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Commuting by Rail Is a Smooth Way to Go

Doug Adrianson is editor of the Times Ventura County Edition editorial page

The chatter was light-hearted aboard the Metrolink that day, typical for a Friday afternoon. We regulars on the Ventura County Line clambered aboard the double-deck car at Los Angeles Union Station and flopped into our familiar seats.

Soon, with a cheery “All aboard!” and a gentle jolt, we were on our way home--via Glendale, Burbank, Burbank Airport, Van Nuys, Northridge, Chatsworth, Simi Valley, Moorpark, Camarillo and Oxnard.

For two years I had been commuting daily between home in Ojai and my job in downtown L.A. I had driven the 160-mile round trip enough to learn all the shortcuts and to know there must be a better way.

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As time went on I became a regular rider of the rails, sometimes catching the Amtrak San Diegan at the fairgrounds in Ventura, sometimes the Metrolink at Oxnard or Moorpark. By the time fate brought me a better job much closer to home, I knew two things for sure:

* Commuting by rail beats the heck out of driving.

* Many more people would ride if trains ran more frequently.

These convictions are unshaken by a recent report from the Southern California Assn. of Governments, which states in part that “transit ridership continues to present a challenge,” or by last week’s reality check at the MTA, or by eternal hand-wringing about what it will take to pry Californians out of their cars.

In fact, ridership on Metrolink’s Ventura County Line has grown at a steady 12% per year to the 1997 average of 3,371 trips per day, despite the fact that only two trains a day start and end their runs west of Moorpark (and none goes clear to Ventura).

Although Metrolink will never break even, it earns its keep by keeping thousands of cars off the road and improving the lives of the thousands who ride it.

Infrequent service is one of the biggest drawbacks. I found that out the hard way one evening when I missed the last train to Oxnard, where I had left my car, and found myself stranded in Moorpark.

Most riders are commuters, reflecting a schedule that runs several trains at rush hour and only one midday. They find that riding turns what might have been a stressful daily waste of time into a quiet break for reading, sleeping or homework. But commuting isn’t the only reason to ride Metrolink.

One is to fly out of Burbank Airport. You can park free at any Metrolink lot and catch a train to within two blocks of the airport. (A phone call will bring a free shuttle to pick you up.)

Another reason is to visit downtown L.A. without the hassle or expense of driving and parking.

A third reason is to attend special events such as the Ventura County Fair. Last year nearly 7,000 fair-goers rode it each weekend. That is good for the fair, and good for Metrolink.

“Our experience is if we can get people to ride once, they will again,” says Richard Stanger, Metrolink executive director.

Another strategy that always increases ridership, Stanger said, is adding trains. No, the ridership figures at first don’t seem to justify the expense. But building new habits requires planning for the future, not just next month.

The well-worn mantra “if you build it, they will come” applies to trains as well as to freeways. Build more freeways and more people will drive--adding to the amount of pavement, level of aggravation, demand for parking, and air and noise pollution along the way. Add more frequent trains on existing tracks, and more people will discover that riding them makes a lot of sense.

Employers can help by charging for parking, reimbursing mass transit fares and allowing flexibility in work schedules. Governments can help by allotting money for more trains, based less on current patterns and more on desired patterns.

Everybody else can help (and have a fun outing) just by taking a sample ride to check out the train and enjoy the scenery, and by asking themselves if this might not be a better idea than fighting traffic every day.

On this particular Friday, we had a new passenger in our car. As we rolled north past Dodger Stadium, she asked a few of us to name our favorite sights along the line.

The jets lifting off from Burbank Airport with the mountains in the background, said one regular. Those gigantic rugged rocks around the tunnels between Chatsworth and Simi Valley, said another. Camarillo’s endless strawberry fields, said a third.

Grinning, she pointed out the window at the gridlocked traffic on the freeway.

“That’s mine right there!”


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