Orange County-L.A. Commuter Train Set : Transportation: Morning service is scheduled to begin April 2 with punctual, earlier trains and cheaper fares than Amtrak. The Santa Fe Railway must approve the plan.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eager to lure hundreds of motorists from gridlock-plagued freeways, Orange County transportation officials on Monday approved what they called Southern California's first commuter train service, giving county residents who work in Los Angeles a reduced-fare alternative to driving.

The program is expected to be launched in April and aims to attract commuters with more timely service than is currently provided by Amtrak, plus ticket prices that are to be 20% cheaper.

Initially, a morning commuter line is to run from San Juan Capistrano to Union Station in Los Angeles, with three stops in Orange County along the way. Within two months or so, an evening line is to leave Union Station and retrace the route.

Officials with the Orange County Transportation Commission, which unanimously approved the new rail service and will subsidize its operation, began pressing for the extra trains more than a year ago to help ease burgeoning congestion caused by work to widen the Santa Ana Freeway.

Officials noted that 80% of the current train ridership from Orange County is made up of commuters bound for Los Angeles.

"It's the wave of the future," said Stan Oftelie, the commission's executive director. "I imagine the train will be jam-packed. . . . If the first train is as successful as we think it could be, that would be an icebreaker. Then we'll have an opportunity to get more money and more trains on that line."

Under the plan, the transportation commission will pay Amtrak $1.8 million a year to operate a five-car train capable of carrying 400 riders each way. If the ridership demand is great enough, two additional cars could be added, providing 160 more seats. Fares are expected to cover about 60% of the cost, with the rest coming from county revenues.

The new morning train would depart San Juan Capistrano at 6 a.m. and arrive in Los Angeles by 7:25 a.m. after stopping for passengers in Santa Ana, Anaheim and Fullerton. Amtrak now has two morning trains to Los Angeles, but the earliest arrives at 7:55 a.m., too late for many workers to get to the job on time.

In addition, transportation officials say the new morning train should prove far more punctual than the existing Amtrak trains, which often fall behind schedule during the trip from San Diego County. Under the new setup, the morning commuter train is designated for Orange County commuters and would be waiting in San Juan Capistrano when passengers arrive for their departure.

While authorities expect the new morning train to roll into operation April 2, the extra evening train will probably not begin service until June because of scheduling conflicts that need to be resolved.

But transportation officials say the lack of an additional train returning to Orange County in the afternoon should not pose a problem during the two-month delay because seats are typically available on Amtrak's current 5:50 p.m. train. In addition, officials do not expect the ridership to pick up until the program is under way for several weeks.

Amtrak already has agreed to the commuter rail plan, but the proposal must still be approved by Santa Fe Railway, which owns the tracks. Negotiations with the railroad are expected to be completed soon, Oftelie said.

"We're going to have to see how it fits into the overall traffic pattern," said Michael Martin, a spokesman for Santa Fe. "This is an area pretty heavily (traveled) by freight . . . but management has indicated it would be agreeable to a test period for the train."

Fares will represent a significant savings for passengers over those offered by Amtrak, Martin said. A one-way fare between San Juan Capistrano and Los Angeles would be $7.02, compared to the current $8.80. Monthly rates also would be lower, with the same trip costing $281 aboard the commuter train, compared to $352 on one of Amtrak's trains.

Passengers who purchased a fare booklet for the commuter train could have the option of riding other trains, but would have to pay an extra fee of between $2 and $3.

Food service would be provided on the evening train, but not on the morning run. Both morning and evening trains would be non-smoking to ensure that enough riders are able to pack aboard without extra seats being left empty in a smoking car.

Once passengers arrive at Union Station in Los Angeles, shuttle service is to be available to take workers throughout the downtown area, Orange County transportation officials said.

NEW COMMUTER TRAIN

Facts and figures about the new Orange County-Los Angeles commuter train. What: A 400-passenger commuter train, financed by the Orange County Transportation Commission, operated by Amtrak, running on Santa Fe Railroad tracks.

Where: Linking San Juan Capistrano to Los Angeles with stops in Santa Ana, Anaheim and Fullerton. Stops in Irvine and Commerce to be added when stations built there.

When: Morning train to depart San Juan Capistrano at 6 a.m., stop in Santa Ana at 6:22, Anaheim at 6:32, Fullerton at 6:42 and arrive in Los Angeles at 7:25 a.m. (more than a half hour earlier than existing Amtrak train). Evening train to leave Los Angeles at 5:30 p.m., stop in Fullerton at 6:04, Anaheim at 6:14, Santa Ana at 6:24 and arrive in San Juan Capistrano at 6:55 p.m. Morning service expected to begin in April.

(Orange County Edition) OC's COMMUTER TRAIN

Price: Fares 20% lower than existing Amtrak service. One-way between the two cities--$7.04, Round-trip monthly fare book--$281.

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