Thursday, September 1, 2011

Let's extend Metrolink to Palm Springs & the Coachella Valley

Believe it or not, I look to London for inspiration for Los Angeles County transporation improvements.  If you ever want to know what a world class transit system looks like, go to the Transport For London (TfL) website.

While there is the "City of London", the sprawling Greater London region is a multi-modal, mutli-centered transporation wonderland with the Tube underground, the new overground rail network, light-rail, streetcar trams, a comprehensive 24-hour bus network with transit-only lanes and ferries, and, of coruse, dozens of commuter rail lines carrying people from the suburbs into the center of London. Imagine not just one Union Station, but several Union Stations (Paddington, Victoria, Charing Cross, Liverpool Street, etc.). In the future, commuter rail is going to continue to grow in popularity, especially after the Westside subway extension, regional connector and other Measure R rail projects are constructure.

The Southern California region currently has the Metrolink commuter rail network. Metrolink Trains

Many of you are are aware that Metrolink will soon be extended to Perris Valley. Click Perris Valley Metrolink extension for more details.  But there are currently no Metrolink options for Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley.

What about Amtrak?  From WikiTravel's Palm Springs page:
  • Amtrak Station, 300 North Indian Canyon Drive (.6 mi south of Interstate 10), 1-800-USA-RAIL (872-7245), Amtrak's Sunset Limited route connects Palm Springs with Los Angeles and with Arizona and points eastward with three westbound and three eastbound trains per week (arriving Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday). Amtrak also provides Palm Springs with connections to and from the San Joaquins trains, which run up California's Central Valley to the Bay Area and Sacramento, via multiple daily Amtrak Thruway motorcoach runs to and from Bakersfield. Be aware that there are no rental car agencies that provide shuttles to the Amtrak station in Palm Springs and there is no public transportation available there. The "station" is really just an open platform without any building. Taxis from the Palm Springs Amtrak to the Palm Springs airport (where the rental cars are available) is about $30 (2008).
Not no car agencies, shuttles or public transporation from the non-amentiy Amtrak station?  Not encouraging.

Amtrak currently has a Palm Springs Amtrak Thruway Bus Station (Route 19b) between Bakersfield and Indio.  Here's a map of connecting Amtrak Rail Lines and Thruway Bus Routes in California.

I could also fly into the Palm Springs International Airport or take Greyhound Bus Lines.  (While the Palm Springs Airport at least connects with shuttle bus service, Greyhound drops you off at the non-amenity Rail Station with no public transportation connetions.)  But I prefer rail travel when possible.

How more ideally should Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley be connected by passenger rail?

From a Riverside Press-Enterprise news article in 2008 on this topic:

Officials agree Palm Springs and other desert destinations need connections to the coast. The debate is whether Palm Springs needs Amtrak or Metrolink service.

"There is very limited service in that direction, and given the distance of the Coachella Valley from western Riverside County, it fits more in the intercity category rather than as a commuter service," explained Riverside County Transportation Commission Deputy Director John Standiford.

Others, like Rail Passenger Association of California and Nevada Executive Director Richard Silver, argue Metrolink makes more sense because commuter trains are more efficient for moving people in a region like Southern California, while Amtrak works better for long distances. "I think it will be easier to get it out there," Silver said of Metrolink service to Palm Springs.

I am not the only person thinking about this. From the Riverside County Tranportation Commision webpage on Coachella Valley Rail Service:

Currently the only passenger service in the Coachella Valley is a thrice-weekly long distance train operated by Amtrak between Los Angeles and Florida. This train is known as the "Sunset Limited". The Sunset Limited train operates through this area in the very early hours of the morning in both directions and primarily serves the leisure and tourism market.

RCTC and the State of California have been evaluating the feasibility of establishing an intercity passenger rail route between the following cities: Los Angeles, Fullerton, Riverside, Palm Springs, and Indio.

The Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) continues its firm opposition to any new passenger service on its tracks through this area. Notwithstanding this opposition, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) continues to propose such service in the California State Rail Plan.

Caltrans has no unilateral powers to compel the UPRR to permit the operation of this train. Nevertheless, for intercity trains (as opposed to a commuter or Metrolink train), there are certain federal processes in place that can ultimately lead to an order compelling the railroad to operate the service.

The public agencies requesting the intercity service may be required to invest large sums in the physical infrastructure of the railroad. Some estimates place the capital investment requirement at a minimum of $500 million for a new set of tracks.

RCTC is working closely with the Coachella Valley and the Pass Areas on this issue and supports the expansion of rail service to additional areas of Riverside County.

Here is an action item for your to-do list. If you want to see more regular passenger rail service between Los Angeles and Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, and since this may involve adjusting "federal processes", why not contact both Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack and the Railroad Policy and Development Team of Federal Railroad Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation to let them know you'd like them to prioritize this.

