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Use of Metrolink Has Doubled Since Quake : Commute: Survey finds that typical rider remains white male professional. Women and minorities show only slight gains.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Southern California’s commuter trains carry twice as many passengers now as before the Northridge earthquake, and the average rider is a well-heeled white male professional from the suburbs, according to results of a survey released Friday.

The number of female and minority group riders climbed only slightly, if at all, in the past year, the survey found.

Nearly half of the Metrolink system’s 15,500 daily riders began taking the periwinkle-and-white trains after the January quake. Many of those new customers--one-sixth of the current passengers--identified quake damage to the freeways as the reason why they now ride Metrolink.

Metrolink passengers overall--the majority of whom receive subsidies from their employers to take the train--continue to report high satisfaction with the 2-year-old train service, although some complain of high prices, delays and poor connections at their destinations.

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The survey results, based on a Metrolink poll of 4,527 riders in June, show little change in the typical passenger profile from a similar study last year.

Despite some official attempts to diversify ridership, the trains still attract affluent white-collar workers, mostly male executives and managers, from households with an average annual income of $64,450. More than half (55%) receive subsidies from their employers to ride the trains, on average $58 a month.

The socioeconomic status of Metrolink customers continues to stand in stark contrast to that of the region’s bus users, who are overwhelmingly members of ethnic minority groups and from households that earn less than $30,000 a year.

That disparity was brought into the debate recently over the decision to raise bus fares for the first time in six years, even as Metrolink officials slashed fares for several months as an earthquake-relief measure.

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Riders gave Metrolink high marks in the survey for service, personal safety and professional courtesy from staff, and say their stress levels are lower because they do not have to drive to work. Three out of five passengers surveyed used to be solo drivers.

But 75% of riders--even those who live within five miles of their stations--drive alone to the train station, which means they “cold start” their cars each workday morning anyway, and cold starts are the single biggest contributor to air pollution.

The survey, which Metrolink officials said has a margin of error of less than 2%, found:

* Nearly half of all passengers began using the system after the January earthquake. About 48% of these new customers identified the temblor as the reason for turning to the trains, accounting for one-sixth of the current total ridership. On the Santa Clarita line alone, three out of every four passengers trace their ridership to the quake.

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* Fifty-two percent of riders are men, the same proportion as last year. However, 48% of passengers are women, up from 45%. (Three percent of respondents in last year’s survey did not answer the question.)

* As with last year, whites make up two-thirds of those who board the trains. The proportion is even higher along some routes, such as the Ventura line and the recently opened Orange County line (80% for both) and the Santa Clarita line (74%).

* The percentage of African Americans who use Metrolink increased from 7% last year to 9.4% this year. Latinos registered a tiny rise, from 13% to 13.1%. Asian American ridership dropped from 13% to 9.1%.

* The average household income of $64,450 exceeds last year’s figure by more than $1,000.

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* Three out of five riders formerly drove alone to work every day.

* The average rider is 41 years old.

* The most frequent complaint is that schedules are too inflexible or infrequent. Riders also complain of delays, seating problems and cost.

* Still, 61% believe the Metrolink to be a better overall value than their former commute mode.

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Metrolink officials acknowledge that the high approval rating is to be expected for their survey, since most respondents are people already sold on Metrolink.

“You’re preaching to the choir, that’s true,” said Ray Shea, Metrolink marketing manager. “They’re on board because they like it.”

But he said his staff would examine ways to attract new riders and to find out whether trial users in recent promotional programs stayed with the trains. Metrolink will also continue to advertise in Spanish media.

Metolink Profile A survey of 4,527 Metrolink passengers in June shows that the average rider remains a white male professional with a household income of $64,450. However, the number of female passengers has climbed slightly from last year, as has the number of minorities riding the trains. Employers subsidize the trip for 55% of all riders, offering an average of $57.59 monthly. Ethnicity Other: 1% Asian: 9% Latino: 13% African-American: 9% White: 67% *Sex Men: 52%Women: 48% *Previous Mode of Transport Drove alone: 62% Car or van pool: 18% Bus: 14% Other: 13% *Occuptions of Riders Performing arts / other: 3% Clerical: 13% Sales service / skilled labor: 10% Professionals / managers: 65% Civil Service: 9% Source: Southern California Regional Rail Authority

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