the increases were 1.6% and 7% for ridership and revenue.

At this point, there is no known cause as to why the Surfliner's ridership has been dropping so much; the major track work programs which started the drop ended in March, though there have been delays this month due to a tie replacement program on BNSF's track between Los Angeles and Fullerton. The new through train, far from decreasing ridership due to double counting, has actually seen a 61% increase in ridership, so it certainly isn't the cause.

The biggest known factor is a drop in Rail2Rail ridership which also handily helps explain how ridership can drop yet revenue increase, however this accounts for only a quarter of the April drop. Technically, the higher fares are theorized to cause a larger share of the drops, but that is somewhat less of a hard fact than the Rail2Rail ridership.

My own theory is that the ridership losses are basically a lingering effect of the delays, with riders hesitant to trust Amtrak until they see it runs regularly on time again. Business travel and other regular riders have likely defected to Metrolink within the confines of Los Angeles-Irvine and Los Angeles-Moorpark. End to end, the scheduled times are fairly similar, with the only substantial difference being that Metrolink does a far better job of arriving on time. Metrolink and Coaster do have the advantage of controlling the dispatching, but the real issue for Amtrak is poor equipment reliability. For Fiscal Year 2011, the only route with more minutes of delay due to Amtrak engine failures was the Northeast Corridor, a route with equally old locomotives and three times as many train-miles; the Surfliner actually has twice as many minutes of delay due to engine failure as the NEC on a per train mile basis. Similarly, only the NEC has more minutes of train delay attributed to "all else." While Amtrak's figures show rather more minutes of delay attributable to Metrolink and Coaster trains than their own engine failures, this is assigned solely the discretion of the conductor and does not take into account the original cause of delay. An Amtrak train which is late and arrives out of slot and grows later because it is now following Metrolink may report it as commuter train interference, but that is a misplacing of the blame.

Since these travelers are often using monthly passes of various sorts or ten trip tickets, all of which are discounted, the revenue hit isn't as great as it might be. Some additional support is granted to this by the 7% increase in average travel length year over year. Partially this will be an increase in actual trip length, partially a potential artifact from the through train not requiring a connection, but part of it would also be from short range trips defecting to other travel options.

With Eticketing rolling out this year for the Surfliner, hopefully we can get a much better breakdown of Amtrak's trip distances and the like. In theory, it should be easily portable to an Excel file which would allow us to see trips by individual train and boardings/deboardings as well as station pairs. In practice, I'd be terribly surprised if that was actually done, much less the information made readily available.

As a final note, the potential fare increase for the Surfliner which was floated previously (2% Monday through Thursday, 10% Friday through Sunday) will evidently not have a decision made until August. Given the ridership decrease, Caltrans is understandably a bit skittish about the potential effects.


  1. There was still track work resulting in single tracking by BNSF resulting in delays between LA and Fullerton as recent as two weeks ago.

    1. Right, and I did mention that, but that is a June thing. April and May there wasn't any work.

  2. The unreliability has certainly turned me off. I commute from Santa Clarita to Tustin everyday. Because Metrolink makes virtually no effort to time connections to the OC bound trains I would take the 562 or 564 Amtrak trains early in the morning. I usually wait and take the 8am Metrolink now. Even those first run of the day Amtraks had a high rate of delay and I could virtually guarantee that any afternoon Amtrak back to Union Station was going to be late 15 minutes to an hour or more. And that was before the BNSF track work further screwed up that route for both companies. It's still better than making that drive every day, but as Metrolink fares continue to climb I have to hold my nose more and more when shelling out that cash each month.