Article from Moving People, May, 1997. Index.
To the Editor
I read with interest your December 1996 article entitled "Feds Demand MTA Ethics Reform" in which you suggest Metrolink could increase its effectiveness regionally by greatly increasing its off-peak service. It is clear the author of the article has little knowledge of our system or the regulatory environment in which we work. Allow me to clear up these misconceptions.
Metrolink's operating plan is built around optimal resource utilization within the scope of fiscal and capital asset constraints. On the average, the 24 crews we utilize each day work four trains, two of which are usually peak period runs with each crew operating close to the maximum hours allowed under federal law. Likewise, contrary to the article's assertions, of the 23 equipment sets used daily, 19 operate four or more trips daily. Since our primary maintenance facility is in Los Angeles, equipment must be sent to the yard for required daily servicing and cleaning before its principle [sic] evening peak period run; therefore, the equipment can not be in operation continually. With a revenue recovery of over 50% and our maximum utilization of crews and equipment, we are highly efficient and provide a cost-effective service for the taxpayer subsidy dollar.
Your article attempts to compare a 17 mile, 36 vehicle non-regulated Sacramento Light Rail System with a 404 mile, 31 locomotive, 94 rail car, federally regulated commuter rail system which is wholly inappropriate and misleading. The Sacramento system operates essentially on a double track system free of freight train interference and freight carrier contractual obligations. The comparison clearly demonstrates the transit modal ignorance of the Moving People newsletter. How can you compare an intra-city rail operation with an average passenger trip length of six miles versus a commuter rail system with average trip lengths of 35 miles?
As in any article, it is imperative the facts be correct even if our opinions are different. I hope you publish this reply in your next edition.
Deputy Executive Director
Operations & Engineering
ED. NOTE: This journal criticized Metrolink primarily because we see the organization as being capable of further achievements. Metrolink has the opportunity to be a positive example, a counterpoint to the excessive expenditures on the Metro Red Line Subway that have (temporarily, we hope) made further rail initiatives in California a political impossibility.
To reiterate the main point of the December article, Moving People asked what if Metrolink were to implement a half-hourly shuttle service with supporting bus feeders in one of its urban corridors that is likely to support such frequency.
We pointed out that as the only rail service in Los Angeles capable of rapid implementation or regional service, Metrolink has a great opportunity to show what it can do with existing capital.
Just weeks after the head of operations at Metrolink told us (above) that we are ignorant to think that his perfectly efficient system could possibly run any more miles with its fully utilized crews and equipment, Metrolink had implemented new Saturday service on its Santa Clarita route and was considering at least three proposals to increase midday service.
Metrolink indeed has major unused capacity, since one of the ideas
was for an intensive service linking Burbank Airport and L.A. Union
Station. Metrolink costed out quarter-hourly and half-hourly service
options for the Airport. The Burbank plan apparently was stopped only
because Metrolink set an unattractive price for the service.
Metrolink saw sufficient equipment availability to also propose that
the state pay for two additional daily midday runs between Los
Angeles and San Diego using idle Metrolink crews and equipment.
In Mr. Solow's letter above, his "average" of four trains worked by each crew implies that Metrolink has 96 weekday trains, but there are only 87 trains listed in the timetable. Even including all short turns and deadhead runs, the best we can come up with is 3.6.
Also suspect is Solow's contention that "each crew [is] operating close to the maximum hours allowed under federal law." On weekdays, there are 106.3 revenue service hours produced by the 24 crews, which works out to less than 4.5 hours per crew. If 4.5 hours daily is close to any "maximum ... allowed under federal law," we would like to know what specific provision, so we can see that it is addressed by reform legislation.
Mr. Solow's assertions regarding "revenue recovery of over 50%" are extremely interesting. When one examines the FY95-96 Metrolink balance sheet, one finds that the SCRRA's total revenue-cost ratio is only 46 percent. Even this figure is suspect as a measure of performance because the revenues counted by Metrolink are not just passenger revenues, but include dispatching and maintenance of way revenues.
Where do these revenues come from? Under a deal that Amtrak negotiated without state participation, Metrolink and Coaster make the State of California pay upwards of $2 million annually in hidden track charges for the same railroad the state bought for Metrolink. Talk about chutzpah­p;these guys have got it!
Subtracting the sum of all dispatching and maintenance of way "revenues," Metrolink trains barely cover 40 percent of their costs from tickets. That's a decent revenue-cost ratio, but it's no record-setting one, like the 90 percent the San Diego Trolley posted during the years when it had a board which cared about cost-effectiveness, or the 93 percent that California-supported Amtrak trains achieved during the last year of Gov. Deukmejian's administration. Metrolink should still be able to do much better, considering the massive market for rapid transportation in the Los Angeles basin area.
Mr. Solow may wish to avoid Metrolink being compared unfavorably to a small city's light rail system, but raising the charge of "transit modal ignorance" is not a wise move for someone in his position. Sacramento residents are quite aware of the half-dozen single track segments on their light rail line, and while Sacramento light rail may not have freight train interference, it does have plenty of traffic interference. Despite the modal differences, Sacramento light rail still manages to carry more commuters than Metrolink at a fraction of the cost.
If providing cost-effective service is Metrolink's overall goal, the best course is to keep on expanding off-peak services, the same ones Mr. Solow claimed last winter Metrolink couldn't possibly expand. Metrolink is showing, despite its initial reluctance, that it can get new rail service implemented with existing capital and a minimum of subsidy.