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Santa Clara Valley Training for Future

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Santa Clara Valley residents today can catch a glimpse of their possible transportation future.

A state-of-the-art, relatively inexpensive, low-pollution train that could one day shuttle commuters between Santa Clarita and Ventura visits Santa Paula and Fillmore this weekend.

Free 20-minute rides in the sleek German-made rail car will be available today after a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Santa Paula’s new farmers’ market, marking the end of a $120,000 revitalization project near the city’s historic train depot. Similar rides will be offered Sunday in Fillmore.

Also on display: information on Ventura County’s recently unveiled draft Santa Paula Branch Line Master Plan, which envisions eventually investing millions of dollars to upgrade the long-neglected route so that a train can whiz along the tracks at speeds as high as 79 mph.

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The RegioSprinter, as the new generation of train is called, would be perfect for such a rural-urban use, said Mary Travis, MetroLink manager for the Ventura County Transportation Commission.

“It’s smaller, lighter, easier and cheaper to operate, and it’s intended for rail lines like the Santa Paula Branch Line,” she said. “We have a curiosity about what might be new and what might be cost-efficient to put out there in the future.”

With no locomotive and no caboose, the self-propelled RegioSprinter consists of a single, long car that can move in either direction.

In practice, the likelihood that such a commuter train will regularly whisk rural residents through orange groves to Ventura is probably decades away. But limited passenger train travel from Fillmore to Ventura may be as close as this summer.

A $100,000 project began this week to improve the track between Santa Paula and Montalvo for passenger service. Presently, only occasional freight traffic--primarily a train that serves Weyerhaeuser’s paper plant in Santa Paula--is permitted on the 15-mile stretch, said Chris Stephens, the Transportation Commission’s planning manager.

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But workers should complete replacement of 60- to 70-year-old railroad ties and make other improvements--weather permitting--in about a month. That will leave only bureaucratic details to wrap up before the Fillmore-based tourist excursion train can steam its way to the Ventura County Fairgrounds in time for the Aug. 13 fair opening.

If the 1 1/2-hour steam train trip from Fillmore occurs as planned this summer, it will mark the first time a passenger train has plied the tracks since the 1950s, said Dave Wilkinson, owner of the Fillmore & Western Railway Co.

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Even with the track improvements, the tourist train will not be permitted to travel any faster than 15 mph. And considerably more work must be completed before a 62 mph commuter train, such as the RegioSprinter, can run along the route.

But Wilkinson, who got his first look at the 85-foot-long blue and white train as it sat on a Montalvo siding Friday, showed he doesn’t have a one-track mind when it comes to trains of any sort.

“The view out of that thing would be tremendous,” he said admiringly, as he drank in the sight of the train’s expansive 5 1/2-by-6-foot windows.

Built by the multinational corporation Siemens, the RegioSprinter is on its first-ever demonstration tour of the United States, said project director Dennis Culnan.

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Introduced in 1995, the 50-ton diesel train already runs in three cities in Germany and Denmark; Amtrak West sponsored its promotional tour here.

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The $1.7-million RegioSprinter can carry 74 seated passengers and another 100 standing. Boasting a 9 3/4-foot-high ceiling and 10-foot-wide car, the train offers passengers greater comfort than the standard 8 1/2-foot-wide compartment, Culnan said.

In addition, its two clean-burning diesel engines exceed forthcoming federal emissions standards and are quieter than the typical bus, he said. The train affords easy access for disabled people and comes with such options as four 19-inch television monitors.

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Potential U.S. customers have already expressed interest in the train since it began its tour Dec. 14. If the firm receives U.S. orders, Siemens would manufacture the trains at its Carson City and Sacramento plants.

Ventura County is unlikely to be buying any trains just yet.

The 28.7-mile-long track between downtown Ventura and a point just east of Piru lies in various states of disrepair--and doesn’t exist at all on the remaining 16 miles to Saugus, although the right of way is preserved. A 1991 study estimated the cost of upgrading the route for passenger service at between $70 million and $90 million.

The Transportation Commission’s goal is to tackle the huge project incrementally, as money and service demands warrant, Stephens said.

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Completed in December, the commission’s draft master plan is intended as the first comprehensive planning and policy document to guide all aspects of the route’s development.

The plan includes the historical preservation of depots from Saticoy to Piru, projects around which the Santa Clara Valley communities are building their economic development efforts. It also extends to the hiking and biking trail that could run alongside the track. The final document is expected to be completed in April.

Some pieces of the puzzle, such as the track upgrade from Santa Paula to Montalvo, are already falling into place. A short stretch of track that will bring the excursion train to downtown Piru is also expected to be laid later this year. And Newhall Land and Farming Co., which owns much of the abandoned rail line east of Piru, has allocated space for a track that could bring a MetroLink train to its massive Newhall Ranch project planned just across the Los Angeles County line.

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Indeed, the economic viability of commuter service in the Santa Clara Valley is inextricably linked to extending the track to Santa Clarita, Stephens said. Piru, Fillmore and Santa Paula are unlikely to ever grow large enough to support such a service alone.

And that’s where the RegioSprinter, or a similar train, comes in.

“The RegioSprinter is a vehicle specially designed for low-density rail corridors, of which this is one,” Stephens said. “It’s saying to folks . . . this is the type of rail car you would see carrying people on this rail line.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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FYI

Free 20-minute rides on the RegioSprinter will be offered from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. today at Santa Paula’s 10th Street railroad station. A 9:45 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the opening of a nearby site designed for a farmers’ market will also be held. Train trips will also depart between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Sunday from Fillmore’s new City Hall plaza.


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