Last summer, after struggling for a few months to try to write something productive about Metrolink, I decided to just listen to ridership data and media stories for a while. Ridership data has not been good; with the exception of the Inland Empire – Orange County Line, all lines have been steadily losing ridership. The malfunctions of ticket-vending machines have been well chronicled, as have the agencies troubles with equipment and its finances.
The first order of business is putting the house in order. That means getting finances and maintenance squared away, so that trains run on time and passengers can pay their fares. The second issue is a bit more meta: what is Metrolink, how does it relate to the geography of development in Southern California, and how can that be improved? The latter issue is the one set before us today.
SoCal Commuter Rail
Conceptually, Metrolink is no different than traditional East Coast US commuter rail systems such as those in Boston (MBTA), New York (Metro North, LIRR, NJT), and Philadelphia (SEPTA). These networks are designed to convey relatively well-off white collar workers from suburbs to a single dominant central business district in the morning and then back in the evening. As such, they are typified by very peaky service, that is, service is quite frequent towards the CBD on weekday mornings and towards the suburbs on weekday evenings, and very infrequent or non-existent at other times.
This is a poor route and service structure for Southern California. Metrolink is arranged to bring people to downtown LA in the morning and home in the afternoon, but downtown LA is just one of many business districts in greater LA. Its traditional industries, government and finance, have seen slow or no job growth. Office vacancy is higher than on the Westside, and downtown’s boom has been almost entirely residential – people who obviously don’t need to get downtown in the morning, because they’re already there! To complicate things, LA Union Station is on the very fringe of downtown, requiring a transfer to the Red/Purple Line to access the business district.
In contrast to East Coast cities, LA is polycentric. This creates both challenges and opportunities for a rail service like Metrolink. Peer systems in regions that also have major business districts outside of the central city would include:
- Caltrain, which serves both a traditional downtown in SF and a significant reverse commute to Silicon Valley.
- Paris RER, which serves an enormous peripheral business district (La Defense) that puts Century City to shame.
- Seoul, which has numerous business districts both in the city proper (such as Yongsan, Gangnam, and Jongno) and outside (such as Incheon and Songdo). Seoul also has truly integrated subway and commuter rail lines like Line 1, baffling many a US observer.
What Lines Does Metrolink Have?
Metrolink’s lines have different characteristics, both amongst themselves and from many other commuter rail lines. The lines currently operated by Metrolink are as follows:
- Ventura Line: this line travels from downtown LA past Glendale and Burbank, then through the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County. Its entire route is shared with Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner, which runs from San Luis Obispo to San Diego. There are some daily freight trains on the line, but nothing out of the ordinary.
- Antelope Valley Line: this line travels from downtown LA, sharing track with the Ventura Line past Glendale and Burbank, north through the San Fernando Valley and Santa Clarita. It crosses the San Gabriel Mountains through Soledad Pass to the Antelope Valley communities of Palmdale and Lancaster. Again, there are some daily freight trains on the line, but nothing out of the ordinary.
- San Bernardino Line: this line travels east from downtown LA through the San Gabriel Valley and southwest San Bernardino County to San Bernardino. Freight traffic is minimal on this line, consisting almost entirely of local service.
- Riverside Line: this line travels east from downtown LA through the City of Industry, Ontario, and northwest Riverside County to Riverside. This is UP’s Los Angeles Subdivision, which together with UP’s Alhambra Subdivision serves over 50 freight trains per day, including both long distance and local traffic.
- 91 Line: this line travels southeast from downtown LA to Fullerton, then east and northeast to Riverside and San Bernardino. Freight volumes are between 40 and 50 trains per day from LA to Fullerton, increasing to nearly 70 trains per day between Riverside and the infamous, and now defunct, Colton Crossing.
- Orange County Line: this line shares track with the 91 Line from downtown LA to Fullerton, and then runs southeast through Orange County all the way to Oceanside. There is some freight traffic south of the split with the 91 Line, but nothing out of the ordinary.
