Will Metro L.A. Pay The Piper On Metrolink?

 

Metrolink is one of California’s true public transit successes. But it’s cobbled together from old freight lines – many of which are out of date operationally. Can we afford the upgrades necessary to make a truly 21st Century system? Can we afford not to make them?

I’m a pretty frequent rider on the Metrolink Ventura County line – the line where a Metrolink train crashed head-on with a Union Pacific late Friday, killing 25 riders so far.  Every week or two, I ride all the way from the Montalvo station in Ventura (the end of the line) to Union Station for meetings in downtown L.A.

I know the faces on the train and, occasionally, I know the people as well. It’s gotten more crowded as gas prices have gone up, because why spent $20-30 on gas and $20 to park downtown when, for just one crisp $20 bill, you can take the train?

I’m more than familiar with the sharp left turn coming out of the Chatsworth Station just before the Santa Susana Tunnel where the crash occurred, though I have to admit that I’m not always paying attention. Like most people, I’m usually working on my computer or talking on my cell phone.

And that’s because, like everybody else on the train –indeed, like public transit advocates everywhere -- I take a safe arrival for granted. Often while driving, I worry about how easy it would be to get into an accident. While traveling on the train, it never occurs to me that I am hurtling forward at a very fast speed in a heavy and enormous projectile, entrusting my life to the engineer.

Friday’s crash reminds us all of the pros and cons of the Metrolink system and the way it works. Overall, Metrolink really is one of California’s most remarkable public transit successes. It was created from a standing start 16 years ago when the five county transportation commissions in Southern California got together and created a joint-powers authority to run a commuter rail system. (One of those five is the Ventura County Transportation Commission, on which I sit as the City of Ventura’s representative.)

Metrolink isn’t cheap; it cost more than a billion dollars just to put together and many millions more in tax money per year to operate. But it’s been successful. In recent months, the system has been carrying a million people a month – not as much as a freeway, but not bad. The Riverside, San Bernardino, and Orange County lines often run on 20 or 30 minute headways – remarkable for a heavy-rail system. Daytime and suburb-to-suburb services is so good that I have begun to use it to get to and from business appointments in the Inland Empire.

But in order to get this far this fast, Metrolink had to take one short-cut – which was to balance itself on the back of the Southern California freight system, one of the busiest in the country.

Metrolink was put together because Southern California was not moving far enough or fast enough to build a comprehensive passenger rail transit system, like BART in the Bay Area. BART currently operates in four counties and is planning to penetrate a fifth. It’s a heavy-rail subway system, though it runs above-ground in some places. It operates on its own right-of-way in a seamless fashion.

L.A. rail transit system, on the other hand, has been stitched together with a motley combination of rights-of-way and technologies. There’s a backbone subway line (the Red Line), but there are also a lot of incompatible light-rail lines. And building new lines to the outlying counties has, up to now, simply not been in the cards.

So in order to provide effective commuter rail, Southern California had no choice but to use the freight lines. As L.A. Times’ “Road Sage” blogger/reporter Steve Hymon pointed out on Saturday, Metrolink was put together during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s because the freight railroads were interested in unloading their right-of-way. (By the way, Hymon – who in a mid-career break from journalism picked up a master’s degree in geography from USC – has been one of the most useful and insightful sources of information about the Metrolink system and the institutional reasons behind the crash.)

Today, Metrolink and its member agencies owns a lot of the right-of-way, which allows the agency to gives its own trains priority over freight trains. (This means they don’t often pull over and wait forever for a freight train to pass, as Amtrak trains must.) But it also means that Metrolink has huge operational challenges coordinating with freight corridors, which in the Los Angeles area are among the busiest in the nation, thanks to the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. This is especially true because so much of the L.a. rail system -- unlike the Northeast and elsewhere -- is single-tracked.

This seems to have been a particular issue in Ventura County. Through the Valley and into Ventura County, Metrolink and Amtrak alike have been plagued with conflicts between trains and cars and trains and people. This is largely because through the Valley and into agricultural Ventura County, the rail line is not a sealed corridor. A few years ago, I was riding on an Amtrak train just short of the Moorpark station when it struck and killed a pedestrian, apparently one bent on suicide. And everyone remembers the 2005 crash in Glendale that killed 11 people, when a suicidal motorist got smashed by trains going in each direction -- one on the Ventura County line, one on the Antelope Valley line.

As we were tragically reminded on Friday, the rail line through Ventura County and northward is only a single track in most places. North of Ventura, things get even worse: In many locations, engineers still must get off the train and operate switches manually, just as they did in the 1920s.

Upgrading this line will be extremely expensive – hundreds of millions of dollars at the very least. It's more than just putting safety devices. A true upgrade will also require double-tracking huge chunks of Southern California and also making basic improvements in switching and signaling. (In some other parts of the country, the green-red signal is actually received in the locomotive itself, rather than alongside the tracks, making it harder for the engineer to miss it.)

Los Angeles has major money for transit and may soon have more if Measure R passes in November, but also has a lot of competition even for rail dollars. And outlying counties may not be willing to put money into the system. In Santa Barbara County, the cost of upgrading the Ventura-Santa Barbara rail line to serve commuters – hundreds of millions of dollars – was one of the things that sunk Santa Barbara’s transportation sales tax renewal in 2006, which contained major dollars to upgrade the rail line north of Ventura.

Ventura County has no transportation sales tax but may go for one at the ballot box in 2010. Even so, the county does not have the tax base of the other Southern California counties, meaning the tax revenue realized will be much less.

I’ll continue to ride Metrolink whenever and wherever I can. But in the wake of Friday’s crash, I will always recognize that there is a risk in doing so. And when I complain about schedules and headways, I will also recognize that unless and until a lot of these operational problems are solved – a very expensive proposition – there’s an upper limit to what Metrolink can accomplish.

– Bill Fulton