Connecting the Dots: Bus Service between Riverside and the Coachella Valley

In terms of bus service, Riverside County can be divided into three parts:

  • Western Riverside County, from the border with San Bernardino and Orange Counties to the San Gorgonio Pass (Beaumont/Banning). This area includes the City of Riverside, which is the county seat.
  • Coachella Valley, including Palm Springs, Desert Hot Springs, La Quinta, Indio, Coachella, etc.
  • Palo Verde Valley: City of Blythe near the Arizona border.

Local bus service (Riverside Transit Agency, Sunline Transit, and Palo Verde Transit) within each of these areas developed in the mid-1970s. However, none of these agencies connected with each other. For example, to travel from Riverside to Palm Springs required the use of a private carrier (usually Greyhound Bus Lines).

Although Greyhound provided relatively frequent service, it was not always convenient for passengers making shorter trips, such as between Western Riverside County and the Coachella Valley. Therefore, the transit agencies considered implementing an interconnecting bus route between Riverside and Palm Springs as early as 1978. Such a route presents several challenges. The distance between the two cities is long, about 56 miles. Also, the route would go through areas that were (and, to some extent, still are), lightly populated, limiting opportunities to pick up passengers. Both these challenges make such a service expensive to operate.

The first attempt to link the two areas was in mid-1989. Sunline Transit started operating a new route #31, which provided a commuter service from Banning to the Coachella Valley. The bus left Banning at 6:13 a.m., arriving in the Coachella Valley at about 7. The return trip left about 4:45 pm, getting back to Banning by around 6 p.m Most of the Coachella Valley stops were at hotels; the service was obviously meant for hotel workers living in Banning to get to their jobs in the Coachella Valley. There was even a stop at a day care center in Banning so that parents could drop off their children before continuing on to the Coachella Valley. Route #31 lasted for about six months, then it was canceled by the end of the year. (I was only made aware of the route when, in March 1990, I was traveling through Banning and noticed a Sunline bus stop sign that had not been removed yet.)

Sunline #31
Sunline #31

In early 1992, RTA and Sunlink officials held a joint meeting in Banning. The purpose of the meeting was to determine ways in which the two agencies could work together. Most of the discussion centered around ideas such as using the other agency’s buses in an emergency, or perhaps joint purchases of buses, fuel or other equipment. However, I presented a plan to connect the two agencies with a bus route serving Riverside, Moreno Valley, Banning, Beaumont and Palm Springs. The general managers of both RTA and Sunline seemed genuinely interested in my proposal.

In mid 1995 or 1996, RTA extended a bus route, #35 between Moreno Valley and Beaumont. Many transit advocates (myself included) thought this route was a precursor to full Riverside-Palm Springs service.


Sunlink Bus

By the late 1990s, discussion started up again about service between the Coachella Valley and Riverside. Sunline Transit decided to implement a new service, known as Sunlink, that would provide express service from points in the Coachella Valley to Downtown Riverside. The service, which featured tractor-trailer Superbuses, started in January 2000.

Originally, Sunlink was intended as an extension of Metrolink commuter rail service between Los Angeles and Riverside. The Superbuses, which were originally used on commuter routes between Los Angeles and Orange County, were equipped with a restroom, coffee machine, snack bar, and outlets for laptops.

Fares were considerably more expensive than local or even express bus service: $8 each way, or $12 for a round trip. (In a first for California, buses featured credit card readers for passenger convenience). The high fares, as well as the limited number of trips (generally about five or six round trips per weekday) kept ridership low. Sunline tweaked with the route and schedules, adding stops at the Morongo Casino, the outlet mall in Cabazon, and the V.A. Hospital in Loma Linda. But ridership stayed anemic and Sunline, concerned about high per-passenger subsidies on the route, canceled Sunlink in April 2004.

(Not?) the Return of Sunlink

After the death of Sunlink, those needing to travel between Riverside and Palm Springs were forced back on to Greyhound. But Greyhound had significantly cut back schedules over the past decade, and, even worse, lost its lease on its Palm Springs station in 2007. The replacement stop, the Amtrak station just south of Desert Hot Springs, is in an inconvenient location, and poorly served by local transit.

This time, Sunlink planned to cooperate with RTA. Two of RTA’s Commuterlink #210 runs between Banning and Riverside would be cancelled and replaced with Sunlink’s commuter route, which would at the Palm Desert Mall. From Banning westward, the Sunline bus would make all of the existing #210 stops. Fares would be reasonable; $3 (the current Commuterlink fare) from Palm Desert to Banning or from Banning to Riverside; the full trip would cost $6. Some potential riders have expressed concerns about the schedule and the lack of connections between the new commuter service and Sunline’s existing services (the commuter bus would leave Palm Desert before any Sunline locals could connect to it).

