METROLINK: SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA RAIL TRANSIT FACES CHALLENGES
BY STAS MARGARONIS, RBTUS
Metrolink, the Southern California rail transit carrier, is projected to increase ridership by 2% in 2013, modernize its locomotives, upgrade its traffic control system, and navigate past a cash flow crisis as well as four recent train-related deaths.
Jeff Lustgarten, public information director for Metrolink, says four people died within a recent four week period, primarily due to suicide. Lustgarten says it is difficult to prevent people from taking their own lives, but Metrolink is trying to do more to avert such tragedies:
* Metrolink will deploy a new traffic control system to detect people and debris on railroad tracks and prevent accidents. On its website Metrolink says that the new system is dependent upon interagency coordination between railroads. These include: Burlington Northern Santa Fe(BNSF), Union Pacific (UP) and Amtrak, the national rail carrier which also operate on the 216-mile Metrolink’s network (see below).
* Metrolink will continue to upgrade fencing along the rail lines to prevent unauthorized people from gaining access to the rail tracks.
Lustgarten says deaths have “a devastating impact on relatives of the victims, as well as Metrolink personnel and passengers who may be witnesses” to these tragedies.
CASH FLOW PROBLEMS
Lustgarten says cash flow problems that made headlines in Southern California newspapers have now been addressed:
“The recent financial problem was related to financial management and caused in large part because we did not invoice our member agencies as quickly as we paid our vendors and this created a cash flow problem for us. When it came to the attention of Mike DePallo, our new chief executive officer, he moved quickly to invoice the approximately $86 million to our funding partners and we are now in the process of being reimbursed.”
Lustgarten says a new software system and an outside out auditor will help prevent these cash flow problems in the future.
Revenue for Metrolink comes from Southern California counties: Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange, San Bernardino and Ventura. Together, they compose the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (SCRRA). The remainder of the funding derives from federal and state grants.
There are also positive signs for the train operator:
1) Ridership is projected to increase by 2% in 2013, but Lustgarten says ridership in recent years is not going up the way it had prior to the 2008 recession. A contributing factor is government cutbacks that result in furloughs of government employees: “Because Friday is a furlough day we don’t carry as many people as we used to. Nevertheless we are projecting a 2% increase in ridership this year,” Lustgarten says.
2) New cleaner, diesel locomotives. Lustgarten says: “We are addressing mandates for lower emission/ diesel- powered locomotives by ordering new Tier 4 locomotives from EMD in Canada which will lower emissions by 75%.” We have ordered 20 locomotives for $150M and we are on track to be the first commuter rail system in the country using Tier 4 locomotives in revenue operation.” Tier 4 denotes an engine with very low sulfur and carbon emissions.
3) Positive Train Control (PTC). On its website, Metrolink explains how the deployment of a new PTC system will reduce accidents:
“Positive Train Control (PTC) is GPS-based safety technology capable of preventing train-to-train collisions, overspeed derailments, unauthorized incursion into work zones and train movement through switches left in the wrong position. PTC monitors and, if necessary, controls train movement in the event of human error. PTC may also bring trains to a safe stop in the event of a natural disaster. Switches that are left in the wrong position will cause a train to deviate onto the wrong track. When this happens, a train runs the risk of colliding with another train or even derailing since it is going at a speed that is inconsistent with the unexpected course the train deviates to.
PTC sends up-to-date visual and audible information to train crew members about areas where the train needs to be slowed or stopped. This information includes the status of approaching signals, the position of approaching switches, speed limits at approaching curves and other reduced-speed locations, speed restrictions at approaching crossings and speed restrictions at areas where work is being performed on or near the tracks. PTC communicates with the train’s onboard computer, allowing it to audibly warn the engineer and display the train’s safe braking distance based on the train’s speed, length, width, weight and the grade and curvature of the track. If the engineer does not respond to the ample audible warning and screen display, the onboard computer will activate the brakes and safely stop the train.”
RIDING THE ANTELOPE VALLEY LINE
A May 22, 2013 round trip on a Metrolink train from Los Angeles Union Station to Palmdale in northern Los Angeles County, the Antelope Valley line, revealed the following:
* The northbound train departed Los Angeles on time at 630am but arrived at Palmdale 15 minutes late as a result of slowing down several times along the way. The scheduled time for the trip is just under two hours. The northbound delay then created a southbound delay departing from Palmdale causing the train to arrive back in Los Angeles 7 minutes late. The trip is 58 miles in each direction.
* One ticketing machine was not working at Union Station, Los Angeles and a second machine had problems reading credit cards. This caused a growing line as people struggled with the ticket machine problems.
*Fare evasion. Metrolink security guards evicted two passengers from one train car on the southbound train out of Palmdale for fare evasion. Lustgarten says Metrolink has a problem with fare evasion and is addressing it: “At Metrolink stations, the stations are open and to close them we would have to invest in new fencing and gates and since we don’t own the sites we would have to get the approval of the cities or agencies that own the land. Right now we are exerting more pressure by examining tickets and evicting people from the trains who don’t pay. This does involve security and the conductor but we hope that honest people who pay their fares appreciate it.”
* Lighted sign problems. At several stations the lighted information signs were not working and are so small as to be hard to read from a distance.
* Fence gaps. There are many gaps between Los Angeles and Palmdale risking accidents from unauthorized people gaining access to the rail line. They still can gain access from the rail/road crossing which cannot be closed off.
*Quality of passenger cars. The passenger cars are very clean and so were the restrooms. The rail cars are new and were built by a subsidiary of the Korean manufacturer, Hyundai.
* Staff. The security staff members were courteous and helpful to passengers including directing a wheel chaired passenger who did not know that there was a wheel chair ramp at the rear of the train. The presence of security at the platform and on the train is reassuring but also worrying in that Metrolink management feels necessary to deploy so many security personnel.
Metrolink’s COMPREHENSIVE ANNUAL FINANCIAL REPORT for the fiscal year (FY) 2012 tells the following story:
*On time performance declined slightly from 95.5% in FY 2011 to 94.8% in FY 2012 as a result of mechanical issues, station issues, passenger boarding issues, and coordination with rail freight carriers users using the same track as Metrolink.
*Average weekday ridership was about 42,000 passengers in FY 2012 down from 47,000 in FY 2008 due to the economic issues discussed above.
*Subsidy per passenger mile rose to 19 cents in FY 2012 up from 13 cents per mile in FY 2008.
*The ratio of fare revenue to direct operating expenses was 45% in FY 2012, down from 49.9% in FY 2008. Operating expenses include: train operations, maintenance claims and insurance but NOT: rolling stock leases, depreciation and third party activity.
*Fares as a percentage of total operating revenues were 59.9% in FY 2012 down from 64.2% in FY 2008.
VENTURA COUNTY FRUSTRATION
A 2013 STATE OF THE REGION REPORT by the Ventura County Civic Alliance says that time and money lost by traffic congestion delays makes congestion the second biggest problem reported by Ventura County residents and particularly with those making incomes of $80,000 or more.
The report says that 77.7% of commuters travel to work alone by car or truck according to 2010 statistics.
The Alliance expresses frustration with Metrolink for not taking more commuters off the roads and highways: “Despite all the money and planning that goes into public transportation “Ventura county buses and Metrolink carry a “negligible portion of commuters: 1.2 percent in 2010 up from 1.1 percent in 2005. That includes both people who take one of the county’s bus systems, and those who use Metrolink, the commuter rail system that connects Ventura County with Los Angeles.” 1
1 VENTURA COUNTY CIVIC ALLIANCE , 2013 STATE OF THE REGION REPORT, PP-90-91