Ultra Cheap Pacific Surfliner to San Diego

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One of the busiest intercity rail services in the US is the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner. It runs between San Luis Obispo on the Central Coast and San Diego in California, with many trains short-turning at Los Angeles. Unlike most Amtrak routes, the Surfliner is actually a pretty compelling transportation option; for most of the stations along the line, taking the Pacific Surfliner is as fast as, if not faster than driving. Additionally, trains run once an hour at peak (fairly frequent by American standards), and run as late as 9pm. The stops in San Diego are great, with fantastic intermodal connections, including with the San Diego Trolley. Not to mention, about half of the route between LA and San Diego runs right on the Pacific coast, offering some breathtaking views. Because of these factors, I (and many other commuters) like using it as a quick way to get to San Diego for a day/weekend trip.

Taken in San Clemente, CA; the Pacific Surfliner runs on the tracks on the foreground.

Unfortunately, a big shortcoming of the Surfliner is its cost. It seems like Amtrak/Caltrans want to have a pretty high farebox recovery rate on this route, and although trains are usually quite full, the ridership doesn’t seem to be enough to enable single-digit fares like on the Northeast Corridor. This means that a one-way trip from San Diego to Los Angeles is usually $36. Note that tickets on the Surfliner are not day-specific (i.e., a ticket purchased today can be used anytime between today and one year from today), so prices don’t vary over time, which differs from most Amtrak routes. That also means booking in advance won’t yield a discount from the standard $36 price.

While $36 for a 150 mile / 3 hour trip is by no means expensive, I am still a cheapskate and I wanted to find an even cheaper way to use the Surfliner. The obvious avenue was Amtrak’s “Rail 2 Rail” program, where they offer ticket reciprocity for Metrolink monthly pass holders and San Diego NCTD daily/monthly pass holders. That means that Metrolink or NCTD pass holders can travel on Surfliner trains between the stations listed on their tickets for free, effectively supplementing Metrolink and NCTD service along their respective corridors. I think this program is a win for everyone – more ridership for agencies and more options for transit users.

Exploiting “Rail 2 Rail”, however, was always elusive. NCTD has long offered a $15 day pass that does have ticket reciprocity with the Surfliner, essentially implying that any Surfliner trips between San Diego and Oceanside (the northern boundary of NCTD’s service territory) in one day are a $15 flat rate – already much cheaper than Amtrak’s fare. However, this doesn’t cover the Surfliner segment in Metrolink’s service territory, from Oceanside to LA Union Station. Metrolink is a little trickier because they don’t offer day passes, and only monthly passes are eligible for ticket reciprocity with Amtrak. Keep in mind that monthly passes on Metrolink are fairly expensive: a pass for the LA Union Station to Oceanside segment is around $500 – far more than an Amtrak ticket!

Enter Metrolink’s free monthly pass program for students. On October 9th, 2023, Metrolink’s Student Adventure Pass program came into force. This program, funded by a State of California grant (yay California!), offers completely free Metrolink trips around the entire network for college students (including those outside of California) and youth under 18, including monthly passes, for the next six months! This is a fantastic program, and it means otherwise cost-prohibitive Metrolink regional trips are now accessible to college students and youth. And to be clear, through the Student Adventure Pass, a Metrolink monthly pass is completely free. Although one-way and round-trip Student Adventure Pass tickets can be purchased through the Metrolink app, monthly passes need to be purchased in-person at a Metrolink station ticket machine. Buying a Student Adventure Pass monthly ticket is entirely automated on the ticket machine and doesn’t require a student ID or any other validation; it only took me about 30 seconds to get a monthly ticket at LA Union Station – refer to Metrolink’s site for more details.

What does this imply? We can take advantage of Amtrak’s “Rail 2 Rail” ticket reciprocity program by combining a free Metrolink monthly pass and a $15 NCTD day pass to cover the entire Surfliner trip between Los Angeles Union Station and San Diego. As long as you depart and return on the same day, this strategy would make a Surfliner round-trip $15 instead of $72 – a huge savings! I tested this method on a Surfliner trip in early October and confirmed that conductors will accept the Student Adventure Pass Metrolink monthly passes + NCTD day pass as valid Amtrak fare between LA Union Station and San Diego.

A few interesting points too: Metrolink stipulates that conductors on their trains will check for student ID when a Student Adventure Pass ticket is used, but it seems like this memo didn’t get to the Amtrak conductors, so my student ID was never actually checked when I used this method recently. Moreover, not all Amtrak conductors have the necessary equipment to scan and validate Metrolink tickets. Likewise, since NCTD day passes are loaded on San Diego PRONTO cards, no Amtrak staff have the ability to validate those passes. In the latter case, I think it’d be pretty easy to get away with not actually buying a NCTD day pass if you have a PRONTO card to show, since I just flashed my PRONTO card as evidence of my NCTD pass and I wasn’t asked any further questions. But of course, I’m not trying to encourage fare evasion here – it’s not right and it’s also important to be supporting our transit agencies financially 🙂

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