Commuter trains, long popular in the northeastern United States, may be rolling through Orange County as soon as 1990.
Under discussion among state, county and private transportation officials is a new service of two morning commuter trains that would leave San Clemente for Los Angeles, make four stops in Orange County and return at night. The proposed stops are San Juan Capistrano, Santa Ana, Anaheim and Fullerton.
In San Diego County, two trains would leave Oceanside for San Diego in the morning and return at night. The purchase price for the service is estimated at $32 million for five double-decker trains--two for each county and one in reserve.
Orange County officials want the trains whisking passengers northward by early 1990, when Caltrans begins its massive project to widen the Santa Ana Freeway. Preliminary construction work by the state Department of Transportation is scheduled to start next year.
"There will be a real mobility crisis in the I-5 corridor," said Sharon Greene, a private consultant to the Orange County Transportation Commission. "This service is a direct alternative to traffic jams."
Operating costs to run the two commuter lines along existing rails in Orange and San Diego counties are estimated at $1.54 million a year in 1986 dollars, according to a state report called the Los Angeles-San Diego State Rail Corridor study.
Train tickets could be as low as $1.50 under a proposal in the study, but transportation officials Thursday said they probably would average twice that or more.
"In the next two years this could go in," said Dana Reed, the public representative on the eight-member county transportation commission. "It's simply a matter of finding money for equipment and trackage rights."
The Transportation Commission's first public hearing on the detailed commuter line proposal will come at its June 13 meeting.
Last week, officials of Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties agreed to form a joint powers authority to oversee a much more ambitious, $246-million program recommended by the state Rail Corridor study to improve overall rail service between Los Angeles and San Diego.
The improvements would include laying new track, building new stations and adding two new Amtrak trains.
In 1987, Amtrak carried 1.5 million passengers along the 128-mile Los Angeles-San Diego line, the second-busiest rail corridor in the United States. About 10 million passengers last year rode Amtrak's busiest line, between New York and Washington.
The new commuter trains proposed for San Clemente to Los Angeles would be operated by Amtrak with a separate joint powers authority or other governing body actually in charge of the line, Greene said.
Under the 1971 National Railroad Passenger Act, Amtrak can run a rail commuter service only by contracting with another agency and only if it can make money.
"We can do it and we'd be only too happy," said Arthur Lloyd, an Amtrak spokesman in San Francisco.
Lloyd said Amtrak now operates commuter rail lines under contract in Maryland and for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
As envisioned by Orange County officials, the Orange County-Los Angeles line would closely resemble one in the San Francisco Bay Area.
That line, operated by Caltrans on a Southern Pacific Railroad line, runs double-decker trains between San Francisco and San Jose.
"Orange County has expressed a lot of interest in it," said Lee F. Deter, chief of Caltrans' Mass Transportation Division in Sacramento. "There's certainly a need for service down there."
Stan Oftelie, executive director of the Orange County Transportation Commission, said, "We think we can replicate it and improve upon it because of the ridership demand in this area."
The state study estimates that the line here would carry 400,000 to 600,000 passengers the first year. The trains would leave San Clemente at 6 and 7 a.m. daily for a 1 1/2-hour trip to downtown Los Angeles. They would leave Los Angeles at 4:20 and 5:20 p.m. for the return.
But the commuter line here faces one major hurdle: money to buy the trains and the rights to run them on the existing Santa Fe railroad tracks.
Transportation officials with the three counties want to buy outright 100 miles of Santa Fe Railway track between Fullerton and San Diego.
Only one freight train a day--which still is profitable, Santa Fe claims--runs over the tracks today, and Santa Fe would like to sell the line "under the right conditions and right terms," said Mike Martin, a spokesman for the railroad company.
"There's a possibility that something can be worked out," Martin said Thursday. "But at this point in time no details on dollars or numbers of trains have been discussed."
Santa Fe wants to keep its 28-mile stretch of track from Fullerton to Los Angeles but would consider allowing the commuter trains to run over the line for a fee.