Against California High Speed Rail by Mark R. Powell

The Myth of Commuter HSR Ridership

2.3 million annual intra-regional riders (“commuters”) [note 1] is too large a number to comprehend and so I have attempted to put it in perspective by COUNTING daily riders of today’s Metrolink segment running from Anaheim to Los Angeles.  The existing low Metrolink ridership makes this an easy task.

No Passengers for High Speed Rail

No Ridership for High Speed Rail

Intra-regional travelers on the proposed California HSR system account for 30% of the projected ridership and 13% of the projected revenue.  The Anaheim to Los Angeles Union Station (via Fullerton, Buena Park, Norwalk, and City of Commerce) Metrolink corridor which I studied parallels a proposed $2 billion [note 2] and climbing HSR segment.  I began my study in the Metrolink parking lot adjacent to Anaheim Stadium at 7:00am Tuesday, November 30.  Over 90 percent of the arriving cars had one occupant; not many carpoolers.  The number of arriving vehicles compared well with what I witnessed in ridership on the northbound 7:48am Metrolink (30 persons departing/15 arriving). 

I found 368 cars in the Anaheim parking lot at 8:00am with the 8:27am and 8:52am morning northbound departures remaining and estimated that 400 cars would be in the lot from 8:52am until the first southbound train arrived at 3:08pm.  I then drove to Fullerton and observed persons departing and arriving on the last two morning northbound Metrolink trains (a total of 47 persons departing/27 arriving).  My study continued by counting or estimating cars at the Fullerton, Buena Park, Norwalk, and City of Commerce Metrolink stations.  In total, I found approximately 1900 cars in lots waiting for riders of the afternoon returning trains.  With 5% extra riders for those carpooling I estimate that 2000 riders took this segment of the Metrolink into Los Angeles this particular morning. 

The California High Speed Rail Authority’s Operating Plan as detailed in the December 2009 Report to the Legislature calls for 4 northbound trains per hour during the 3 morning peak hours [note 3].  With each train having a capacity of 475 riders and assuming 85% occupancy an estimated 5000 riders would board High Speed Trains (2.5 times the number of today’s Metrolink riders).  In theory they would be “induced” to take HSR because travel time would be dramatically reduced.  But is this true?    Is HSR really that much faster than Metrolink?

The Metrolink will get you from Anaheim to LAUS in 47 minutes [note 4].  This is only 22 minutes more than the proposed HSR [note 5].  HSR travelers from the proposed HSR stop at Norwalk save only 12 minutes compared to Metrolink.  These are small differences in time and would be largely negated by extra travel time to the two HSR stations since Fullerton, Buena Park and City of Commerce stations would not have HSR service.  Why for instance would a person who could now board the Metrolink in Fullerton and arrive in LAUS 37 minutes later drive 8 miles (16 minutes) in rush hour traffic to Anaheim to catch a 25 minute ride on an HSR train?  That potential HSR rider’s other choice would be to drive 11 miles (22 minutes) from Fullerton to Norwalk  and board HSR there to take a 13 minute HSR ride to LAUS.  Of course Fullerton, Buena Park, and City of Commerce riders won’t do this.  Only Metrolink riders currently boarding at Anaheim and Norwalk (700 daily riders based on today’s car count) truly benefit from HSR.  Moreover, HSR needs to induce new riders and not just steal from Metrolink’s existing ridership.

Tuesday’s Orange County Register [note 6]  featured Metrolink’s stalled ridership.  It has been constant for 5 years in spite of a 2005 ridership study that projected a more than doubling of Orange County ridership by 2010 [another failed ridership study].  The $400 million voter approved Measure M funds to expand Metrolink currently go unspent for lack of riders.  Why at the same time should we spend $2 billion on a parallel HSR system?  You know the answer.  We shouldn’t.  Write to your legislators and tell them loudly and often!

Notes and links listed below document what is said in this article.

Note 1 California High-Speed Train Project; Ridership and Revenue Forecasts
             Prepared by Parsons Brinckerhoff, Cambridge Systematics, and SYSTRA; 2008
             page 11

Note 2 California High-Speed Train Business Plan November 2008
             page 19
Note 3 CHSRA Report to the Legislature December 2009
             page 65 bottom of first column

Note 4 Metrolink All Lines Timetable

Note 5  CHSRA Report to the Legislature December 2009
              page 66, Table A

Note 6 Orange County Register, Tuesday November 30,2010
             Local Section, column 1

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3 Responses to The Myth of Commuter HSR Ridership

  1. Matt says:

    You estimated ridership on public transportation mainly by counting cars in parking lots?

    A significant portion of riders use busses, ride bikes or walk to the train stations, especially in Fullerton.

    • Mark says:

      Matt makes an excellent point, but I counted no busses arriving in at either station and arriving cars matched well with passengers boarding the trains. Fullerton does get more foot traffic to the Metrolink station, but it will be a long walk to Anaheim Station to catch high speed rail as no HSR stop is planned for Fullerton. Lastly, if riders start their trip by riding a bike or waiting to take a bus, what difference will a few minutes saved by a faster train mean to them?

  2. Martin Engel says:

    Your blog was recommended to me by Wendell Cox. Good job, Mark. I took the liberty of quoting two of your entries in my blog this morning. I hope you don’t mind.
    I want all of our choir to hear your preaching, so to speak.

    I’m a green-horn about blogging, recently having acquired the ability to at least post something. But, there’s much more that I don’t know about. Call it ‘generational.’

    I look forward to hearing from you.



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