Metrolink Ridership Update – December 2013

Note: the graphs in this post are incorrect due a data entry error on my part. The trends and conclusions are the same; however, for accurate data, please use the June 2014 ridership update.

I’ve been trying, and struggling, to write a post about Metrolink for a while. I just couldn’t put anything together that I thought might add to the conversation. It finally dawned on me that I was putting the cart before the horse (and horses don’t run in push-pull operation). The first thing to do is just watch, listen, and learn about the existing state of affairs. So, here’s the first installment of looking at Metrolink ridership. Let’s see what’s going on.

Metrolink publishes quarterly ridership data, with the quarter ending in December 2013 being the most recently available data. The data is broken down by station, so we can see which stations generate the most ridership.

stations-20140602

The highest ridership stations are dominated by the OC Line, Riverside Line, and San Bernardino Line. As you’d expect, Glendale and Burbank make a good showing as well, though maybe not as good as you’d think considering how well Irvine and Tustin perform. What surprised me the most? Industry! Though in hindsight, a ride from the big honkin’ park-and-ride in Industry to Downtown LA, with only one stop in between, is probably not a bad deal compared to the 60. Oceanside also surprises to the high side.

At the other end, the Ventura Line and Antelope Valley Line perform poorly – perhaps shockingly poorly in the case of the stations in the Valley. Van Nuys doesn’t even hit 200 boardings, and Sun Valley not even 100. The Ventura County stations beyond Moorpark (Camarillo, Oxnard, and East Ventura) generate very low ridership that calls the benefit of those far-flung stations into question. The distant Orange County stations (Laguna Niguel, San Juan Capistrano, and San Clemente) similarly disappoint. Commerce is comically low, since there’s little parking and the surrounding area is thoroughly industrial.

The data available on Metrolink’s website stretches back to July 2009, which lets us construct a rolling 12-month average for all stations starting in June 2010. Here’s the time series data, broken down by line.

Ventura-20140602

AV-20140602

BG-20140602

SB-20140602

Riverside-20140602

91-20140602

OC-20140602

91OC-20140602

There’s a disturbing downward trend on many of the lines, especially the Antelope Valley Line and San Bernardino Line. On the other hand: Tustin and Irvine!

Here’s a look at the top 10 and bottom 10 stations for ridership gained (or lost) over the period.

10top-20140602

abstop-20140602

Other than Downtown Pomona sneaking in at number 10, the top ten is all the Orange County Line and the 91 Line. And again: Tustin and Irvine! Who says Orange County can’t generate any transit ridership? (Note: I used absolute change rather than percentage change, since percentage favors the low ridership stations. If you used percentage, Orange would drop out, and Commerce – which picked up all of 8 riders – would be in.)

Now the bad news.

10bottom-20140602

absbottom-20140602

No two ways about it, that’s ugly. Five stations have shed over 20% of their ridership, with three more not far behind.

The silver lining is that there’s a pattern to ridership changes. The Orange County Line and the 91 Line have been the big winners, and the San Bernardino Line and Antelope Valley Line have been the big losers. There should be an opportunity to figure out what’s going right down in OC, and what’s going wrong on the AV & SB Lines. It could be as simple as the fact that OC & Riverside are doing a little better economically than LA & SB. But it should be explored.

For one thing, there’s a bunch of new riders in Orange & Riverside Counties. Somebody ought to ask them what they were doing before and why they decided to take the train. On the flip side, there’s a bunch of people who used to ride the AV Line and SB Line, or board at Industry, but aren’t doing that anymore. Obviously, they’re a little harder to find than the folks who are on the train, but it’s worth trying to figure out why they stopped riding.

From there, we can start to think about how to capitalize on the momentum on the Orange County Line and 91 Line to keep increasing ridership. And we can try to figure out why three lines that serve the densely populated San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys aren’t serving people as well as they should, and what we might do to make those lines more useful.

What do you think? What trends do you see in the ridership, and what challenges and opportunities are there?

