The future of cross-regional mass transit in the Coachella Valley

Closing a major transit gap along the I-10 corridor between the Coachella Valley and the rest of the Inland Empire to the west has long been on our Future Vision of Mass Transit. Yesterday, we mentioned some of the challenges and opportunities regarding a peak-hour commuter bus line that bridges this gap, yet attracts few riders. SunLine officials will be kicking off a marketing campaign to spread awareness of this bus. However, closing this gap in a productive manner with extra trains and buses outside of rush hour is going to take some quality cooperation between public agencies and the private sector. 

Daily Amtrak Trains:

Since the 1990's both state and local transportation officials have been pushing to get daily intercity train service into the Coachella Valley from Los Angeles. The main problem has been the rail right-of-way which is privately owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, not public agencies. UPRR has long objected to additional passenger trains along these tracks to prevent obstruction of its logistics business. The state government has no unilateral powers to compel the UPRR to permit the operation of extra trains. Nevertheless, for intercity trains, there are certain rules by the federal government that can ultimately lead to an order compelling the UPRR to operate the service.

According to The Desert Sun on Sept. 30, the Coachella Valley Association of Governments took another step forward into making daily train service a reality. It voted to dedicate a portion of transportation funds to the passenger rail project and approved an agreement with Riverside County Transportation Commission. Daily intercity service would be a welcome transit alternative into the Coachella Valley.

© Jerry Huddleston CC-BY-SA
Return of Class One UP trains?

According to this Forbes article, America’s leading freight railroads have been open to reinstating Class One passenger rail service. Could the historic Argonaut train make a comeback? With the railroads open to revisit passenger rail service, robust debate to generate fair and sound passenger rail policies must take place between the government and UPRR. There have been strong arguments and points made on both sides. Robust debate on this matter is good for improving rail transit options.

Can the railroad be inclined to bring back some passenger trains for the corridor and make some extra profit on the side? Could there be combined corridor-based UP and Amtrak service which offers high speed train service between the Coachella Valley and LA once every few hours each way in the long term? How about a potential Rail2Rail-like agreement where monthly passholders can board whichever train arrives first?

Tax breaks have historically worked in other sectors. Who would not want to see in the long term a couple of local high speed intercity Amtrak trains, a daily Sunset Limited long distance train using HSR technology, and about four to five UPRR Argonauts pass each way through the Coachella Valley every day? UPRR can capitalize on the passenger travel demands while the public benefits with the additional travel options.

By the way, the Argonaut train was the Southern Pacific Railroad's secondary passenger train between New Orleans and Los Angeles. The Sunset Limited served as the primary.

Improved intercity bus connections:

What about intercity buses like Greyhound? Currently, Greyhound stops its buses at a staffed station on the far-east end of the Coachella Valley in Indio with some runs stopping at the unmanned Palm Springs Amtrak station. The local economy around the Palm Springs train station is near desolate and therefore a hostile place to wait for the bus. Public officials will need to offer incentives so that either Greyhound or a competing bus line will stop their buses in the downtown Palm Springs area and/or the Thousand Palms region. Speaking of competition, Greyhound should not be in a position to monopolize the intercity bus market between the Coachella Valley and points in Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, and Phoenix. State and federal law need to allow for better marketplace competition which strengthens intercity bus transit services and lowers fares.

All day public transit bus connections:

The last challenge involves connecting the Coachella Valley for more local cross-regional travel trips. Such trips can be fulfilled with a local-plus express bus rote that runs at least hourly between Beaumont and Thousand Palms with timed transfers to connecting bus lines. Coordination between Pass Transit and SunLine Transit combined with future economic growth will be necessary resources to pay for such service. Under the current economic climate, such a route is not yet feasible. However, growth in the market economy and proper planning can suggest otherwise. Additional local-plus express routes with hourly headways could also span from the Palm Springs area north to 29 Palms and east through Indio to Mecca. Again, marketplace growth is vital to sustain productive operations. Check out the Future Vision for a map of the conceptual route ideas.