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Southern California Regional Rail is in Trouble. A New, Unified Regional Rail Agency is Needed to Save it

Not only is SoCal’s regional rail falling off a literal cliff, but it’s also facing a fiscal one

Photo by Hari Panicker, Unsplash

Regional rail in Southern California is in trouble. In 2022-2023, all passenger rail service between Los Angeles and San Diego, the 2nd and 8th largest cities in the United States, was closed for eight months due to coastal landslides near San Clemente, a problem that will only worsen with climate change on the cliffside train tracks. Despite being the second highest ridership rail corridor in the nation and serving military and freight carriers as well as passengers, the rail line is evidently not a priority for Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), which is only starting to study moving the route inland.

Not only is SoCal’s regional rail falling off a literal cliff, but it’s also facing a fiscal one.

Metrolink ridership is only 43% of pre-pandemic ridership, while ridership recovery is at 53% for the Coaster, resulting in a significant loss of revenue. Service disruptions play a major role in low ridership - but another contributor is Metrolink’s schedules that are oriented toward a 9-5 commuter in downtown Los Angeles that barely exists in today’s multiple job center, work-from-home world. For instance, UC Riverside, a 25,000 student commuter campus, is 2 miles from a Metrolink station (original plans for an on-campus station were scrapped due to opposition from neighbors) but is completely inaccessible during the workday from Los Angeles or Orange County because the Perris Valley Line only runs from east to west in the mornings. And the Orange County Line, which parallels the massively congested 5 Freeway, has only four trains per day on weekends.

All of these problems ultimately stem from fragmented, dysfunctional governance that discourages regional planning and empowers capture by consultants and NIMBYs. The stretch of rail along the coast from San Diego to San Luis Obispo is nominally managed by the LOSSAN Rail Corridor Agency joint powers authority (JPA), which is staffed by and based at OCTA. But with only 18 employees (none for capital management) and no local funding, they can’t accept federal funds (despite having about $10 billion worth of anticipated capital projects) and have to farm out all capital projects to local agencies like OCTA or SANDAG. The existing Southern California Regional Rail Authority, which operates Metrolink, is similarly toothless as a joint powers authority between five different county departments of transportation that own the rights of way and control all the funds. Farming out capital and operations to many agencies with little interest or expertise in rail creates delays and prevents problems from being solved.

To its credit, Metrolink is attempting to move to a regional rail model with all-day bidirectional service, but their inability to deliver capital projects is a serious challenge. Many projects that would increase service by allowing trains to pass each other have been stalled, like the Serra Siding Extension in Dana Point, or canceled, like double tracking in the San Fernando Valley – because local transportation agencies don’t have the backbone to stand up to hyper-local opposition. Portions of Metrolink and the Coaster are shared with the Surfliner (managed by the LOSSAN JPA and operated by Amtrak), but they do not coordinate fares or schedules outside of Ventura County, making service effectively lower than it actually is. Additionally, Metrolink must seek permission from individual counties to fund service and capital investments, who are increasingly skeptical. Without the political will to improve service, suburbanites could turn away from transit and become more reliant on cars, the largest source of greenhouse gasses, during what the IPCC has designated as a critical decade for averting severe climate change.

Dysfunctional governance is also holding back electrification, which has the potential to be transformative for improving rail service. Electric service on Caltrain is set to open later this year and will deliver peak service every 15 minutes and 25 minute shorter trips, but no agency in Southern California has concrete plans for wires. SBCTA ditched wires on the new Arrow line due to opposition in majority-white Redlands and is instead moving forward with experimental hydrogen trains (siting a potentially hazardous refueling station in majority-minority San Bernardino), even though hydrogen trains are more costly, less reliable, and less green than electric trains. And consultant-driven value engineering at SANDAG threatens to preclude ever wiring up the planned Del Mar tunnel, a multi-billion dollar, 100-year project. With proper investments in service and capacity, Southern California could have a world-class rail network, but the current system is utterly incapable of planning and executing an ambitious regional vision.

Because regional rail is in such dire straits due to political dysfunction, Streets for All, Californians for Electric Rail, and the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada, together with a coalition of transit and environmental advocates, have an ambitious proposal: create a new agency to manage all rail from Santa Barbara to San Diego. The new Southern California Regional Rail Authority would have an appointed board representing transit professionals, transit workers, and riders, not just politicians, to insulate it from hyper-local concerns. The authority would manage and fund all capital projects (ideally supported by new region-wide funding), coordinated with a regional service plan. The authority would also employ in-house staff for capital projects- a crucial reform for bringing transit project costs down that recently allowed BART to come in 15% under budget for its new rail cars. Critically, the new authority would also secure agreements allowing it to upgrade rights of way it o​​perates on, speeding up improvements and enabling the long term consolidation of ownership.

In response to the San Clemente track closures, California Senator Catherine Blakespear (D-Encinitas) established the Transportation Subcommittee on LOSSAN Resilience, which is also exploring governance reform, having recently formally requested that the CA State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) step in to increase coordination between agencies and explore potential integration. Californians for Electric Rail and our allies have sent our proposal to the committee, and we are hopeful that legislation advancing our vision for a stronger, more rail-focused Southern California Regional Rail Authority will emerge. Rail travel in Southern California has strong potential, and with proper investments L.A.’s reputation for smog and traffic could be a thing of the past. But it’s going to require leadership from the state to get there.

Adriana Rizzo is a member of Californians for Electric Rail, a volunteer organization dedicated to bringing together environmental, transit, and labor organizations to advocate for rail electrification. She is based in Riverside, CA.

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