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L.A.-San Diego--Amtrak Wants Run Speedier, Cushier

January 28, 1985|DAVID SMOLLAR | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — An eighth daily round-trip train, first-class club cars and promotional fares are the first steps Amtrak is considering--for as early as April--to improve rail service between San Diego and Los Angeles.

The government-financed corporation also is researching the estimated cost and ridership if 10 daily round trips were run at sustained speeds of 100 m.p.h., with a goal of cutting substantial time from the present 2-hour, 45-minute one-way trip.

Amtrak will offer these and other proposals, both short- and long-range, to members of a three-county task force at their first meeting in California next month.

The special group of representatives from Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties will seek to boost ridership without increasing expenditures, particularly in light of the collapse in November of a controversial private plan to run 160-m.p.h. trains every half hour at a cost of $3.1 billion.

In interviews here, key Amtrak officials endorsed the task force idea, and especially the effort for improvements at minimum cost.

Amtrak does not expect Congress to go along with an expected Reagan Administration budget request to eliminate government funding for the corporation. But even with continued funding, perhaps at a reduced level, Amtrak will be hard-pressed to justify major new capital expenditures, the officials said.

"I know a lot of Californians don't believe 100 high-speed trains a day are necessary, but would still like more frequency and higher speeds," said James H. English, vice president of intergovernmental affairs. "But anything we do must be cost-effective."

A major lobbying effort for an eighth round trip has been made by state and local officials. Santa Ana Mayor Dan Griset and top Caltrans planners promoted the train in Washington meetings with English last week.

Covering Its Costs

"It could be added with the October schedule changes, but the question will be whether the train can cover its operating costs," English said. Amtrak does not want to subsidize a new train, he said. Caltrans could agree to pick up two-thirds of the operating deficit of any new train, similar to what it now does for four of the seven daily round trips, but so far it has not indicated a willingness to do so.

The Los Angeles-San Diego corridor attracted 1.22 million riders last year--about 3,200 riders a day--and required a $2.98-million subsidy after generating $14.1 million in revenues and sustaining operating costs of $17.1 million.

"The study of an eighth train centers on an early morning arrival in San Diego," said Ira Silverman, director of route marketing for Amtrak.

"How early it could arrive is undecided," Silverman said. "The question is whether to put it into San Diego at 8:30 a.m. or at 9:30 a.m."

Possibly Too Early

In essence, the earlier the train arrives in San Diego, the earlier it must leave Los Angeles, making it less likely that riders would board there. Silverman does not know if there are enough additional commuters to be attracted in Orange and northern San Diego counties to justify the train.

Silverman expects a decision within a month on whether to offer first-class club service on some or all of the present seven daily round trips beginning with April schedule changes.

Wider-seat "Metroliner" cars will be used, he said.

Although Caltrans has asked Amtrak to institute the 25% round-trip discount promotional fares offered in both 1982 and 1983, Silverman said Amtrak expects that any new promotions will be more selective.

"We may target the fare only for certain trains, or only for certain cities, or only on certain days of the week," Silverman said.

"If we do it across the board at 25% off, as previously, you need a 33% increase in riders just to keep revenues even."

Issue of Faster Trains

The question of faster trains has vexed Amtrak--particularly Silverman--for years.

Although trains theoretically can make the trip in 2 1/2 hours even at the average 51-m.p.h. running speed, they are slowed by the need to pull off onto sidings periodically to allow trains going the opposite direction to pass.

Silverman said that a 2-hour, 15-minute one-way time "would be great" because the train would then be competitive with the fastest one-way driving times between Los Angeles and San Diego.

The single-track nature of the line for more than two-thirds of its 130-mile length, between Fullerton and San Diego, works against faster times without adding improvements, Amtrak operations officials in Washington said.

An engineering study under way by Amtrak will look at what would be required--and how much it would cost--to run 10 round trips at speeds up to 100 m.p.h.

"I must caution that there are no expectations yet for any funding of such a program," said Allan F. Edelston, general manager of operations.

"I will say that compared to the bullet train plans, this would be at minuscule cost, and would result in good, reliable service," Edelston said.

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