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Southern California Commuter Rail Ripe for Innovation

Metrolink, a commuter rail service in the Los Angeles metro area, has already been credited with eliminating more than 300 million vehicle miles from the region's notoriously clogged highways last year.

LOS ANGELES — With ridership numbers for commuter rail in car-dependent Southern California on the rise, experts say some additional changes are needed to give the region's public transit another major boost.

Chief among those changes are seamless integration with micromobility options, tech innovations to improve rider experience and general infrastructure improvements. Stephanie Wiggins is CEO of Metrolink, a commuter rail service that spans six counties and 530 route miles, and she said one major challenge is attracting more riders by giving them convenient ways to finish their trips. Thankfully, recent changes in cities may be enabling this.

“And seeing the micromobility — the scooters — and the diversity of opportunities there, really gets me excited about finally having a solution to close that gap,” Wiggins said last month during the CoMotion LA conference in Los Angeles.

Nearly 10.7 million riders boarded Metrolink trains in 2018, according to American Public Transportation Association statistics, up 0.6 percent from the year before. In fact, the commuter rail line reduced more than 300 million vehicle miles from Southern California’s notoriously congested highways last year, officials say. 

Technology improvements that make for a more seamless transition from one transportation mode to another, along with improved and more frequent service brought by infrastructure upgrades, can all help to bring even more riders to rail. In fact, technologies like 5G can help to improve the services on trains as well as support the introduction of more automation, said Pierre Gosset, chief technical officer of Systra, a transportation consulting firm based in Paris.

“The type of network integration you can find in order to have a seamless journey from A to B, from your home to your work is very much important,” said Gosset, speaking on a futurist mobility panel at the CoMotion event. “So we need not only technology, but we need governance in order to improve that type of seamless journey."

Innovation at public agencies, like Metrolink, is sometimes hindered by cumbersome government processes, which can lead to less-than-ideal customer service, said Wiggins.

“We have prioritized the customer experience, and focusing on the customer, first and foremost, in all of our decision-making,” said Wiggins. “And I believe that automation and simplification is the key.

“My wish is that we could operate more seamlessly, like the airlines,” she added. “You have a trip on an airline and they cancel your flight, they send you a text message, and they send you an email and say, ‘These are the next few flights, and we can book you.’ We don’t do that for transit. We just say, ‘Hey, train’s not coming. Call Uber or Lyft.’ That’s not outstanding customer service and experience.”

The CoMotion LA conference is an annual event that brings together thought leaders from the public and private sectors to take on transportation’s looming challenges in Los Angeles, which has a reputation as one of the most congested cities in the United States. The event presented a number of initiatives aimed at easing that congestion, ranging from the development of a congestion pricing pilot project, to an evolving concept known as urban movement labs that will use community engagement and other approaches to drill down into how to best improve transportation and transit solutions at the neighborhood level.

Supporters say that rail can and should be a go-to transportation mode even In a sprawling metropolis like Los Angeles, touting its proven ability to move large numbers of passengers with minimal effort.

“Rail is something that is quite classic, quite tangible, quite efficient, very clean, and we need to push as well,” said Gosset, when asked about the future of hyperloop — which he described as “exciting” — the ambitious futuristic concept that would transport passengers in capsule-like pods through tubes at jetliner speeds.

“Rail is reliable,” Wiggins added. “And I’m not aware of any technology today that can carry 700 people on one trip like our trains do every day. That mass-transportation vehicle is what we get conventional rail.” 

In addition to the impact on congestion, supporters also note that rail can help with environmental concerns. Metrolink aims to reach zero-emissions status by the time Los Angeles hosts the Olympic Games in 2028, Wiggins said.

“We really have to advance the technology with conventional rail, in terms of emissions,” she added, offering up options like hydrogen fuel-cell technology or batteries.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.