Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Pacific Surfliner continues to impress

LOSSAN's marketing folks are tooting their horn, and quite deservedly so. While they've managed a quite nice 3.2% year over year increase in ridership for the first half of 2016, in an overall relatively gloomy period for Amtrak, where they really stand out is is the double digit increase in ridership for special events. The Del Mar races posted a 12.3% increase over last year with 33,674 passengers in the opening weekend; Comic-Con had a 15.7% increase to 47,319 total passengers over its four days of operation.

While those numbers are for all trains and passengers, not merely those going to the Del Mar races and Comic-Con, they also show the major impact on the service that those events have. From the daily average of 7,983 riders, Del Mar's opening weekend boosted that to 11,225 and Comic-Con 11,830. It's no wonder that the Surfliners, despite their large individual capacity (specially increased as well for these events), have crowding problems during these events when overall ridership is 50% higher! Thanks to the delays with Nippon-Sharyo's new bilevel cars, the Surfliner stands a strong chance of being hit with the same curse as the recent Expo Line extension: Too many riders and not enough cars for them.

Of course, there's also the cynical view: The Surfliner is only getting 8,000 riders a day along a 351 mile corridor with substantial sections of automobile traffic seeing 300,000 AADT and only 16,000 riders out of a 130,000 attendee event. Granted, many of those trips aren't really replaceable by intercity rail and many of the attendees are either too local or out of state for Amtrak to be useful, but as the double-digit growth shows, there is still room to snag more of them. For that, increased frequencies and speed are necessary: Traffic is bad, but the Surfliner is usually worse, especially with consideration of time delay from when the train leaves to when you'd prefer to leave, and increased speed also broadens the market itself by enlarging the catchment area and enticing riders who would not have made the trip, even by car, but would take a train that is car-competitive or faster.

Luckily, it looks like we will have an additional Surfliner frequency later this year thanks to more efficient use of existing equipment. Given the cost reductions already evident against what was budgeted for this year, this run will be cost neutral even if it didn't pick up a single passenger. Obviously we wouldn't run such a train and based both on LOSSAN's estimates and my own, it should be marginally profitable and help contribute to reducing the need for state subsidy. As the Fullerton triple track project, new equipment, and other capacity increasing projects come online, the potential of the Surfliner posting a net profit for the state of California, which may then be invested back into the local infrastructure for a virtuous cycle, grows ever closer.