For motorists zipping down Los Angeles Avenue in Simi Valley Wednesday morning, the political show staged along the adjacent railroad track must have been a strange sight.
A few yards from the track, three state senators, an assemblywoman, a mayor and a county supervisor, all wearing pinstripe conductor caps, stood behind a lectern in the dirt and gravel and preened for the television cameras.
Their political speeches were momentarily cut short at 10:45 a.m. when a blur of shiny silver, an Amtrak train headed for Seattle, roared by. Surveying the scene for a split second, the conductor looked puzzled as the politicians waved and shouted.
Simi Valley didn't rate even a whistle stop Wednesday, but the politicians from Ventura County and the San Fernando Valley hope to change that. The lawmakers, invited by state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia), had gathered to announce that they had formed a coalition to promote Amtrak service for their constituents.
What the politicians want is for Amtrak to extend its highly popular San Diego-to-Los Angeles service through the Valley and Ventura County to Santa Barbara. The Amtrak line, which would make one round trip daily, would stop in Burbank, Panorama City, Simi Valley, Oxnard, Ventura, Santa Barbara and Goleta.
Just how close this wish is to becoming reality is unknown, but the California Department of Transportation is high on the idea. Caltrans has been negotiating with Amtrak to extend one of its daily runs between San Diego and Los Angeles north to Santa Barbara.
But $7.8 million and the blessing of Southern Pacific Transportation Co., the owner of the track, is needed before the new northern line, tentatively called the Venturan, could be started.
Amtrak wants to remodel its trains before it considers enlarging its routes. It would cost the state $3.3 million and Amtrak $4.5 million to retrofit all the trains now traveling between Los Angeles and San Diego, according to Warren Weber, chief of Caltrans' Office of Rail Service.
The modifications would reduce labor and other costs associated with operating the trains, thereby making an eighth San Diego run and a new northern run economically feasible, Weber said. Caltrans has recommended to the state Transportation Commission that it approve the $3.3-million expenditure at its meeting next Thursday. Amtrak's board of directors is expected to vote on its share of the cost at its meeting late next month.
If all goes well, Amtrak could begin picking up passengers in the Valley and in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties by late next summer, Weber said.
Although state officials are optimistic, Arthur Lloyd, the West Coast spokesman for Amtrak, was cautious. He said he could not predict whether Amtrak's board would approve the expenditure.
"There are a good many things that have to be done," Lloyd warned. "It is still in the proposal stage."
Also still in question is whether Southern Pacific will approve the plan. Complicating the matter is the expected merger of Santa Fe Railway and Southern Pacific.
At the press conference, the local politicians blamed Southern Pacific for the failure of CalTrain, the ill-fated commuter line that ran between Oxnard and Los Angeles at one time.
"Southern Pacific did everything it could to sabotage CalTrain," Davis said. "We hope their attitude will not be as negative as it was with CalTrain."
Robert Taggart, Southern Pacific's vice president for public affairs, said the railroad has not seen any concrete proposal and is reserving judgment.
Some of the problems encountered with the CalTrain run, in which the railroad was forced to participate, could appear again, he suggested.
"The same concerns will be raised, that is: 'Can the railroad adequately and appropriately and efficiently serve its freight customers and provide Amtrak service at the same time?' " Taggart said.
"I can say this. If a final proposal is made, it will receive serious and fair consideration."
Meanwhile, Davis and the other politicians at the press conference--state Sens. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) and Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys), Assemblywoman Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn and Simi Valley Mayor Elton Gallegly--talked excitedly about the prospects of getting a train to stop in their territory.
"This is my most joyous moment," Flynn said. "I've been a supervisor for 10 years. I can't think of anything that is better than what's happened today."