- Inland Empire – Orange County Line: this line runs from Riverside to Oceanside, almost entirely on the same track as the 91 Line and Orange County Line.
The freight volumes on the Riverside Line and 91 Line are an unusual condition for a commuter rail operation. Most East Coast lines don’t compete with freight volumes anywhere near this high. The comparable lines would be Chicago Metra’s UP West, BNSF, and Heritage Corridor Services. Impressively, the UP West and BNSF Lines provide at least hourly service (with a few exceptions) from early morning to late night, even to shockingly low density places like Elburn and La Fox. These lines have many areas of triple track, with more planned, but freight congestion is apparently still an issue. The Heritage Corridor runs only three round trips per day.
What Areas Does Metrolink Serve?
Metrolink serves many different parts of the region, with different travel demand and therefore differing transit needs. As I see it, the Metrolink service region can be broken down as follows:
- Ventura County: located too far for commuting to downtown LA to generate high ridership. Simi Valley has less than 400 boardings, and Moorpark less than 250. Stations further west do not even achieve 100. These stations can probably be adequately served by improved Pacific Surfliner service and perhaps some express bus.
- Santa Clarita and the Antelope Valley: the three Santa Clarita stations combined pull about 1,000 riders, but Santa Clarita doesn’t have a central business area that could serve as an anchor. The stations are not in particularly dense areas and function as park-and-ride style transit. The Antelope Valley stations are much further away, with each having less than 400 boardings. With the expansion of HOV lanes on the 14 and the 5, many of these riders could be served by peaky transit express bus, which both Santa Clarita Transit and Antelope Valley Transit already operate in direct competition with Metrolink. (Plus, Lancaster Mayor R Rex Parris is not exactly Metrolink’s best friend.)
- San Fernando Valley: given that the Valley is mostly relatively dense suburbs, the Metrolink stations there achieve appallingly low ridership. Why would you get on Metrolink at Van Nuys, where there are only 22 round trips per day, and pay $7.25 one way when the same trip on Metro services would cost $1.75 with much more frequent services? High-cost infrequent commuter rail is not the right type of service for the Valley; service here should run on rapid transit schedules with rapid transit fares.
- Burbank Airport – Irvine corridor: this is the highest intensity corridor served by Metrolink, including Burbank, Glendale, downtown LA, and the major Orange County cities (Anaheim, Santa Ana, and Irvine). The curveball is that the heart of the corridor – downtown LA to Fullerton – happens to be BNSF’s main line from the ports to the rest of America. It serves high freight volumes and is abutted by large industrial zones. Thus, while the portion north of LA might be appropriate for rapid transit frequencies, the southern portion isn’t, because abutting land use doesn’t support it and freight traffic won’t allow it. However, the entire corridor is suitable for regional rail service. As Paul Druce of Reason Rail has noted elsewhere, the reverse commute potential on this corridor is just as strong as the normal direction.
- San Gabriel Valley and San Bernardino County: the western San Gabriel Valley is similar to the San Fernando Valley, and might warrant rapid transit frequency. Further east, the San Bernardino Line continues through established suburbs to San Bernardino, a major node in the Inland Empire. With decent anchors at both ends and a minor node at Claremont in the middle, the San Bernardino Line should warrant relatively frequent service.
- City of Industry & Riverside Line: the Industry station gets about 1,000 boardings per day, though this is a 30% decline from 2010. This is sort of a super express to downtown LA since there’s only one stop in between. None of the other stations on the line achieve inspiring ridership. However, the lack of HOV lanes on the 60 west of the 605 suggests that it would be hard to replicate this service with bus.
- Corona – San Bernardino Corridor: this corridor parallels the 91 and the 215, two congested Riverside County freeways. Corona is a minor node, and Riverside is a major business district for the Inland Empire. The density along the corridor isn’t bad, but it’s much shallower than the San Bernardino Line, thanks to anti-development cities like Norco, Jurupa Valley, and Riverside. This corridor is suitable for regional rail, though not with the same level of service as Burbank – Irvine.
