Fact Check: Southern California’s Railway Ridership

Fact Check: Southern California’s Railway Ridership

Photo by Jorg Hackemann, Shutterstock.com

An Amtrak train arrives at Santa Fe Depot in downtown San Diego.

Image: TrueStatement: ” Competing against hundreds of applicants nationwide, SANDAG has won a $14 million federal grant to replace four aging timber trestle bridges in the Los Peñasquitos Lagoon in North County – a critically needed project to improve the reliability of both passenger and freight services in the nation’s second busiest rail corridor,” SANDAG, the region’s planning agency, wrote in Sept. 8 press release.

Determination: True

Analysis: San Diego’s rail system just received crucial funding to repair some of its aging bridges.

SANDAG, the region’s planning agency, was awarded a $14 million federal grant to repair four timber trestle bridges that traverse the Los Peñasquitos Lagoon, a coastal marsh south of Del Mar.

In a press release announcing the grant, SANDAG claimed this railway – known as the Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor – is the second busiest in the nation.

That statistic appeared in news stories about the grant and was highlighted by County Supervisor Bill Horn, who represents residents in county’s northern reaches.

 

I decided to check this statement because how much the rail system is being used has an impact on future expansions and investment.

To start, let’s define a rail corridor.

The Federal Railroad Administration, the nation’s authority on rail travel, doesn’t have a formal definition but multiple experts said it’s generally understood to be a passenger rail system that connects at least two metropolitan areas. Amtrak is the nation’s largest operator of such rail systems, which span hundreds of miles.

Amtrak operates the corridor SANDAG mentioned but refers to the roughly 350-mile stretch as the Pacific Surfliner route.

Commuter rail, on the other hand, typically transports riders between far-flung suburbs and downtown hubs. The North County Transit District’s Coaster system is an example of this, though it follows the same coastal path as Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner.

A SANDAG spokesman said the agency relied on Amtrak ridership numbers to compare our region’s rail corridor with those across the country.

Here’s a look at how the Pacific Surfliner’s ridership compared with those in other parts of the country during the 2012 fiscal year:

 

The Northeast Regional corridor is clearly the busiest. About 11.4 million passengers used it to travel between Boston and Lynchburg, Va. – and many cities in between – in 2012.

The Pacific Surfliner carried considerably fewer riders during the same period but bested other major corridors, including California’s Capitol Corridor, which ferries passengers from San Jose to Sacramento and more, and the Keystone Corridor, which takes riders from Harrisburg, Pa. to New York City.

And an Amtrak spokeswoman said the Pacific Surfliner has been among the service’s busiest for about a decade.

Amtrak statistics show the Surfliner has carried at least 2.5 million passengers annually since 2009.

All this makes SANDAG’s claim about the route being the second busiest rail corridor in the nation true.

Transit experts say the volume of passengers along the Pacific Surfliner route isn’t surprising.

Not only is California the nation’s most populous state but two of its biggest cities are relatively close – though traffic often makes driving unappealing.

“These are two major cities close to each other, a lot of population, a lot of congestion,” said Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy at the American Public Transportation Association, an advocacy group that promotes transit. “Who would want to drive to these places?”

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

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Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

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18 comments
Jim Jones
Jim Jones

You limit the measurement to Amtrak only when the statement does not limit it to Amtrak or even passenger rail. Since 70% of all rail traffic in the US is class 1 freight, your analysis is simply devoid of most of the data needed for a informed and thoughtful conclusion. I realize you allowed SANDAG to say they relied on Amtrak, but since the statement didn't reflect that and in the last fact check you rejected clarifications and limits outside of the statement itself, it makes the rules for the conclusion seem inconsistent. Please VOSD, find someone who can be more thorough, thoughtful, consistent and fair with fact check, right now it's a joke. The statement is False since it does not limit itself to only Amtrak traffic or passenger traffic in the statement itself. BTW, with all the facts that could be checked, why this one? Was there some huge outcry over this statement?. It seems so very trivial.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

You limit the measurement to Amtrak only when the statement does not limit it to Amtrak or even passenger rail. Since 70% of all rail traffic in the US is class 1 freight, your analysis is simply devoid of most of the data needed for a informed and thoughtful conclusion. I realize you allowed SANDAG to say they relied on Amtrak, but since the statement didn't reflect that and in the last fact check you rejected clarifications and limits outside of the statement itself, it makes the rules for the conclusion seem inconsistent. Please VOSD, find someone who can be more thorough, thoughtful, consistent and fair with fact check, right now it's a joke. The statement is False since it does not limit itself to only Amtrak traffic or passenger traffic in the statement itself. BTW, with all the facts that could be checked, why this one? Was there some huge outcry over this statement?. It seems so very trivial.

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw

That cinches it. we simply MUST go ahead with the California High Speed rail project right away. Not.

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

That cinches it. we simply MUST go ahead with the California High Speed rail project right away. Not.

David Hall
David Hall

A more interesting use of the Fact Check would have been to verify that this award was the only one to be given out of those "hundreds of applicants". Who wants to bet there were lots of awards from that pool of applicants.

