Time for Public to Get Aboard on Rail Plan

The 128-mile stretch of Santa Fe Railroad track between Los Angeles and San Diego is the second most heavily used Amtrak line in the nation. But it can--and should--be used much more than it is.

The track runs through the heart of Orange County’s heavily populated central urban area and rapidly growing south-coastal communities. Its very presence, as well as its strategic location near population centers, makes it one of the most promising and sensible alternative routes to the county’s traffic-choked freeway system--a fact that many local residents have long known.

But the rail line has not been fully used for commuter traffic because the train service is not designed to fit the schedules or pocketbooks of most commuters.


Now, state, county and private transportation officials finally seem ready to provide real commuter rail service. They are talking about running two new commuter trains each morning from San Clemente to downtown Los Angeles, and then two trains back again each night. Like a real commuter service, the trains would leave San Clemente for the 90-minute run to Los Angeles at 6 and 7 a.m. daily and return at 4:20 and 5:20 p.m., initially making five stops (Fullerton, Anaheim, Santa Ana, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente) and possibly adding four more later at Mission Viejo, Irvine, North Irvine and Buena Park. Fares would be about $3 for the run from San Clemente to Los Angeles. A similar service would be offered in San Diego County between Oceanside and San Diego.

The target date for the new service in Orange County is early 1990, before scheduled work to widen the Santa Ana Freeway gets under way.

The money for the $246-million rail program recommended in a state study still must be found. The study indicated that the operation, which would be patterned after a Caltrans-operated commuter rail service that runs double-decker trains between San Jose and San Francisco, could possibly pay for itself.

Officials from Orange, San Diego and Los Angeles counties have agreed to form a joint powers authority for the commuter train program, and the Orange County Transportation Commission will hold a public hearing on the commuter line proposal at its June 13 meeting. The transportation money needed must be found, even if it means asking Orange County voters to approve a half-cent increase in the local sales tax, as their neighbors in Los Angeles and San Diego already have done.

And transportation officials should not stop at San Clemente-to-Los Angeles commuter rail service. There are rail lines running through the Santa Ana Canyon between Riverside and Orange counties that might also ease the bumper-to-bumper auto traffic through the canyon.

The proposed commuter trains are no cure-all for the serious traffic congestion on the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways. But they are a realistic alternative that can be provided at costs far less than it would take to build new freeways. And more trains can be added faster than freeway lanes, which would only quickly clog up again with traffic. The state study indicates the new commuter trains would carry as many as 600,000 passengers in the first year. That is too many people to leave stranded at the station.