Each morning, employees of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority are met at work with a welcome and a warning: a sign that counts the days until Oct. 26, when they will start service on the first 120 miles of the Metrolink commuter-rail network.
With less than two weeks until launch, time seems to race by faster than, well, a speeding train.
When voters approved a $1-billion statewide bond measure making the system possible, there was nothing to Metrolink; now, less than two years later, there is a fleet of state-of-the-art, periwinkle-and-white trains, tracks to run them on and more than a dozen stations.
A week from Monday, Metrolink trains operating every 45 to 60 minutes will start carrying rush-hour commuters to downtown Los Angeles along three lines running through eastern Ventura County and the San Fernando, Santa Clarita, San Gabriel and Pomona valleys.
But the work is far from over. Before the first passenger boards the first train, rail authority workers and contractors must tend to such critical details as:
* Making sure the concrete has set and the paint has dried on all the new stations, even if the lighting is not fully hooked up and the signs are not installed.
* Painting lines and arrows on the 300- to 1,200-space parking lots adjoining each station.
* Installing the last of the ticket-vending machines and preparing to teach people how to use them.
* Finishing repairs to the railroad tracks and beds.
"It's been a challenge," said Richard Stanger, executive director of the five-county rail authority. "There wasn't an inch of all the (former freight railroad) lines we bought that wasn't tweaked or improved or modified."
Railroad tracks are not the only things in for some last-minute tweaking. Metrolink workers are also providing for fleets of buses and vans that will stop near the trains, providing easy connections for riders from Union Station to their downtown destinations.
After the first week, when all Metrolink rides are free, passengers will use their train tickets to transfer to waiting shuttles at no additional cost. Downtown-bound riders will also be able to transfer to the Metro Red Line subway when it opens, perhaps before the end of the year.
But the Southern California Rapid Transit District, which runs many of the shuttle buses and the Red Line, has complained about using train tickets for transfers. The RTD says Metrolink tickets are ripe for counterfeiting because they can cost as much as $176 for a monthly pass and are easy to duplicate. RTD General Manager Alan Pegg said the district will honor Metrolink tickets through March 31. New counterfeit-resistant passes and tickets are expected to be developed before then.
Most of this last-minute detail work should be invisible to the 3,000 to 4,000 daily passengers who are expected to give the nation's newest commuter railroad a try in its first months, Stanger said.
One thing that will be clearly visible to riders is that some stations will not be open in time for opening day. Stations will not be ready in Baldwin Park and Sylmar until December at the earliest, and at Cal State L.A. for some months after that.
Some of the delays are the result of difficulties in securing environmental and development clearances, Stanger said. Each community served by Metrolink is responsible for building its own station--and most have paid for them with money from a transit-related sales-tax surcharge.
The university stop will be late because it was only recently approved, he said. But it should be worth the wait. Designed by students, the station will include an elevator shaft built to resemble an enormous yellow pencil.
The region's first commuter-train riders also may be in for some delays because of railroad scheduling conflicts. Although Metrolink trains have top priority on the three lines scheduled to open later this month, they still must share the tracks with freight and Amtrak trains.
And modern switches and signals to control the train's progress will have to be installed, taking at least six months, Stanger said. Until then, Metrolink will have to rely on the equipment already in place.
Some of the switches are thrown by hand cranks installed in the 1930s, Stanger said, while commuter trains running through the San Fernando Valley will be guided via radio by Southern Pacific Railroad workers located nearly 400 miles away in Roseville, northeast of Sacramento.
This system is slow but safe, he said.
There are several reasons why Metrolink will have to rely on the old system. One is that a nationwide renaissance of railroad transit--commuter trains, subways and trolleys--has so taxed the capacity of the country's two major railroad signal-makers that new equipment will not be available for at least six months. Stanger said suppliers are working double shifts to get new equipment to Los Angeles.
Transportation officials said that they are in a hurry to start Metrolink service as quickly as possible to show taxpayers the tangible benefits they get for the extra taxes they have levied on themselves to improve transportation.
Starting Metrolink this month is especially important to rail agencies because California voters will be asked Nov. 3 to approve yet another $1 billion in state bonds for rail-transit expansion. Metrolink is scheduled to carry its first commuters just eight days before voters go to the polls.