Rail System Ends 1st Year on Upswing : Transit: Growing Metrolink commuter service continues to impress some as a boon, others as a boondoggle.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Watching the San Fernando Valley slip silently by, Susan Wolf-Cohen wondered how she managed all those uncivilized years before the trains came--how she braved white-knuckle traffic to get to work tired and grouchy.

"This is the best thing they've ever done," the Sherman Oaks legal secretary said Tuesday on the first anniversary of the Metrolink commuter train service. Her stockinged feet were stretched onto the next seat and the morning paper was draped across her lap. "It changes your whole attitude."

One year after they chugged onto the California commuting scene, the white-and-periwinkle Metrolink trains are whisking four times as many passengers to work every day, almost always arriving on schedule and cutting travel times by a quarter.

As ridership increases to more than 8,100 a day, the number of daily trains has doubled to 48 and miles of track stretched to 195 in Los Angeles, Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. And in December, a line connecting downtown to Orange County will open nine new stations, bringing the total to 30.

"The last year has been one where we have accomplished everything we wanted to do," said Metrolink Executive Director Richard Stanger. "Overall, the system is continuing to improve."

Despite the encouraging numbers, some experts remain unconvinced, wondering whether the trains will ever truly catch on in a region where private autos are as sacred as Mom and apple pie. Even some supporters are cautious in their praise.

"I'd call it probably a moderate to a limited success," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Edmund D. Edelman, vice chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "In general, I think it's done pretty well. We have to examine whether we can make it better."

On the trains Tuesday morning, regular commuters generally praised the service. They did, however, complain that there are too few work tables and that sometimes the trains run late, especially on the Moorpark line.

Metrolink officials say they are working to address those concerns by upgrading some cars and by concentrating on track and switching improvements to make lines run more smoothly.

But critics say there are more serious problems to overcome, citing the nine train-related deaths and ridership figures, which have been stagnating since summer. Ultimately, they question whether the trains--and the half-billion dollars in public investment they represent--will make any difference over the long haul.

"It's very difficult to make these kinds of investments and expect to get a very good return on them," said Genevieve Giuliano, a professor of urban and regional planning at USC. "It's hard to compete with a private car, even in congested traffic.

"If we were to look at it from a policy perspective," Giuliano continued, "we'd have to say that we are getting some people out of their cars. But it's costing us a huge amount of taxpayer money."

Metrolink's estimated operating cost for the current fiscal year is $43 million. Of that, only about 18% comes from passenger fares, which average about $7.20 per passenger trip. The rest--about $12 per passenger trip--is subsidized.

The average bus passenger is subsidized about $1.43 per trip. If the full cost of commuting in a car--including road construction and repairs as well as environmental mitigation--was to be borne by drivers through a gas tax, some experts estimate that gasoline would cost $7 or $8 a gallon.

Metrolink officials hope that growing ridership will increase the percentage that passengers pay over the next two years to 40%. In the meantime, some critics argue that subsidizing the train's mostly professional, mostly white, mostly suburban riders makes little sense.

"From my personal perspective, it is the bus service that we need to expand and rehabilitate," Giuliano said. "People on Metrolink could car-pool or drive tomorrow. They have alternatives. People I see on buses in South-Central Los Angeles don't have alternatives."

Metrolink officials conceded that the service is costly, but pointed out that it is a long-term investment to alleviate traffic congestion regionwide. Transit systems, like cities, are not built in a day.

"Keep in mind we've only been around 12 months," said Stanger. "By this time next year, we should be at 12,000 to 14,000 riders a day."

Anthony Downs, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he doubts whether the system will ever have any noticeable effect on rush-hour traffic. He explained that as more and more jobs are dispersed throughout the suburbs, concentrating transit improvements downtown makes less and less sense.

A recent UCLA study reached the same conclusion, pointing out that fewer than 5% of the San Fernando Valley's work force commutes to jobs downtown. Even so, all of the transit lines proposed for the Valley terminate downtown.

Downs also noted that as freeway speeds improve, commuters naturally will quit public transit again and return to their own cars, which offers more flexibility and privacy than even the most luxurious trains.

"If you take 16,000 people off the expressway, it's just going to cause 16,000 more people to get on," said Downs, author of "Stuck in Traffic: Coping With Peak-Hour Traffic Congestion."

Indeed, Steve Leung, chief of Caltrans' traffic management branch, said Metrolink has had no noticeable effect on the Southern California freeway system. "Nonetheless, we definitely encourage people to use Metrolink," he said. "We are all for it."

But again, Edelman said, the rail system is a start. "It certainly has provided a way for people in the outlying areas to find another way to get to Union Station" downtown, he said.

Over the last year, nine people--including a teen-age couple--have died in Metrolink-related accidents, prompting some to question the system's safety. Yet all but one of the fatal accidents involved pedestrians illegally walking on or near the rails. Four were apparent suicides.

Only one person has been killed at a private grade crossing, when he drove his truck onto the tracks on Nov. 25, 1992. Another accident at a public crossing caused only minor injuries. No one has been killed since May.

"Ninety-nine and nine-tenths percent of those accidents occurred because of a violation of the law," said Jim McInerney, transportation supervisor for the state Public Utilities Commission, which oversees Metrolink. "You have to violate the law in order to get hit by a train. It's that simple."

McInerney applauded Metrolink officials for making every effort to improve awareness of the danger of walking on or near the rails. He said the system's accident rate is about average.

He suggested that accidents early on may have happened because people were not accustomed to trains using the tracks regularly. Before Metrolink service, the tracks were used by less-frequent and slower-moving freight trains.

In recent months, Metrolink has sponsored education programs to teach schoolchildren--the train's future commuters--about rail safety. In addition, sheriff's deputies and local police are stepping up enforcement of trespassing laws, said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Margo Carpini.

Also, fences were built along a particularly deadly stretch of rail in the northeast San Fernando Valley at the request of Edelman, after a series of accidents involving Metrolink trains.

Regardless of the criticisms, most passengers said Tuesday that they never would willingly revert to their auto commuting ways. Bob Becker of Thousand Oaks said he has picked up about two hours a day he used to waste commuting--time he spends catching up on work or reading.

While he admitted that there are problems, he said most are being worked out.

"It's not the Swiss, but it's reasonable," he said.

Metrolink: More Trains, More Riders

This week the train system celebrates its first anniversary. Here's a look at how service and ridership have increased.

Rising Ridership October 1993: 1,366,500

Increasing Service

OCT 92 NOV 93 Number of lines 2.5 4 Route miles 112 195 Stations 11 21 Trains operating 24 61 Daily ridership 2,300 8,100

Changing Habits

MetroLink riders' previous commuting methods. Drove alone: 65% Car/Van pool: 16% Bus: 19%

Local Lines Report

Percentage increase or decrease, from October, 1992, in selected categories

Moorpark-Los Angeles Number of trains per day: +20% Average speed: +24% Ridership per day: +62% Reliability: -6%

Santa Clarita-Los Angeles Number of trains per day: +133% Average speed: +29% Ridership per day: +137% Reliability: +1%

Expanding Lines OCT 92: Metrolink grand opening DEC 92: Claremont Metrolink depot opens FEB 93: Metro Red Line opens Montclair station opens MAR 93: Service from Union Station to Glendale / Burbank starts MAY 93: San Bernardino extension grand opening JUN 93: Riverside Line grand opening AUG 93: Southern California Regional Rail Authority one year old SEP 93: One-millionth Metrolink passenger OCT 93: Metrolink celebrates first birthday

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