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Rail System Is Growing but Still a Minor Player

January 07, 2003|Kurt Streeter, Caitlin Liu and Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writers

On a late October day in 1992, the first of Metrolink's double-decker commuter trains eased out of Moorpark in Ventura County, heading to downtown Los Angeles in the predawn darkness with 400 people aboard.

At a noontime ribbon-cutting, officials said an era was dawning: Southern California suburbanites would love to ride the train. The railway would connect the region for the first time. Freeway congestion would ease.

A little more than 10 years later, Metrolink has hardly cleared the Los Angeles traffic jungle. But the trains have met their initial ridership goals and won a loyal following. Still, critics say the system is a sometimes dangerous boondoggle, a railway catering to well-off suburbanites at the expense of other transit needs.

The Metrolink rail system came into the spotlight again Monday with a collision and derailment in Burbank that injured more than 30 passengers, and killed the driver of a truck that appears to have illegally passed through red lights and crossing gates before being hit by a train.

Since the early 1990s, the regional governing body overseeing Metrolink has spent roughly $2.5 billion to buy trains and track and run its service. One of its key goals remains elusive, as the average speed on crowded freeways has dipped to about 30 mph, an all-time low. Metrolink takes only about 2% of rush-hour cars off some freeways, hardly enough to make a serious dent.

But proponents defend the system's role.

"The system we came up with was not meant to carry a gigantic portion of the area's commutes," said Neil Peterson, the former executive director of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission who helped found Metrolink.

"We wanted to give people options, get some of those commuters out of their cars, expand the possibilities. And we wanted to get people to understand that rail could make a difference. That was almost a revolutionary idea in Southern California when we started."

Metrolink is beginning to fulfill Peterson's vision: becoming a small but important part of what planners hope will be a viable regional mass transit network. What started as a three-county railway with 112 miles of track now covers six -- Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego -- with 507 miles of track.

Today, the railway provides an outer ring of commuter service in the region, channeling suburban residents into job centers such as downtown Los Angeles, Burbank, Anaheim and San Bernardino, where many transfer to buses or other trains.

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Growing in Popularity

Metrolink also has helped increase demand for train service. A spate of complementary mass transit projects are on the region's wish list: from a light-rail line connecting downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica to high-speed trains reaching Ontario.

About 90% of the rail line's passengers are workday commuters, mostly middle-class people who would otherwise be on the freeway, alone in a car on a long ride to the office. On Metrolink, they come from Oxnard, Oceanside, San Bernardino and Lancaster. Monday's accident involved a train that originated in the Antelope Valley.

Most passengers are happily reliant on Metrolink's blue-and-white trains.

"You'd hardly think this would be the case because we're talking about a train ... [but] it's meant a lot to my life," said George Bell, on a recent ride home. Bell moved from Inglewood to Fontana because the train allowed him a way to get to his downtown Los Angeles workplace without getting in a car.

Each weekday, Metrolink's fleet of roughly 138 trains carries about 34,000 passengers. In the 1990s, transit officials estimated that by now Metrolink would be carrying 21,000 people on fewer trains.

Metrolink's ridership ranks it in the middle of the nation's large-scale commuter services -- railways that run from suburbs to cities using passenger trains similar to those on Amtrak. The sixth-busiest commuter railway in the nation, it carries more passengers than similar-sized operations in San Francisco and Baltimore.

But comparisons to long-established systems show how much room there is for growth. Chicago's commuter railway carries more than 287,000 people each weekday. The Long Island Rail Road, more than a century old and with about 1,000 more trains in operation, carries 341,000 riders on workdays, according to the latest Federal Transit Administration statistics.

Critics typically point to the local system's high cost and low ridership, along with ongoing safety concerns, when examining Metrolink.

Tom Rubin, a transit expert and former top official at the Southern California Rapid Transit District, said Monday's accident highlights concerns that he has long had with the railway's safety. Rubin noted that Metrolink trains run at speeds approaching 80 mph and have scores of street-level crossings, creating the potential for accidents involving cars and pedestrians.

"It's not a good combination," Rubin said. "That is why you have so many accidents. It is just a fact of life."

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