Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Metrolink needs more reverse commute and off-peak service

The agenda for August 8th's LOSSAN Technical Advisory Committee meeting contains a brief explanation of a concerning decline in weekday ridership that has occurred on all lines except the Inland Empire-Orange County line since January of this year.

Average weekday ridership on Metrolink trains in June 2013 recorded a 4.1 percent decrease from a year earlier. This decline is part of a trend that started last year when ridership growth began to decelerate in November 2012, and turned negative beginning in January 2013 (Figure 1). Since January, Metrolink has been experiencing a decline in average weekday ridership every month. Losses reached 4.1 percent in June, but could be limited to less than 1 percent in July 2013.
Ridership losses are systemic and are impacting all lines, with the exception only of the Inland Empire Orange County (IEOC) Line (Figure 2.). Weekend ridership continues to be strong. Although weekend ridership has been growing by 30 percent annually, it has not translated into new weekday commuters.
These ridership losses can be traced to economic conditions, an increasing churn rate, and a decline in Metrolink’s core ridership segment: commuters traveling to Los Angeles Union Station. As these commuters defect, they are not being replaced by new commuters. Several findings support this hypothesis:
1. All lines serving Los Angeles County experience ridership losses. The only line exhibiting strong ridership growth is the IEOC Line, which does not serve Los Angeles.
2. During the fourth quarter, Monthly Pass sales declined 4.7 percent over the same quarter a year earlier.
3. The largest ridership losses were recorded for trips to and from LA Union Station, down 3.5 percent year over year.
4. Large ridership increases were recorded for trips to Orange County, but not by enough to compensate for other losses (Union Station accounts for 63% of all weekday trips).
5. Downtown Los Angeles lags the region in job growth, in part, because of the high concentration of the government sector, which has been shedding jobs.
6. Downtown Los Angeles also experiences increasing office vacancy rates. “Negative absorption rates will likely continue, meaning the vacancy rate is not likely to drop any time soon.” (Los Angeles Business Journal, July 22, 2013).
Unsurprisingly, Metrolink, which is currently set up to funnel workers on a Monday-Friday 9 to 5 schedule to Los Angeles, does not do well when Los Angeles itself has a downturn. What Metrolink ought to be doing is the same as any other business: Diversify. There's no reason that it should be impossible to get a direct Metrolink train from Irvine to Los Angeles after 5:10pm. Sure, it's possible to take Amtrak home, if one happens to be a monthly pass holder, but that's not an option for other stations such as Tustin, Orange, or Laguna Niguel.

Similarly, off-peak service needs to be expanded to accommodate potential riders who are not on a 9-5 schedule. The last train from Los Angeles Union Station leaves at 6:30pm to Oceanside, 6:35pm to Riverside, and 6:40pm to East Ventura. These lines are all completely useless for someone who gets off somewhat later than a typical 9-5 job, such as many healthcare workers who work twelve hour shifts, often from 7am until 7:30pm. The San Bernardino line, with hourly frequencies, is really the only one which serves such a demographic; the Antelope Valley Line having a train at 9:25pm if the 7:40pm train is missed. Ideally this off-peak service would translate as well into consistent schedules through the entire week, Saturday and Sunday included. Those who currently work schedules requiring work on weekends are likely to find themselves either highly inconvenienced or have absolutely no rail commute option.

A related issue is the lack of through service which the "Everything feeds into Los Angeles" model necessarily leads to. While transfers are possible, they involve lengthy amounts of downtime waiting for the next train, frequently have significant amounts of time between potential trips, and are not apparent on a simple scan of the schedule. As an extension of existing runs, they should be relatively cheap for the involved counties to support; where the extension is nothing more than acknowledging an existing turn of equipment, this should involve nothing more than publicizing this fact in the schedule.

This isn't a minor concern. This is thousands of potential riders that Metrolink is currently deliberately refusing to serve by refusing to provide a proper level of service. Yes, it would most likely require greater operational subsidies. Yes, it almost certainly requires significant capital investment, if for no reason other than to have a reliable service thanks to Metrolink's deteriorating locomotive fleet. But an increase in service such as this makes Metrolink significantly more useful, attracts a higher level of patronage, removes cars from the road, and increases political support and the attraction of mass transit projects over highly expensive and dubious freeway expansion proposals. It is well worth the resulting expenses.


  1. You can make this argument for pretty much every American commuter rail system, although the greenfield systems have this problem far worse than the legacy systems.

    You can really break the problem down into two categories. First is the mentality of serving downtown-based, 9-5 workers exclusively, and tailoring investments and service to target this market.

    Second is the nature of the rail system. Legacy systems out East have extensive grade separation from other railroads, multiple tracks, and other facilities that allow for excess capacity, so running off-peak or reverse-commute service is simply a matter of operating cost.

  2. The issues are about the nature of work these days and the competing ways people can be transported.

    With clean Metroline trains reaching all the way to San Bernardino and busways serving some some area, Metrolink has competition. The competition is more agile, cheaper and scales better in response to demographic, work and economic shifts.

    Old diesel train technologies are dirty, loud and have been slow to adapt to clean air regulations. In many instances Metrolink claims exemption from regional pollution standards and municipal noise regulations by relying on federal interstate commerce laws developed not for regional commuter trains but for freight lines.

    Add to all of this that Metrolink is in a pitched battle with local communities int heart of the LA River revitalization zone. It's large, noisy and polluting Central Maintenance Facility (CMF) is right next to the river's most beautiful stretch and residents there have pressured for changes that are stalled. Something has to give when groups of kayakers are paddling by the CMF where trains routinely idle and spew particulates for hours in an antiquated system that requires a huge engine just to power train air conditioning.

    The writing is on the wall for Metrolink. Metrolink is not worth the cost of local and federal subsidie. It is questionable whether it is reducing or contributing to regional pollution in light of cleaner technologies. It should move in a deliberate way to downsize and focus on the routes that are efficient and effective. It should take advantage of the real estate uptick around the LA River and sell its riverfront property for better use, moving reduced maintenance burdens to a more appropriate site.

    1. Correction: "With clean Metrorail trains reaching all the way to San Bernardino and busways serving some some area, Metrolink has competition."


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