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Metrolink may cut some trains amid budget shortfall

December 10, 2009 |  4:26 pm

Struggling to avoid or minimize a second fare increase in a matter of months, Southern California’s commuter rail service is weighing what officials have long considered an unpleasant alternative: cutting dozens of trains used by thousands of riders each month.

The potential service reductions would be the first of their kind for the five-county Metrolink system, which has prided itself on steady expansion over the last 17 years. The cuts would primarily involve weekend trains, although more than a dozen are low-ridership weekday runs. The reductions, and a possible fare increase, will be considered Friday by the agency’s board.

Options for service cutbacks were ordered last month after board members balked at a proposed 6% fare increase, coming just three months after a 3% ticket price hike.

Metrolink executives are now recommending that ticket prices rise 3% starting in February and have offered the board a variety of possible schedule cuts for consideration.

Like many public transportation agencies, Metrolink is reeling from a drop in ridership and ticket income because of high regional unemployment. At the same time, the agency has increased spending after last year’s Chatsworth head-on collision, which prompted a flurry of safety and operational changes.

Despite the recent fare hike and ongoing budget cuts, the agency faces a multimillion-dollar income shortfall this fiscal year.

“I know there are people who use all these different trains,” said board Chairman Keith Millhouse. “At same time, we are facing a situation where expenses and revenue have to come together.”

Most of the trains on the chopping block, including an 8:25 a.m. run from Chatsworth to Union Station and a noontime inbound train from San Bernardino, have recently averaged fewer than 100 passengers a day.

Some, like a weekday midmorning train from Oceanside to Riverside, carried fewer than 40 riders per day last month, records show. Typical peak-period, peak-direction trains carry 10 to 15 times that many passengers, officials note.

In recent weeks, Metrolink received more than 1,700 public comments opposing a fare increase. And some riders argued that jettisoning low ridership lines is preferable to another fare hike for the system’s primary customer base — rush-hour commuters.

But the specter of opening up midday gaps in schedules also has some riders concerned. Most of the potential weekday service cuts are on the Ventura County line, which runs from downtown through the north San Fernando Valley and Moorpark to Oxnard.

Legal secretary Janet Brown, a Metrolink rider for 14 years, said those potential cuts would make it more difficult for her to keep daytime appointments and adjust to sudden changes in her schedule.

Some cutbacks and fare increases may be unavoidable, she said, but the agency is risking losing loyal riders, some of whom already are upset over delays and maintenance problems.

“I know people are torn,” she said. “They really don’t want to drive. But they may have to if these fares keep going up.”

An advocacy group, the Transit Coalition, is pushing for fare increases rather than service cuts, arguing that they would be less painful. With a 6% increase, a monthly pass between Fullerton and Union Station would rise less than $11, the group says. Indeed, some studies have found that service cuts can accelerate transit ridership losses more than fare hikes.

Adding to Metrolink’s money concerns, some board members say new cost concerns are arising as the agency seeks to close a deal to keep trains running after July 1.

Connex Railroad, which now provides train crews, gave notice last spring that it did not want to extend its contract. Under a tight deadline to find a replacement, Metrolink opted to negotiate exclusively with Amtrak to operate its trains. A tentative agreement recently was reached, but it is expected to cost $3.5 million more next year than if the Connex contract had continued.

Based on recent Amtrak demands in final talks, board members said, costs could grow even more. Amtrak officials declined to comment.

The Metrolink staff has argued that the national rail service is uniquely qualified and the only viable candidate to take over train operations.

But this week Millhouse, the agency chairman, and Vice Chairman Richard Katz, said that if projected costs of the Amtrak contract continue to rise, board members may want to explore other options, including reopening the bidding process.

At least one other private rail operator, Herzog Contracting, which provides crews on the Coaster commuter service in San Diego County, has expressed interest.

“We think there could be savings if there was a competitive process,” said Alan Landes, president of Herzog Contracting.

—Rich Connell