Expanding rail service from Coachella Valley to Los Angeles could make commuting easier

Feb 22, 2013

A weekend getaway to Palm Springs from Los Angeles could get a lot easier. No, there's not a new highway planned or can't-pass-up flight deals.

A two-hour and nearly effortless trip to the Coachella Valley could become a reality thanks to expanded intercity passenger rail service between Los Angeles and Indio. Local officials would like to see daily Amtrak rail service to the valley, a step up from the three-day-a-week service available now.

And some of those who are lobbying for the move come from the region's tourism industry, who say Friday afternoon traffic congestion in the Los Angeles metro region is so grueling, a number of travelers are simply staying in on Friday.

"(Interstate) 10 is getting busier and busier and busier. And what we're seeing is a drop off on Friday night arrival, because they are saying, 'you know what, I'm just not going to move Friday afternoon or Friday evening. I'm going to wait 'til Saturday,'" said Tim Ellis, general manger for the Palm Mountain Resort and Spa in Palm Springs and vice chair for the Hospitality Industry and Business Council, a valley-wide consortium of tourism leaders. "And so filling the hotels on a Friday night is always a lot harder than filling them on a Saturday night. And to get those two weekend nights full is a very important thing from a hotel standpoint."

Ideally, Ellis and others would like to see a daily train depart Union Station about 5:30 p.m. to pull into Palm Springs at about 7:30 p.m., terminating in Indio. And a morning train heading back into the city would leave Indio about 8 a.m.

Today's Amtrak service is provided by the train known as the Sunset Limited, which runs three days a week. The westbound Sunset Limited comes through Palm Springs at about 2 a.m. and arrives at Union Station at 5:30 a.m. The eastbound train leaves Union Station about 10 p.m. and arrives in Palm Springs at about 12:30 a.m. Those are not ideal travel times.

"I've taken the train quite a few times before, out to Palm Springs, but I can no longer do that because they changed the time that it goes now, and it's now a really inconvenient time," said Josh Murray, a writer and advertising consultant living in North Hollywood. "And also, you can't get back on the train to get back unless you leave really early in the morning."

"I think it's a brilliant idea," said Murray, 35, of the idea to expand rail service to the Palm Springs region.

Indeed, expanding rail service and better connecting the valley to Los Angeles has long been on the wish list of numerous groups, namely the Southwest Rail Passenger Association and the Riverside County Transportation Commission. A first step is getting the proposal into the California State Rail Plan. The latest draft of the state rail plan is to be released any day now, said Mark Dinger, a spokesman for the California Department of Transportation. And even though Robert Manning, president of the Southwest Rail Passenger Association, said the proposal for expanded service is part of the state rail plan draft, Dinger stopped just short of confirming this.

"We have contacted the state," Manning said. "We have made our intentions very well known, just how important this service is to the community.

"We clearly demonstrated how important this is for the valley," he added. "How important this is for tourism."

Given the added momentum the movement seems to have and the growing population of the Coachella Valley - Riverside County is projected to be the second-most populous county in the state by 2060 - Manning said getting daily passenger rail service to the valley within the next five years, "is very realistic at this point. Very, very realistic."

The draft rail plan will soon be released and begin the public review process, making it even more important for the tourism community to speak with one voice and lobby intensely for the importance of the expanded service to Indio, Ellis told the Hospitality Industry and Business Council during the January Greater Palm Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau meeting.

Local officials would like to see the expanded service served by Amtrak, rather than Metrolink trains, which are Los Angeles commuter trains reaching as far as Riverside.

Amtrak officials said some state or local funding would be needed to launch such a project. "Amtrak would happily operate the train, but at the direction of Caltrans," wrote Vernae Graham, an Amtrak spokeswoman, in an email.

"Not to take anything away from Metrolink, but Metrolink is a commuter train," said Manning. "They have rigid seats that are not large and comfortable. They don't recline like the Amtrak seats do. Amtrak is geared for that longer commute.

"It's really a comfortable way of traveling," he added.

Plans to upgrade the Palm Springs stop and possibly locate a mid-valley stop near Bob Hope Drive and Interstate 10 in Rancho Mirage are already being discussed, said Manning. Palm Springs has allotted $100,000 in Measure J funds to improve the Amtrak stop in north Palm Springs, which also serves as a bus stop for Crucero buses, an imprint of Greyhound.

"What they've suggested to us, is they would like to build a separate building next to it, and actually have it manned with a ticket agent," said David Ready, city manager for Palm Springs.

"They (Crucero) would build the building and operate it," he added, but the city would assist on needed infrastructure upgrades.

"This does not hinge on whether we get train service or not. These are just more improvements," said Ready.

Source: http://www.mydesert.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2013302080031&nclick_check=1