Let's Debate: The Truth of the Metrolink Ridership Decreases and Improving Connectivity

© Justin Nelson CC-BY-SA

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

Over the weekend, Metrolink got some hard press by the Los Angeles Times over its Fiscal Year 2013-2014 ridership counts with the newspaper headline reading "Metrolink's annual ridership continues to drop." Not long after, other news outlets including the Associated Press parroted the report citing the railroad lost nearly 600,000 annual riders since 2008. Floods of other reports said likewise. There's quite a bit of important information that was not reported in the media which gave the railroad some unfair coverage. Such straight facts cannot be omitted and must be presented so that we have a fair analysis and can draw up solid fact-based solutions of this ridership situation. To be fair, the LA Times article was perhaps the most complete and fair of the bunch even though its headline was spun.

Although there are some legit issues that need to be addressed to strengthen ridership along the rails, a reader could mistakenly imply that statements like "ridership continues to drop" means that the railroad's annual passenger boarding counts have been dropping for consecutive years since the height of the recession in 2008. At least that was my initial impression when I saw the headlines. Therefore, it is time for some straight talk and I hope our transportation officials are reading this in and taking note because we need them to take action on this issue.

The Truth: Ridership Facts according to Metrolink's 20th Anniversary Report

According to Metrolink's 20th Anniversary Report, here are the year-to-year annual ridership counts starting from year one:

According to the LA Times article, Fiscal Year 2013-2014 clocked in at 11.74 million boardings. To compare, the FY08-09 peak before the recession was 12.3 million boardings; that's where the 600,000 "ridership drop" figure came in which was parroted all over the news.

But here are some more facts that many news stories didn't mention: Coming out of FY09 and going into the economic crisis of FY10, Metrolink had 11.3 million passenger boardings, a drop of a whopping 1 million riders from the previous year. Things got worse during FY11, where the total boarding count dropped to 11.1 million, down an additional 200,000 adding up to a decline of 1.2 million passengers since FY09. FY11 was Metrolink's low point during the recession.

In FY12, Metrolink saw a recovery. It reported 11.9 million boardings, up 800,000 from the previous year, but still 400,000 lower than the FY09 peak. According to the FY14-15 Budget report, the previous FY12-13 showed 12,075,385 boardings, up about 175,000 from the previous year, but still about 224,600 shy of the FY09 peak.

Enter in FY14. Yes, ridership went down again but it's not as bad as the press made it look. At 11.74 million boardings, that's a ridership drop of about 335,400 or 2.8% from the previous year. That's just under 600,000 from its FY09 peak. However, that is still about 640,000 more from the recession's low point in FY11. Also, it's worth mentioning that Metrolink recently underwent a fare hike. The fact is transit agencies typically experience short-range ridership drops as a result. The 2.8% drop in riders could be blamed in part of the fare increases but there are other areas that must be solved in order for Metrolink to recover its ridership base.

Reversing the 2.8% ridership decline

Given the recent fare hikes, I don't believe Metrolink is at a ridership crisis point, but this year's 2.8% decline of riders should serve as a notice to officials at all government levels that both service and fiscal efficiency needs to take place in order to keep the ridership from stagnating. The regional rail system must be attractive, affordable, and free from needless government waste. Metrolink has certainly improved in making the regional rail system safer, improving in marketing and expanding weekend ridership with promotions. Those are all good. But more must be done to retain the riders, especially regular commuters. Hiking fares or cutting service will only worsen the problem. Both of those notions should be out of the question.

On top of implementing Metrolink Max which advocates for corridor-based, frequent Metrolink train service from early morning until late night, I submit three additional solutions.

Solution #1: Improve Rail/Bus Connectivity

Under Construction: SANBAG and Omnitrans are working together on the San Bernardino Transit Center which promises better connectivity between Metrolink trains and Omnitrans buses including the sbX Green Line.
Connectivity between the trains and local buses must be improved. One complaint I hear all the time is that people don't ride Metrolink simply because there are generally no efficient connections between the station and final destination. I know I'm generalizing. There are some train stations like LA Union Station, Fullerton, Montclair, and several others that have good connections, but such connectivity needs to be system-wide. Officials in the City of Riverside need to take this under consideration as they work with the Riverside Transit Agency on the bus restructure proposal in downtown Riverside. Officials only need to look a few miles to the north.

