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Metrolink Attempting to Put County's On-Time Service Back on Track

Rail: Number of late trains climbs with rise in riders. Part of problem is freight train traffic, officials say.

October 06, 1998|COLL METCALFE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Approaching its sixth anniversary, Metrolink is struggling to end problems with late trains even as the commuter line prepares to add service in Ventura County.

The new rush-hour train to and from Moorpark, set to begin service by Oct. 26, is part of a drive by the sprawling transit agency to improve service after years of explosive growth.

After a major reorganization that ousted director Richard M. Stanger last month and a push to make the service more fiscally responsible, Metrolink is turning its focus to the commuter, one top Metrolink official told the Ventura County Transportation Commission on Friday.

"We have taken to heart what our riders are telling us," said Alex Clifford, chairman of the Metrolink board and a Riverside city councilman. "We've come to a crossroads where we need to take pause and look at the direction we're headed and how to better it."

Since the inaugural train on Oct. 26, 1992, Metrolink has grown from 24 trains serving 12 stations to 107 rolling in and out of 46 stations from Riverside to Ventura counties.

With that growth in service, ridership has also jumped from about 2,600 daily riders in 1992 to an estimated 26,000 today.

As service has expanded, so have the problems.

In particular, on-time performance of Metrolink trains throughout the system has declined in recent months. Until last spring, about 90% of trains on the Ventura County line arrived within five minutes of their scheduled time, Metrolink statistics show.

Since April, however, on-time arrivals and departures have dropped, to as low as 75% for the month of July.

And riders have noticed.

"I think it's late more often than it's on time," said Mary Deere of Ventura as she waited on the platform at the Oxnard station one day last week.

The 44-year-old office worker considers herself a loyal Metrolink rider with very few complaints. Yet she, like many other rail commuters, often notices delays of five or more minutes that can be a problem for those like her who must travel from Ventura County to jobs in Los Angeles.

"I still get to work pretty much on time," she said. "But it's frustrating when you look at the clock and see that the train should be here and it's not."

According to an internal audit that gauged Metrolink's on-time service over a 13-month period, Ventura County commuters still enjoy the best service of any of the five counties Metrolink serves.

Of the 336 train trips in August, 181 experienced no delay, while 109 experienced a delay of between one and five minutes. Only 15 trains were delayed between 11 and 20 minutes and three were delayed by more than 30 minutes.

Of the 420 trains run in the Antelope Valley during that same period, 121 were delayed by less than five minutes and 66 were delayed between six and 30 minutes.

Delays in Ventura County during August, officials said, were largely the result of freight train traffic operated by the Union Pacific Railroad, which recently merged with Southern Pacific.

Union Pacific acknowledged earlier that track congestion was slowing commuter trains, but reported to the federal Surface Transportation Board last month that those problems had been remedied.

Metrolink officials disagree, saying that congestion has continued to slow their trains.

"Things haven't gotten worse, but they're certainly not optimum," said Metrolink spokesman Peter Hidalgo.

According to Hidalgo, the Ventura County Transportation Commission has a contract with Union Pacific to use portions of its railroad to run the commuter service.

Part of that contract requires Union Pacific to give passenger and commuter trains priority over freight lines to ensure timely arrivals and departures.

Metrolink board members, however, said Union Pacific is continuing to give priority to "hot trains," those that companies pay the railroad top-dollar to promptly arrive at their destinations.

Another problem has been with dispatchers, who manage rail traffic throughout the West from offices in Omaha.

Union Pacific agreed to a Metrolink request to move dispatchers to Southern California so that the problems associated with putting freight in front of commuters ends. But so far, no relocation has taken place.

Metrolink officials said they may be forced to seek congressional involvement or take the matter to court.

"The issue is that we have a contract," Hidalgo said. "The both of us agreed to those terms, but they're still throwing their trains in front of ours, and that's a very frustrating problem that's going to need to be resolved soon."

Union Pacific officials were not available for comment, but have said that there have been congestion problems since the merger and that they will make the issue a top

And if that comes to pass, Hidalgo said, it's going to be people like Deere who benefit with better and more reliable service.

"That would be great," Deere said. "Even though it's not that big of a problem for me, it would be nice to know I can count on a train being there when it's supposed to."

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