Metrolink tests ways to lure more rid­ers

An ex­per­i­ment with lower fares on the An­te­lope Val­ley line re­flects new think­ing.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - DAN WEIKEL dan.weikel@la­times.com Twit­ter: @LADead­line16

Faced with de­clin­ing rid­er­ship and rev­enue, the Metrolink com­muter rail­road that serves South­ern Cal­i­for­nia will try to at­tract new cus­tomers by ex­per­i­ment­ing with lower fares on the An­te­lope Val­ley line and big dis­counts for cer­tain pass hold­ers sys­temwide.

If the re­duc­tions im­prove board­ings and the bot­tom line, the re­sults could set the stage for a ma­jor change in fare pol­icy and lower ticket prices across the rail­road’s seven routes in six coun­ties.

“I’m con­cerned that our cur­rent sys­tem dis­cour­ages shorter trips,” Metrolink Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Art Leahy said. “I am in­ter­ested in mak­ing ad­just­ments to our fares that will ben­e­fit our rid­ers, in­crease over­all rid­er­ship and max­i­mize our rev­enue.”

Once hailed as the fastest-grow­ing com­muter line in the na­tion, the rail­road was launched in 1991 as a way to ease high­way con­ges­tion by mov­ing peo­ple long dis­tances be­tween Los An­ge­les and sur­round­ing coun­ties.

In re­cent years, how­ever, it has strug­gled to build rid­er­ship and rev­enue. Buf­feted by the re­ces­sion, chang­ing em­ploy­ment pat­terns in Los An­ge­les and cus­tomer ser­vice is­sues, an­nual rid­er­ship has dropped to about 11.75 mil­lion in fis­cal 2013-14 from about 12.68 mil­lion pas­sen­gers in 2007-08.

The decline has oc­curred even though Metrolink has hired ex­pe­ri­enced mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als, courted em­ploy­ers, tapped into so­cial me­dia and added ex­press ser­vice as well as spe­cial event trains. Safety also has been im­proved since the deadly Chatsworth crash in 2008.

The An­te­lope Val­ley line serves a hot­bed of res­i­den­tial devel­op­ment north of Los An­ge­les. It car­ries com­muters from Lan­caster and Palm­dale, through the Santa Clarita Val­ley, to Union Sta­tion in down­town L.A. But av­er­age daily rid­er­ship has dropped to 5,725 in April from 5,838 a year ear­lier.

For six months start­ing July 1, rid­ers trav­el­ing to des­ti­na­tions be­tween Union Sta­tion and Lan­caster will re­ceive a 25% fare re­duc­tion, ex­cept for week­end pass hold­ers. The change means the stan­dard round trip for the en­tire length of the route will cost $22.50 in­stead of $30, while the regular monthly pass would drop to $320 from $426.75.

Monthly passes pur­chased by stu­dents and youths will be dis­counted 25% on all routes. In ad­di­tion, stu­dents, youths, se­nior cit­i­zens, Medi­care re­cip­i­ents and peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties will get an ad­di­tional 25% off their dis­counted monthly passes if they travel the An­te­lope Val­ley line.

As­sum­ing the max­i­mum dis­count, a stu­dent, for ex­am­ple, would pay $213.38 in­stead of $362.75 for a monthly pass to travel be­tween Union Sta­tion and Lan­caster.

“Awe­some. That would be so nice,” said Zane Sipotz of Ne­whall, who at­tends the Los An­ge­les County High School for the Arts. He es­ti­mates that rid­ing Metrolink now costs him about $225 a month.

To en­cour­age more short dis­tance travel on the An­te­lope Val­ley Line, Metrolink will charge $2 to go sta­tion to sta­tion, which means a trip be­tween Union Sta­tion and Glen­dale will cost $2 in­stead of $5, $4 in­stead of $6.25 to Bur­bank and so on un­til it be­comes cheaper to buy a regular ticket. The fare does not ap­ply to round trip tick­ets, 7-day passes and monthly passes.

In ad­di­tion, the re­duced fares on the An­te­lope Val­ley Line will be valid on Ven­tura line trains be­tween down­town Bur­bank, Glen­dale and Union Sta­tion.

“This is a great idea,” said Akilah Lyons-Moore of Santa Clarita, who com­mutes to down­town Los An­ge­les on the An­te­lope Val­ley Line three times a week. She now pays $20 for a round trip. “I would def­i­nitely ride the train ev­ery day to work.”

The pi­lot pro­gram is sched­uled to end Dec. 31 un­less the Metrolink board of di­rec­tors makes the re­duc­tions per­ma­nent be­fore then. Jeff Lust­garten, a rail­road spokesman, said the re­sults of the ex­per­i­ment and rec­om­men­da­tions could go be­fore the board as soon as fall, with pol­icy de­ci­sions to fol­low by year’s end.

Metrolink of­fi­cials ex­pect the pro­gram to pro­vide a trove of data and show whether lower ticket prices can im­prove rid­er­ship and rev­enue. Fa­vor­able re­sults, they say, could trig­ger fun­da­men­tal changes in the rail­road’s fare sys­tem.

“We are look­ing for the sweet spot here,” Lust­garten said. “We are hop­ing to in­crease rid­ers and our rev­enue stream.”

Bart Reed, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Tran­sit Coali­tion, praised the fare ex­per­i­ment, es­pe­cially the $2 sta­tion-to-sta­tion ticket price, which he de­scribed as a po­ten­tial “game changer.”

Reed said, how­ever, that the lower fares should be com­bined with ad­di­tional trains, more con­ve­nient sched­ules that are syn­chro­nized with public tran­sit and new ameni­ties for rid­ers, such as Wi-Fi and the abil­ity to buy tick­ets on­line with their cell­phones or com­put­ers.

“Those who don’t use Metrolink might try it and you’d get some new busi­ness,” Reed said. But if new rid­ers en­counter bad ser­vice, the fare re­duc­tions might not work, he added.

The rail­road’s board ap­proved the fare re­duc­tion pro­gram in April on a mo­tion from L.A. County Su­per­vi­sor Michael D. Antonovich, whose dis­trict in­cludes the An­te­lope Val­ley line. The Los An­ge­les County Metropoli­tan Trans­porta­tion Author­ity, one of five trans­porta­tion agen­cies that helps fund Metrolink, later pro­vided at the su­per­vi­sor’s re­quest $2.5 mil­lion for the study.

“In ad­di­tion to a tem­po­rary fare re­duc­tion for cur­rent rid­ers on the An­te­lope Val­ley line,” Antonovich said, “this pi­lot pro­gram will pro­vide an in­cen­tive for any prospec­tive rid­ers to try the sys­tem and per­haps be­come regular cus­tomers.”

Antonovich said the fare re­duc­tion is part of a broader plan to im­prove the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence at Metrolink. The rail­road is in the process of buy­ing new lo­co­mo­tives, in­stalling a sec­ond set of tracks in cer­tain ar­eas, re­plac­ing un­re­li­able ticket vend­ing ma­chines at sta­tions and of­fer­ing on­line tick­et­ing op­tions as well as Wi-Fi.

Rick Loomis Los An­ge­les Times

FOR SIX months, Metrolink rid­ers — ex­cept for week­end pass hold­ers — trav­el­ing be­tween Union Sta­tion and Lan­caster will get a 25% fare re­duc­tion.

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