San Bernardino is well on its way to fixing the connectivity issue with its multi modal transit center now under construction combined with establishing seamless sbX BRT connections to major destinations in the area. Riders aboard the Metrolink San Benrardino Line will be able to get to places like the Loma Linda University Medical Center and CSUSB areas for the first time fairly quickly. San Bernardino is making that happen. The Perris Station Transit Center will be another good example when the Perris Valley Line opens there with across-the-platform connections. But the same connectivity needs to happen in the City of Riverside and elsewhere in the Metrolink system. Getting ridership to its best levels at the Riverside Downtown Station is not going to happen if riders have to transfer multiple times or walk long distances in downtown Riverside to get to UC Riverside or the Magnolia Avenue RTA Route 1 corridor. That's a reality.

Solution #2: Get rid of government waste and unnecessary red tape at the state level

Secondly, the state government needs to get public works infrastructure costs under control with more efficient oversight and a reduction in red-tape bureaucracy. I'm not calling for de-regulation, but more efficiency, fairness, and cost-effective streamlined regulatory oversight. Too many layers of rules obstructs operations and capital infrastructure both at the local government level and the private sector. That is the truth.

Also, such red tape has contributed toward the funding dispute that threatens service along the San Bernardino Line. It was wrong for the SANBAG Board to refuse to pay its share to Metrolink and put the railroad and San Bernardino Line operations into a fiscal emergency, but the San Bernardino County agency does have a point with the inflated cost increases and ensuring Omnitrans gets its fair share of its transit funds. SANBAG should continue to advocate for better efficiency. However, we need elected officials from both boards to stop the excuses and lead the way out of this mess. Cutting service on the San Bernardino Line is not the answer.

Solution #3: Improve On-Time Performance Standards

In addition, fair policies and sound contracts with the freight railroads need to be put into place to ensure better on-time performance of passenger trains. Other than legit non-preventable issues or natural causes, there really should be no excuse for late trains caused by scheduling, lack of maintenance or passenger conduct. Trains need to be maintained to prevent breakdowns. All railroad operators should have action plans at the ready whenever a crisis occurs.

Here's a debatable solution that I submit and I welcome feedback. Under this plan, Metrolink's Quality Service Pledge would reflect it. If a private vehicle breaks down at a railroad crossing, all trains in the affected area would be stopped immediately through positive train control and police and a local area tow truck would be dispatched immediately and have the vehicle towed out of the way within 10 minutes of the time it gets reported. The trains are then moving again with passenger trains given priority. There would be a similar policy for passenger issues: If a passenger is to be taken off of a train for any reason and he/she refuses to cooperate, law enforcement would be dispatched and be waiting at the next station within 10 minutes.

For more serious cases where a train or a crossing may be involved in a pedestrian or vehicle incident that would require a closure and police investigation of the area, alternative transportation would be available to pick up all affected passengers within 30 minutes. That would be possible by staging spare buses at each local public transit agency or any other government-operated bus or maintenance yard and hiring or contracting with a crew of "reserve" on-call drivers who live within 10 minutes of the yard--very similar to reserve or on-call firefighter programs. The target goal should be keeping the delay under 30 minutes. If the delay lasts over an hour, all passengers are compensated. The spare buses would be rotated regularly with transit fleets.

Having action plans like these at the ready means an efficient Metrolink train system with a strong on time performance.

Got any other ridership-boosting ideas? Let's hear them!


  1. Metrolink also needs to move beyond the outdated 9-5 Monday-Friday Downtown employee market. The only trains growing ridership are Inland Empire-Orange County and weekend trains. Metrolink needs to be an all-day, evening and weekend Regional Rail system, like Chicago's Metra, to grow ridfership. Perhaps a regional rail and suburban bus tax is the answer ?


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