Evaluating RCTC’s Coachella Valley Rail Proposals

For a little over a year, the Riverside County Transportation Commission has been undertaking a study to explore the possibility of providing daily passenger rail service to the Coachella Valley. This is at least the seventh time in nearly 30 years that the concept has been explored. (Previous studies of all or parts of the potential route were the focus of or included in other efforts previously completed in 1991, 199319992005, 2010, and 2013.) But with this being take seven on the project, perhaps it’s time to figure out exactly what needs to be done to get this plan off the shelves and to see trains rolling.

The elephant in the room continues to be that the only truly viable alternative to reach the area is by routing passenger traffic through the Union Pacific Yuma Subdivision that heads east from the Colton Crossing. As one of the two principal freight rail arteries in and out of SoCal heading east, Union Pacific understandably has concerns about the proposition of running an increased number of passenger trains over their rails. Currently, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited operates through the corridor, but it is only thrice-weekly service with late night/early morning stops in the area–hardly usable by the majority of potential travelers.

The latest report provides five Alternatives along with reasons for/against them. As the Yuma Subdivision is the only existing route to the Coachella Valley, all the differences occur from the Colton Crossing to LAUS. The five Alternatives (resulting in six total possibilities) are to use the BNSF San Bernardino Sub (Alternative 1), use the UP LA Sub (Alternative 2); use the UP Alhambra Sub (Alternative 3), use two variations of the Metrolink San Gabriel Sub (Alternative 4), or use a hybrid option blending Alternative 4B and 3 (Alternative 4). Four of those options made it through the course level screening to a more detailed analysis and will be expounded upon: 1, 4A/B, and 5.

Alternative 1

As mentioned above, west of Colton is where the differences lie. Of the four potential routes advanced to fine-level screening, Alternative 1 was the only one looked on favorably and advanced to the level of further planning/EIS. Several factors in its favor exist including most principally, a corridor population that is around 25% higher than the others have or would provide in the near-term. Though all study is being done using the assumption of Amtrak service similar to the existing Pacific Surfliner, this proposed route would be the functional equivalent of extending the Metrolink 91 Line out to the Coachella Valley and would in effect, be adding a limited stop train from LAUS to Riverside. Ideally, the Rail2Rail program should be implemented over that portion of the route to allow people to take advantage of that option. From Riverside, the train would then continue north to the Colton Crossing, where it would turn east to reach Indio as outlined above. RCTC currently still has quite a few unused daily allotments for the route, so implementing service via Alternative 1 would only require buying (or leasing) the trainsets and building a few stations. This route also has the second-fastest projected travel time and high ridership.

Alternative 4A

The second Alternative considered at the fine level is branded 4A. This option would be routed primarily over the San Gabriel Subdivision, which is owned by LA Metro and SANBAG for operating Metrolink’s San Bernardino Line. However, the San Gabriel Sub is at present, not directly connected with the Yuma, so this option requires several things be done to make that connection. The proposal calls for squeezing a track to connect to the northbound BNSF line between I-10 and the Colton Crossing and also just continue it through Colton to connect to the Metrolink Short Way Subdivision that is used by the IEOC Line to reach San Bernardino and Metrolink to access their Colton yard. A flyover would then be built to connect that track with the San Gabriel Subdivision and the report also calls for the two segments of double-tracking already underway to be built. This Alternative would have Inland Empire stops at Rialto and Montclair before heading to LA over the same route used by Metrolink. According to the analysis, this option would produce the fastest travel time of 3:06 as well as the second-highest ridership.

However, it was ultimately, it was not selected for further study due to requiring a minimum investment of $141mn more than Alternative 1 and potential ROW issues, including relocating a trucking facility at the BNSF San Bernardino yard. But looking at the reality of the area, a connection could probably be built to connect to the existing flyover and thus avoid relocating the majority of the trucking yard. Presumably, some of the money would also go into the double-tracking projects mentioned above, but it’s primarily slated for providing the connection to the BNSF tracks and Short Way in Colton as well as the flyover to connect with the San Gabriel Subdivision. Additionally, at least two actual bridges would be required (one over La Cadena, one over Lytle Creek) and though there is a little room for it, adding a fourth track through Colton will require a couple things to be moved and at least two more grade crossings be expanded. Though not studied in the report, the Colton track does provides an opportunity for a Colton stop to be added to the IEOC Line and potentially the CV train as well.

Alternative 4B/5

The last two Alternatives, 4B and 5, are functionally the same, so they’ll be looked at in tandem. Both would use the same connection in Colton as presented by 4A to reach the Short Way, but would instead utilize the San Bernardino Downtown Passenger Rail extension to continue all the way into the recently completed San Bernardino Transit Center located downtown. Going to the SBTC would provide connections with numerous transit services serving the San Bernardino Valley, Mountain communities, and Victor Valley areas. This option also avoids the need for a flyover in the BNSF yard, but leaves the recommendation for the double-tracking along the San Gabriel Sub. However, the train would have to switch ends in San Bernardino before being able to continue to LAUS. According to the report, this maneuver can take up to half an hour, so accommodating it is projected to likely necessitate another layover track be added to the site. The layover also effectively cuts the journey into two separate trips. That could be great for station-area businesses in San Bernardino, but results in a major hits on ridership and travel times. Unsurprisingly, these two options have the longest scheduled travel times but lowest ridership.

The rest of the route is for Alternative 4B, identical to Alternative 4A. Alternative 5 instead uses the UP Alhambra Subdivision into LAUS from near the El Monte station which provides a potential bypass of the single track line on I-10. Both 4A and 5 would differ from 4A in that they would not stop at Rialto, only at Montclair. Additionally, 5 require second flyover in El Monte to provide access to the Alhambra Sub without running into freight congestion. Course-level screening indicated that Alternative 5 would require double-tracking of the Alhambra, but the ongoing Alameda Corridor East San Gabriel Trench appears to be taking care of that. Still, in comparison to Alternative 1, these two options have a potential cost of $130mn more for 4B or $162mn more for Alternative 5. Due to both the cost but especially the turn time depressing ridership, these two Alternatives were also nixed from further configuration.

Results

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alternative 1 has been selected for further study and advancement to the EIR/EIS stage. This is the only Alternative that would actually serve the City of Riverside, which, notwithstanding the relative lack of necessary investment compared to the others, likely was a part of the deciding factor for its favorable consideration in a study commissioned by RCTC. Progress toward those environmental documents is undoubtedly being worked on now. Additionally, though Measure A doesn’t put much money toward rail, cap and trade money might provide the ability to acquire equipment and start the service. With new locomotives on the way for the Surfliner and Metrolink, there will probably be some surplus power available in the LA area soon that, pending funding, can be leased for a decent price to get things rolling within a few months of final approval of the environmental documents. Hopefully, that can happen before the 40th anniversary of the first study.

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