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16 thoughts on “Metrolink Ridership Update – December 2013

  1. Joe Linton

    As someone who grew up in Tustin, I am happy to see it generates riders. I am wondering if construction on the 5 Freeway in South L.A. County is causing any delays that would help make the train a bit more desireable.

    Reply
    1. letsgola Post author

      Unfortunately, I didn’t see available data that was broken down by each trip, which would let us know how ridership is split between the trains to LA, the trains that only go to Fullerton, and the IE-OC Line trains. Paul Druce (@ReasonRail) suggested that Irvine & Tustin are benefiting from good performance on the IE-OC Line.

      Reply
  2. AJ

    Some of this data is mind-blowing. Who knew that stations on the 91 and Riverside lines dramatically outperformed stations on the San Bernardino Line, which has significantly more service? This data makes a great case for making Metrolink leaner and more focused on efficient core service.

    Reply
  3. Paul Druce

    Irvine and Tustin are almost certainly doing well as a result of being the destination for most passengers on the IEOC line. That’s the only line that’s not oriented around Los Angeles workers and it’s also the best performing one of late. Anecdotally, there seems to be a good chunk of changeover on the OC and Surfliner trains serving Irvine, so quite possibly a double impact of commuters from north San Diego County and commuters to Los Angeles helping with the ridership figures there.

    Laguna Niguel has been pretty much parking limited. There probably will be a slow rise now that they’ve increased parking by 60%. Bus service in south county is terrible and it isn’t really a walkable area from the station to where people are likely to want to go (Saddleback College, Mission Hospital, and Mission Viejo Mall). And of course the lack of of reverse commute service doesn’t help that at all.

    Metrolink in general also appears to have been having issues with severe mechanical unreliability, which isn’t doing it any favors at all, especially given how much that can screw up a commute.

    I wonder if there’s also a demographic issue; millenials are increasing aboard Metrolink’s trains while boomers and swing generation are declining (at least on a percentage basis). It could simply be that they’re predominately living in the OC and Riverside areas.

    Reply
  4. Lorenzo Mutia

    Van Nuys and Sun Valley stations are located in relatively low income areas. From what I’ve seen, most people headed to the basin would rather head to the Orange Line then transfer to the Red Line than take a considerably faster ride to Union Station via Van Nuys and back ride on the Red Line that way. When I tried doing that I had to pay $13 for a round trip ticket and times to board were quite limited. If Metrolink were cheaper and more frequent, you may see more trips that way. I would love to go to the Burbank Town Center without having to worry about parking. And while Glendale’s malls are a bus ride away from the stations, I’d rather ride than have to jockey for parking.

    Reply
    1. letsgola Post author

      Very good points on fare disparity and service frequency. The Orange Line & Red Line might be a longer ride, but you know they’ll be there for you, and they’re cheaper.

      Reply
  5. Wanderer

    How does this look when you adjust for service levels? Do the Orange County stations have a lot more trains?

    Reply
    1. letsgola Post author

      Weekday service levels: Ventura 11 round trips (though only 3 to the end of the line), AV 15 round trips, SB 20 round trips, Riverside 5 round trips, 91 Line 4 round trips, OC 9 round trips. There are also 8 round trips on the IE-OC Line (if you’re not familiar with the system, check out the map http://www.metrolinktrains.com/pdfs/Timetables/Metrolink_All_Lines_timetable.pdf to see the lines).

      The Riverside, 91, and OC lines are heavily constrained by freight – the former uses UP’s main line and the latter two use BNSF’s. You’ll note in the timetable that many OC trips end at Fullerton for that reason.

      Reply
      1. letsgola Post author

        UP owns and uses both lines; the one that parallels the SB Line is the Alhambra Sub & the one used by the Riverside Line is the LA Sub. They have two yards, one in East LA (by the interchange of the 5 and the 10), and one just north of BNSF’s big yard in Commerce adjacent to the 710. I think the LA Sub (Riverside Line) is actually the more important of the two; if you follow it in Google Earth you’ll see it’s all double track west of Ontario, while the Alhambra Sub has a bunch of single track sections. I think part of the plan with Alameda Corridor East is to shift more traffic to the Alhambra Sub. If you look at it closely in El Monte, you’ll note that while the SB Line and UP run adjacent for a while, under normal operations they don’t share any track. Metrolink flies over UP west of the 605 where they cross the San Gabriel River.

