Long-Awaited Train Makes Maiden Trip : Railroads: The Coaster initiates commuter service in San Diego County. The $150-million joint effort of Amtrak and local agencies was 10 years in the planning and building.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Devon Allen, who is 9 years old and had been waiting for this day for two long years, pronounced judgment as the first Coaster rolled into Santa Fe Depot at 6:32 a.m. Monday: "It feels like you're airborne."

Hailed as a great leap forward in the effort to persuade Southern Californians to forsake their cars for mass transit, the Coaster rail commute line was 10 years in the planning and building and has cost $150 million.

A joint effort of Amtrak and several local agencies, the project weathered political disputes, governmental cutbacks, the recession, and, in the final weeks, a spoilsport rainy season which delayed completion of several stations along the 43-mile route.

But in the end, when the first double-decker rail car left Oceanside for San Diego at 5:34 a.m. Monday, to the cheers of Devon and several hundred others aboard, San Diego shed the stigma of being one of the last urban areas in the United States not served by a commuter railroad.

"It's about time," said Richard Pelissey, 44, a carpenter. "I come from New England where the trains are everywhere. I moved here and asked people where to catch the train and they just looked at me."

For starters, there will be five southbound trains and one northbound in the morning, and five northbound trains and one southbound in the late afternoon. San Diego is the southern terminus, Oceanside the northern. There are six stops, including Sorrento Valley, to accommodate the high-tech and biotech industries and Old Town, a popular tourist destination.

Already, planners at the North County Transit Development Board, which took the lead on the project, are dreaming of additional trains, including weekend trains, and maybe a small bar car so world-weary commuters can enjoy a short toddy and a croissant.

Passengers on the first train on the first morning of service were an eclectic lot: exuberant youths with parents in tow, railroad buffs, retirees willing to get up early to be part of something historic and a mix of government and private industry employees desperate for a faster, less stressful alternative to the increasingly clogged Interstate 5.

Government employees' tickets are subsidized. Transit officials hope to persuade private employers to take advantage of tax breaks and do likewise for their workers.

For each commuter on the maiden Coaster, there was a story, either of passionate interest in railroads or of disgust with dependence on automobiles.

Joe Adamo, 41, an investment analyst with Paine Webber, can walk to his office once he gets to the Santa Fe Depot from Oceanside. The early train will allow him to get to work just minutes after the market opens.

Mike Simon, 19, a welder at National Steel & Shipbuilding Co. south of downtown, will need to transfer to the San Diego Trolley for the final leg of his commute. Still, he figures he's going to save time, money and exasperation.

"I hate I-5," he said.

It was a familiar theme aboard Train No. 620.

"I'm tired of fighting the Interstate 5 and 805 merge," said Dale Kubacki, 43, a computer scientist who works in Sorrento Valley, referring to the bottleneck just south of Del Mar, which is bad in the morning and worse at night.

The I-5 rush-hour snarl is destined to get even more ulcer-inducing before it gets better. Caltrans has embarked on an eight-year project to widen the freeway and build an interchange with the new east-west California 56, but construction will take several years, with lanes being closed much of the time.

If the Coaster can, as projected, attract 2,000 southbound passengers a day, it could decrease the rush-hour load on Interstate 5 by up to 12%. It can also link up with other mass transit systems serving San Diego County.

Southbound passengers can transfer to buses or the San Diego Trolley at the Santa Fe Depot. Northbound passengers can catch the Metrolink in Oceanside to Orange County, Los Angeles and Ventura.

As the Coaster moved smoothly down the scenic coastline, Bob and Ginger Shirk, who live in Oceanside, spread out a morning snack of biscuits and oranges as the train reached 90 m.p.h. with little sway.

"It's exciting to be on the first Coaster," said Ginger Shirk, 61, a retired Bank of America employee from Glendale. "I talked it up all last night."

Seth Miller, 45, rode his bicycle 60 miles from his home in Lakeside on Sunday and then slept on the grass at the Oceanside Transit Center so he would be sure to get aboard the first Coaster. He works as bartender at Anthony's Fish Grotto on the San Diego waterfront, a few blocks from the station.

The railroad buff community, known for its devotion to all things that roll on steel tracks, was in large attendance.

Pelissey was reading the latest edition of Trains magazine. Jack Keegan, 60, a charter bus driver, wore his special Cumbres Toltec Scenic Railroad hat from Colorado. Gary Jacobs, 37, a software engineer, said he had been reading about the Coaster on a special grouping on the Internet for railroad fans. Jacobs and his son, Adam, 8, boarded the Coaster in Sorrento Valley.

Fares--a zoned system up to a maximum of $6.20 for a round trip from Oceanside to San Diego--will pay 47% of the operating costs. The rest of the operating revenue will come from local and state tax coffers. The $150-million start-up costs will not be recovered.

"I'm not a fan," said Keegan, a Libertarian who opposes nearly all government spending. "If it doesn't pay for itself, it shouldn't exist."

Still, Keegan was impressed by the Canadian-built cars, with wide aisles, bike racks, work tables, and a blue, white and teal color scheme inside and out. "When you can throw money at it, you can get the best," Keegan conceded.

At the front of the train, Devon and his brother, Dawson, 3, and their friends, Darin Tamsen, 9, and Josh Donald Tamsen, 10, watched from an upper-level car as the Coaster moved through Rose Canyon and into the historic Santa Fe Depot.

"I think San Diego needed a train," Devon said.

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