With two sharp horn blasts, Orange County's double-decker commuter train hummed into Santa Ana early one morning recently, collected a dozen ticket-holders and headed for Anaheim, Fullerton and Los Angeles with several hundred passengers on board with starched white collars and leather briefcases.
Now change scenes: On a recent morning in Arezzo, Italy, about 100 people climbed into the commuter train bound for Rome--mostly students, nuns, young military recruits, some office-attired workers and tourists like me.
There were few yuppies--perhaps because car ownership is still a personal goal and status symbol for many Europeans. Their interest in auto performance is as much a national pastime as baseball is here. Italian television, for example, is full of auto racing, as are billboards and magazines.
But as much as trains in Europe serve the transit-dependent as well as low-paid bureaucrats and clerical workers, Orange County's do not--and probably never will.
Even as commuter rail service expands here, the target consumers will be those who can afford hefty ticket prices and who currently drive the freeways in everything from Jettas to Jaguars. It's transportation evolution in reverse.
Take George Joseph, for example. "I use the train about four days a week," the San Juan Capistrano resident said during my commuter rail trip to Los Angeles last week. "I have a junk car that I leave at the station in San Juan Capistrano."
His "junk car" is a 1986 Suzuki Samurai that barely runs, said Joseph, a 34-year-old attorney for the law firm of Nossaman, Guthner, Knox & Elliott.
"The people you see on the train are white-collar," Joseph said. "The fares are pretty expensive for most people, but I buy a book of 10 tickets for $88, so it's a little cheaper that way."
Once in Los Angeles, Joseph has another vehicle at his disposal for visiting clients and running errands. His other car: a Mercedes.
Jodea Haroy, a purchasing agent for the state, rides the train every day from Santa Ana to Los Angeles, and is thrilled about commuter rail service. "The stress level is so much less," she said. "You just kick back and catch a few more Zs, or get a cup of coffee and read the newspaper."
Haroy said she recently bought a new, red sports car but leaves it at the station in Santa Ana during the day. "I wouldn't have bought such a car," she said, "if I had to drive the freeway and park it in Los Angeles every day."
But Haroy's enthusiasm for rail is still tempered by the pricey fares. "Judging by the salaries at the clerical level at the state, they can't afford to take the train. . . . I used to take a van pool that cost us $40 to $50 each per month. The train is about $182 a month. That's a big chunk of change."
A June, 1990, survey of Orange County commuter rail passengers by a marketing firm under contract to the Orange County Transit District showed that the target group are males, ages 35 to 54, with a household income between $50,000 and $120,000.
It's virtually the same for Amtrak service in the New York City-Washington. corridor, according to Amtrak spokesman Arthur Lloyd.
What's more, commuter rail advocate Dana W. Reed, the at-large, public representative on the Orange County Transportation Authority board, is pressing the Transit District to reroute its buses to divert today's drivers from the freeways and get them to and from rail stations.
The financial pressures this will create for bus system will be enormous as it tries to continue serving low-income, transit-dependent individuals who make up more than 90% of its current ridership. At the same time, however, rail service without bus or trolley connections will surely fail.
Reed, who uses buses and trains regularly, denied recently that his efforts are aimed only at helping yuppies find their way into comfortable, costly rail cars. He argued that people who hold low-paying positions don't make long freeway commutes from places like Irvine or San Clemente to the glitzy, glass office towers of downtown Los Angeles.
"If you're a stock boy, you're not going to be living in San Juan Capistrano and working in Los Angeles," Reed said. "In order to be a long-distance commuter, you have to make more than minimum wage or even the median income. Or a disproportionate share of your income would be consumed just getting to work. Who would want to commute to Los Angeles for a job that pays $30,000 a year?"
"The idea behind commuter rail," said Reed, "is get people the hell off the freeway."
As my train approached Union Station in Los Angeles last week, I recalled the hundreds of graffiti-scarred warehouses and factories we had passed--the rusting, industrial underside of Southern California not fit for postcards. Some of the workers in those factories make $30,000 a year, but many make even less. Some commute on the freeway from as far away as Riverside or Lancaster.
Some of these people, no doubt, will be able to use expanded urban rail service similar to the Blue Line between Long Beach and Los Angeles. Others will continue using buses and the region's freeways and tollways.
It's all about providing more choices, Reed told me--some more costly than others.
Choosing to get up earlier than usual to catch the train cost me an hour's sleep. It cost me $9 to get to L.A. but only $6 to return to Santa Ana (Is there a message?). I chose to buy from thieving, unrepentant vending machines at Union Station and lost $1.50.
But taking the train was a hoot compared to dueling with daredevil drivers for a date with the San Diego Freeway.