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Roll Reversal

Metrolink: The trains that carry people to the Valley each morning are sort of backtracking, but travelers appreciate the convenience.

September 27, 1997|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Susan Livingston is a minority within a minority.

Unlike the millions of us who collapse into our cars every morning for the schlep to the office, Livingston climbs aboard a shiny Metrolink train to get to work. But unlike most of Metrolink's 25,000 daily passengers--bankers, bureaucrats and other busy bees headed downtown--Livingston doesn't end her trip at Union Station.

Instead, she does the nearly unthinkable: She rides the rails all the way in to the western San Fernando Valley.

Yes, unthinkable, because Livingston has to wake up before dawn every day to catch the train in San Clemente, nearly 100 miles away. Unthinkable, because the region's commuter trains have traditionally converged in downtown L.A. in the mornings and remained idle until the afternoon rush hour.

But Livingston is willing, and so is Metrolink, which has provided these "reverse" morning trains out to the Valley for three years now, ever since the bus strike in the summer of '94.

"What we do for our jobs," sighed Livingston one recent morning after having left home at 4:45 a.m. to reach her Chatsworth office--three hours, a train change-over and a cab ride later.

A vice president at Great Western Bank, Livingston is not alone in making the Valley her final railroad destination.

But she doesn't have a whole lot of company either. Fewer than 150 passengers out of more than 3,000 on the Ventura County Line travel in the reverse direction in the mornings.

So who are these people?

Some, like Livingston, are white-collar workers with suburban jobs far from their suburban homes; passengers alight in the Valley, mostly at the Glendale and Burbank stops, after train journeys via Union Station from such far-flung areas as Irvine, Fontana and Riverside. Many riders are Cal State Northridge students, who take advantage of discounted fares and free shuttle service from the Northridge station to campus.

And most shake themselves out of bed at ungodly hours to catch Metrolink No. 101, the first of two reverse morning trains, which pulls out of Union Station weekdays at 6:45 a.m. and arrives in Chatsworth--the end of the line--at 7:31 a.m.

Lorena Quintero's alarm rouses her at 5 a.m. so that she can hop on board downtown, her uneaten breakfast often in tow (Wednesday it was quesadillas, scrambled eggs and a strawberry shake). A sophomore at CSUN, the 19-year-old Quintero, who lives in the central city, has taken advantage of the reverse trains for the last two years.

Every morning she sits in the same seat with her Betty Boop backpack, and is often joined by fellow student Jose Castillo, also 19.

"He's my morning talking buddy," Quintero explained. "You meet a lot of interesting people on the train."

"People we love, people we hate," added Castillo. "A lot of people we hate. . . . We're just a regular little family."

Take the woman who worked for a boss who hobnobbed with Dustin Hoffman: They loved her and her inside stories. But the passenger who regularly pumps his fist in support of Chicano rights but can't speak a lick of Spanish? Score one for the "hate" column.

Then there is the intrigue, the window on the sordid little secrets sealed in by the sliding passenger doors.

"Some people say they're married, but then you see them on the train kissing someone who's not their wife," Quintero said, clucking her tongue.

"It's 'Melrose Place' on wheels," Castillo put in.

While they gossiped in one carriage, Livingston sat in another, prepping for a meeting, her laptop computer and cellular phone at hand.

Door to door, Livingston, 48, endures six hours a day commuting by train. But to hear her and others tell it, these are productive hours spent reading, studying, working, thinking or napping, not fuming (neither car nor driver) in stop-start traffic.

"This is my quiet time," said Livingston, who schedules a cab to take her to and from the Northridge station and her office every day. "I use the time to my advantage to get caught up."

Another Great Western employee, Kelly L. Bozza in the performance programs department, also does work while aboard the second reverse train out to the Valley, which she catches at 8:51 a.m. from Union Station after riding in from Santa Ana. But where the 6:45 boasts about 115 passengers daily, the 8:51 barely manages a few dozen people scattered around the cars--a real ghost train.

"That . . . train is basically just a deadhead," acknowledged Richard Stanger, Metrolink's executive director. Engineers send it out to Chatsworth mostly to put in position the final inbound train of the morning.

But Metrolink officials, long derided by some as managers of a taxpayer boondoggle, defend the practice of providing reverse trains even though their passengers represent just a puny proportion of the overall pool. The service costs very little, Stanger says, and in fact makes better use of employees for whom those hours would simply be downtime.

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