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Metrolink Coming for Commuters With 3 Trains : Transit: The regional link to L.A. expands south for the first time with service that starts Monday. Rides are free through Thursday.

March 27, 1994|JEFFREY A. PERLMAN | TIMES URBAN AFFAIRS WRITER

Taking the train in Orange County is about to get a whole lot easier.

Starting Monday, not one, not two, but three Metrolink commuter trains will start serving the county as the regional Metrolink system expands south of Los Angeles for the first time.

The new service--free through Thursday--replaces the single commuter train that currently plies the route from San Juan Capistrano to Los Angeles once each morning and returns to Orange County once in the evening.

Although the single commuter train between Orange County and Los Angeles already has Metrolink markings, these were its only connection to the regional commuter rail network. It was not considered part of Metrolink because it was operated by Amtrak crews under a contract with the Orange County Transportation Authority.

There are about 16,000 boardings per month on the existing commuter train, which last year began using periwinkle-and-white Metrolink equipment. Most passengers have been white-collar workers commuting from South County to jobs in Fullerton or Los Angeles.

Under Metrolink, some rail passengers will be paying slightly higher fares, others less.

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For example, a monthly pass for trips between Fullerton and Los Angeles will increase by $18 to $144. But a monthly pass for travel between San Juan Capistrano and Los Angeles will drop $38, to $208.

The big change for Orange County: an expanded, more convenient train schedule.

Although Amtrak runs nine trains of its own daily in each direction, it is considered a cross-country railroad not geared to providing commuter-style service. Amtrak tickets cost about 50% more, and Amtrak trains don't serve as many stations along the route.

"Now I'll be able to use the (cheaper commuter) train at least some of the time," said Nicole Branca, a lawyer from Irvine. "Before, (the evening commuter train) left L.A. too early for me."

But Branca is still not completely satisfied. She and others who work in Los Angeles would like Metrolink to run trains later in the evening.

While some Amtrak trains leave as late as 9 p.m., commuters don't want to pay a premium to leave later. Besides, the Amtrak evening trains skip Orange and, depending on the hour, Irvine, too.

Still, several rail passengers said, three commuter trains in each direction are better than one.

Each weekday, Metrolink trains will start for Los Angeles from Oceanside and wind their way northward with stops in San Juan Capistrano, Irvine, Santa Ana, Orange, Anaheim, Fullerton, City of Commerce and Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Return trips will stop at the same stations.

Commuters at the San Juan Capistrano rail depot can choose from Metrolink train departures at 5:22 a.m., 6:04 a.m., and 7:20 a.m.

Arrivals in Los Angeles will be at 6:45 a.m., 7:24 a.m. and 8:55 a.m.

Return trips will depart Los Angeles at 4:30 p.m., 5:37 p.m. and 6:25 p.m.

Within the next three years, stations and stops will be added in San Clemente, Mission Viejo / Laguna Niguel, Buena Park and Tustin. The new Metrolink route is the longest in the regional system, extending 87.3 miles between Oceanside and Los Angeles.

Metrolink is based on the honor system, but fines of $250 can be levied for failure to display a ticket when asked.

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Ticket prices will depend on how many fare zones a traveler passes through, and whether he or she buys a 10-trip booklet or a monthly pass.

For example, a trip from Fullerton to Los Angeles would cross three zones at a maximum cost of $10 per round trip, or $144 with a monthly pass--a savings of $56 assuming 20 round trips.

A journey from San Juan Capistrano to Los Angeles would involve crossing five zones at a cost of $14 per round trip. At $208 with a monthly pass, the savings is $72, assuming 20 round trips.

By comparison, a round trip from Long Beach to Los Angeles on the Metro Rail Blue Line--a distance of 22 miles--costs $2.20, or $42 per monthly pass, a savings of $2. But Blue Line cars are smaller and less comfortable than full-size commuter rail cars. Also, Blue Line trains serve more stations and run on surface streets along most of the route, with stops for traffic lights at intersections.

Before OCTA started providing commuter rail service to Los Angeles in 1990, Amtrak trains served the same route but did not stop at every station along the way. The same is still true and Amtrak will continue to offer nine trains per day in each direction, although Amtrak tickets cost about 50% more.

For example, Amtrak's round-trip fare between Los Angeles and Irvine is $19, versus $12 on Metrolink.

When the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake crumpled several freeways, Metrolink drew national attention for providing a much-needed alternative. Although the surge in Metrolink ridership has declined sharply since the temblor, it is still far above pre-quake levels. In Orange County, post-quake ridership was above year-ago levels, but down from the previous month.

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