The daily Amtrak route between Indio and Los Angeles is inching closer to reality as slowly as the Coastline Starlight climb on the Cuesta Grade up north out of San Luis Obispo. It’s a long, slow climb, but there are signs of hope on the horizon.
Riverside County supervisors on Tuesday approved a resolution urging approval of a $3 million federal grant to complete the environment assessment of the route. The grant would be matched with $900,000 in local funding.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, wrote to the U.S. secretary of transportation supporting the grant.
“The Coachella Valley-San Gorgonio Passenger Rail project will create a much-needed rail option for over 10 million people, integrate transit networks and promote economic development,” she wrote to Secretary Anthony Foxx. “The proposed rail service will connect San Bernardino, Riverside and Oranges counties to major Metrolink commuter rail routes in Los Angeles and the Los Angeles-San Diego corridor, the second-most traveled rail corridor in the United States.”
Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet made a strong argument in his letter to Foxx and Joseph C. Szabo of the Federal Railroad Administration, citing a recent study by Buxton Companies of Fort Worth, Texas, that analyzed 2 million credit card transactions in the city. Buxton found that two-thirds of transactions came from residents outside of Palm Springs, generating more than 73 percent of dollar volume. The study also found that nearly one-quarter of all transactions came from Los Angeles-area residents.
“Getting people out of the Los Angeles area at peak travel times, however, like Friday afternoons, has proven to be a barrier to even more increased tourism growth in Palm Springs,” Pougnet writes. “Improved passenger rail service could represent a relatively hassle-free alternative to driving on a congested freeway and therefore increase Thursday- and Friday-night stays.”
The city recognized the potential benefits of rail service long ago and built the Palm Springs Train Station. However, the station is in the open desert off Indian Canyon Drive. It has few amenities — no restrooms, no ticket office, no ATM and no WiFi. The city did add Greyhound bus service.
The Sunset Limited train between New Orleans and Los Angeles passes through Palm Springs three times a week.
The Riverside County Transportation Commission has launched a $1.84 million study to determine the best locations for stations in the valley. Allyn Waggle, deputy executive director of the Coachella Valley Association of Governments, said the engineering firm conducting the study could recommend three stations here — the existing station in Palm Springs, downtown Indio, where Amtrak stopped before moving west, and possibly Rancho Mirage.
CVAG owns 17 acres next to the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa, which could make it an attractive stop because there is around-the-clock activity. There could be nine stations along the 141-mile route.
Public forums will be scheduled to discuss station locations and other elements of the plan. It will be a challenging process because everybody wants convenient stations, but more stations make the overall trip longer. The transportation commission estimates the trip to Los Angeles would take three hours — not a commuter service.
The biggest obstacle for the route has been the Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the tracks between Indio and San Bernardino. It has demanded huge investments for track improvements.
However, daily Amtrak service would be a huge boost to our tourism economy. In 2008, Amtrak and Goldenvoice organized the Coachella Express, which carried music fans from Los Angeles to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio. It would be great to see that as a regular option.
• Read the county supervisors’ resolution, previous Desert Sun coverage and a Riverside County Transportation Commission fact sheet on the Coachella Valley-San Gorgonio Passenger Rail project at DesertSun.com/opinion