Taking the train in Orange County is about to get a whole lot easier.
Starting Monday, not one, not two, but three Metrolink commuter trains will start serving the county as the regional Metrolink system expands south of Los Angeles for the first time.
The new service--free through Thursday--replaces the single commuter train that currently plies the route from San Juan Capistrano to Los Angeles once each morning and returns to Orange County once in the evening.
Although the single commuter train between Orange County and Los Angeles already has Metrolink markings, these were its only connection to the regional commuter rail network. It was not considered part of Metrolink because it was operated by Amtrak crews under a contract with the Orange County Transportation Authority.
There are about 16,000 boardings per month on the existing commuter train, which last year began using periwinkle-and-white Metrolink equipment. Most passengers have been white-collar workers commuting from South County to jobs in Fullerton or Los Angeles.
Under Metrolink, some rail passengers will be paying slightly higher fares, others less.
For example, a monthly pass for trips between Fullerton and Los Angeles will increase by $18 to $144. But a monthly pass for travel between San Juan Capistrano and Los Angeles will drop $38, to $208.
The big change for Orange County: an expanded, more convenient train schedule.
Although Amtrak runs nine trains of its own daily in each direction, it is considered a cross-country railroad not geared to providing commuter-style service. Amtrak tickets cost about 50% more, and Amtrak trains don't serve as many stations along the route.
"Now I'll be able to use the (cheaper commuter) train at least some of the time," said Nicole Branca, a lawyer from Irvine. "Before, (the evening commuter train) left L.A. too early for me."
But Branca is still not completely satisfied. She and others who work in Los Angeles would like Metrolink to run trains later in the evening.
While some Amtrak trains leave as late as 9 p.m., commuters don't want to pay a premium to leave later. Besides, the Amtrak evening trains skip Orange and, depending on the hour, Irvine, too.
Still, several rail passengers said, three commuter trains in each direction are better than one.
Each weekday, Metrolink trains will start for Los Angeles from Oceanside and wind their way northward with stops in San Juan Capistrano, Irvine, Santa Ana, Orange, Anaheim, Fullerton, City of Commerce and Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Return trips will stop at the same stations.
Commuters at the San Juan Capistrano rail depot can choose from Metrolink train departures at 5:22 a.m., 6:04 a.m., and 7:20 a.m.
Arrivals in Los Angeles will be at 6:45 a.m., 7:24 a.m. and 8:55 a.m.
Return trips will depart Los Angeles at 4:30 p.m., 5:37 p.m. and 6:25 p.m.
Within the next three years, stations and stops will be added in San Clemente, Mission Viejo / Laguna Niguel, Buena Park and Tustin. The new Metrolink route is the longest in the regional system, extending 87.3 miles between Oceanside and Los Angeles.
Metrolink is based on the honor system, but fines of $250 can be levied for failure to display a ticket when asked.
Ticket prices will depend on how many fare zones a traveler passes through, and whether he or she buys a 10-trip booklet or a monthly pass.
For example, a trip from Fullerton to Los Angeles would cross three zones at a maximum cost of $10 per round trip, or $144 with a monthly pass--a savings of $56 assuming 20 round trips.
A journey from San Juan Capistrano to Los Angeles would involve crossing five zones at a cost of $14 per round trip. At $208 with a monthly pass, the savings is $72, assuming 20 round trips.
By comparison, a round trip from Long Beach to Los Angeles on the Metro Rail Blue Line--a distance of 22 miles--costs $2.20, or $42 per monthly pass, a savings of $2. But Blue Line cars are smaller and less comfortable than full-size commuter rail cars. Also, Blue Line trains serve more stations and run on surface streets along most of the route, with stops for traffic lights at intersections.
Before OCTA started providing commuter rail service to Los Angeles in 1990, Amtrak trains served the same route but did not stop at every station along the way. The same is still true and Amtrak will continue to offer nine trains per day in each direction, although Amtrak tickets cost about 50% more.
For example, Amtrak's round-trip fare between Los Angeles and Irvine is $19, versus $12 on Metrolink.
When the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake crumpled several freeways, Metrolink drew national attention for providing a much-needed alternative. Although the surge in Metrolink ridership has declined sharply since the temblor, it is still far above pre-quake levels. In Orange County, post-quake ridership was above year-ago levels, but down from the previous month.
