Experiencing a sharp reduction in ridership due to the coronavirus pandemic, Metrolink will cut its train service 30% beginning Thursday, March 26.

Metrolink rider Patrick Jara, 55 of San Bernardino, watches as his train to Union Station pulls into the San Bernardino Depot Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Metrolink will be reducing service by 30 percent beginning Thursday amid the coronavirus outbreak and plummeting ridership as a result. Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

In a memo advising Metrolink’s board of directors of the service reductions, CEO Stephanie Wiggins said ridership has declined 81% compared to the same period one year ago. On Friday, March 20, there were 7,139 riders using the rail service compared to 37,004 on the same day last year, according to the email.

Wiggins said it was the plummeting ridership, coupled with $5.9 million in “fuel hedging margin calls” since Feb. 25, that prompted her decision, and Metrolink’s board chairman was in agreement.

Margin calls are requests by Metrolink’s broker to deposit additional funds into the agency’s investment account, Metrolink spokeswoman Sherita Coffelt said via email. Rider fares comprise 34.3% of Metrolink’s revenue, Coffelt said.

“I do not make this decision lightly, as we have been proud to provide vital transportation services to essential employees throughout Southern California,” Wiggins said in her memo, emailed to the board of directors Monday night.

Peak-hour service preserved

The planned service reduction will preserve peak-hour service during morning and evening commute times while avoiding the possibility of overcrowding on trains. Metrolink has posted its new schedule online. The reduced services will remain in effect until further notice.

“We looked carefully at ridership on every line to ensure we allowed for enough service so our riders can spread out and maintain the social distancing guidelines we all are observing,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins on Monday also imposed a hiring freeze, except for essential positions. Other immediate and long-term cost-savings measures also are being considered, including an in-depth evaluation of the agency’s fuel-hedging program, according to the email.

Like other transit authorities across the country, Metrolink officials are hopeful that some type of aid will be made available at the state and federal levels to assist public transportation.

The lobby of the San Bernardino Depot was empty Tuesday, March 24, 2020, while Metrolink trains continue to run with low ridership. Metrolink will reduce service beginning this week by 30%, in response to the coronavirus outbreak and social distancing and stay-at-home orders by the government. Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

Passengers concerned

At the San Bernardino Metrolink station Tuesday, Patrick Jara stood with his mother, Carolyn, at a ticket-dispensing machine so he could catch the 12:31 p.m. train bound for Union Station in Los Angeles. He said he planned to see family and find a place to live and work.

“Coronavirus has slowed a lot of things down,” said Jara, 55, of San Bernardino. He said he does mainly HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) work by trade, along with some general contracting, but such work is scarce in San Bernardino. He’s hoping to have better luck in L.A.

But Jara is a little concerned about Metrolink’s service reduction. He said it is the best way to travel longer distances in shorter periods of time, and is affordable. “I appreciate this system. It’s a good deal and a safe ride,” he said.

Another passenger, Adrianna Rodriguez, said she boards a Metrolink train at Union Station in L.A. twice a week and travels the roughly 50 miles east to visit her family in San Bernardino. While she isn’t necessarily dependent on the train system to get around, she worries about others who commute to work daily.

“People who live here but go to L.A. to work, I know it will affect them,” said Rodriguez, 28, of Los Angeles. “I don’t think it will affect me that much, but there’s still people who are working who commute, and it will affect them a lot.”

Bus service curtailed

Metrolink isn’t the only public transportation system forced to reduce services due to the coronavirus outbreak. Public bus services also have been hit hard by the pandemic.

Omnitrans, which serves the San Bernardino Valley, reduced bus service from Monday, March 23, through April 19. Routes operating every 15 minutes are now operating every 30 minutes, and those operating every 30 minutes will now operate hourly. Routes that normally operate hourly will stay on the same schedule. The agency also is not collecting fares from riders during its reduced service schedule.

A Metrolink train arrives at the San Bernardino depot while no one waits on the platform to board Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Metrolink will reduce service this week by 30% in response to the coronavirus outbreak and social distancing and stay-at-home orders by the government. Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

The Orange County Transportation Authority on Monday, March 23, went to a Sunday-only bus schedule out of a necessity to protect its employees’ health amid the spread of COVID-19. OCTA also said it has seen a 60% drop in ridership over the past two weeks. On Thursday, March 19, fewer than 50,000 boarded OCTA buses, compared to a typical average weekday of 125,000, the agency said.

The Riverside Transit Agency has closed its reception area at least through April 3 and has suspended some bus routes, but the situation is fluid as changes are occurring on an hourly basis. The RTA encourages its riders to regularly check for updates and a list of its out-of-service bus stops by viewing its Rider Alerts page, signing up for iAlerts, or referring to the RTA’s Facebook or Twitter pages.

At the San Bernardino Metrolink station, 21-year-old Jasmine Reeves exited a train shortly before noon Tuesday carrying her 1-month-old daughter, Reminisce, in a carrier draped with a pink blanket. She said she commutes from Los Angeles to her aunt’s home in San Bernardino twice a week. Her aunt helps out with child care.

She said Metrolink’s planned reduction in service will definitely affect her.

“I don’t have a vehicle at this time, so it will be very annoying,” Reeves, 21, said as she texted on her phone.

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