We are the few, the proud--and the sleepless.
It’s shortly after 4 in the morning as we trudge into the Metrolink station in Lancaster--little more than a tent and ticket machine alongside the railroad tracks--to catch the first train south to city jobs for the day. I’m there just to test the system, but for most of the two dozen bleary-eyed folks waiting, it’s an everyday ordeal.
Welcome to the world of Antelope Valley commuters, who ride the Metrolink trains begun on an emergency basis a week after the earthquake.
Jarring me out of the darkness of sleep, the alarm clock went off at 2:30 in the morning, time enough to quickly shower, dress and drive to the station. On the first day, I figure, you want to allow a little extra time. Then I think again with dismay, “2:30, that’s a time for going to bed, not for getting out of it.”
But these days, extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary responses. With the normal commute route along the Antelope Valley Freeway closed for months due to collapsed overpasses, and the hastily arranged bypasses a frequent traffic nightmare, crazy alternatives suddenly start to sound sane.
So with the 4:11 a.m. train rumbling nearby, I queue up to plunk my fare into the automated ticket machine, $6.50 one way for the trip south to Sylmar and then a van on to work in Chatsworth. But even the machine doesn’t awake until 4 a.m., leaving those of us who lack monthly passes a slim 10 minutes to grab our tickets.
In the end, no one is left behind. But the crowd gets more than a little edgy as one man gums up the machine trying to insert his bills the wrong way. When my turn comes, the machine efficiently takes a $5 bill and a $1 bill, only to reject the final frayed $1. Fortunately, I have others to try. A Metrolink-riding tip: Carry lots of crisp, new bills.
Inside, the rail cars are a pleasant surprise--clean, free of obvious graffiti and with comfortable, mauve-cushioned seats--in marked contrast to the dirty, permanently etched and battered RTD buses I’ve ridden in the past. With the doors closed, we begin rolling south for the two-hour ride into the San Fernando Valley.
“This is actually a late trip for me. When I drive, I leave earlier,” confessed David Banks of Lancaster, a supervisor with the county’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority who works in downtown L. A. He too gets up at 2:30 to make the morning train three days a week, showering the night before and skipping breakfast until work. He makes me feel better.
Banks says he’s been driving for 23 years. Before the earthquake, he left home at 3:30 a.m. to get to work by 4:45. He could have begun work later but always left early to miss freeway gridlock. Now, after the quake, his former 75-minute drive is a 2 1/2-hour train ride. His train typically gets to Los Angeles just before 7 a.m., about 15 minutes late.
Despite the loss of time, Banks and others say they’d rather relax reading the newspaper and snoozing on the train than fight the freeway commute. Banks figures that he’ll ride every day if Metrolink can cut 45 minutes off the trip by this summer, as promised. Meantime, many neighbors stay with their cars, he says.
The trip out of the Antelope Valley is unexpectedly quiet and soothing, with only an occasional clackety-clack on a section of rough track to disturb the morning.
Seta Baltakian, a bank supervisor who boards the train down the line in Acton, where she lives, calls her daily round trip to downtown L. A. “a third job,” after her family and work. “You’re spending six hours on the train for nothing,” said Baltakian, who gets up at 3:30 a.m. and is lucky to get to bed by midnight.
But she still calls Metrolink a blessing, saving her from traffic hassles. “Coming home was the problem. I drove one day and I said, ‘No more.’ That day when I drove home, it was horrible. People were mad, driving like crazy,” she said en route to Santa Clarita. “No one wants to drive.”
Some people move to the Antelope Valley and find they can’t hack the 120-mile-plus round-trip commute. Many more stay and bear the stress that has multiplied since the earthquake. But ask people like Banks and Baltakian if they would trade the open spaces and peace of their homes for a shorter commute, and the answer is a resounding no.
So we get up at insane hours, fight the freeways or spend one-fourth of the 24-hour day on the train.
Yes, Metrolink’s north county line--the system’s busiest, carrying about 9,000 passengers a day--often runs late because the trains tend to stop suddenly between stations and wait up to 10 or 15 minutes for track clearances.
There are restrooms on board, but much to the dismay of passengers, there’s no on-board food service, leading one rider to jest: “There’s airline flights shorter than this that serve dinner.” And regulars tell stories of the times that their trains hit a truck (or a person who wants to end it all), and the ensuing delays.
By 6:15, about 15 minutes late, my train finally pulls into the Sylmar station after a two-hour ride. A 20-minute wait for the van and then a 30-minute drive to Chatsworth gets me to the office by 7 a.m. For the record, that’s a three-hour trip--about two hours longer than if I drove.
It’s now 4 1/2 hours into my day, and I’m ready to start work with a sour stomach and feeling like I’ve got a hangover, despite not having touched a drop. For the time, I decide it makes more sense to savor two hours of extra sleep every morning and then put up with the traffic. Yet I also keep thinking about Metrolink and hoping that it will become a workable and convenient alternative for me, eventually.
And I remember what Banks told me about Antelope Valley residents who start their days when the night is still young: “It’ll get you this afternoon.”