Public hearings and other preliminary tasks are currently underway at both RTA and Sunline; service could start in September 2012.

Proposed Sunline extension of RTA #210
Proposed Sunline extension of RTA #210


1976 Riverside County Subregional Short Range Transit Plan. Riverside County: Planning Dept., 1976

Riverside County Short Range Transit Plan, 1979-1983. Riverside, CA: S.n., 1978.

“Commuter Bus Service to Begin Monday.: Desert Sun, Jan 29, 2000. (retrieved June 12, 2012)

Gabbard, Dana. “Sunline Trip Report.” Transit Advocate, March 2003.

Trone, Kimberly. “New Year Brings Revised Bus Schedule.” Desert Sun, Dec 20, 2003.

____, “Sunline Scraps Commutes Outside Valley.” Desert Sun, April 5, 2004.

Frith, Stephanie. “Greyhound’s gone, but what’s next?” Desert Sun, Jul 2, 2007 (page 23 of PDF) (page 18 of PDF)

Atagi, Colin. “Palm Desert-Riverside bus route eyed by SunLine Transit Agency.“ Desert Sun, Apr 22, 2012.

_____. “SunLine Commuter Bus from Palm Desert to Riverside a possibility.” Desert Sun, May 30, 2012

_____. “Residents Discuss Commuter Bus Line to Riverside.” Desert Sun, Jun 7, 2012.


8 Comments to "Connecting the Dots: Bus Service between Riverside and the Coachella Valley"

  1. June 15, 2012 - 7:32 pm | Permalink

    I moved to Riverside in ’03, so I remember seeing some of those Superbuses at the downtown terminal during commute hours. I thought they were the coolest damn transit vehicles I’d ever seen. I think it’s sad nobody’s running them on anything right now– I think they ended up in mothballs at OCTA.

  2. Bob Davis's Gravatar Bob Davis
    June 16, 2012 - 10:50 pm | Permalink

    A bit off-topic, but this discussion reminded me of a small carrier that (as I recall) went by the rather grandiose name of California Bus Lines. It ran between downtown Riverside and Hemet. The reason I remember it was because I noticed the buses back in the late 60’s/early 70’s when I had a series of decrepit old cars that would just barely make to what was then Orange Empire Trolley Museum. For example, the 1957 Ford Raunchero, this is the unit that I’d have to put a quart of oil into the engine at OETM to get back home after a day of trackwork or streetcar repairs. I was always on the lookout for an alternate way to get home if one of these spavined old rustbuckets failed on the far side of Box Springs Grade, and Cal Bus, with its fleet of a handful of GMC suburban old-look coaches would have been an option if it had stopped in Perris.

  3. June 22, 2012 - 1:33 pm | Permalink

    The Riverside-Coachella Valley route is now served by a twice daily Amtrak Thruway Bus from Fullerton, with stops at the Riverside Metrolink Station, Cabazon, Downtown Plalm Springs, Palm Springs Airport, La Quinta and Indio. It is doing quite well with it’s connections to the Pacific Surfliner in both directions. It uses highway coaches complete with WiFi 🙂

    The Phantom has always wondered why Metrolink has never developed a system of commuter bus routes to extend the reach of its trains and fill in gaps in their midday, night and weekend schedules. GO Transit in Toronto has an excellent network of buses that connect with trains. Vallejo Transit also operates buses to fill in gaps in their Baylink Ferry schedule. Why not Metrolink ?

  4. cph's Gravatar cph
    June 22, 2012 - 6:09 pm | Permalink

    @Phantom: That doesn’t sound too bad, except that (I think) it’s only for Amtrak passengers connecting to a train in Fullerton. If we could get this opened up for local service, like the Highway 17 Express or Monterey-Salinas Transit #55, we might have another alternative for Riverside-Palm Springs trips.

  5. June 23, 2012 - 6:39 pm | Permalink

    @Phantom- What cph said. I’ve also long wondered why Metrolink won’t supplement their rail service with bus routes, especially when the rail lines almost all follow freeways. (OC & AV- I-5, SB- I-10, Riv- CA-60, 91… yeah, that’s self-evident, Ventura the 101)

  6. bh's Gravatar bh
    June 28, 2012 - 9:39 am | Permalink

    can’t wait to ride this line. It should have been up an running years ago… A lot of people have been waiting for this, “what took you so longgg?????????

  7. Dexter Wong's Gravatar Dexter Wong
    July 5, 2012 - 2:16 am | Permalink

    Your article has cleared up a lot of the questions I have had over transit connections between communities in greater Riverside County. The geography has made transit service seem very poor to those who don’t know the region which includes the Mojave Desert.

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