Before the pandemic, I rode about 12,500 miles per year on Metrolink, commuting by train from Fullerton to Los Angeles Union Station five days a week. And then, one day in mid-March 2020, I stopped. My office closed, and I began working from home. I wasn’t alone—during the pandemic Metrolink’s ridership fell by over 90%.
Today, my office in Downtown Los Angeles has reopened, but I’m not going back—at least not five days a week. Like millions of Americans, I discovered that I could work just as effectively from my home as from my office and I didn’t miss the commute. A 40-minute train ride was much better than an hour-plus drive in traffic, but it’s no match for the ease and convenience of no commute at all.
Going forward, I expect that I may only go into the office one or two days a week, and the latest ridership data from Metrolink suggests my experience is not unique: while weekend ridership has rebounded to nearly 70% of its previous peak, weekday ridership remains just 30% of pre-pandemic levels. If that trend continues, then Metrolink is in big trouble.
What’s the solution? Metrolink needs to transform from a commuter-oriented service to a true regional rail system. Here’s how:
Expand Evening, Weekend, and Off-Peak Service
Currently, Metrolink’s schedule is designed to bring suburban commuters into Los Angeles in the morning and back home in the evening. If you want to go into Los Angeles in the evening for dinner, sports game, or other event, you’re out of luck: the last Metrolink train leaves LA for Orange County at 6:31 pm on weekdays or 5:25 pm on weekends. Service isn’t any better in the other direction: any Angelenos who take Metrolink for a weekend trip to Disneyland or Angel Stadium have to be back on the train from Anaheim by 6:59 pm, or they’ll find themselves behind the Orange Curtain overnight. All of this is despite Metrolink’s recent added service.
To serve Orange County and Southern California as a real regional rail system, much more evening, weekend, and off-peak service is needed. Metrolink’s SCORE Program offers an enticing vision, with trains every 10 mins between LA and Fullerton and every 15 mins south of Fullerton, but it’s still years away from full implementation. Until then, Metrolink should partner with Amtrak to allow Metrolink ticketholders to ride Surfliner trains along the corridor—like the recently-announced agreement for Ventura County passengers.
Restructure fares to provide flexibility and equity
Metrolink’s current fare structure requires passengers to decide at the start of the month how many times they want to ride and then pay up front to get the best price. If your schedule is flexible and you don’t know how many trips you’ll make (or if you can’t afford to pay for a week or month’s worth of trips at once), you lose out. A better system would allow passengers to pay-as-they-go but cap fares at a daily, weekly, or monthly limit. With fare capping, passengers pay the one-way fare for each trip, but once they make more than three round-trip rides in one week (equivalent to the cost of a weekly pass), they would not be charged any more for trips that week. To better accommodate a range of riders, as opposed to just commuters who tend to be wealthier, Metrolink should look for opportunities to lower fares systemwide. State lawmakers should do their part to lower costs by providing funding that will allow transit agencies to reduce fares rather than providing gas tax rebates for drivers.
Currently, all trains terminate at Union Station, which means passengers traveling from Orange County to places like Burbank or Glendale must transfer trains to complete their trip. Combining existing lines to allow trains to continue through Union Station would facilitate regional access and allow more passengers to complete trips across Southern California without the added time and difficulty of connecting to another train. For example, combining the Ventura and Orange County Lines into a single north-south line would provide a one-seat ride from OC to Burbank Airport. Through-running services will be facilitated by the planned Link US project, which will extend the existing tracks at Union Station across the 101 to allow trains to enter and exit the station without reversing, but there is no need to wait until that project is complete to offer this operational improvement. Current lines can and should be combined to provide through service.
Convert to All-Electric Power
Long-range transportation plans will add overhead electric power along much of Metrolink’s OC corridor to accommodate California High-Speed Rail, but those improvements are years away from implementation. There’s no reason to wait: Caltrain (Metrolink’s Bay Area counterpart, serving the San Francisco to San Jose corridor) is currently completing the addition of overhead electric power. Electrification brings multiple benefits: in addition to reducing air pollution, electric trains can accelerate much faster than diesel trains, allowing for faster service and more frequent stops. Electrification of Metrolink can and should be prioritized and accelerated.
Add In-Fill Stations
Ultimately, the best way to increase ridership is to increase the number of people living within walking or biking distance of transit stations. Orange County cities should do their part by adding transit-oriented housing near existing stations, as many are. In addition to adding more housing near stations, we should add more stations near housing. Adding new stations along existing rail lines is a relatively easy and low-cost way to expand transit access—at least compared to adding all new lines.
A station at Placentia has been long planned—and delayed—but it should be fast-tracked. Yorba Linda and Anaheim Hills would benefit from a station at Imperial Highway. In Anaheim, an additional station should be added to serve the growing Center City district. These new stations, along with first/last mile pedestrian and bike improvements, would put thousands of more potential passengers within walking or biking distance of a Metrolink station.
With rising gas prices, increasing congestion, and growing concerns about climate change, Southern Californians deserve transportation alternatives. The good news is, with Metrolink, we have the backbone of a regional rail system in place and the opportunity to make it great. Let’s get on board.
Jaymes Dunsmore is an urban planner, transit rider and Fullerton resident. He co-leads the Gensler Mobility Lab focused on transforming the future of mobility through design.
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