Dump the Surfliner Express? Report Says Ridership on New Route Is Dismal

Photo:Wikimedia

With much ballyhoo two years ago Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner converted one of its morning trips between San Diego to Los Angeles into an express, removing stops to reduce running time.

I was startled at the headline for the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada (RailPAC) latest e-newsletter blast: “Caltrans says dump the Surfliner Express”. This is based on a presentation made at the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo (LOSSAN) Rail Corridor Agency Technical Advisory Committee meeting last week.

Here is the gist of the situation:

SUMMARY

Ridership for the train in the express slot was predicted to drop with the initiation of express service, while revenue was predicted to increase due to additional higher-revenue tickets sold due to the attractiveness of shorter trip times in the remaining markets. This revenue increase has not been realized.

Ridership for some significant Rail2Rail markets was lost as was ridership at many intermediate city pairs that were lost, as well as the loss of the potential to connect to and from the dropped cities to specific Thruway buses and connections to other state corridors. The continuing downward trend in both ridership and revenue shows that the attractiveness of a shorter scheduled running time has failed to bring in significant additional riders to offset the revenue loss of markets no longer served.

The train in the slot immediately before the express slot shows relatively flat ridership and revenue change since the express train was initiated. The train in the slot after the express shows significant ridership and revenue increases during the same period. This suggests that many riders in the city pairs not served simply chose to travel one hour later.

CONCLUSION

This is the third trial of an “express” service on this corridor. The dropped stops were reinstated after a similar decrease in ridership in the earlier trials. The same declining pattern repeats with 2011 – 2013 express train. The corridor as a whole is overall holding steady on ridership and overall up on revenue during the period the express has been running. The express train is down severely in both ridership and revenue, with a continuing downward trend.

Caltrans believes that reinstating the three dropped stops and the associated 21 additional city pair markets for the train will increase both ridership and revenue for the train, bringing the train in line with, and adding to, the positive trend of the corridor as a whole, and giving those travelling between the 21 lost city pairs an additional daily travel choice.

When asked for comments Paul Dyson, President of RailPAC stated “About 6-7,000 riders per day from a catchment area of about 10 million is damning enough! Trains slower than they were 10 years ago. Punctuality rarely above 80% in spite of generous recovery time. Lack of schedule coordination or sensible ticketing arrangements with connections. Cafe cars that close 20 minutes before arrival at LAUS.”

Even rail fans on the trainorders.org forum asked hard questions like “An express in one direction but not the other is stupid. Why wasn’t a PM express (410pm put of LA) ever started”.

Which reminds me that long-distance rail services are often as much about intermediate stops as they are travel between the two terminals.