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Metrolink in Southern California increases the number of trains by 30%

More trains, optimized timetables

Southern California’s Metrolink transit operator is undergoing a major expansion this fall, significantly increasing the number of trains and optimizing arrival and departure times to reduce waiting times when changing trains.

On Friday, Metrolink’s board of directors approved its fiscal year 2025 budget, which includes a plan to increase the number of trains in service across the Metrolink system by about 30%.

At a media event at Union Station, Metrolink CEO Darren Kettle, who just signed a contract extension through 2029, said the expanded service is intended to attract more riders who may view the service as a purely commuter connection.

“I call it the first step in our transformation from a commuter railroad to a regional passenger railroad,” Kettle said.

The decision to target more recreational riders was made in part because of the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Ridership dropped to around 10% during the pandemic due to lockdowns and more people working from home. Kettle says the latter seems to be a permanent change in the country, and if Metrolink wants more people to use the service, it needs to become a more attractive transport option for riders who aren’t just travelling to and from work.

“The world changed four years ago. And we’re all trying to figure out how to adapt to the new labor market situation without just relying on it,” Kettle said, adding that any transit agency that focuses solely on commuters will likely face a long and difficult road to recovery.

In this undated photo provided by Metrolink, two Metrolink trains leave a station in opposite directions.
In this undated photo provided by Metrolink, two Metrolink trains leave the Burbank Downtown station in opposite directions.

“We used to get over 40 percent of our revenue from fares, but now it’s only about 13 percent,” he said. Metrolink’s partners in the districts and the federal government have cushioned some of the burden of the revenue losses.

But instead of focusing on getting back to pre-pandemic ridership levels, Metrolink is viewing the sharp decline as a new starting point from which there is nowhere to go but up.

Kettle lives in Ventura County and rides the train on days he’s not working from home. He said his fellow riders’ biggest request is for more regular service.

“We do surveys and ask questions, and the unsolicited feedback is, ‘Give us more moves.’ And that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” Kettle said. “We’re going to get more moves.”

The Orange County and San Bernardino lines are two specific parts of the Metrolink system where Kettle said “significant” service increases are expected. A similar service increase was implemented on the Antelope Valley line last year.

Metrolink will also introduce a new concept where trains will not always run the entire route from one end to the other; some will run more frequently between regions of greater demand.

In addition to providing additional trains, Metrolink is adjusting its schedules to make it easier for passengers to transfer and avoid long waits.

FILE - A Metrolink passenger train is seen at Los Angeles Union Station on Nov. 21, 2023. (KTLA)
FILE – A Metrolink passenger train is seen at Los Angeles Union Station on Nov. 21, 2023. (KTLA)

Currently, someone arriving at Union Station on one of the Metrolink lines may have to wait an hour or more to transfer to another line.

“Pulse scheduling,” as it’s called in the transit industry, will significantly reduce transfer wait times by adjusting arrival and departure times to better coordinate with other trains. Metrolink says someone transferring at Union Station will likely have to wait less than 20 minutes to transfer from one line to another.

As Metrolink explained earlier this year, a theoretical trip between Burbank and Tustin starting at 8:30 a.m. would take more than six hours, since there is currently no train to Tustin from Union Station until 2 p.m.

If pulse planning goes into effect, this trip could be shortened to 90 minutes, with a transfer taking less than 20 minutes. A notional trip between downtown Pomona and Van Nuys with similar parameters would also dramatically reduce the total travel time.

The exact start date for the additional trains was not immediately announced, but Kettle said he expects the trains to be in effect by the end of October. A precise breakdown of when and where the trains will be deployed is still pending. Metrolink officials said a full plan could be approved by July or August.

Metrolink hopes that increased train frequency and shorter transfer times will help revive former passengers and attract more new customers.

In addition to the service changes, Metrolink says it sees growth potential in other areas, including on the San Bernardino Line, which includes a stop in Rancho Cucamonga right next to a planned station for Brightline West, the high-speed train that will connect Southern California to Las Vegas.

The 2025 budget also renewed Metrolink’s popular Student Adventure Pass program, which allows all students from kindergarten through graduate school to use the entire system for free.

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