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Easy Riding : Popularity Exceeds Projections as Passengers Discover Trains Are Just the Ticket for Beating Freeway, Tension

Times Staff Writer

A simple consensus emerges when passengers explain why they are eagerly buying up tickets to board the only passenger train that stops in the San Fernando Valley:

They hate the freeway.

They love to relax.

After two months of service, ridership on two new train lines between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, with stops in Glendale, Van Nuys, Chatsworth and Simi Valley, totals more than 20,000, nearly double what was predicted by state transportation officials and Amtrak, which operates the service.

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Since the inaugural rides on June 26, the howling whistles of Amtrak Line 774 and Line 783 have lured hordes of pleasure excursionists into their comfort coaches, where travelers can pop open a can of beer, stretch out their legs and snicker at the traffic stuck behind bell-ringing railroad crossing arms.

Just look at the folks inside the rail cars of Line 774 last week, en route from Santa Barbara via Simi Valley, Chatsworth and Van Nuys.

Gene Dressback, 39, of Reseda, was so glad to be leaving the heat of the Valley for the shores of Del Mar that he bought himself a Budweiser and his son a candy bar at 9:30 a.m.

“For once, I get to see the scenery and don’t have to watch the traffic,” Dressback said as his first gulp of beer produced a slight burp.

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His wife, Kathy, gladly doles out $50 for the family’s three round-trip tickets. “It’s worth the expense when you figure what a hassle it is to drive,” she said. Then, in a more convincing tone, she pointed to her husband and commented, “And he will be in a much better mood when we get there.”

The new trains also are proving to be a boon for Valley-based grandmothers and grandchildren.

“Now, I finally have a way to visit more often,” said grandmother Ruth Kulik, 84, of Reseda, who was en route to San Diego, breaking into what could be interpreted as a slightly mischievous grin.

Not far away from Kulik sat Matthew Wiggins of Granada Hills, 7 years old and all ready for his first train ride. Before him on a fold-down tray were his Chinese checkers and fruit-roll snacks.

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Beside him, his smiling grandmother, Virginia Mossberg, 59, of Northridge, was making good on her summertime promise to take Matt to visit his uncle in San Diego.

His first question to grandma: “Are there toilets on a train?”

Not only toilets, but there are telephones, a snack bar and two jolly conductors in blue suits, one who really did bellow out “VAN NUYS, folks, VAN NUYS. Yes it’s true, next stop VAN NUYS.”

The Van Nuys station, which several passengers complained is nothing more than a hard-to-find cement platform at 7724 Van Nuys Boulevard near the General Motors plant, as well as the Chatsworth station at 9300 De Soto Avenue, have each been attracting about 30 travelers per trip, conductors said.

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The new lines are a once-a-day, round-trip extension to Santa Barbara of two of Amtrak’s eight popular San Diegan trains, which travel from San Diego to Los Angeles.

The California Transportation Commission approved spending $3.3 million in 1986 to expand the service, which required refurbishing existing train equipment. Federally subsidized Amtrak contributed another $4.5 million to overhaul the trains so that engines can both push and pull rail cars.

The southbound train, Line 774 from Santa Barbara, stops at Chatsworth at 9:15 a.m. and Van Nuys 15 minutes later, continuing on to San Diego with a stop in Orange County. The northbound train, Line 783 from San Diego, arrives in Van Nuys at 8:15 p.m. and Chatsworth at 8:30 p.m., reaching Santa Barbara at 10 p.m. Fares vary depending on boarding points. A round-trip ticket from Van Nuys to Santa Barbara, for instance, is $25, and a round-trip ticket from Simi Valley to Santa Barbara is $19.50. Amtrak ridership figures from June to July show that both trains carried 10,799 passengers between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Preliminary August calculations indicate that more than 10,000 also rode the new lines that month, said Arthur Lloyd, Amtrak spokesman.

Ridership has averaged about 150 passengers per trip, with up to 200 on the busier weekends.

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“We would have been happy with 100 passengers,” LLoyd said. “This is far better than we expected.” About 70% of the passengers who board north of downtown Los Angeles are traveling to points in Orange County and San Diego, Lloyd said. The late morning and evening hours, as well as the relatively high fares are specifically targeted to attract vacationers, not workday commuters. But a few business people have found a convenient shuttle for midday appointments.

Take for instance, Alfred Johnson, 61, an engineering consultant, and Marie Raymond, 43, a contract specialist, both Whittaker Corp. employees. Whittaker just happens to have a division right across the street from the Simi Valley train station and another office in San Diego.

For once, Johnson and Raymond professed to be tension-free as they began their 150-mile trip from Simi Valley to San Diego.

“It’s taken me five hours to get here with traffic,” Raymond said. “Now, I can relax and read before going back to the office.” By train, he saves almost an hour in traveling time.

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Indeed, tension reduction appears to be a big ticket-selling point for new passengers.

Kimberly Griffin, 27, of Simi Valley, her arm and wrist in bandages after minor surgery, stumbled aboard with her two preschool sons, three suitcases and a bag of snacks.

“These kids get so antsy,” she said as 4-year-old Jason began running up and down the aisle and 17-month-old Tommy jumped on the seat. “At least, they will have more freedom to move around in here and I can enjoy the trip.”

Miss Southern California, Shelene Pease, 19, of Simi Valley, said she no longer had to worry about looking rumpled and in distress when she arrives for a San Diego photography session.

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Pease found out about the train because “I go to all the ribbon cuttings in Simi” including, of course, the Line 774’s inaugural run on June 26.

The beauty queen, who has the kind of personality that could win a Miss Congeniality award, struck up a conversation with UC Santa Barbara student Dorothy Miller.

Miller, 19, was on the first train ride of her life, en route to Chatsworth to visit her sister. She said word of the train service is spreading among student who live in points south.

“You know this is really going to catch on. It’s such a kick--just hop on the train,” she said.

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Then she giggled. “The conductors are so friendly. Maybe this is the way it was in the olden days when everyone took trains.”


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