April 24, 2022 Train Time at San Juan Capistrano. Vacation and trips for family visits are returning. (Photo: RailPAC)

The Diverse Rail Market on the Surf Line

Over the past few months there have been claims by some local Orange County stakeholders that the Surfliner and Metrolink trains run nearly empty through Capistrano Beach.  Citing ridership levels during a pandemic as a forecast of future expectations is disingenuous.  Airlines, airports and auto travel saw similar declines; should those all shut down? 

There has also been much discussion that, as a result of the changes in work resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, work-related travel will be substantially reduced.  While the pandemic and increase in working at home has changed commuter patterns, it cannot be claimed that there is no need for sustaining rail transportation.  First, the majority of workers (over 50%) must travel to work.  Second, many riders are traveling for non-work related trips (e.g. for vacation or to visit family or friends).  Third, work from home was not uncommon, although at lower levels, pre-pandemic (approximately 17% of workers).  As a result, pre-pandemic ridership already reflected some level of work from home activity.  And the future hybrid workplace, unlike now, will require some days in the office.  Adding to this traffic is the fact that one large industry, hospitality and entertainment, is just returning to normal and that commuter flow is just coming on-stream to boost rail ridership. 

Most importantly for the Serra Siding Extension Project, is the fact that the majority of passenger trains operating through Capistrano Beach are Pacific Surfliner intercity corridor trains.  These trains have always carried relatively few ‘9 to 5’ daily commuter trips, instead carrying passengers with a wide variety of trips — thousands of riders every day.   The overwhelming majority of these riders are traveling to visit family and friends, for vacation, travel for personal business (medical, legal, etc.) travel to/from school, shopping and sporting/entertainment events.  In addition there are riders traveling for business reasons, meetings, conferences, etc. which are also rebounding post-pandemic   Finally hybrid commuters, work at home with part time in the office,  have been riding on Amtrak corridor trains for years – from the Northeast Corridor to the Capitol Corridor in Northern California.  Post-pandemic ridership numbers will simply be larger. The LOSSAN Pacific Surfliner is in fact positioned for future growth.   While markets change, some shrink, some grow, others reveal themselves as offering new potential.   So, expansion of the hybrid office, with less frequent but longer trips, means additional Pacific Surfliner riders.  Also, many commuter rail carriers, such as Metrolink, are reimaging their schedules to cater to those with non-traditional work shifts and leisure travelers on shopping trips, trips to museums, entertainment and sports venues, etc.   The key to this future growth, on both Amtrak and Metrolink, is reliable service with flexible capacity to offer schedules when travelers need to ride. And that takes the lengthen siding and bridge replacement as outlined in the Serra Siding and Bridge Replacement overview.

April 24, 2022 the end of a great beach day in San Clemente.  Increasing leisure travel will be a major future focus for Metrolink.  (Photo: RailPAC)

Serving Those Without Automobiles
One critical consideration that the Orange County Transportation Authority must include in its decision assessment revolves around the fact that Metrolink and Pacific Surfliner are the only public transportation linking southwestern Orange County with San Diego County.  Many Orange County residents who, because of a disability, medical condition, age or because not all families have one vehicle for each family member, need this rail service for their critical transportation needs.  Since the nearest intercity motor coach stop is in Santa Ana (a long transit bus ride in the opposite direction), those who cannot drive need a robust transportation option with a reliable comprehensive schedule for travel outside southwestern Orange County.  Reliable service offering schedules when riders need to travel provides every Orange County resident the option to be self-sufficient and being able to avoid the stress and embarrassment of having to beg for rides.

The LOSSAN Corridor between Los Angeles and San Diego is a key link in California’s and the nation’s rail network.  The “Surf Line” through San Juan Capistrano, Capistrano Beach and San Clemente is not just a local rail branch it is utilized by riders traveling both long and short distances.  Some are using it as part of much longer journeys – connecting at LA Union Station to Amtrak’s long-distance trains or at San Diego to cruise ships.   These riders, many of whom are Orange County residents, are important stakeholders whose views need to be taken into account.   

As an owner of a key link in the nation’s rail network, the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) has stewardship responsibility of this key rail route.   OCTA needs to consider not just local stakeholder concerns but the key role this route plays in the state and national economy.  As such, OCTA’s responsibility is to leverage this rail asset to maximize its public benefits and potential to address increased transportation demand, mitigate the need to expand existing freeways, utilized land already disturbed by the existing rail line and reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions.  Proposed highway based alternatives only add to traffic.

For over 130 years traveling by train has always been part of the daily way of life for thousands of Orange County residents. Passenger rail is simply the best way to move large numbers of people quickly over land. 

Steve Roberts, of Concord, is the President of the Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada (RailPAC), a 501(c)3 all-volunteer non-profit passenger rail advocacy group founded in 1978. 

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