Congestion on a key railroad corridor between the Inland Empire and Los Angeles is causing unprecedented delays for thousands of people who use Metrolink commuter trains.
For two years, the reliability of Metrolink service between downtown Riverside and Union Station has plummeted because of a surge in conflicts with Union Pacific Corp. freight trains going to and from the Los Angeles area and its busy harbor. In April, the commuter line's performance reached a new low with delays of up to two hours.
The logjam has angered commuters and Metrolink officials, who contend that Union Pacific, the nation's largest railroad, has repeatedly violated a track-sharing agreement to yield to passenger trains during rush hours, forcing them to wait.
"Here we are in the 21st century. Public transit should be a priority," said Alice Beard, a Los Angeles County social worker and Metrolink regular who has organized three petition drives demanding better service. "It's a shame we are going through this nightmare. People's livelihoods depend on that train."
On weekdays, Metrolink runs 12 trains daily between Riverside and Union Station, one of seven routes the agency operates in five counties. A round-trip ticket costs about $16.50; monthly passes up to $245.
Trains originate in downtown Riverside and stop in Pedley, East Ontario, Pomona, Industry and Montebello before arriving downtown. The 59-mile run is supposed to take slightly more than an hour.
But commuters say delays of 15 minutes or more are common. As a result, some say they have used sick time or vacation time to compensate employers for being late. Others have missed appointments or incurred increased child-care expenses. Still others are so fed up they are considering moving, taking demotions to work closer to home or switching to other Metrolink routes that are inconvenient for them.
For commuter Nancy J. Simas, the last straw occurred on the evening of April 7, when a westbound Union Pacific freight train blocked the tracks for almost two hours.
The crew, which had worked the maximum time allowed under federal law, was forced to leave the train on the main line. The train didn't move until Union Pacific could bring in a fresh engineer and conductor by van.
"I've never seen freight traffic like this. It was horrible," said Simas, who administers a law office in downtown Los Angeles.
The delays were so bad in March and early April that Simas decided to shift to Metrolink's San Bernardino line. She now drives 15 miles from home to reach the Rancho Cucamonga station. She used to drive two miles to catch the train in Pedley.
"I need to get to work," Simas said, "and I need to get home."
Metrolink figures show that Los Angeles-to-Riverside trains have the worst on-time performance of the railroad's routes.
In April, westbound trains during morning rush hour arrived on schedule 90% of the time, while those headed east during evening rush hour arrived on schedule only 72% of the time.
That is considerably lower than in 2002, when the performance level was 94% and 98%, respectively. Metrolink considers marks below 95% unsatisfactory and in need of improvement to maintain ridership.
Consequently, Metrolink officials say the number of weekly riders on the Riverside line has dropped from 4,745 in March 2004 to 4,379 in March 2005 -- nearly 8% in one year. Meanwhile, ridership has grown on most Metrolink routes.
"If I were a passenger, I would be upset," said David Solow, the commuter line's chief executive. "The long delays are rare, but they happened enough in March and April to become a big issue."
Commuters and Metrolink officials blame Union Pacific, which owns the right-of-way for the Riverside line. The busy freight and passenger corridor has a single main track with sidings along the way to park trains and rail cars.
In December 1991, Metrolink entered an agreement to pay the railroad $71 million for the right to share the track, to make capital improvements and to buy land for stations.
The contract requires Union Pacific freight trains to give priority to Metrolink during rush hours and to dispatch its trains in ways that minimize disruptions for passenger service.
Since the April 7 incident, Metrolink and Union Pacific have met several times to discuss ways to reduce conflicts. John Bromley, a spokesman for Union Pacific, said the railroad has come up with an "action plan" to better coordinate the movement of freight trains on the Riverside line. Bromley said that the number of Union Pacific trains using the Riverside line has declined slightly from 1999 to 2004. The volume of freight also has fluctuated.
Nevertheless, he said, the Los Angeles area has a complicated and busy rail network that can make it difficult for dispatchers -- the railroad equivalent of air traffic controllers -- to manage train movements. More than 35,000 freight and passenger trains a year move through the region.
"We are trying to do our best to recognize our obligations to commuters and to our freight customers," Bromley said.
Meanwhile, Metrolink has offered Riverside line commuters an apology and a 25% discount on monthly passes purchased for June. If it is any consolation to riders, Metrolink officials say there has been an improvement in on-time performance this month.
Though Solow acknowledges that Union Pacific is "conscious of the issues," he says he is not yet convinced that the railroad's action plan will be adequate over the long run.
Metrolink officials say they have had periodic problems with Union Pacific since 1993, including a burst of delays caused by freight trains in 2002 that they thought had been solved.
Solow isn't optimistic that existing rail facilities can handle projected increases in freight and passenger service without significant investment in new track and rights-of-way.
Given the brisk pace of international trade, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are expecting a record year for cargo. Some analysts say the projected growth of 12% to 14% for 2005 might be too low.
Metrolink officials said that delays are now showing up on lines serving Orange County and the Inland Empire line because of conflicts with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. freight trains. "There is the potential for more problems in the future," Solow said. "It's going to get harder and harder to keep us on time."
This isn't good news for Stephanie Whitt, a regular on the Riverside line.
"This is the worst transportation I've seen," Whitt said. "We don't want discounts. We don't want coupons. We don't want excuses. We just want a regular schedule."