Ending three years of bare-knuckle back-room negotiation, regional transportation officials agreed Thursday to buy 336 miles of track from the Santa Fe railroad needed for several vital trolley and commuter lines.
The $500-million deal will, within three years, create the nation's sixth-largest commuter railroad and bring rail transit to large portions of Southern California that otherwise would probably never see such service.
Jubilant officials from Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties--which, along with Ventura County, make up the Southern California Regional Rail Authority--made no effort to contain their enthusiasm as they joined Santa Fe executives at Union Station to announce the agreement.
"There is a great deal of satisfaction knowing that something that was destroyed long ago--rail service for the people of Southern California--is going to be restored," said Susan Cornelison, a Riverside County Transportation Commission member who helped negotiate the deal.
The track purchased Thursday will let the regional rail authority's Metrolink commuter service extend from Los Angeles to San Bernardino and Orange counties, and between Riverside and Orange counties. The services, which should be in operation by the end of 1993, will be in addition to the existing Amtrak service in these areas.
Commuter trains, unlike subways or trolleys, are designed for long-distance commuting and have stations about five miles apart.
For Orange County commuters, Thursday's deal means that there will be more passenger trains to choose from, running more frequently, and four new passenger depots serving Mission Viejo-Laguna Niguel, Tustin-North Irvine, Orange and Buena Park.
Passenger service between Riverside and Orange counties is also envisioned, with new depots in Placentia and Yorba Linda, but the timing of that project is uncertain.
"Now that we have the right of way, we can add service and stations without Santa Fe's approval, which was always impossible to get in the past," said Dana W. Reed, a board member of both the Orange County Transportation Authority and the regional rail agency.
"As a user of the train, I'm excited," said Reed, who commutes by rail from Orange County to downtown Los Angeles twice a week.
"Ownership of the tracks is the foundation that makes commuter rail real," said Stan Oftelie, OCTA's chief executive officer.
Eventually, 18 round trips will be available between San Juan Capistrano and Los Angeles, with connections to Ventura, the Santa Clarita Valley and other destinations.
Today there are nine trains, one of which is the OCTA's own double-decked commuter train, which has more than 4,000 boardings per month. The rest are Amtrak trains that are not designed for daily commuter runs but which are being used by some Orange County residents for that purpose.
Beginning in September, all of the existing OCTA and Amtrak trains will stop in Irvine. Only two trains stop there now. Later this year, officials say, OCTA's service may be extended to Oceanside.
Sometime next year, a second OCTA commuter train will be put into service, adding a second round trip between San Juan Capistrano and Los Angeles. And by the end of 1993, the OCTA commuter trains will officially become part of the regional Metrolink system, with Metrolink fares and transfers. Still more trains will be added after 1993, eventually brining the total of daily round trips to 18 or more.
But travelers will begin seeing the Metrolink name long before OCTA's trains officially join the system late next year. That's because OCTA will be using Metrolink equipment later this summer to replace locomotives and double-decked cars borrowed last year from the California Department of Transportation's CalTrain, which serves the San Francisco peninsula. The new equipment will bear the Metrolink name and logos.
A critical piece of track was included in the deal that closes a gap between Orange and Placentia. The track will be needed in the future for rail service between central Orange County and Riverside.
Orange County will contribute $113 million toward the deal with Santa Fe, more than $70 million of which will come from Measure M, the half-cent sales tax increase for transportation improvements approved by county voters in November, 1990. The rest of Orange County's contribution will come from state rail bond proceeds. The deal includes land needed to extend the Blue Line trolley from Union Station in Los Angeles to Pasadena.
"It's a historic breakthrough," said Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, whose staff helped keep talks going during several impasses. "People said they wanted transportation, wanted an alternative (to cars), and said they were willing to tax themselves to get it. . . . Now they will get it."
Several speakers mentioned the unusual degree of cooperation among the five counties, which they said will make it far easier for the region to coordinate cross-border bus services and countywide plans to ease congestion.