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A train line is born again

The Sprinter -- many years in the making and at a cost of $477 million -- links Oceanside and Escondido, as a 19th century railway did.

December 29, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

ESCONDIDO — In his medley of train songs, Fallbrook singer Ken Graydon hit upon one Friday with the refrain "there was always a train in my dreams."

Graydon was the opening act for an afternoon of hoopla to hail the debut of the North County Transit District's latest public conveyance, German-made light-rail cars that will travel the 22 miles from Oceanside to Escondido on two sets of tracks, with 15 stops.

Graydon's line was not directly referring to the Sprinter, the new line's name, but it could have been.

Dignitaries said that for decades they've been dreaming of a passenger rail line between the two cities to alleviate congestion along California 78.

It hasn't been easy, politically or financially.

The start-up cost zoomed from an estimated $60 million to $477 million. Litigation, environmental issues and the rising cost of materials and labor are blamed. Work had to be postponed to protect the California gnatcatcher during breeding season.

Ridicule has been constant in the newspapers and on radio talk shows.

But that was all prologue to Friday's ceremony in which the train rolled slowly into the station here, with politicians, Chamber of Commerce boosters, train buffs, a two-star Marine general and several beauty queens.

Politicians who have backed the project spoke as one: Just you wait and see, even the doubters will be converted, some day.

"I can say 'wow' after all the grief I've taken," said San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn. "It'll be appreciated in 10 or 15 years."

Former Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad) took an even longer view. He said money to buy an existing east-west rail line was one of his top priorities when he went to Congress in 1982.

"I know there are naysayers," he told assembled VIPs and transit employees. "I hope in 20 years from now, they'll change."

Funding came from a variety of federal, state and local taxes, including a transportation sales tax approved by San Diego County voters. When voters were approached for a tax hike, they were promised that the train would run by 1999.

Like many public transit projects, there was a kind of back-to-the-future aspect. In the late 19th century, the area had a passenger rail line that followed the same path, allowing Escondido families who could not afford a horse and buggy to get to the ocean on hot summer days.

The area has other rail lines: the Coaster from Oceanside to San Diego, the Amtrak line to San Diego, and the San Diego Trolley with various routes. But the Sprinter, officials said, is different in design and ambience.

The seats are comfortable but hardly plush. There is no bar car and no restrooms. The latter, however, are available at each of the 15 stops.

Paul Dyson, a rail-car broker and member of the transportation commission for the city of Burbank, was among the VIPs on the first run. His verdict: decent, but hardly up to the standards of European public transit.

"It is what it is: a modern, standard, suburban railway," he said.

Dyson's major concern was one that North County Transit District officials concede is legitimate: the lack of a computerized system that would allow a passenger to buy one ticket good for transfers to other lines, such as Metrolink to Los Angeles.

Service to the public opens Jan. 13. Bus routes need to be aligned so that Sprinter riders can make the final leg of their journeys.

Transit officials hope to attract 11,000 to 15,000 riders daily.

The train will run seven days a week, 4 a.m. to 8 p.m., with 64 trips daily. The 22-mile trip will take 53 minutes. A one-way ticket is $2, same as a bus ride.

Boosters hope one selling point is the smoothness of the ride as it glides along at a maximum speed of 55 mph.

"No clackety-clack," said Horn, a member of the transit board.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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