Valley Interview : Metrolink Chief Expects the Service to Keep Gaining Ground

The Metrolink commuter rail system began operating in October, 1992, providing service between Downtown Los Angeles and suburban communities. Concerns about high fares, stagnant ridership and several deaths caused when trains hit motorists or pedestrians--some apparently committing suicide--had some questioning the line's success.

Richard Stanger, 47, executive director of Metrolink, called the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake the biggest boost the rail line has experienced as commuters, especially those in the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys, had few other options available for getting to work. Ridership has taken a dip as more roads open, but the Santa Clarita line continues to carry five times as many riders as before the earthquake, and ridership on other lines is up by about 10%.

Stanger was interviewed by special correspondent Mark Sabbatini.

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Question: How will last week's opening of the Golden State Freeway affect Metrolink ridership?

Answer: I don't expect that there will be much of a change in our ridership with the opening of I-5. People that are using Metrolink tend to be more towards the east, more towards the Lancaster area and Canyon Country. I-5 is a bit towards the west of them.

Q: What about when the Antelope Valley Freeway reopens?

A: That's the one we've got to watch, and that is due to open by the end of July and will probably come in earlier, because they have a big incentive. We are doing a lot of work to improve speeds. We have a target of completing everything by June, before the Highway 14 ramps are put in, so that we can get people on our higher-speed lines for at least a month before they try the freeways.

Q: What's your prediction for ridership on the Santa Clarita line in the coming months, as the after-effects of the earthquake subside?

A: Right now we're about 5,500 trips on that line, which is over five times what it was before the earthquake. We expect that will drop into, say, the 4,000 area, maybe a little more, with an average next year of 4,700 trips.

Q: You went up to 11,000 riders on that line the week after the earthquake. Is there anything you can do to lure those riders back?

A: We actually got up for three days to 21,000 riders just on that line, but we were back to 11,000 the second week. Through February and March we were at about 8,100, and we're now at 5,500.

There are things we can do to lure them back, and we have a very intensive effort of speed improvements, especially in the Santa Clarita to Lancaster area. We're going to cut time basically by half. It took us right after the earthquake an hour and a half to go from Lancaster to Santa Clarita. It'll take us about 45 minutes to do that, which is almost competitive with an automobile. We're also putting in some speed improvements south of Santa Clarita, so you'll be able to go from Santa Clarita to Downtown (Los Angeles) not in 52 minutes, but actually in 42 minutes, and that's for a 35-mile trip. So that's almost within the 50-m.p.h. range which, compared to what it takes to drive to work, is very competitive.

Q: A post-quake poll of residents in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys indicated 86% don't plan to switch to any form of mass transit or car - pooling. Is there anything you can do to reach those people?

A: Surveys of non-riders have indicated that the two most important factors are whether they've ridden before and whether they have free parking. So if you've never ridden Metrolink and your parking is free, it's a real uphill struggle for us. One of the things the earthquake did was to at least get a lot of people on our trains, just to experience them.

Q: What is the largest number of riders you think you can get on the Santa Clarita and other Metrolink lines?

A: I think the total that we could get is probably in the 75,000-a-day range. I mean, we're looking 10, 15 years out. But we have been operating for 16 months, and we've gone from 2,400 a day to 18,000 a day in a little over a year.

Q: How big a role did the earthquake play in that?

A: We gained about 4,000 riders from the Santa Clarita line and 1,000 riders elsewhere, so we've gained about 5,000 riders at this point from the earthquake. So we would have gone from 2,400 to 13,000 and that's not bad.

Q: When you look at the Metrolink operation five years from now, will the earthquake have played any part?

A: Yes, there's no doubt about it. Before the earthquake I would say maybe 10% of the people in Los Angeles knew what Metrolink was. After the earthquake I would venture to say that 90% of people in Los Angeles know what Metrolink is. Now that may not be something they can use, but it has been invaluable to us to get our name out and recognized as an alternative.

Q: Last fall several officials called Metrolink something between a limited and a modest success, saying ridership had tapered off, and there was a lot of publicity about the number of deaths that had occurred on that line due to traffic collisions and suicides. Do you agree with that perception?

A: I think so far it's been a moderate success. We're growing steadily. The importance of Metrolink to the region, I think, was underlined by the earthquake. Rail systems historically are the least damaged and the first transportation brought up.

Q: Do you survey your customers regularly to find out what their likes and dislikes are?

A: We try to survey them once a year and we have a survey going out next week. We have last year's survey, which basically indicated to us that riders are very happy with Metrolink. We got a very high satisfaction rate. Many of them are subsidized by their employers. Forty-seven percent were subsidized an average of $60 a month on their tickets.

Q: Are there any particular dislikes or complaints about Metrolink?

A: There have been a couple. The high fare tends to be mentioned quite a bit. The biggest problem that I think we have to work on is how we get people from the end station to their place of employment. People want to take the train, but they work away from the station, and how do we make that final link? In order to make it work, it's got to be Metrolink plus the connection, and we don't control the connection. Others have to provide that for us.

Q: How do you deal with the complaints about the high fare?

A: The high fare is sort of interesting, because on the other hand we get the complaint that we're subsidizing too much. Well, you can't have high fares and complain about the subsidies, because if the fare is lower then the subsidy goes up.

We believe that the fare people are paying for Metrolink is a reasonable one. Just the price of gas and regular maintenance alone cost 9 or 10 cents a mile, according to AAA (the Automobile Club of Southern California). Our Metrolink fares on a per-mile basis are about 10 to 14 cents a mile, so for a little bit more than the price of gas and maintenance--not insurance, depreciation and parking--you can ride Metrolink.

Q: There are complaints that Metrolink is too subsidized. Some say the money would be better spent on city buses in areas that people more in need could use. How do you respond to those complaints?

A: The first eight months of operation, when we had just started, we expected a fare-box recovery of about 12%. We ended the first year at about 17 1/2%. Presently we are at about 28% fare-box recovery, and we'll be in the mid-30s for next year. That compares with a Blue Line subsidy of 14% after three or four years of operation. That compares with the fare-box recovery on the MTA bus system of 32%.

Now, our trips are 10 times longer. Instead of the three-mile trip that an average bus person takes, our trips are 30 miles, so the subsidy per trip is much higher. But as far as the subsidy per mile, we are more efficient in moving people than the local bus.

Q: One concern is Metrolink carries primarily suburban, more wealthy people to work while bus services -- some of which are being threatened by budget cuts -- carry people who don't have as much money and are more in need of the services. How do you justify the money spent per trip on Metrolink?

A: The MTA subsidizes Metrolink about $22 million for next year. The total subsidy the MTA provides the bus system is in the order of $600 million, so you're talking 3%. But I imagine that of the income that comes into the MTA, a lot more than 3% comes in from the outlying areas.

In places like the Antelope Valley and counties to the east, it's not as upper-income as you would think. There are pockets of upper-income, but the Antelope Valley and a lot of the outlying portions of the Metrolink system are where the younger, first-homeowner families live.

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