- South Orange County: south of Irvine, Orange County development is similar to Santa Clarita and much of Ventura County in that there aren’t any major business nodes. The stations get relatively low ridership, with less than 400 in Laguna Niguel, and less than 200 in San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano. Oceanside gets a surprising amount of ridership, perhaps due to connections to Sprinter and Coaster services. However, this region could probably be served by improved Pacific Surfliner service.
If you want to run rapid transit style services in the San Fernando Valley and western San Gabriel Valley, you don’t want to dead-end them in downtown LA, because it would result in unbalanced demand. So what would you connect them to? There are lots of good options to be discussed; here’s one:
- Chatsworth – Santa Ana: the existing out-of-service rail corridor between downtown LA and Santa Ana is high on the Measure R2 wish list; connecting it to the Chatsworth to downtown LA service would balance the line. This line would relieve the Orange Line in the Valley, and provide transit to dense cities like Maywood, Bell, Cudahy, and the Gateway Cities. This would be the highest priority.
- Sylmar – Long Beach: this would overlap with the Chatsworth – Santa Ana service from Burbank to Paramount. The northern section would provide frequent service to San Fernando, while the southern section would help relieve the Blue Line. This would be the second priority.
- Purple Line to El Monte: this would balance the Purple Line and provide a one seat ride from the San Gabriel Valley to the Westside. It would be the most technically challenging expansion. While the first two lines could be built with standard DMUs (or future EMUs) compatible with other equipment on the liens, Purple Line vehicles have different dimensions that would complicate design. Such an option would have to be accomplished by rerouting Metrolink regional rail to the Alhambra Subdivision from downtown LA to El Monte, or with a technological trick like platform extenders.
- Conceptual Red Line extensions: these don’t involve the Metrolink lines, but are shown for discussion. An extension north would connect to the Sylmar – Long Beach Line. An extension southeast would provide rapid transit to East LA, Montebello, Pico Rivera, and Whittier. If north-south rapid bus services were implemented on major roads like Atlantic or Lakewood, they would offer transfers to this line, eliminating need for transfers to the LA – Fullerton section of the regional rail line.
Combine this with a couple north-south transit routes on the Westside and in the Valley, like say Reseda/Lincoln Blvds and Van Nuys/Sepulveda Blvds, and you’ve got a pretty solid rapid transit network for Los Angeles.
Regional Rail Services
San Fernando to Irvine is the obvious main corridor for regional rail. That leaves a set of three lines – San Bernardino, Riverside, and 91 – that don’t lend themselves easily to through-routing. C-shaped routes tend to perform poorly because the potential to serve trips passing through the central area is very low. Again, there are many options; here’s one:
- Through-route the San Bernardino Line and 91 Line into the second regional rail line. Yes, this creates a very tight C, almost a closed loop. This could be mitigated by various means, explored in part 2.
- Do what you will with the Riverside Line – replace with express bus or keep running it as a super express, whatever you see fit. There’s no reason it has to provide the same frequency or fare structure as the other lines.
At long last, here’s a map of all this:
I drew this in Scribble Maps, my first time using that tool. I’m curious what people think. It’s relatively easy to draw, add text labels, and edit things, but the text labels don’t scale when you zoom out, so it’s hard to see everything all at once.
Here’s a more conventional map of this improvement, drawn in my old friend AutoCAD. The regional rail lines are shown in tan, Pacific Surfliner in Amtrak blue. Where the routes overlap, blue is shown on top of tan. All other lines are subway, light rail, or BRT, as you like it.
I’ve also thrown in proposals from some other posts (Westside transit, more Green Line stations) to give an idea of what this all looks likes together.
The rapid transit service would obviously run with low headways, so there’s not much to say there. The regional rail component is where it gets interesting. In Part 2, we’ll take a look at different options for the regional rail lines.