With more than 500 miles of track, yet just 40,000 weekday riders, Metrolink is a large but underutilized commuter rail network. In Chicago, a smaller city with a slightly smaller commuter rail network, the equivalent ridership is 300,000; in Paris, it approaches 3 million.
So what can be done to make Metrolink more useful? The agency – which operates across five Southern California counties - is looking at a modernization program, announced earlier this month in a report entitled Integrated Service and Capital Plan (with Discussion on Electrification). It proposes far-reaching service improvements, including wiring some lines for electric operations, increasing frequency, and coordinating service planning with intercity rail as well as local buses. What Metrolink is seeking mirrors what some of the most forward-thinking foreign regional rail networks have achieved, such as those of Switzerland. And yet, some elements in the plan remain lacking.
Metrolink's announcement is in line with the calls of some area transit advocates. Paul Dyson, president of RailPAC, has long called for electrification of Metrolink, putting forth a scheme in 2014 that he dubbed Electrolink. Two years ago, Clem Tillier, a Bay Area-based rail advocate, predicted that this must happen. He looked at the plans for electrification and compatibility with high-speed rail on the San Francisco Peninsula, and said, “Metrolink will become Electrolink, from Anaheim to Burbank and possibly even up the hill to Palmdale. They just don’t know it yet.”
In 2015, Metrolink issued its 10-Year Strategic Plan, laying out some management goals for growth, but stopping short of making specific policy recommendations. Notably absent from the document was any mention of electrification. Perhaps the most important factor in this change of direction since 2015 is the continued progress of California High-Speed Rail, which is now closer to reality and has forced Metrolink to plan based on what would make it easiest to share tracks between Los Angeles Union Station and Burbank, as Tillier predicted.
However, the upcoming state rail plan may have also played a role. The state is proposed concrete goals, including a policy for evaluating multimodal lifecycle costs in decision making. This policy heavily favors electrification: a Dutch benchmarking study from ten years ago found that electric trains cost about half as much as diesel trains to procure and maintain. Moreover, electrification is the most useful on short-range rail lines with high service frequency, such as Metrolink following the integrated service report's proposed increases in service.
If anything, Metrolink's proposal for electrification is too timid. The report talks about wiring the Antelope Valley Line up to Santa Clarita, the Ventura County Line up to Moorpark, and the Orange County Line down to Laguna Niguel. While the northern terminals make sense, since there is very little demand for service beyond them, the southern terminal is located nearly halfway from Union Station to San Diego. With hourly Pacific Surfliner Amtrak service, there is an argument for electrifying the entire corridor to San Diego, in collaboration with SANDAG.
Electrification to San Diego is especially useful as part of a blended plan with high-speed trains. In most countries with a high-speed rail network, high-speed trains run not only on dedicated high-speed lines but also on legacy lines at lower speed. Fast trains from Northern California could run to Los Angeles and then continue beyond on the LOSSAN corridor to San Diego, doing the trip between Los Angeles and San Diego in two hours or somewhat less.
But Metrolink's new plan is not just about electrification. Several other steps are included, aimed at the modernization of Metrolink service based on best industry practices. Electrification is the most visible capital infrastructure item, but there are crucial elements involving operations and scheduling.
The furthest-reaching timetable change is known as the pulse, proposed in Goal 1 of the state rail plan. This is common in some small American cities on bus systems, but rare in larger ones. In a pulse, several transit vehicles converge at one point, such as one bus transfer point in a small city, or a train station in a larger one, at a fixed interval, typically once an hour on buses. This means that transit is scheduled to arrive at the transfer point, called the pulse point, a few minutes before the hour, every hour, and to leave just after the hour, allowing people to transfer between any two routes with little wait time. On buses, it is difficult to maintain frequent pulse schedules, but on trains, separated from road traffic, it is easy. Switzerland's intercity rail network has half-hourly pulses, and some individual stations have quarter-hourly pulses.
The pulse is not just about Metrolink itself, but also about the entire transit system within Metrolink’s range. Buses in suburbs served by Metrolink could be rearranged to meet the trains. This is feasible even in relatively close-in suburban areas, such as the Valley, but is especially useful in suburbs where buses have little else to go but Metrolink, creating a local bus pulse together with the train.
The problem with this plan is that it assumes middling frequency. The integrated plan report calls for a train every 15 minutes on the core Orange County, Ventura County, and Antelope Valley Lines, but hourly off-peak frequencies elsewhere. This includes the San Bernardino Line, currently the system's busiest. There are no plans to electrify it (whereas Dyson's Electrolink plan does cover it), probably because it is disconnected from any future high-speed rail plans. But it serves relatively dense suburbs in eastern Los Angeles County with no access to other rail transit and has no freight traffic to interfere with frequent passenger rail operations.
Metrolink is proposing investment in the San Bernardino Line—but the kind that makes service worse rather than better. It is calling for constructing an express bypass track, exactly the opposite of what the system needs. Metrolink's stop spacing is extremely wide; I wrote about this earlier this year, calling for infill stops in the Valley, at intersections with frequent buses. The same prescription is true on the San Bernardino Line, whose first four stops out of Union Stations take riders 23 miles out, about twice as far as those on Caltrain out of San Francisco or the Long Island Railroad out of New York Penn Station, and three times as far as the commuter lines out of Central Paris.
Metrolink already provides express service. What it needs is to use electrification to speed it up further, and open many urban infill stops using the high acceleration capability of electric trains to limit the time cost of the extra stops. This is especially true off-peak, when the system has to get urban ridership and not just suburban peak-hour commuters. With the proposed timed transfers with buses, infill stops at the intersections with the main buses are crucial on all lines: on the three lines to be electrified, but also on the remaining lines, especially San Bernardino, with its high ridership.
The other missing element is fare integration. The Metrolink plan says nothing about offering urban riders, within reach of Metro’s bus system, a rail trip for the same price as a bus or subway fare. This is especially important in the working-class areas served by the Antelope Valley, San Bernardino, and Ventura County Lines. If there is a commuter train charging $3.75 from Burbank to Union Station where the local bus and Metrorail network charges $1.75, most riders will opt for the cheaper option, even if the train arrives every 7.5 minutes as Metrolink plans.
Metrolink is making steps in the right direction, but it's still missing some critical components of regional rail modernization. The proposed pulse timetable in the state rail plan should lead to substantial increase in ridership—provided there is good service to connect to. Metrolink is right to plan for electrification and high all-day frequency, but it needs to do so on more than just the lines directly tied to high-speed rail—after all, these investments abroad are typically not about compatibility with intercity trains.
The plan suffers from excessive conservatism and caution, and needs to be bigger. Tillier talked about integration with high-speed trains between Anaheim and San Francisco but by the same token Metrolink needs to integrate its services with intercity trains to San Diego, and integrate its fares with local public transit throughout Los Angeles County. Without such integration, many people would continue to face difficult choices between an expensive car and a slow bus. Metrolink holds the promise of providing public transit faster than driving on the freeways, but only if it engages in additional investments to ensure it is available for everyone, on all lines.
- How Los Angeles can maximize the value of the Union Station run-through tracks (Urbanize LA)
- Metrolink Archive (Urbanize LA)
Alon grew up in Tel Aviv and Singapore. He has blogged at Pedestrian Observations since 2011, covering public transit, urbanism, and development. Now based in Paris, he writes for a variety of publications, including New York YIMBY, Streetsblog, Voice of San Diego, Railway Gazette, the Bay City Beacon, the DC Policy Center, and Urbanize LA. You can find him on Twitter @alon_levy.