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


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:


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.


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.

  • BC

     Ridership for some significant Rail2Rail markets was lost …

    Rail2Rail.  Uh, wassat?

  • BC

    Ok, so “Rail2Rail markets” means Orange and Ventura County only?

    From http://www.metrolinktrains.com/ticketspricing/page/title/rail2rail:
    “The Rail 2 Rail® program allows Metrolink Monthly Pass
    holders along the Orange and Ventura County corridors to travel on
    Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trains within the station pairs of their pass
    at no additional charge, including Saturday and Sunday. Metrolink
    passengers simply show their Monthly Pass and board any Amtrak Pacific
    Surfliner train or bus to their destination. These additional trains are
    not available to holders of One-Way and Round-Trip tickets or 7-Day
    Passes. The Rail 2 Rail program does NOT include travel on Coast Starlight trains. …”

  • Matthew

    No, those corridors, not just those counties.  Basically it’s a program that allows monthly pass holders of Amtrak or Metrolink to ride the other’s trains (Pacific Surfliner only in the case of Amtrak) along the same corridor/routing that their pass allows.

    So a Metrolink Monthly Passholder with a station routing of Oceanside to Union Station can ride Pacific Surfliner within that station pair at no additional cost, and vice versa.

    The Orange and Ventura County reference is to the corridor, but basically it is referring to the fact that it is only for the service area that Metrolink and Pacific Surfliner overlap.

  • I’m afraid that a single, one-way, minimally promoted “express” train (only 3 stations bypassed?) is not enough to really woo folks. I agree that at least one express train should head southbound. Perhaps defying convention and offering a non-stop train from LA to SD and vice versa would get folks to take notice and offer significant time savings over the standard service.

  • Matthew

    OK, in a typical European intercity connection, you’d have an express and a local alternating at about 30 minute intervals.  Express trains would have at least 150 MPH top speeds and about 30 minute travel times between stops.  That’s what you need to provide to really build *massive* ridership.

    Saying that one train a day in one direction is evidence that there isn’t demand is ridiculous.  If you want realize the potential of a corridor, provide a decent service that allows a novice rider or a commuter to just show up at the station and take the next train any time of day and get where they want to go quickly and affordably.  That means at least double tracking the entire corridor and moving as much as possible towards passenger only operations (no freight).  It’s actually not rocket science.  California politicians always screw things up with their “trial service” and small scale experiments, when the recipe is already known and well documented in other countries (and to some extent the north-east corridor).  Go large and watch ridership skyrocket and subsidies fall.

  • Jonathan Louie

    Nail on the head! While I’m for High-speed rail, more efficiency with existing service to me takes priority. To have two tracks between Los Angeles and San Diego, or better 4 tracks for express lines is elementary and priority.


Coast Rail Corridor Now Has Joint Timetable

The Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor Agency (LOSSAN) is a joint powers consisting of various rail operating agencies and stakeholders who (as stated in their outreach material) seek to increase ridership, revenue, capacity, reliability, and safety on the coastal rail corridor from San Diego to Los Angeles to San Luis Obispo served by […]

Metro to Apply to Become “Managing Agency” for Surfliner

In my recent piece on the proposed local takeover of the Pacific Surfliner inter-city rail route the pivotal question I poised multiple times was which agency would take on the responsibility of managing the service. The title of agenda item #46 among the consent items on the Metro Board agenda yesterday gives us the name […]