San Bernardino, South Orange County or Lancaster to downtown Los Angeles. By car, it could take one to two hours, or more depending on the time of day. By commuter train, it's at least one hour and a half. Each have their advantages: a personal car offers flexibility, even if it means dealing with traffic, and a train can offer leisure (you know, things like sleep, reading, zoning out), to name a couple.
In a major metropolitan region that has 15 million registered personal vehicles and close to 400 miles of commuter rail track that only carries 20,000 or so passengers a day is, as the new Metrolink CEO John Fenton puts it, "abysmal" when compared to rail systems in the Northeast and Chicago.
"I think one of the things that we have to become is more competitive with the car," Fenton said last month in his office. "Instead of sitting down and continue to look at 'this is what we do,' we need to go do more of what people want."
So would commuters want an express train that delivers them to L.A. Union Station 30 to 45 minutes faster from the furthest-away stations (stations between would be skipped)? "I think people would ride that service," Fenton said with an inspired tone in his voice.
While no line has been chosen yet--staff are still analyzing which route would be best to test out--Fenton would like to start the service in March or April. "I think there's going to be a few options as we develop what the data looks like."
However, once the analysis is complete, the findings won't be just about supporting express service, but other features to the schedule.
"The first thing we have to find out is really where people move from. Once I've got the data, we can do a lot of things like running through L.A. Union Station directly. Maybe there's a natural Fullerton to Burbank or Riverside to Irvine [demand for service]. There's all these options, we just have to have the data to support it. The first time we do this, I want to make sure that it's a success. I want to make sure it's something that will 'wow' people to get on that train and ride it."
Other features Fenton would like to offer to help attract new riders is adding business class, a bar car for snacks and drinks, a quiet car for commuters to nap, wireless internet, TV screens and trains running later a night.
All that sounds pie-in-the-sky, but Fenton understands the economic reality. "I can have all the great plans, but I still got to have a product that sells." The agency, which has a budget of over $350 million, has seen its fair share of budget problems over the last few years, leading to increased fares and service reductions.
"How can we help ourselves without asking for any additional money [from the government]?. That's our first responsibility: to maximize the potential of what we have." That brings Fenton back to plans for this spring. Current infrastructure could support express service along some routes, and if popular enough, that service would pay for itself. "I think it's a game changer," he said.