David Hall
David Hall subscriber

A more interesting use of the Fact Check would have been to verify that this award was the only one to be given out of those "hundreds of applicants". Who wants to bet there were lots of awards from that pool of applicants.

tarfu7
tarfu7

David - Great point. Any infrastructure project that won't be done in your lifetime should obviously be scrapped.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann

No, the reason we should go ahead with the $98.5 billion California High Speed Rail is because the alternative is spending $119.0~145.5 billion to build 4,295~4,652 new lane-miles of highway, plus $36.6~41.0 billion to build 115 new airport gates and 4 new runways, all just to move the same number of people.

tarfu7
tarfu7 subscribermember

David - Great point. Any infrastructure project that won't be done in your lifetime should obviously be scrapped.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

No, the reason we should go ahead with the $98.5 billion California High Speed Rail is because the alternative is spending $119.0~145.5 billion to build 4,295~4,652 new lane-miles of highway, plus $36.6~41.0 billion to build 115 new airport gates and 4 new runways, all just to move the same number of people.

tarfu7
tarfu7

Who claimed that this award was the only one to be given out? The statement that was fact-checked did not contain this.

tarfu7
tarfu7 subscribermember

Who claimed that this award was the only one to be given out? The statement that was fact-checked did not contain this.

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann

"I don’t know where you got all these mindbogglingly specific numbers" It's in the latest business plan available at the California High Speed Rail Authority's web site. "there’s no way it can be built unless...the fares charged are much higher than air fares to the same destinations. The ridership and revenue report in the business plan is based on fares being set at 83% of airfares. Name one high speed rail line anywhere in the world that's at least a few years old and still doesn't make an operating profit. "The major transportation problem in California is WITHIN the several major metropolitan areas, not between them, and this boondoggle will do NOTHING to deal with that." There are stations planned for downtown, University City, and Escondido. Therefore, within San Diego County, it will function as commuter rail. What's the "transportation problem?" Is it freeway traffic congestion or is it mobility? If the former, you're right, neither mass transit nor widening freeways has any long-term effect on freeway traffic congestion, because the equilibrium state of an unpriced freeway is congestion. But if the problem is mobility, then both mass transit and widening freeways improves mobility.

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw

Mr. Hoffman, I don’t know where you got all these mindbogglingly specific numbers, perhaps from the paid propagandists for the project. However, if you assume the parameters used to sell the project to the voters, namely that it would involve PRIVATE construction funding and no taxpayer operating subsidy, there’s no way it can be built unless the Saudis need some place to stash more petrodollars (Last I heard, Jerry Brown was romancing the Chinese), and the fares charged are much higher than air fares to the same destinations. Repeat after me, “The major transportation problem in California is WITHIN the several major metropolitan areas, not between them, and this boondoggle will do NOTHING to deal with that.” Ordinarily, I would say this is an impossible boondoggle that simply won’t get off the ground, but when I see the stuff coming weekly from the legislature, most of which is signed by the governor, anything is possible. Besides, the President has already established by his modifications to the Affordable Care Act that he can unilaterally change any legislation he wants by executive fiat, so the governor may get the message and do the same.

David Crossley
David Crossley

And the reason that we SHOULDN'T go through with the train to nowhere is the cost is equal (at today's figures) to one year of the state's general fund budget. That train will move nowhere near the fantasy estimates projected for ridership. For that matter, I am almost 60, and I never expect to see any portion of this "high speed" train built in my lifetime. How about just double-tracking the entire line between San Diego and Los Angeles?

Derek Hofmann
Derek Hofmann subscribermember

"I don’t know where you got all these mindbogglingly specific numbers" It's in the latest business plan available at the California High Speed Rail Authority's web site. "there’s no way it can be built unless...the fares charged are much higher than air fares to the same destinations. The ridership and revenue report in the business plan is based on fares being set at 83% of airfares. Name one high speed rail line anywhere in the world that's at least a few years old and still doesn't make an operating profit. "The major transportation problem in California is WITHIN the several major metropolitan areas, not between them, and this boondoggle will do NOTHING to deal with that." There are stations planned for downtown, University City, and Escondido. Therefore, within San Diego County, it will function as commuter rail. What's the "transportation problem?" Is it freeway traffic congestion or is it mobility? If the former, you're right, neither mass transit nor widening freeways has any long-term effect on freeway traffic congestion, because the equilibrium state of an unpriced freeway is congestion. But if the problem is mobility, then both mass transit and widening freeways improves mobility.

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

Mr. Hoffman, I don’t know where you got all these mindbogglingly specific numbers, perhaps from the paid propagandists for the project. However, if you assume the parameters used to sell the project to the voters, namely that it would involve PRIVATE construction funding and no taxpayer operating subsidy, there’s no way it can be built unless the Saudis need some place to stash more petrodollars (Last I heard, Jerry Brown was romancing the Chinese), and the fares charged are much higher than air fares to the same destinations. Repeat after me, “The major transportation problem in California is WITHIN the several major metropolitan areas, not between them, and this boondoggle will do NOTHING to deal with that.” Ordinarily, I would say this is an impossible boondoggle that simply won’t get off the ground, but when I see the stuff coming weekly from the legislature, most of which is signed by the governor, anything is possible. Besides, the President has already established by his modifications to the Affordable Care Act that he can unilaterally change any legislation he wants by executive fiat, so the governor may get the message and do the same.

David Crossley
David Crossley subscriber

And the reason that we SHOULDN'T go through with the train to nowhere is the cost is equal (at today's figures) to one year of the state's general fund budget. That train will move nowhere near the fantasy estimates projected for ridership. For that matter, I am almost 60, and I never expect to see any portion of this "high speed" train built in my lifetime. How about just double-tracking the entire line between San Diego and Los Angeles?