The plan was to start commuter train service to the northernmost reaches of Los Angeles County in about a decade. But that plan didn't include a 6.6 earthquake that would knock freeways out of service.
So in the pre-dawn darkness Monday, one week nearly to the minute after the devastating Northridge quake, Metrolink service began in the Antelope Valley, a service that will probably remain in effect even after the freeways are repaired.
For Palmdale resident Mark Collison, the conversion from motorist to train rider took only a few attempts last week to reach his job in Burbank by freeway. He switched to the Metrolink out of Santa Clarita last week and on Monday was among the first 400 people to board the train in Palmdale.
About 30% of the 250-person work force at the stainless-steel manufacturing firm where Collison works live in the Antelope or Santa Clarita valleys. "We'll be having production meetings on the train," Collison said.
With repairs on the Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways not expected to be completed for a year, Richard Stanger, executive director of Metrolink, said commuters from north Los Angeles County have become a captive audience.
Metrolink ridership has soared since the earthquake, with nearly all of the increase from the Santa Clarita and just-opened Antelope Valley stations. Total ridership from the two stations was expected to reach 16,000 Monday, compared to 13,000 Friday and 1,000 before the quake from Santa Clarita. Ridership systemwide has jumped from 10,000 to 25,000 since the quake.
"It was great. It was very non-stressful, very relaxing," said Timothy Velasquez, 40, of Quartz Hill, as he stepped onto the platform at the newly built Palmdale station about 6:30 p.m. Monday, ending a day that began with a 3 a.m. wake-up to catch a 4:26 a.m. train.
Velasquez said he is considering sticking with Metrolink, even though the round trip to his job in Glendale takes more than four hours, about an hour more than in the van pool he previously used.
U. S. Transportation Secretary Federico Pena, who was helicoptered to the Antelope Valley for a short visit Sunday and then on Monday rode the Metrolink from Santa Clarita to Downtown Los Angeles, said auto ride-sharing also will be critical in the coming months.
Necessity, he said, should put an end to the predominance of single-occupant cars, at least in some parts of the area.
Antelope Valley commuters, already contending with lengthy commutes to their San Fernando Valley and Downtown work sites, are facing very long travel times. Monday morning, traffic through the southbound Golden State and Antelope Valley freeways' detour was backed up as much as two hours.
California Highway Patrol Officer Glen Dominguez credited the relative calm on commuter familiarity with the alternate routes, employers instituting flexible schedules, increased car-pooling and the Metrolink expansion.
One morning last week, Lancaster resident Dennis Marks spent four hours trying to get to work. Other mornings it took him three. On Monday, Marks boarded a Metrolink train in Lancaster for the first time and said he was "going to try it and see" if it was a viable solution to get him to his Studio City job.
Although they came out in droves Monday, some riders expressed concern about the cost of Metrolink. Riders who catch the train in Lancaster or Palmdale must pay $208 for a monthly pass, $65 for a 10-trip ticket or $14 each for round-trip tickets, which will be on sale at the Lancaster and Palmdale stations beginning Wednesday.
Metrolink head Stanger noted that for residents who ride from Lancaster to downtown Los Angeles, the cost of a monthly pass is equivalent to 7 cents per mile, compared to 5 cents per mile for the cost of gas.
"It means getting up earlier and leaving sooner," said Daniel Curvin, who lives in Valencia and teaches at a Burbank elementary school. "I'm getting tired of this, and I think a lot of other people are too."
"How safe is this if there is an aftershock?" asked Jane Roffi, a financial consultant who lives in Saugus, answering her question: "It's got to be better than driving on the freeway."
While the train is competitive on a time basis for now because of the horrendous traffic, Stanger said work is already under way to reduce the two-hour, 25-minute travel time between Lancaster and Union Station. Within just a few weeks, the trip will be reduced to two hours by signal and track improvements, Stanger said.
On Monday morning, Burbank debuted as a major transportation connection point as hundreds of commuters from Santa Clarita and Antelope Valley stepped off the Metrolink platform there and stepped into waiting shuttles, vans, buses, cabs and car pools to make connections to their jobs or classrooms.