State of U.S. Passenger Rail – California

Despite the widespread idea that driving is the only way to get around in L.A., California is actually one of the busiest states for passenger trains. And it is getting more so every year. Besides serving as the terminal for four long-distance trains (the California Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Southwest Chief and joint Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle), California has three state-supported Amtrak routes: The Capitol Corridor, Pacific Surfliner, and San Joaquin Service. But most of the state’s train passengers are carried not by Amtrak, but by California’s four regional railroads: ACE, Caltrain, Coaster and Metrolink. Let’s look at ridership on the busiest two regional railroads first, serving San Francisco and Los Angeles, and then turn to ridership on Amtrak’s in-state routes along with the two other regional railroads.

The busiest railroad in the state is Caltrain, which serves 32 stations on a line that runs along the spine of the San Francisco Peninsula, traveling 77.4 miles from Gilroy, in Santa Clara County, through San Jose to San Francisco. Next is Metrolink, which serves 55 stations on seven lines in southern California, six of which terminate at Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles. This graph shows the monthly ridership on Caltrain and Metrolink:

As you can see, ridership on both railroads is up significantly over the past 20 years. Average monthly Caltrain ridership is up 149% from October 1995 to September 2014. Average monthly ridership on Metrolink is up even more over that same time frame, 158%. Metrolink ridership started out below Caltrain and surpassed it in February 2003. Interestingly, the recession in the early 2000s (“the dot-com bust”), which reduced ridership on virtually every regional railroad in the country, including Caltrain, appears not to have had any impact on Metrolink at all. Nevertheless, Caltrain recovered from the dot-com bust in a big way. Since reaching a low point in February 2004, Caltrain ridership has surged, more than doubling; it resurpassed Metrolink in August of 2007. Meanwhile, Metrolink ridership continued to rise until December 2008, and since then has leveled off.

In addition to these two busy railroads, there are two other much smaller regional railroads, Coaster, serving eight stations on a 41-mile line that runs from Oceanside to San Diego, and Altamont Corridor Express (ACE), which serves 10 stations on a route that is twice as long: 86 miles from Stockton to San Jose.

In addition to these regional railroads, Amtrak operates three mid-length routes at the behest of the state: the Capitol Corridor serves 17 stations along a 168-mile route from Auburn to San Jose via Sacramento, which gives the route its name. Interconnecting with the Capitol Corridor at five stations is Amtrak’s San Joaquin Service, which serves 18 stations along a line that begins in Bakersfield and runs the length of the San Joaquin Valley to Stockton where it branches off to Sacramento and Oakland. In southern California, the Pacific Surfliner serves 31 stations on a 350-mile long route connecting San Diego with San Luis Obispo via Los Angeles.

There are many interconnections between these services, and I like to think of them all as one interlocking system. In southern California, the Pacific Surfliner connects with Metrolink at 19 stations and with Coaster at all eight of Coaster’s stations. Metrolink and Coaster connect with each other at Oceanside. In the Bay Area, the Capitol Corridor connects to ACE at Fremont and Great America. At San Jose and Santa Clara, ACE, Caltrain and Capitol Corridor all interconnect, and ACE connects to San Joaquin Service at Stockton.

This graph shows the ridership on all of the services over the past 20 years:

Data availability varies, but all of the train services show strong growth from when data was first available. The Pacific Surfliner is +20%, Capitol Corridor, +25%, and San Joaquin Service, +54%. Coaster has doubled. The smallest rail service, ACE, has grown the most, 168%, and is poised to overtake the San Joaquin. Serving San Jose and Silicon Valley, like Caltrain it was hit hard during the dot-com bust of the early 2000s, but has come back stronger than ever.

Looking purely at Amtrak ridership, California is the second busiest state in the nation after New York as of 2014, but it was ranked #1 in the nation from 2006 through 2013. But it is a more evenly divided ridership pattern than the Empire State’s, which as we’ll see gets the vast majority of its ridership from a single station. In California, the busiest station, Los Angeles, accounted for just 13% of Amtrak ridership in 2014, followed by Sacramento, San Diego, and Emeryville. This pie chart shows the top stations in the state. The large majority of the ridership is distributed among Amtrak’s remaining 72 stations.

Let’s wrap up with a vignette about California Amtrak ridership that gets lost in the huge volume of data. On October 29, 2007, the Pacific Surfliner began service to Laguna Niguel/Mission Viejo and Orange, two stations in Orange County that are also served by Metrolink’s Orange County Line and Inland Empire-Orange County Line. For four years, rider volume grew modestly but did not skyrocket, then it sagged about 25% in 2012. Service was discontinued on April 1, 2013. A few months later, the Pacific Surfliner began stopping at four stations also served by Coaster: Carlsbad Poinsettia, Carlsbad Village, Encinitas and Sorrento Valley. In its first year, ridership to those stations has already surpassed the Orange County stations by a wide margin. The changes of 2013 look like they were a good move.

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