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A SPECIAL REPORT ON TRANSPORTATION : The Fast-Track Commuters Are All Aboard the Train

December 11, 1988|JOHN SPANO | Times Staff Writer and

In September, on the way home from work, a heavyset man carrying two beers fell into my lap when the train car lurched.

I was in a mild state of shock, but he scrambled up quickly and apologized. I was OK. And like a true train creature, my involuntary assailant spilled not one drop. Aside from the occasional train that is late or canceled, that's the worst thing that happened to me while traveling on Amtrak over the last 10 months. And there were a lot of good things.

Amtrak's 16 trains running daily between San Diego and Los Angeles are reasonably clean and well- kept, the seats large and comfortable. My fellow travelers are a congenial bunch. They hold Halloween parties. One cluster plays a variant of Trivial Pursuit. Munchables are available in the cafe car, which every six-car train includes.

In case you think train travel is not here to stay, consider that Irvine is putting more than $5 million ($12.5 million including real estate) into a station, parking lot and bus terminal, with completion due in early 1990.

Other stations have been revamped. The rails are being upgraded between Fullerton and San Diego in a project financed jointly by the state, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, Amtrak and the Santa Fe Railroad. Amtrak says trains on this run, subsidized by the state, are turning a profit. And a consortium of local governments, seeking a way to end Santa Fe Railroad's stranglehold on commuter traffic, is seriously considering buying the right of way between Fullerton and San Diego.

Some cities have asked that an extra rail line be added between Irvine and Santa Ana. It would return dividends of improved customer service over the now-single track line. Since the tracks were improved between Fullerton and Santa Ana in September, on-time performance is running between 90% and 96%, Amtrak says.

More people seem to be trading the car drive for a train ride. In August, 8.5% more commuters took the train than a year earlier; 137,474, or an added 9.4%, climbed aboard in September. Amtrak carried nearly 1.5 million passengers on this route in 1987.

The trip from the Santa Ana station to Union Station on Alameda Street in Los Angeles is about 1 hour. The price: $64 per week when you buy a book of 10 one-way trips.

So the next time you're creeping toward downtown Los Angeles, hemmed in by double tractor-trailer trucks, afraid to take a deep breath and already late, think of those folks on the train, whizzing along at speeds approaching 90 m.p.h., reading the paper, drinking coffee, socializing or sleeping.

Orange County's true happy commuters.

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