Major steps being made toward rail

CVAG, county transportation commission pact a major step toward daily rail service

Local transportation leaders have been pushing for daily train service between the Coachella Valley and Los Angeles for two decades.

On Sept. 30, the Coachella Valley Association of Governments took a major step in that direction when it voted to dedicate a portion of transportation funds to the passenger rail project and approved an agreement with Riverside County Transportation Commission.

The commission unanimously approved the agreement last week, creating a fund to pay for an in-depth study required for the support of the Federal Rail Administration and the California Transportation Department. The fund will get $4.2 million from state transportation bonds and 10 percent of the funding that historically has gone to the SunLine Transit Agency. That share is now about $1.2 million. The plan is to reduce the bite out of the bus budget over the years.

The study will take at least a year, said Sheldon Peterson, the commission's rail manager.

Caltrans on board

The Coachella Valley route is part of the draft of the California State Rail Plan for 2013. The Caltrans report says the corridor from Los Angeles to Indio is expected to increase by 5.8 million residents in the next 30 years. Riverside County will get the majority of that growth, 52.4 percent.

"In addition, the Coachella Valley has a significant number of popular destinations that attract a high number of visitors," the report says.

In 2008, Amtrak organized the Coachella Express, which carried music fans from Los Angeles to the Coachella Valley Festival of Music and Arts in Indio. It's easy to imagine promotions like that for the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the BNP Paribas Open or just an escape-from-L.A. weekend in the desert.

Keeping up with growth

Indio City Councilman Glenn Miller, chairman of the SunLine board and a member of the transportation commission, observed that it's unlikely that freeways can be expanded to accommodate the level of growth that's anticipated.

"We can't afford to continue to just add lanes," he said.

Even with more efficient cars and trucks, continuing to rely on freeways would be an environmental disaster - not to mention a traffic nightmare. Traveling by train is 28 percent more fuel efficient than driving on a per-passenger-mile basis. Also, railway companies can save money by switching from diesel to cleaner-burning natural gas, Barry Wallerstein, executive director of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, told The Desert Sun editorial board last week.

New stations

CVAG studied the potential of daily train service in 1999 and updated the report in 2010. It envisions new stations in Indio and Rancho Mirage, and expanding the Palm Springs station. Other possible stops along the 141-mile route from Indio to Union Station in Los Angeles include Cabazon, Banning/Beaumont, Redlands/Loma Linda, Riverside and Fullerton.

The Caltrans report based cost estimates on the 2010 CVAG study:

* Rolling stock - two sets consisting of a locomotive, cab car, food service car and five coach cars - would cost $83.4 million.

* Five new train stations and the upgrade in Palm Springs would cost $62.6 million.

* Layover and maintenance facilities would cost $15.7 million.

Total: $161.7 million.

That's a big price tag, but mass transit is never cheap. Annual operating costs are estimated at $11.4 million. Annual revenue is projected at $3.2 million, so an $8.2 million subsidy would be required.

We hope this study will analyze the potential economic benefits and environmental improvements.

The roadblock

Perhaps the biggest challenge is the Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the tracks along the route from Indio to San Bernardino, where it connects with a commuter rail line operated by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad. Union Pacific has said it would need a huge investment in track improvements.

About 70 trains a day travel this route, one of the most heavily traveled freight corridors in the country. It certainly can handle 14 more trips by Amtrak trains a week.

Sunset Limited

Those tracks already accommodate three round trips a week by the Sunset Limited, which runs from Los Angeles to New Orleans. For Palm Springs, arrival and departure times could hardly be less convenient. The westbound train arrives at about 2 a.m. The eastbound train arrives at 12:30 a.m.

Amtrak has a strong interest in a new daily route. A 2010 study called the Sunset Limited its worst performing route financially, but the shorter daily route could be one of its most profitable.

It is a huge proposition. But looking at the growth projections, the potential for environmental improvements and the allure of relaxing in the observation car instead of fighting traffic between here and Los Angeles, it's definitely an idea worth pursuing.