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So Much Riding on Trains

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One remarkable innovation of the 1990s in Orange County has been the grafting of commuter rail onto the dominant freeway culture of the automobile.

For many who have arrived from the nation’s older urban centers, commuter rail is old news. But it was not so long ago in Orange County that transportation officials were talking about very modest projections and announcing limited daily commuter trains that ran between San Juan Capistrano and Los Angeles as an extension of existing city-to-city Amtrak service.

Today, the growing pains are much in evidence. How Metrolink, the regional agency, addresses those concerns will determine how well this new addition to the transportation mix serves a growing transportation need in the years ahead. This is likely to include both new train services and judicious tinkering with what exists. Local cities will need to assist in addressing the parking demands that have put a great deal of pressure on the system.

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We have advocated commuter trains from the beginning as a way to address the region’s transportation crunch. At first, there were questions about whether such a system would take hold in an area dominated by freeways. The increased demand reflects a positive response over a decade on the part of commuters. The public early on indicated its strong interest in mass transit. For example, a UC Irvine survey in 1992, conducted when plans were underway to expand commuter rail, found that 69% of respondents favored such a system.

Metrolink today says the Orange County line is the fastest-growing line in the entire regional system, with an average of 5,400 daily riders between Oceanside and Los Angeles. Trains stop at seven Orange County cities, and the trend is for increased ridership in the years ahead. The agency envisions an increase of 43% in the next four years and 137% by 2010.

While the good news is that ridership is up, many of the old flaws of metropolitan systems such as New York’s Metro North rail system have emerged over the years here. There are instances of overcrowded trains, mysterious delays and interruptions in service.

It always has been clear that for this system to be a success, it must deliver passengers on time. In the beginning, the problem was getting riders interested. Now, the challenge is to keep them from returning to the freeway.

Metrolink recently was awarded $25.7 million in state money. This includes funding for a three-mile stretch of track in Commerce that would be the equivalent of a new freeway lane. Other state and federal money will be spent on new passenger cars throughout the system. There are innovations planned to speed things up, such as ticket vending machines.

Somehow, more must be done to relieve congestion at parking lots, particularly in such heavy usage cities as Irvine. Metrolink stations are being built in Buena Park and Tustin and on the Laguna Niguel-Mission Viejo border. Cities in general should do what they can to ease the parking crunch.

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Part of the role of system advocates is to address the criticism of those who think rail is a waste of time. Clearly, if the lots are full and people are looking for seats, the trains have proven appeal. The goal should be to increase choice and options for commuters to keep them interested in the rail option.

On a related front, the county recently learned it may be bypassed for a high-speed rail system that would link San Diego and Sacramento. It is difficult to imagine that such a system would go around such a populous and important region as Orange County. Obviously, the folks in Riverside County who would benefit from the diversion have their own case. However, this system is a long way from being in place, and there still is time for cities and the county to make their arguments for why Orange County should be part of the route.

This is an exciting time, reflecting the transformation of an agricultural region into a mature modern suburb. Meeting the challenge is an important part of the Orange County transportation agenda.

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