Proposal boosts valley-LA rail link

Officials confident $162M plan will pass

Mar 8, 2013

Written by Skip Descant
Reprinted with permission from The Desert Sun

The recent draft of the 2013 California State Rail Plan includes a Coachella Valley Route that would connect Los Angeles to Indio, expanding passenger rail service for the Palm Springs region.

The proposal calls for eight stops, with three - Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage and Indio - in the Coachella Valley.

The project would require cooperation with Union Pacific Railroad, which may be the largest obstacle.

"The main challenge to implementation of passenger rail service in this corridor is securing cooperation with UPRR," the draft rail plan reads.

"Service initiation is contingent upon an operating agreement with UPRR (Union Pacific Railroad) and securing necessary capital and operating funding," the draft continues. Union Pacific officials could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.

The project would cost an estimated $161.7 million, which includes $83.4 million for trains, $62.6 million for new stations and $15.7 million for maintenance facilities, according to the rail plan.

Train industry watchers in the Coachella Valley say Union Pacific could be amenable to increased passenger traffic given the mostly public-funded rail upgrades in Colton that make freight traffic flow smoother.

"We're going to hold their feet to the fire on this one," said Robert Manning, president of the Southwest Rail Passenger Association. "I'm sure if we push, we'll get this."

"It ain't over with by any stretch of the imagination," he added. "And there's no doubt in my mind that we will get this thing."

Tourism officials in the Coachella Valley have long wanted better passenger rail service between Indio and Los Angeles, ideally with daily service - up from the three-day-a-week service the area currently receives via Amtrak - and at times better suited for weekend travelers.

The rail plan does not get into scheduling specifics or the operator of the line. Local tourism officials say they hope it's Amtrak, which is well-suited for the 125-mile trip to Palm Springs.

"We in the tourism industry are pushing for Amtrak because of the better consumer experience over Metrolink," said Tim Ellis, general manager 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. Metrolink operates commuter trains reaching areas like Riverside and San Bernardino.

"Metrolink has commuter cars designed to move many people on shorter trips," Ellis added, characterizing them as "public transportation rather than an experience."

Manning also said he'd like the Coachella Valley Route to be operated by Amtrak, which has indicated a willingness to operate the train service.

The statewide rail plan proposes six new routes over tracks shared with freight service. They include routes like the ritzy X Train, connecting Los Angeles to Las Vegas where the five-hour trip is filled with on-board perks like large-screen televisions, fold-down seats and lounges.

Train travel seems to be on the upswing all across the nation. A study released this week by the Brookings Institution indicates a 55 percent increase in nationwide ridership from 1997 to 2012. The shorter Amtrak routes - those less than 400 miles - had a $47 million operating surplus in 2011. While the longer routes - like the Sunset Limited which connects Los Angeles with New Orleans and stops in the Coachella Valley - lost some $614 million in 2011.

The seven Amtrak stations in the Riverside-Ontario-San Bernardino region saw a 74.2 percent increase in passenger activity from 1997 to 2012, according to the study.

The California State Rail Plan points out the significant population growth the region is expected to see in the next 30 years, with the Los Angeles-Indio corridor expected to add 5.8 million residents. Riverside County will experience the bulk of this growth - 52.4 percent. Added access to rail should be a vital part of the transportation picture and one that needs to be started today, Manning said.

"But we have to get this thing started because population density is such that it's imperative at this point," Manning said in a recent interview with The Desert Sun.

Amtrak into Palm Springs

Passengers await the arrival of an Amtrak train at the Palm Springs station in May 2010. / Desert Sun file photo