        In Pomona and Ontario the two freight lines run adjacent and there are tracks connecting them (some of recent vintage; they used to be competing RRs). If you take the Alhambra Sub east from there, you go across the shiny new grade separation at Colton Crossing and you’re on your way to Yuma. If you take the Riverside Line, you link up with BNSF in Riverside and you’re on your way to Cajon. UP goes both ways. (UP also has a connecting track to BNSF at Colton Crossing, as well as their own track through Cajon Pass, but it’s only one track while BNSF through Cajon is three tracks with better geometry. For whatever reason, BNSF owns the line from SB to Barstow, so for UP to get to its line to Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, they have to use BNSF from SB to Barstow.)

        Alameda Corridor East map: http://www.theaceproject.org/photo/mainmap.jpg
        UP map (showing trackage rights to Barstow): http://www.up.com/aboutup/reference/maps/highest_elevations/index.htm
        BNSF lines in California: http://www.bnsf.com/customers/pdf/maps/div_ca.pdf

    1. letsgola Post author

      I believe this is all weekday data. Didn’t see weekend data on the Metrolink site (and many lines don’t have weekend service).

      Thanks for asking for the clarification!

      Reply
  6. calwatch

    Metrolink used to publish comprehensive data on boardings by train by day rather than by station. By station is more useful to most people but with the by train data, you could see, for instance, that some of the short turns from Fullerton to Laguna Niguel were getting 20 riders or less unless it was an Angels night, when they might spike to 100.

    The Antelope Valley stations are dropping because more and more people are switching to the bus. At $7.60 compared to $15, and a faster trip due to the use of HOV lanes on the Antelope Valley Freeway versus the slow Soledad Canyon train route, that is no surprise. The bus is getting full and AVTA is looking at equalizing fares to Metrolink, which should shift some of the people back to the train, particular those who would have to transfer regardless of whether they took the bus or train. http://www.avta.com/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=748 Covina is likely the same way, and while the Metrolink express service has helped, the express trains are often crowded and sometimes are not reliable since they get cancelled or make local stops due to “operational issues”. Foothill Transit just launched a direct bus to Industry Metrolink on Line 495 for $4.90, compared to $8.50 on Metrolink. They are also competitive in all the other San Gabriel Valley cities. Metrolink fares are comparable to Northeastern commuter rail fares but are much higher than all commuter rail systems west of the Mississippi.

    Burbank and Industry declines are also due to the weakening job market around the stations. There are quite a few people that take trains to Industry and Burbank to work there. Metrolink’s best growth opportunities are to job locations in surrounding areas to midline stations. This can be seen in the Orange County growth, where a robust network of shuttles, as well as businesses moving within walking distance of the station, help bring growth. That is a market that commuter buses don’t serve well, and carpooling and vanpooling is inflexible due to the limited “frequencies” available. Whereas for the Downtown Los Angeles market, commuter buses are more frequent than Metrolink and are cheaper.

    Reply
    1. letsgola Post author

      Thanks for the insights. Cheaper bus fares and the Soledad Cyn curves makes sense. The other advantage of express bus (if it goes all the way downtown) is that it probably takes you right where you’re going (instead of having to transfer at Union Station. The new HOV lanes on the 5 will help the express buses out even more.

      Reply
  7. anonymouse

    It really seems like Metrolink is constrained by track capacity, especially on the San Bernardino and Antelope Valley lines. The single track means they can’t run effective reverse commute service (or really even have trains that make two runs in one rush hour), and it makes express trains that much harder (the express causes the local to run 15 minutes slower, due to the unwieldy passing arrangement at Covina). And while buses are cheaper and gaining ridership, they also do so with a much lower farebox recovery ratio compared to Metrolink.

    Reply

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