Let's Debate: What is the best way to address the "Low Ridership" Metrolink SB Line runs?

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Whenever a transit line is proposed to be cancelled due to low ridership, The Transit Coalition aims to have productive replacement service at the ready so that such proposals do not strand affected riders. This is especially true for lifeline transit routes.

Now we have a situation where four trains along the Metrolink San Bernardino Line are up for cancellation simply because elected officials are not able to fairly solve a funding dispute without resorting to service reductions. The parties involved are Metrolink and SANBAG. Both sides have valid arguments, but tearing apart the system is not the answer. The Board members of both agencies need to negotiate and solve this issue. I've also raised a point that I would support debating alternatives should the affected lines actually have stagnant low ridership counts. The last two late night trips appear to fit into that category. So let's debate.

Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten told the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin on July 15 the average daily ridership counts for the four affected trains:
  • Midday Train 310 from LAUS: 128 Passengers
  • Midday Train 327 from San Bernardino: 110
  • Late Evening Train 339 from San Bernardino: 32
  • Late Night Train 338 from LAUS: 38
One very valid argument I've heard was running buses for these "low ridership" lines. Some facts: A typical motorcoach bus can seat just over 50
passengers. According to a 2012-2017 Metrolink Fleet Plan report, the railroad's Sentinel rail cars long used by Metrolink have 140-149 seats per car, depending on the generation. The new Guardian fleet cars seat anywhere from 120-142 riders depending on the design and designated usage. It's quite clear that Metrolink regional rail can move far more people than buses which is why both forms of transit are vital for a productive system. So, what should be done with the affected train routes?

First, the midday trains: There's no question that the midday runs should be maintained. Cancelling the midday roundtrip would displace these riders. Some may elect to use the trains that depart before or afterwards, but that is still over 200 daily passengers affected. I believe Trains 310 and 327 need to stay.

Now, the late night train runs: Offering bus service for the late night runs appear to be more debatable since ridership counts each way are in the 30's. For example, for the LOSSAN Rail Corridor, the last northbound Pacific Surfliner train departs San Diego at 9:05pm with a late night Amtrak bus departure at 10:15pm to LAUS with limited stops along the way. Travel on the Amtrak buses also require RSVP's and that part of the trip involve a train trip simply to prevent intercity service duplication with profitable bus services offered from the private sector. That's the law and the policy is justified. In fairness, I don't believe Greyhound should be in position to monopolize the intercity bus market and I do support better intercity competition in the Inland Empire which enhances services and lowers fares.

Replacing the last lifeline Metrolink SB Line trip with motorcoach service could work, but we must first find out how many of the 70 affected late night train riders are returning from a round trip, are passholders, or are one way riders. Since a replacement Metrolink-operated bus route would have to be part of a train itinerary, one way riders would be negated and would have to use an alternative intercity service offered by the private sector. Thus, the bus option is a very debatable solution and I'm not at a point to jump aboard this solution just yet.

However, when one looks at the big picture, getting low-ridership Metrolink routes to perform better means making the system more useful which goes beyond the boundaries of the San Bernardino Line. Rather than cut service and erase all the gains Metrolink has made over the years, the elected representatives from both Boards should direct their staff to fix this funding dispute and find ways to make the service more useful and cost efficient without cuts or additional fare hikes. The Transit Coalition has two suggestions:

The first is the Metrolink Simplified Service Plan which is part of our Metrolink Max campaign. The plan would preserve the usefulness of the Metrolink system by running trains through Union Station. For example, someone who lives along the San Bernardino Line would be able arrive at their job in the Burbank Media District without changing trains. The plan would effectively combine the Ventura County and Orange County Lines, and the Antelope Valley and San Bernardino Lines. We are confident that this would produce major increases in ridership and revenue because the majority of travel in the SCRRA region does not have downtown Los Angeles as its destination. That would solve the legit low ridership issue with the late night SB Line trains and boost the midday numbers. Here's proof: The removal of similar transfers and delays in New York, Toronto, and Philadelphia produced major ridership growth. For example, when the Washington to New York and New York to Boston segments were combined into the Northeast Corridor (NEC), ridership on the weaker Boston leg doubled. If a late evening Antelope Valley Line train ran through LAUS at 11PM, Train 338 to San Bernardino would see its numbers go up and become productive.

The second is to step up efforts to market Metrolink service to employers. This will further help with the midday runs. In Los Angeles County, "Go Metro" advertisements are common around the county. However, some big name employers that could be served by Metrolink, such as the Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, should be targeted with nearly the same energy. There are hospitals, industrial centers, and other major employers near Metrolink lines that could and should be targets of marketing campaigns. Many employees at these dense hubs don't work the typical 9-5 shift. While the affected SB Line trains could be thought of as being in a ridership crisis, the solution is to improve the underperforming runs, not cut them. If Metrolink staff could sell five hundred more monthly passes in each segment, to major employers to hand out to their employees, that would make a huge difference.

Ultimately, the financial dispute between Metrolink and SANBAG must be solved. The Transit Coalition does not support tearing apart the service and sending ridership counts much lower. While we certainly understand that the local fiscal dispute and continued government misspending at the state level continues to plague Southern California’s effort to build a regional mass transit network, cutting service only hampers that effort even more. Riders have proved over the years that they want good transit service and are willing to pay for it with the recent fare increases. It's time to take what resources our region has left and consider turning Metrolink into a corridor-based system that has the ability to serve more people in many more ways.

What are your thoughts?