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Planners Study Old Rail Lines for Commuter Routes

Times Staff Writer

The Southern Pacific railroad tracks built through the San Fernando Valley in the 1870s went largely unnoticed for more than a century as the surrounding rangelands were transformed first into orchards, then into one of the nation’s largest suburbs.

But in the 1970s, with freeway congestion worsening and open land all but gone, transit planners began to cast covetous eyes on the railroad’s prime ribbons of land, by then already hemmed in by homes and factories.

In the past decade, all three of the Southern Pacific’s lines through the Valley have been proposed as light-rail routes, which would require separate tracks, and two Southern Pacific rights of way are under study for commuter rail lines, which use existing tracks.

In the running for a Valley light-rail line are the railroad’s little-used Burbank Branch freight line, which runs from North Hollywood to Warner Center parallel to Chandler and Victory boulevards and Topham Street, and the San Joaquin Valley main line, which parallels San Fernando Road from downtown Los Angeles to Sylmar en route to Bakersfield and points north.

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Under consideration for commuter rail services are the San Joaquin Valley line and the coast main line, which runs diagonally from Burbank Airport to Chatsworth en route to Santa Barbara and San Francisco.

Transit planners have been encouraged by recent dramatic decreases in freight traffic on the coast and Burbank Branch lines, suggesting the drop in usage would make Southern Pacific more amenable to accommodating passenger service on the two lines.

On the Burbank Branch line, usage has dropped gradually over the past decade to three trains a week. Most of the freight goes to lumberyards.

Six months ago, Southern Pacific consolidated all its long-distance freight business to and from Northern California onto the San Joaquin Valley line. Railroad spokesman Jim Loveland said the shift was made “for greater operational efficiencies.”

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For the coast line, which splits off from the San Joaquin Valley line in Burbank, that leaves only freight trains bound for the industrial areas of Chatsworth and Van Nuys, along with Amtrak, the federally subsidized rail passenger service.

Amtrak’s Coast Starlight crosses the Valley on the coast line with one round trip daily from Los Angeles to Seattle. Amtrak’s San Diegan, which for several years has offered eight round trips daily from San Diego to Los Angeles, was recently extended north to Santa Barbara for one round trip each day on the coast line.

Amtrak, which is considering expanding its Los Angeles-to-Santa Barbara service, is prohibited by federal law from running a commuter line. The Interstate Commerce Commission defines a commuter line as any service that is confined to a single metropolitan area and its suburbs, operates largely during peak commuter hours and sells multiple-ride tickets or passes.

Federal law largely confines Amtrak to providing inter-city service such as the San Diegan line from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

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However, Amtrak can provide trains and personnel for a commuter line if a local agency reimburses it for all costs plus a profit. Amtrak is therefore under consideration as a possible operator of the two commuter lines proposed for the Valley. If Amtrak is selected, the line would not be run under the Amtrak logo or be part of Amtrak’s national network.

In separate studies completed in recent months, planners concluded that commuter rail service, which can be assembled hurriedly using leased engines and cars, is feasible between Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and Saugus on the San Joaquin Valley line and between Union Station and Oxnard on the coast line.

Both studies concluded that the services, aimed at taking commuters off clogged freeways, would be feasible if fares were heavily subsidized, as is the case with most commuter rail lines.

The Southern California Assn. of Governments, which studied the Oxnard-to-Los Angeles line, concluded that it would cost about $20 million to prepare the tracks between Los Angeles and Oxnard for commuter service.

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State Money

About half of that amount is available from the state, and the remainder would probably be contributed by cities along the route.

Trains could be leased from the state, which has surplus equipment from the commuter line operating between San Francisco and San Jose, said Bijan Yarjani, project manager for the study.

Trains carrying up to 500 passengers each would make two round trips daily.

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With round-trip tickets to downtown priced at $5 from Oxnard, $3 from Chatsworth and Van Nuys and $2.50 from Burbank, the service would need subsidies of $1.6 million to $2.6 million per year, Yarjani said.

State Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys), who proposed the Oxnard-to-Los Angeles service, has authored a law that places money for construction of the Valley leg of the Metro Rail subway in a trust account and earmarks interest from the funds for commuter rail subsidies.

Transit experts estimate the fund will generate $3 million annually in interest.

Passed by Legislature

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Robbins also wrote a related bill that was passed by the Legislature Aug. 31 and is awaiting Gov. George Deukmejian’s signature or veto. It would place money for a Valley light-rail line in a second trust account, again with interest earmarked for commuter rail subsidies.

The bill was passed over strong opposition from other Southern California communities, which complain that a special Valley light-rail fund sets an unwise precedent. If signed by the governor, the second fund is expected to generate up to $2 million annually.

That money could be used to subsidize a Los Angeles-to-Saugus commuter service proposed earlier this year by Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich.

A preliminary report from an outside consultant hired by the supervisors concluded that the line could operate three round trips daily if about $40 million were spent for track and station improvements and purchase of buses to serve as feeders.

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Operating costs would be more than $2 million per year. No estimate was made of the subsidies needed.

Preliminary Talks

Loveland, Southern Pacific’s spokesman, said the railroad has engaged in preliminary negotiations on use of the coast line for commuter rail “but we’re not at the ‘yes’ stage yet.”

He described the talks with transit planners as “seeking to define the options that would be required to provide the service.”

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As for the Burbank Branch line, under consideration for a light-rail line, Loveland said, “We are willing to sell it for fair-market value.”

Robbins, who has gathered unanimous support from Valley elected officials for commuter rail, insists there will be no repeat of the ill-fated CalTrain service, which operated for 4 1/2 months before being shut down in March, 1983, shortly after Deukmejian took office.

A pet project of former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., CalTrain was operated on a twice-daily schedule between Oxnard and Los Angeles.

Ridership averaged 180 round-trip passengers a day, about one-eighth what state Department of Transportation officials had predicted.

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Southern Pacific, which operated the service under protest, blamed the low ridership on lack of demand.

But state officials charged that the low turnout was the fault of Southern Pacific, which they said failed to maintain the cars or to provide on-time service.

“That was a different time and situation,” Robbins said. “SP did not want to operate the line and it didn’t have local backing. I don’t think that is the situation now.”

PROPOSED LOS ANGELES-TO-OXNARD COMMUTER LINE

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Amtrak’s San Diegan stops at Union Station, Glendale, Van Nuys, Chatsworth, Simi Valley, Oxnard, and Santa Barbara.

Proposed Los Angeles-to-Oxnard line would stop at all Amtrak stations plus Burbank, Northridge, Moorpark and Camarillo.


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