Two of my favorite transit organizations here in Los Angeles County and Southern California region are Southern California Transit Advocates and The Transit Coalition

The Transit Coalition has certainly given this a lot of thought:  Coachella Valley Trains

From the Transit Coalition's online discussion forum, I found the following comments on this topic very interesting:

One forum member stated the following:

For what it's worth, I looked it up, and the current Amtrak station location is apparently not the one that the Southern Pacific used (the one in the photo Nick posted). In fact, the current station is further east and a tad closer to P.S. than the old one. It's a bit surprising that the S.P. never built a spur or something to serve the area better. It seems to me, for Palm Springs Metrolink to be effective, you would need to show that there was a core body of Palm Springs commuters headed for either Riverside or some other area on a day-to-day weekday basis. With Amtrak, you could aim it for the Palm Springs/Palm Desert golf/art vacation folks, and use Surfliner-ish equipment. I remember in the '80s, Amtrak was aiming the San Diegan squarely at Disneyland/beach/vacation travelers, and it was something of a surprise that commuters would take the morning train into Los Angeles. The same thing could be tried with Palm Springs.

Another member of the forum stated the following:

In the past for the Coachella Music Festival, Amtrak ran special service called the Coachella Express that connected to a shuttle bus (kinda like Metrolink's Del Mar horseracing train). Outside the Sunset Limited, that would have been the only other time passenger train service rolled through the Coachella Valley in recent memory.

A third member of the forum had this interesting idea:

I think that this would be a great stop on a future high speed rail line between LA and Phoenix. LA-Phoenix is the 27th busiest air route in the world and would easily sustain frequent high speed rail service with a local stop at Palm Springs and/or Indio on the way. I think the travel times and frequencies for LA-Palm Springs on a high speed line would be much more appropriate than Metrolink. However, Metrolink has a marginal chance of actually being implemented in the next decade or two. LA-Phoenix high speed rail could be built as an extension eastward from the Riverside branch of phase 2 California high speed rail.

Of course, however we would eventually get to Palm Springs or the Coachella Valley by passenger rail, once you get there, how do you get around without a car? Well, that's for another blog post. In the meantime, you can check current bus services with the SunLine Transit Agency.

As an gay man who is no longer twenty-something, I may find myself in Palm Springs more often as I get older and will keep you posted of transit improvements both there and in Southern California.


cph said...

As you noticed, the Palm Springs Amtrak/Greyhound station isn't particularly near anything of interest. A dedicated shuttle of some sort (or perhaps, very frequent local bus service) would be needed to connecet the station with downtown Palm Springs, the airport, or other places that people would actually want to go.

Palm Springs/Coachella Valley is primarily a resort area, rather than a commutershed for people working outside of it. That said, there should be some transit service for residents needing to access health care, social services or education in Riverside, as well as workers living in nearby Beaumont/Banning/Cabazon.

Between 2000 and 2005(?) there was the "Sunlink", a bus connecting Palm Springs with Riverside and the VA hospital at Loma Linda. Sunlink used Superbuses, tractor-trailer vehicles fitted with reclining seats, snack bars and a restroom for this service. Unfortunately, fares were high (about $8 one way, or $12 round trip), service was infrequent (every 3 hours?) and the equipment was not particularly reliable. And, I think Sunline/CVAG was banking on carrying Metrolink passengers going to LA, when the true demand was local CV/Inland Empire service as I described above...

About "ordering" UP to run/allow commuter service: The state (through the CPUC) does have the power to do so, however, I am reminded of the Oxnard-LA "Caltrain" that ran in late 1982-83. The state ordered Southern Pacific to run the service, which they did, but not willingly, and service quality was very poor (late trains, dirty trains, lack of equipment, etc.)

Anonymous said...

We need a metrolink station out here in the Palm Springs La Quint area very very badly. I know too many people that make the drive out here to the desert everyday just for work that spend enough money on gas, that it would validate just paying for a metrolink ticket or monthly pass, and not have to make the tedious hour to hour and a half drive. Not to mention family members that come out to visit and vise versa. Residents out here are always going inland to visit or do buisness. There's also the very many residents that have houses out here as vacation homes and come multiple times a year, but live permanently in the L.A., S.D., O.C. I.E. and especially further north like Ventura, Santa Barbra, Wine Country etc. I talk to them ALL THE TIME, and they agree that it would be great to be able to kick their feet up and relax versus having to drive themselves. PLEASE, get the ball rolling and hurry up and build a station out here already. It blows my mind that there isn't one yet. Your putting one PERRIS of all places witch seems silly. Get one out here! and HURRY!!

J Hanna said...

This is an older blog posts, but I wanted to chime in about how great it would be to have expanded metrolink service. I have never driven, and one way I find that helps to get around is a bike. It can make up for the gaps in lack of buses. Demographically the up and coming younger generation tends to be driving less than when getting a car was all the rage when I was in high school, so I think eventually things will evolve, and public transportation will improve by necessity. More people will be relying on it, and that is actually a good thing.

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