Desert Sun

Estimated printed pages: 4

July 16, 2008
Section: A
Page: A1

Gas prices fuel talk of expanded rail service
Xochitl Peņa

By Xochitl Peņa
The Desert Sun

Passenger rail advocates and valley leaders are pushing for expanded train service between Los Angeles and the Coachella Valley.

While long a topic of discussion, soaring gas prices and increasing traffic congestion along Interstate 10 have created more urgency than in years past, they say.

To jump-start efforts, state and federal political leaders and transportation officials have been invited to debate specifics on how a desire for more rail service could become a reality.

The forum is planned for September in Palm Desert.

Advocates say passenger rail service to and from the valley could provide:

· A fuel-efficient mode of transportation that could cut down on emissions and traffic congestion.

· More day-trip and business travel options for valley residents to the beach or Los Angeles.

· A boost to the local tourism industry from people who vacation travel by rail.

While the valley is currently serviced by Amtrak, service is limited. The Amtrak long-distance Sunset Limited train stops in Palm Springs at 6:37 a.m. and 5:06 p.m. on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

"Three days is not enough. It should be seven days a week," said Robert Manning, director of the Rail Passenger Association of California. His group is promoting a California Department of Transportation rail plan endorsed two years ago by the Riverside County Transportation Commission that includes stops in Palm Springs and Indio.

Who might benefit

Manning, a Palm Springs resident, said he'd like to see at least two daily round-trip itineraries that valley residents could utilize for business or pleasure.

But individuals who want to visit Los Angeles for business, shopping or a day at the beach wouldn't be the only potential beneficiaries.

Vacation packages could help boost the tourism industry, said Allyn Waggle, deputy director in charge of transportation with the Coachella Valley Association of Governments.

"The hospitality industry, hotel industry, gaming industry — (there's) a number of immediate obvious sources that would benefit from having people here," he said.

The association conducted two rail studies — the most recent in 1999 — that support the need for corridor rail service, Waggle said. "All the factors that applied then are still pertinent."

The viability is much more realistic now because of skyrocketing gas prices, he said.

"The cost of operating railroads has become much more of an agreeable number now that gas is so much higher," he said.

He couldn't say how much it would cost to bring corridor rail service to the desert, but said it would likely be in the millions.

Manning also touted the environmental benefits.

"This is one of the most fuel-efficient modes of transportation," he said. "If we wish to reduce our dependency on oil this would be an opportune time."

Manning's group believes implementation is viable, but only with help from state and federal lawmakers — and money.

U.S. Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Palm Springs, said she sees benefits with more passenger and light rail service and supports the concept as a possible option for the future.

"As soaring gas prices hurt Americans throughout our nation, especially commuters, it is important that we look to transportation alternatives such as passenger rail service.

"Not only could rail service help ease transportation costs, but it would also help ease congestion on our roads and improve air quality," she said in a prepared statement.

Where to catch a train

Right now the only place to catch a train is in Palm Springs at the Palm Springs station off North Indian Canyon Drive.

The statewide plan calls for a stop in Indio and city officials there are anxious to see that happen.

Indio, the valley's largest city, was once known as a railroad town. Plans are in the works for a new transportation center along Indio Boulevard that would eventually include a stop for passenger rail service — among many modes of transit.

"We think it's an important service to the valley and are working hard to make that happen," said Mark Wasserman, assistant to the Indio city manager.

KEB Enterprises has been tapped to design, build and then run the center for the city.

"It would bring more people to Indio and certainly the east valley," Wasserman said.

The statewide plan doesn't call for a stop in Rancho Mirage, but Manning said a mid-valley stop near Bob Hope Drive makes sense and he can see it developed once corridor service has been established.

CVAG already owns about 17 acres in that area set aside for that reason.

"There's been no discussion of using it for anything else," said Waggle.

What do you think?

Would you ride the train if better rail service was offered? Vote at

Glance: If you go: Rail Forum

The Rail Passenger Association of California will host a panel discussion from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sept. 20 at the University of California, Riverside Palm Desert Graduate Center auditorium, 75-080 Frank Sinatra Drive in Palm Desert.

Political leaders, transportation officials and the public are invited. Discussion will focus on what is needed to bring daily rail service to the desert.

For more information, call the association at (916) 833-4218.

Train service

Currently, the Amtrak Sunset limited train makes the only stop in the Coachella Valley in Palm Springs at 6:37 a.m. and 5:06 p.m. on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

The morning stop ends in Los Angeles and makes stops along the way in Ontario and Pomona.

The evening stop ends in New Orleans and makes many stop along the way including Tucson, Ariz., and El Paso, Texas