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No Time for Commuters : Amtrak: The Oxnard line is a ‘tourist train.’ But there are exceptions--people who don’t work at 8-to-5 jobs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

About 20 people sipped coffee and read the newspaper Thursday at the Oxnard train station as they waited for the morning’s only train to Los Angeles and points south.

A dozen passengers stood in line, inching suitcases toward the window where a lone Amtrak agent dispensed tickets.

It would have been easy to mistake the waiting passengers for commuters except for one clue--no briefcases.

Of the 30 people who boarded Amtrak No. 774 at Oxnard, only a few were commuters traveling to or from work.

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“This is a tourist train,” said Charlie Glass, one of two conductors on the five-car train.

“Why don’t more commuters take it? Wrong times.”

No. 774 leaves Oxnard at 8:45 a.m., stops in Simi Valley at 9:15 and pulls into Union Station in downtown Los Angeles at 10:30.

“You have to have flexibility in your schedule,” said Jim Whitney, a publishing executive who lives in Santa Barbara and commutes to work in Los Angeles twice a week.

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But people such as Whitney who don’t work 8-to-5 say the train beats the freeway by a country mile--or by half an hour or so, depending on traffic.

“I can read, work, catch up on correspondence,” Whitney said, sipping coffee as the train glided past orchards and strawberry fields, paralleling California 34 and 118 through Camarillo, Somis and Moorpark.

“I used to spend 10 hours a week on the freeway. Now I can devote that time to work.”

William Hager, an arson investigator with the Ventura County Fire Department, said he sometimes brings along a laptop computer to do reports while commuting between Oxnard and his home in Dana Point, in south Orange County.

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“It used to take me four hours on the freeway,” said Hager, who moved a few years ago from Camarillo to Orange County, where his wife works. “I was a basket case when I got home.”

For the past year, Hager has been riding the train instead of driving 106 miles each way. It helps that his work schedule calls for 24 hours on duty, followed by one or more days off. Even so, there are disadvantages in taking the train, especially when traveling north.

“I have to leave home 14 hours early and spend the night at the fire station,” he said. His shift starts at 8 a.m., and Amtrak’s first northbound train doesn’t arrive in Oxnard until 11:21.

What’s more, he has to keep a car in each county. All the same, he said, “it sure beats driving in the L.A. traffic.”

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Instead of brake lights and billboards, train riders see some of the best and worst of Ventura County and the San Fernando Valley. From Moorpark, No. 774 cuts through Oak Tree Park in Simi Valley and winds past giant boulders strewn about the entrance of the 7,000-foot Santa Susana Tunnel.

On the other side, almost everything seems gray at first: the walled-off subdivisions of Chatsworth, the industrial parks of Northridge, the nearly empty shopping center in Van Nuys. On Thursday even the midmorning sky was gray as the train approached downtown Los Angeles.

Linda Brandt of Ojai apparently was the only Ventura County resident boarding at Oxnard and returning the same day. She was visiting her brother in San Clemente to discuss their plans for a jewelry business. She appreciated the convenience of not driving, but said she would have preferred getting back a little earlier.

The single train returning to Ventura County departs Los Angeles at 7:50 p.m., stops in Simi Valley at 8:55 and arrives in Oxnard at 9:25.

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In scheduling trains, Amtrak does not target the commuter market, spokeswoman Sue Martin said.

“We are by definition an intercity carrier, not a commuter service,” Martin said. “While some people may find it convenient to use Amtrak from Baltimore to Washington, for example, we don’t pursue that market.”

If Amtrak scheduled its trains primarily with commuters in mind, she said, it would often run out of seats for higher-revenue, long-distance passengers.

She noted that in some areas, Amtrak operates commuter trains that are paid for by local agencies. Such a service began this week in Orange County, which is financing an Amtrak-operated commuter train from San Juan Capistrano to Los Angeles.

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Similar trains could be operating from Ventura County within a year, said Mary Travis, manager of transportation programs for the Ventura County Transportation Commission.

The trains would be part of a system running through the San Fernando Valley and subsidized by Los Angeles County, Travis said.

Unlike Los Angeles County, Ventura has no half-cent sales tax earmarked for transportation, although officials are trying to place such a proposal on the November ballot.

If the county does come up with some extra money, stops could be added in Simi Valley and Moorpark, Travis said. Commuter service west of Moorpark is less feasible, she said, judging by ridership of the ill-fated Caltrain system of the early 1980s, an ambitious commuter system that bogged down in disputes with rail carriers and was halted after only a few months.

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The city of Ventura is hoping to build a $500,000 train platform at Harbor Boulevard and Figueroa Street, next to the county fairgrounds. Even if county-subsidized trains were not extended as far as Ventura, Amtrak trains would stop there, said Everett Millais, the city’s director of community development.

Both he and Martin, the Amtrak spokeswoman, said Amtrak plans to add trains between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, although the timetable is uncertain.

Not so for No. 774 on Thursday.

“From Chatsworth to Glendale will be 16 minutes,” Glass, the conductor, assured passengers. And it was. The train left Glendale precisely on time at 10 a.m. and arrived in Los Angeles a few minutes early.

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Whitney, the publishing executive, said it’s not always so punctual, but “it’s as on-time as driving around Los Angeles.”


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