Reworking on the Railroad : Commuter Plan Revived After CalTrain Failure

Times Staff Writer

In 1982, CalTrain, the state's ill-fated Oxnard-to-Los Angeles commuter train, was launched with champagne and balloons and predictions of a new age of commuter rail transit.

Less than five months later, it ground to a halt in a sea of red ink and red faces. Ridership was only a tenth of the expected daily level of 1,300.

Despite that inauspicious beginning, for which the state Department of Transportation and the Southern Pacific railroad blame each other, the idea of operating commuter trains on existing tracks is back, stronger than ever.

Four proposals for commuter trains that would use rented cars and diesel engines--including two lines that would pass through the San Fernando Valley on Southern Pacific tracks--are at various stages of study.

One of the Valley proposals is for a twice-daily line that would follow the CalTrain route from Oxnard to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Promoted chiefly by state Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys), it would stop at Glendale, Burbank Airport, Van Nuys, Chatsworth and Simi Valley.

The other Valley route, proposed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, would travel between Union Station and Saugus, with stops in Glendale, Burbank, Sun Valley, Pacoima, San Fernando and Sylmar.

Elsewhere in the county, a line has been proposed by Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum to carry commuters from San Bernardino to downtown Los Angeles on Santa Fe railroad tracks that parallel the San Bernardino, Foothill and Pasadena freeways.

And the fourth proposal, which originated with the Orange County Transportation Commission, is for twice-daily service between Union Station and San Clemente on Southern Pacific tracks.

Traffic Blamed

Most transit experts say that freeway congestion explains the sudden proliferation of such proposals. As the region's roadways have slowed to a crawl, elected officials have come to view commuter trains as quick fixes. And compared to heavy or light rail systems, which use special engines and cars and run on special tracks, commuter trains are decidedly cheap fixes indeed.

Another factor fueling popularity of such rail service is the success of Amtrak's San Diegan, which makes eight round trips daily between San Diego and Los Angeles.

An estimated 30% of San Diegan passengers are commuters traveling to and from work.

Although the San Diegan draws many commuters, it is federally subsidized because it fits the definition of inter-city service--it has no multiple-trip discount tickets, service is not confined to peak commute hours, and it provides service beyond the suburbs.

With commuter rail proposals piling up at the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission's doorstep, the commission, which is building a countywide network of heavy and light rail, recently directed its staff to draft a policy on such services.

Commissioners want to know whether these lines will prove a boon or bane to their plans to get a good share of Angelenos riding the rails in the 21st Century.

"A key question, of course, is whether these lines would use up funds that should be used to build high-capacity rail lines for the future," said Richard Stanger, the commission's program director.

Stanger said he was "frankly perplexed" by the rash of commuter rail proposals "because there is no evidence that the railroads are anxious to share their tracks with passenger trains."

He said that Southern Pacific's hostility doomed CalTrain regardless of passenger demand.

Southern Pacific operated CalTrain under protest, contending that it interfered with the railroad's freight service and interstate passenger service that Amtrak, the federally sponsored service, operates on the railroad's tracks.

In addition, the railroad said that its cost of running the service was more than eight times the $70,000 monthly fee offered by Caltrans.

Caltrans insisted that its payment offer was sufficient and that as a regulated utility, the railroad had an obligation to operate the service. The state accused the railroad of providing dirty, drafty cars and of killing any chance for building ridership by failing to provide on-time service.

In February, 1983, the month-old Deukmejian Administration called a halt to the service.

Subsequently, the state government announced that it considers commuter trains to be a local obligation and that Caltrans would no longer be involved in operating or subsidizing them.

That job would be left to county transportation commissions or other local agencies.

Robbins is among those who predict that negotiations with Southern Pacific will be easier this time around. He and other commuter rail proponents say that freight business in the San Fernando Valley could drop dramatically if, as is periodically suggested, General Motors closes its Van Nuys assembly plant.

If that happens, commuter rails proponents say, the railroad might welcome the revenue from passenger service.

The railroad's initial bargaining position seems anything but compliant, however.

"We're willing to talk, as long as our costs are covered," Southern Pacific spokesman Andrew Anderson said.

But the railroad wants a government agency to hire a consultant of the railroad's choosing to determine how many new sidings, switches and other equipment would be needed to keep freight traffic moving without interruption.

"Our feeling is that just because someone suggests a service on our tracks we should not be obligated to do a major staff study," he said. "The agency making the proposal should pay for such a study."

Despite that apparent blockade, Robbins recently pushed a bill through the Legislature that designates interest from a trust fund set up to hold money to be used to build the Metro Rail subway from Universal City to North Hollywood.

The interest is expected to total about $3 million during the fund's two-year life--or about the same as the estimated cost of operating the Oxnard-to-Los Angeles service for two years.

Weekday Trips

Robbins hopes to have the 500-passenger trains making two round trips each weekday by early next year, when Caltrans is scheduled to begin the second part of widening the Ventura Freeway in the Valley.

To that end, a bill sponsored by state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Valencia) would provide $300,000 for staff work to plan the service and negotiate with Southern Pacific.

The bill, which has widespread support among local elected officials, is expected to be voted on in the Senate this week. It would give local agencies until August to put together a plan for the service.

With operating funds already available and with stations and parking lots in place, Robbins' proposal is far ahead of others under study.

Antonovich's proposal is the subject of a preliminary $20,000 study by the consulting firm of Parsons Brinkerhoff Quade & Douglas.

In an initial report, a spokesman for the consultant dismissed a suggestion that the service terminate in Lancaster, saying that north of Saugus the tracks become too winding and stretch travel times beyond what commuters are normally willing to bear.

But the consultant said the segment from Saugus to downtown would have a one-way travel time of less than 70 minutes, which he said was within the range of daily commuters.

In addition, enough people live near the proposed stations along the route, the consultant said.

Similar preliminary studies are under way on the Los Angeles-to- San Bernardino and Los Angeles-to-San Clemente lines.

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