Rail critics contend, however, that passenger service will never justify the huge subsidies now used to cover the cost of providing the service--more than $30 per trip on Metrolink, for example.
Still, transportation planners are hoping that rail service will make a dent in traffic congestion. Their argument: A freeway's saturation point can be avoided if only 3% to 4% of motorists stay away.
But the marketing problem is immense in Southern California's car culture.
And that's why Metrolink service in Orange County is being offered free for four days.
"There is no better way . . . than by offering free rides," said Anaheim Councilman Irv Pickler, who serves as both an OCTA board member and vice chairman of Metrolink. "While some people will only show up for the free ride, many others will see how convenient and reliable the trains are and become regular riders."
And there's a certain amount of hoopla planned.
Today, besides a press conference in Los Angeles, receptions are planned at each train station to celebrate the arrival of the last of the three morning trains.
Also, stations will have roving Metrolink "ambassadors" to assist newcomers.
OCTA shuttle buses link local train depots to major employment centers, and the shuttle service will be free for Metrolink passengers.
When the free ride is over--beginning Friday--passengers will buy train tickets from automated vending machines at each station. The machines accept cash, credit cards and bank automated teller machine cards. They dispense tickets for one-way and round-trip rides, as well as monthly passes and 10-trip coupons.
Under the new pricing, seniors 65 and over, as well as passengers with disabilities, can ride for half price.
What's next? By 1996, officials hope to provide at least two Metrolink trains in each direction between Riverside and Irvine.
Meanwhile, transportation planners are considering a proposed 28-mile, intra-county, urban rail route between Fullerton and Irvine.
Link to Los Angeles The Orange County Transportation Authority offers connecting bus service from all Orange County train stations to major employment areas. The shuttle service is free to those who transfer to or from a Metrolink train. This service is not free, however, to passengers of the nine Amtrak trains that now run through Orange County each weekday.
A Threesome of Trains Serving O.C.
The three commuter trains that start serving Orange County Monday will create the fifth and longest Metrolink corridor, with service extending 87.3 miles between Oceanside and Los Angeles.
Passengers purchase their tickets or passes at the station's ticket vending machine or at the Los Angeles Union Station ticket office before boarding. The honor system will be used, but if commuters fail to produce a ticket when asked, they can be fined up to $250.
Zones traveled One-way Round trip 10-trip ticket Monthly pass 1 $3.50 $6 $25 $80 2 4.50 8 35 112 3 5.50 10 45 144 4 6.50 12 55 176 5 7.50 14 65 208 6 8.50 16 75 240 7 9.50 18 85 272
Travel Zone Examples
Oceanside to Los Angeles
Zones traveled: 7
San Juan Capistrano to Los Angeles
Zones traveled: 5
Irvine to Los Angeles
Zones traveled: 4
San Juan Capistrano to Santa Ana
Zones traveled: 3
Fullerton to Los Angeles
Zones traveled: 3
Northbound Morning Departures
Train Numbers Stations 601 603 605 Oceanside 4:53 5:35 6:50 San Juan Capistrano 5:22 6:04 7:20 Irvine Transportation Center 5:36 6:18 7:34 Santa Ana Reg. Trans. Center 5:51 6:29 7:54 Orange Transportation Center 5:55 6:34 7:58 Anaheim Amtrak Station/Stadium 5:59 6:38 8:04 Fullerton Transportation Center 6:06 6:45 8:11 City of Commerce No stop No stop 8:28 ARRIVES L.A. Union Station 6:45 7:24 8:55
Southbound Evening Departures
Train Numbers Stations 604 606 608 L.A. Union Station 4:30 5:37 6:25 City of Commerce No stop 5:56 No stop Fullerton Transportation Center 5:05 6:14 6:59 Anaheim Amtrak Station/Stadium 5:12 6:20 7:06 Orange Transportation Center 5:17 6:25 7:11 Santa Ana Reg. Trans. Center 5:21 6:29 7:15 Irvine Transportation Center 5:32 6:41 7:27 San Juan Capistrano Center 5:45 6:52 7:39 ARRIVES Oceanside 6:20 7:28 8:20
Sources: Orange County Transportation Authority, Southern California Regional Rail Authority; Researched by CAROLINE LEMKE / Los Angeles Times