Amtrak infrastructure proposal would bring improvements to SoCal

Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner traveling south through San Clemente, California. Bryce Jorgensen/Lariat

President Biden announced in March a $2 trillion multi-year infrastructure overhaul that includes $621 billion earmarked for transportation purposes. In correlation with the announcement, Amtrak released a statement and map highlighting a series of proposed new routes as well as existing route improvements under the federal plan.

The plan would bring change to the Southern California market, home to the second busiest train corridor in the nation, San Luis Obispo to San Diego. The map includes proposed lines from the Los Angeles area to both Las Vegas, Nevada, and Phoenix, Arizona, two services that were discontinued in 1997 and 1996 respectively.

“I think they are needed to provide more options for commuters,” said Paulina Reina, a civil engineering professor at California State University, Fullerton. “The expansion of intercity rail will also help in achieving climate goals and lowering carbon emissions from the transportation sector.”

The map released by Amtrak is very primitive as little to no details about specific routes have been given. The highlighting of the LA to Vegas route on the map has caused confusion as Brightline is already creating a high-speed rail between the two cities.

“I’m thinking that is the Brightline West proposal,” said Brian Yanity, vice president of RailPAC’s south division. “There’s going to be clarification from Amtrak because they didn’t really explain too much in this map. I think a lot of news media is pretty confused and thinking that Amtrak is building a new line in addition to Brightline West.”

The map also highlighted the existing Pacific Surfliner railway for enhancements. Improvements from this plan would come in addition to work on the route that has already been funded and is underway.

“There’s quite a bit in the works already,” Yanity said. “They just finished a siding extension down in the San Juan Capistrano, Laguna Niguel area. There’s one they’re about to start in Dana Point called the Serra siding extension.”

Lack of infrastructure for the Pacific Surfliner, mainly a lack of adequate route capacity, has caused the train to face delays on a regular basis. In 2019, Amtrak gave the service a failing grade on its annual host railroad report card.

“A lot of the track on the Surfliner is still single track, particularly north of LA going up towards San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara,” Yanity said. “There’s still a bit in southern Orange County and San Diego County, and the more doubletrack gets built, the more trains they can fit, the less likely they will be delayed.”

Despite the apparent need for extra tracks along the Pacific Surfliner route, Yanity said that he does not believe a double-track in San Clemente is high on the priority list for the corridor.

Beyond Amtrak itself, the arrival of the California High Speed Rail in the region could change the current dynamic of higher-speed rail travel. The portion of the route slated to connect Anaheim to San Francisco via LA’s Union Station will bring infrastructure improvements that could indirectly benefit the Surfliner and similar services.

The Surfliner could see a boost in use from both South Orange County and San Diego County residents as a connector to the high-speed rail. Four tracks with two overhead electrified lines would allow for a greater separation of freight and passenger trains, thus causing fewer delays.

“What that does is creates an opportunity for future electrified Metrolink trains to be using that overhead wire,” Yanity said. “Then the Surfliner can still use that track so people can come from San Diego and connect to the high-speed rail to San Francisco.”

A high-speed rail connection from the currently planned Anaheim terminus to San Diego has been proposed but has yet to receive a timetable. The line would be a part of the project’s second phase and would connect through the Inland Empire via Temecula.

With a presumed era of high-speed rail terminating in North Orange County, The Surfliner route would likely upgrade its capacity to suit connecting passengers. The change would mean that the route’s infrastructure would have to evolve as well, and new funding from the federal infrastructure plan would aid that.

Even in the event of a high-speed rail connection to San Diego, the Pacific Surfliner could still maintain a steady ridership. In a 2012 report, the LOSSAN Agency called for its daily trains to be nearly doubled by 2030, including an increased amount of Surfliner trips.

“You’re gonna have a lot of cities in North San Diego County and South OC,” Yanity said. “They’ll still benefit from a regional train. They’re not going to be on the high-speed rail lines.”