Coaster commuter trains will make a lot more trips beginning this fall, with additional daily runs and shorter waits between service, despite ridership that is only slowly climbing back from its huge pandemic drop.
The number of passengers between Oceanside and San Diego plummeted by about 90 percent last year after California initiated stay-at-home orders to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Today, as the pandemic wanes in the United States, many former railway commuters continue to work from home, unlike most bus riders, a demographic less likely to have the option of telecommuting.
A total of 15,184 passengers boarded the Coaster in April, the most recent statistics available, up by 189 percent from the 5,245 in April 2020, but still well below the North County Transit District’s goal of 106,414 passengers for the month. Breeze buses had 259,484 boardings in April, compared to 161,030 a year earlier, but below its goal of 481,920.
Many factors contributed to the decline in Coaster riders, including the temporary suspension of some weekday trains and all Saturday and Sunday service. The district resumed its full pre-pandemic service on May 29, including special trains for Padres baseball games.
“The best is yet to come in terms of ridership and revenue,” District Executive Director Matt Tucker said at the board’s June meeting. “We are looking toward the future with improved services.”
The district recently purchased seven replacement locomotives and two additional locomotives as part of its expansion plans, some of which were placed into service earlier this year. It also refurbished and repainted its existing passenger cars and purchased 10 new ones, along with a new cab car, a total investment of almost $60 million.
The new trains are quieter, faster, more efficient and less polluting and allow the district to provide more frequent, reliable service. Mechanical difficulties with the old locomotives, some of which were bought used, were a leading cause of delayed or cancelled trains.
Still, some people question whether the region should be investing so much money in rail transportation. One of them is first-term Del Mar Councilman Dan Quirk, who represents his city on the NCTD board.
“We are expanding service, but is anybody going to actually ride it,” Quirk said at the June board meeting. “I have very little confidence that this is going to result in increased ridership and overall benefits to society.”
Encouraging more people to use public transit is widely seen as a way to reduce freeway traffic, conserve fuel, and lessen air pollution. As a result, most construction is funded by government grants and fares are heavily subsidized by government agencies.
Planning is underway for one of the biggest rail projects ever seen in San Diego County, the construction of a double-tracked tunnel through Del Mar, which could take decades and cost more than $3 billion. The route being studied would move the tracks inland and off the eroding coastal bluff.
But Quirk said the large investment in rail may be fruitless, as people continue to work from home or shift to other transportation technologies such as ride-hailing services and self-driving cars.
Others say the railroad will play an important role well into the future, for freight as well as passenger trains. It’s an important part of the regional agency SANDAG’s plan for the county’s growth through 2050.
NCTD board member Jewel Edson, a Solana Beach councilwoman, said more people would ride the Coaster if it were easier and more convenient.
“I for one am excited at where we are going,” Edson said.
NCTD plans to increase the number of weekday Coaster trips from 22 to 30, also the number of summer Friday trips from 26 to 32, and the number of winter Friday trips from 22 to 32, summer Saturday trips from 12 to 20, and winter Saturday trips from eight to 20. Trip times will be modified to better cover peak travel hours and improve overall service.
Two “open house” type meetings are planned to present information and answer questions about the upcoming schedule changes. The first is 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 30, on the rail platform at the Sorrento Valley station, and the second is from 4:30 to 7:45 p.m. Wednesday, July 7, near the ticket vending machine at the Oceanside Transit Center. Also, the NCTD board will review the changes and listen to public comments at its 2 p.m. July 22 meeting in Oceanside.
NCTD purchased the 62 miles of track from the Orange County border to the Santa Fe Depot in San Diego from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in 1994 and launched the Coaster service in 1995.
“When the region purchased the rail line, they purchased essentially a freight line with no ability for passengers,” Tucker said. “We only recently became capable of commuter-based service.”
Tucker has often said that more people would ride the train if the schedule were more convenient and it would get them closer to their destination.
To that end, the district plans to build two more train stations in the next few years.
One would be a “special event platform” to be constructed with an additional 2.1 miles of track at the San Dieguito Lagoon to serve the Del Mar Fairgrounds, home of the annual month-long San Diego County fair, fall horse-racing meets and other activities.
NCTD and SANDAG were recently awarded $30.5 million in state funds for the first of two phases of construction at Del Mar. The NCTD board approved $5.5 million in June to design the track and the platform.
Also this month, the NCTD board approved two agreements with BNSF Railway, the corridor’s freight carrier, to finalize the engineering, design and construction of a train station to be built at the San Diego Convention Center. The design work is expected to cost up to $3.25 million and construction of the station and a train control point will cost up to $30 million.
A station at the Convention Center also would serve Petco Park, the Gaslamp District and other downtown destinations that attract visitors from throughout the county and beyond. The station also could be a stop for Amtrak trains, which restored its passenger train service this week to pre-pandemic levels.
A design for the Convention Center project is expected to be finished next year, with construction to be completed in late 2025, a transit district official said.
BNSF owns the railway south of the Santa Fe Depot, including the property where the station will be built. The 1.5-mile section of track will need a higher level of signals, traffic controls and other equipment to accommodate the commuter and passenger trains.
For the record:
4:19 PM, Jun. 27, 2021: An earlier version of this article gave the wrong city for Councilman Dan Quirk. He is from Del Mar.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.
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