By Dan Weikel, September 7, 2014
Sean Robb of Valencia stands on his former train platform at the
Metrolink station in Burbank. Robb now drives himself to work instead of
taking the train, which was often late, causing him to miss his bus
connection to his job at Walt Disney Imagineering.
Robb of Valencia regularly took Metrolink to and from work in Glendale
until the trains increasingly fell behind schedule. It became so bad,
Robb called the line "Metro-Late." He now drives to the office.
Gelineau, an insurance salesman, used to ride the line from Simi Valley
to Burbank. When fares rose, he bought a Toyota Prius. Now it takes a
little more time to get to work, he says, but it's cheaper than the
They are not the only ones who have stopped taking Metrolink.
hailed as the fastest-growing commuter line in the nation, the railroad
has seen its annual ridership drop by almost 595,000 passengers since
2008, with resulting losses in revenue. That and other factors have left
the agency squeezed between trimming service or boosting fares, either
of which could prompt more defections.
of the six-county system — covering a region of more than 20 million
people — mostly blame the downturn on the worst recession since World
War II, which decimated the region's workforce.
They also note
that downtown Los Angeles — the predominant destination for Metrolink
commuters — is undergoing a residential renaissance but has faded as an
"Ridership should be growing given the size of
the area Metrolink serves," said Richard Katz, a former state legislator
and longtime board member for the railroad. "Though we have been
attracting riders, we've had a hard time holding on to them."
decline is occurring even though Metrolink has hired experienced
marketing professionals, courted employers and tapped into Facebook and
Twitter to reach tech-savvy millennials.
Express service, new
lines and specialty trains to ball games, rock concerts and the beach
have been added. Safety has improved since the deadly Chatsworth crash
in 2008, and equipping rail cars with WiFi is planned.
Metrolink officials, transportation experts and commuters say those
measures are working against factors that have steadily chipped away at
the railroad's ridership.
During the recession, the unemployment
rate was 8% to 13% across the region and the number of annual boardings
dropped from a peak of almost 12.33 million in 2008 to 11.14 million in
Until that time, Metrolink enjoyed steady growth. By the
line's 10th anniversary in 2002, it had exceeded its ridership goals
with almost 8.95 million yearly boardings. The system also had expanded
from 112 miles of track in three counties to 512 miles in six counties:
Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura.
recession is a big part of the decline in ridership," said Robert
Turnauckas, chief of marketing and communications at Metrolink. "It's
been hard to recover from something so impactful."
2013 — after then-Chief Executive John Fenton put more emphasis on
customer service and building ridership — annual boardings had recovered
to almost 12.07 million.
Since then, ridership — contrary to
projections — has dropped to 11.74 million. The dip, along with rising
costs for fuel, operations and safety projects, prompted the railroad to
trim service this year and seek more money from the five county
transportation agencies that help fund the line.
Further challenging the recovery, Metrolink officials say, are shifting patterns of job growth across the region.
indicate that the size of the workforce in the core of Los Angeles has
stagnated somewhat in the last 20 years while the number of residents
has tripled. At the same time, employment has risen in Orange County,
the South Bay and on the Westside.
only Orange County is served by Metrolink, and many new downtown L.A.
residents tend to work closer to home and don't need the rail service.
job growth is not that high in downtown Los Angeles," said Brian
Taylor, a professor of urban planning at UCLA. Metrolink's "ridership is
very sensitive to economic change and employment shifts."
officials say the railroad also has been stung by a reduction in the
amount of fares that can be deducted from federal taxes and by recent
declines in gasoline prices that have encouraged more driving.
transportation experts contend that the railroad might be bumping up
against the limits of its market — a still-car-dependent region with
multiple job centers.
"Transit, especially rail transit, competes
poorly in modern, relatively dispersed environments," said Peter Gordon,
professor emeritus of urban and regional economics at USC. "Rail
transit best serves areas with dominant downtowns."
Southern California commuters say they like riding Metrolink, but the
system needs more midday and late-night service. Others have found that
express buses can be faster and cheaper. Also figuring into the loss of
riders are poorly synchronized train and bus connections.
almost two years, David Clubb relied on Metrolink to get to his office
in Burbank. In the morning, he took a bus to the line's Simi Valley
station, and he did the reverse in the evening.
The bus connection was good going to work, he said, but the return by train was often late.
was less than a five-minute window to catch the bus" on the way home,
Clubb said. "If you missed it, the wait was 40 to 45 minutes for the
next one. Rather than continue to lose time, I was willing to spend
$30,000 on a car."
local transportation agencies periodically adjust their bus schedules
to match Metrolink's, the lack of connectivity remains a serious
problem, according to Bart Reed, director of the Transit Coalition, a
nonprofit organization that supports public transportation.
of the most convenient bus and rail connections can be found in Orange
County, where the local transportation agency has put a priority on
Metrolink officials say they are
addressing the synchronization issue and working on other strategies to
attract and keep riders, such as the planned Perris Valley Line in
Rail officials cite the creation of a $10
weekend pass that has become popular in the Inland Empire. They say
their program for school field trips and partnership with the FlyAway
Bus service to Los Angeles International Airport have also generated
tens of thousands of boardings.
Michael DePallo, Metrolink's chief
executive, says the effort is paying off. Preliminary figures for July
and August show an uptick in riders of about 1.7% compared with the same
period last year.
officials expect more boardings as the Los Angeles County Metropolitan
Transportation Authority expands light rail and subway service to the
Westside, which will provide commuters better access to job centers and
popular destinations there.
To enhance regional travel, work is
underway to build run-through tracks at Los Angeles' Union Station that
will allow Metrolink trains to either make shorter stops or pass through
the terminal without stopping.
railroad is now preparing a long-range strategic plan that will
evaluate ways to build ridership, including the possibility of reducing
fares, an idea supported by Art Leahy, the chief executive of the MTA,
which helps fund Metrolink.
As the line weighs its options, Hasan
Ikhrata, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of
Governments, a regional planning agency, is optimistic. He predicts that
ridership will grow as the economy improves, fuel costs rise, major
transit projects are finished and car-averse millennials enter the
"The downward trend is not going to continue," Ikhrata said.