Sunday, August 30, 2009

On Bus Passes and Empty Trains

I've ridden the rush-hour Metrolink trains in this city on many occasions- not the least of reasons being that, on some lines, those are the only variety of Metrolink train. I've noticed something that a lot of other commuters have doubtless noted in the past. The trains leaving Riverside are only around 30% full at best, though along the line they fill up quite nicely. On the Riverside line, the bulk of passengers board at either Downtown Pomona or City of Industry, with the latter being larger. Similarly, IE-OC trains carry mostly OC passengers.

I'm not saying that I think Metrolink should truncate these trains... they're a valuable resource, and with the massive capacity of said vehicles, even 30% is a lot of people going to work in the morning. But there is a lot of excess capacity on these trains that is going unused out here in the Inland Empire, every single day. The weekend trains are even emptier.

This is due to a number of factors, but I don't want to get into an analysis of WHY this is in this post. I want to get into a proposal of HOW we could use this resource to the benefit of everyone involved.

It takes roughly the same amount of fuel to pull either a full or empty Metrolink car. It also goes without saying that Metrolink trains MUST be of their current length to accommodate passengers further down the line. Therefore, Metrolink is losing money on the empty train cars that it pulls around the IE, and there is no way for them to simply stop pulling those cars, because they're needed in LA and the OC. It would be a benefit to them if they could fill those seats at any price. They're essentially like standby seats on an airline.

The two major IE bus agencies, RTA and Omnitrans, have large service areas, yet anemic express service. Omni cut the old route 90 express, and so traversing the length of the Omni service area is a difficult proposition at best. RTA runs route 149, which does an admirable job of linking Corona and the length of Riverside, but it runs so infrequently as to often be useless to intra-county travelers. RTA and Omni customers would therefore benefit greatly from a quick way to traverse the freeway-friendly distances of their respective service areas.

Therefore I propose an agreement between Metrolink and RTA and Omni- Holders of IE monthly bus passes should be permitted to travel free on Metrolink within the limits of their pass. This would cost Metrolink nothing (as proof-of-payment negates the need for new fare machines, and the cars are empty anyway) and it would probably cost RTA and Omni very little, as any money Metrolink makes off the program is ultimately a gain for them. The contracts between Metrolink and San Bernardino and Riverside Counties should ensure that any revenue lost from people who formerly paid for passage in the free-ride areas would be recouped.

For RTA passholders, the free-ride area should be:
Between Riverside-Downtown and West Corona on the IE-OC and 91 Lines and
Between Pedley and Riverside-Downtown on the Riverside Line.

For Omni passholders, the free-ride area should be:
Between East Ontario and Downtown Pomona on the Riverside Line and
Between San Bernardino and Montclair on the San Bernardino Line.

Readers who have spent time in the Bay Area may recognize this scheme- it's similar to the agreement between Muni and BART in the City of San Francisco. Passengers who hold Muni FastPasses are permitted to ride BART free between Embarcadero and Daly City, which are the stations on either end of the City (and consequently Muni's territory). It's not a perfect comparison- BART and Metrolink are two very different systems- but I think it provides the same sort of benefit: easy access to local rail travel to bus patrons, and the use of excess capacity for the rail operators.

This program would provide easy travel around the vast distances of the IE, and it would also highlight another issue with our transit system- poor bus-rail connections. If a significant market for such connections existed, as would surely happen under this arrangement, perhaps our transit agencies would pay more attention to places like Riverside-La Sierra station.

Also, with the opening of the Perris Valley Line, I want to mention- because Riverside is probably the ultimate destination for PV Line Patrons, and the line is entirely within RTA's service area, this agreement probably shouldn't cover travel along it.

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