North County bus, train ridership slashed by pandemic, report shows

A man gets on a North County Transit District Breeze bus at the Oceanside Transit Center.
(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Confident of recovery, district continues to plan service expansions


The number of passengers boarding North County Transit District buses and trains declined by 46 percent systemwide in fiscal 2020-21, a new report shows.

COVID-19 caused most of the drop, according to NCTD’s annual operations performance report released Thursday, Jan. 20. Statewide stay-home orders were initiated in March 2020 and in response that month the district reduced its Coaster commuter train service and continued with fewer trains until May 24, 2021.

Sprinter trains, bus routes and the on-demand services FLEX and LIFT, which are less likely to serve inter-city commuters, continued normal schedules.

As a result, Coaster ridership dropped much more than other transit services over the fiscal year. Only 162,707 people boarded the train, down by 83 percent from nearly 1 million riders in the previous fiscal year of 2019-20 and 1.4 million boardings in fiscal 2018-19.

Boardings is a term used to count each time a passenger steps onto a train or bus.

Breeze bus boardings declined by 42 percent in fiscal 2021, while Sprinter trains were down 41 percent. The Sprinter runs between Oceanside and Escondido and carries a high percentage of college students.

Public transit ridership plummeted across the country during the pandemic, which continues to restrict travel and work schedules.

More recent information shows North County riders are beginning to return. The district’s monthly report for November 2021, the most recent data available, shows systemwide ridership for buses and trains was 490,501 that month, an increase of 34.1 percent over the 365,638 riders recorded in November 2020.

Coaster boardings between Oceanside and San Diego peaked in 2015 with about 1.7 million riders for the year. After that it declined for a number of reasons including a dip in the economy, and ridership was rising again when the pandemic struck, district Executive Director Matt Tucker said.

Public transit ridership will always fluctuate in the short term, but over the years it can be expected to increase because of the area’s congested freeways and rapidly growing population, Tucker said.

“The district has never operated with the equipment that constitutes highest and best use,” Tucker said. “Even with only 22 trains, (the Coaster) was one of the most effective modes for reducing miles traveled in the corridor.”

Adding more trains and buses makes public transit more convenient and easier to use by cutting travel time. The district also is investing in new, more reliable and fuel-efficient locomotives and buses with a long-term goal of producing zero emissions.

The Coaster expanded to 30 daily trips in October, and the district expects to have an average of 45 weekday commuter trains by 2025.

Not everyone has faith that public transit will pull out of its pandemic slump. Del Mar City Councilmember Dan Quirk, an alternate on the NCTD board, has said the railroad system is outmoded and not worth additional investments.

“The future of transportation, freight, and transit is electric vehicles and autonomy — using the roads,” Quirk said in a recent letter critical of San Diego’s expansion of its trolley system.

“In light of COVID and the obvious momentum in electrification, the continued fixation on expensive and conflict-creating rail on the part of transit planners is bizarre and very counter-productive,” Quirk said.

Other transit board members have said Quirk’s confidence in electric and self-driving vehicles is overly optimistic, and that the region will need other options — including rail — for many more years.

“If we are going to have continued population growth, we are going to have to harmonize our infrastructure with how we live,” Tucker said, and the future is likely to be a mixture of rail, roads and other modes of transportation.

The coastal tracks are the only railroad link for passengers and freight between San Diego and Los Angeles and other points across the United States.

The San Diego segment of the rail corridor is used by Amtrak, Coaster, Sprinter and BNSF trains.

Orange County’s Metrolink commuter trains now go only as far south as Oceanside, but under a recent agreement with NCTD they could go as far as San Diego for special events in the near future.