Let's Debate: How can we quickly improve our broken Metrolink system?

What solutions can we provide to immediately fix Metrolink's problems quickly?

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We need to think outside the box and allow riders to volunteer to be the right arm of repairing our regional rail system to keep such repair costs in check.
Photo: © Wikimedia Commons/Brian Zimmerman CC-BY

By: Nicholas Ventrone, Community Engagement Director

If you take the train regularly and follow the Metrolink Diary Twitter page, you well know that our regional railroad system has all kinds of complicated problems ranging from broken ticket vending machines to late trains to signs displaying the incorrect time of day. A major fundamental issue is we the people have lost control of our rail transportation system no thanks to bloated infrastructure costs, special interest pandering at the state level, inflated operational expenses and sub-par connections. We need a rail system that will finally "fill a void in Southern California's transportation infrastructure" with corridor-based routes and better oversight and control over inflated costs. Commuters need productive and seamless transportation connectivity options and regional rail service has long provided that.

Recent Metrolink Improvements

To be fair, not is all bad at the railroad as there have been some good improvements recently. Metrolink has improved safety aboard the trains with the Guardian Fleet cars, monitoring locomotive operators, and implementing Positive Train Control technology. In addition, through its Customer Connect program, the railroad has an outlet at Los Angeles Union Station which connect train riders to decision-making management and staff. Plus, the Metrolink 91 Line now has weekend runs plus expanded peak hour service.

Those are all good improvements especially the new train options for the 91 freeway corridor. But now, we must fix what's breaking the rail system down to its roots. We need to provide the railroad with real solutions. The sad truth is that I have not seen any major executable solution of how to solve the railroad's problems as a whole other than more unaffordable massive spending. That's because many leaders have not confronted the powerful labor union and special interest lobby that keeps costs bloated, leaving many transit riders and the general public with substandard infrastructure and operations. That's NIMBY transit obstructionism at its finest.

Potential Solutions for Metrolink: We need an executable action plan that is conservative to the taxpayer and tolerates no trivial excuses. So, here is what I submit into the debate:

Coalition Concept: Metrolink can increase revenue and productivity by changing from a "segment" system to a "corridor" system.
Note: Concept Only. Not endorsed by SCRRA.
Corridor-based rail service: Establish through-service at Los Angeles Union Station with timed transfers by reconfiguring existing routes. That would greatly boost ridership productivity for each line and better fund the Metrolink San Bernardino Line which would certainly provide resources to restore the unfunded midday and late night weekday train runs.

Restore San Bernardino Line funding: The Metrolink and SANBAG Boards need to put this item back on to the table for discussion. Midday Trains 310 and 327 and late night trains 338 and 339 need to be funded and restored. SANBAG needs to be held accountable to pay its bill. Metrolink needs to control the sharp cost increases disputed by SANBAG and improve productivity by operating through trains from San Bernardino into Santa Clarita. It's long past time to solve this problem.

Robust, Productive and Affordable Security Services: Work with the local jurisdictions, the private sector and neighboring businesses and offer incentives that would better staff the locally operated train stations with better security to keep local spending budgets in line with economic growth, train stations safe and secure, and deter fare evasions. The private sector loves tax and fee breaks. If a neighboring local business is willing to hire or task an existing full time security officer to patrol the station and enforce fare payments on the platform, that business should be offered a local tax break and a set of free monthly passes to the employees of that business as an incentive. That is a fiscally conservative means to secure the stations, not an 18.8% line item budget hike from last year addressed by SANBAG.

On-Time Performance: Freight rail companies need to be held accountable of fulfilling their end of the bargain by ensuring tracks are clear for all scheduled Metrolink trains. If freight train congestion becomes a problem to the point where Metrolink trains are delayed 10 minutes or more, the freight rail operators must be held accountable.

Affordable Volunteer Power: US Navy Sailors clean up the Old Town Transit Station in San Diego as part of a regional volunteer event. Volunteers work together to clean up the historical location. Why can't our Metrolink stations be staffed with such community-oriented groups to control station maintenance costs?
Affordable Station Maintenance--Transit Ambassadors & Adopt-A-Station: Get a crew of volunteer ambassadors active through the non-profit sector to keep Metrolink stations clean and offer TVM assistance. California's adopt-a-highway system has helped kept our highways free from dumped debris for decades. Metrolink should encourage its local jurisdictions to allow its people to take care of the stations as transit ambassadors, offer customer service at TVM's, and conduct basic cleaning which includes keeping the public bathrooms sparkling. There are people out there who would do this. Give these people a chance to do so and offer a free one day pass for each day worked as token of thanks.

Metrolink TVM
#TVMFail no more! Let's allow tech volunteers to fix 'em!
Photo: © Wikimedia Commons/Ricky Courtney CC-BY-SA
Tech-Savvy Volunteers can Stop #TVMFail for less cost: Provide a free ride incentive to qualified skilled-based people who volunteer to repair the ticket vending machines and their computers. I'm pretty positive that there are highly qualified software and computer engineers who ride the train to work and want the TVM's to function. There may be some who just want to get their hands into a broken TVM system to reboot the stalled computer or fix the wiring bug just so they can get to their jobs on time. Why is there not a program that offers these qualified people free monthly passes if they stick around at the station for 15-30 minutes longer, volunteer to help diagnose, repair and inspect the TVM's and their computer systems at the fraction of the cost? Efficient oversight by paid staff will ensure the TVM's are repaired and work the right way.

Train Maintenance Job Performance: Better inspect the trains to reduce break downs and hold maintenance crews accountable for their job performance. Tolerate no waste. Again, invite qualified mechanics from the ridership base to step in and assist by offering ticket incentives to them so paid crews can focus better on the bigger problems. Riders want functioning trains and some are willing to step in themselves to fix the smaller problems like changing the light bulbs and polishing the toilets.

Challenging the special interests and labor unions to stop obstructing our government projects with inflated costs: Local elected officials need to take action and demand the state government to stop this government waste once and for all. If Metrolink cannot afford to improve its infrastructure quickly because project costs are priced well above the market economy salaries and rates, transit funds are displaced to other areas, and ill-advised policies prevent the private sector, unemployed non-union workers and volunteers from stepping in, the railroad will never be able to fully solve its problems and prosper.

Getting public works infrastructure and operational costs in line with the market rates has nothing to do with ideology or worker rights. It has everything to do with government efficiency and productivity. You want Metrolink to operate at its best? Give its riding public the chance to repair the system. Improve the connections between the train routes and connecting buses. You want public employees and contractors to continue to have good benefits and salaries without breaking the bank? Challenge the labor unions to support policies that would improve the market economy to balance the scales. Work with the problem-solvers to stop the ideology. Allocating massive amounts of money is only a short-range patch and will do little in the long-run. We cannot afford to keep the infrastructure costs at the bloated rates. But we and elected officials can and must take back control of the railroad with a firm action plan and zero tolerance for excuses from the special interests. 

Now is the time for the local leadership including transit advocates to end the inaction. We must declare independence from this culture of special interests and bad statewide policies, provide workable solutions, and repair our broken Metrolink system.

Got any other ideas? Post them in the comments and let Metrolink know.