On a late October day in 1992, the first of Metrolink's double-decker commuter trains eased out of Moorpark in Ventura County, heading to downtown Los Angeles in the predawn darkness with 400 people aboard.
At a noontime ribbon-cutting, officials said an era was dawning: Southern California suburbanites would love to ride the train. The railway would connect the region for the first time. Freeway congestion would ease.
A little more than 10 years later, Metrolink has hardly cleared the Los Angeles traffic jungle. But the trains have met their initial ridership goals and won a loyal following. Still, critics say the system is a sometimes dangerous boondoggle, a railway catering to well-off suburbanites at the expense of other transit needs.
The Metrolink rail system came into the spotlight again Monday with a collision and derailment in Burbank that injured more than 30 passengers, and killed the driver of a truck that appears to have illegally passed through red lights and crossing gates before being hit by a train.
Since the early 1990s, the regional governing body overseeing Metrolink has spent roughly $2.5 billion to buy trains and track and run its service. One of its key goals remains elusive, as the average speed on crowded freeways has dipped to about 30 mph, an all-time low. Metrolink takes only about 2% of rush-hour cars off some freeways, hardly enough to make a serious dent.
But proponents defend the system's role.
"The system we came up with was not meant to carry a gigantic portion of the area's commutes," said Neil Peterson, the former executive director of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission who helped found Metrolink.
"We wanted to give people options, get some of those commuters out of their cars, expand the possibilities. And we wanted to get people to understand that rail could make a difference. That was almost a revolutionary idea in Southern California when we started."
Metrolink is beginning to fulfill Peterson's vision: becoming a small but important part of what planners hope will be a viable regional mass transit network. What started as a three-county railway with 112 miles of track now covers six -- Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego -- with 507 miles of track.
Today, the railway provides an outer ring of commuter service in the region, channeling suburban residents into job centers such as downtown Los Angeles, Burbank, Anaheim and San Bernardino, where many transfer to buses or other trains.
Growing in Popularity
Metrolink also has helped increase demand for train service. A spate of complementary mass transit projects are on the region's wish list: from a light-rail line connecting downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica to high-speed trains reaching Ontario.
About 90% of the rail line's passengers are workday commuters, mostly middle-class people who would otherwise be on the freeway, alone in a car on a long ride to the office. On Metrolink, they come from Oxnard, Oceanside, San Bernardino and Lancaster. Monday's accident involved a train that originated in the Antelope Valley.
Most passengers are happily reliant on Metrolink's blue-and-white trains.
"You'd hardly think this would be the case because we're talking about a train ... [but] it's meant a lot to my life," said George Bell, on a recent ride home. Bell moved from Inglewood to Fontana because the train allowed him a way to get to his downtown Los Angeles workplace without getting in a car.
Each weekday, Metrolink's fleet of roughly 138 trains carries about 34,000 passengers. In the 1990s, transit officials estimated that by now Metrolink would be carrying 21,000 people on fewer trains.
Metrolink's ridership ranks it in the middle of the nation's large-scale commuter services -- railways that run from suburbs to cities using passenger trains similar to those on Amtrak. The sixth-busiest commuter railway in the nation, it carries more passengers than similar-sized operations in San Francisco and Baltimore.
But comparisons to long-established systems show how much room there is for growth. Chicago's commuter railway carries more than 287,000 people each weekday. The Long Island Rail Road, more than a century old and with about 1,000 more trains in operation, carries 341,000 riders on workdays, according to the latest Federal Transit Administration statistics.
Critics typically point to the local system's high cost and low ridership, along with ongoing safety concerns, when examining Metrolink.
Tom Rubin, a transit expert and former top official at the Southern California Rapid Transit District, said Monday's accident highlights concerns that he has long had with the railway's safety. Rubin noted that Metrolink trains run at speeds approaching 80 mph and have scores of street-level crossings, creating the potential for accidents involving cars and pedestrians.
"It's not a good combination," Rubin said. "That is why you have so many accidents. It is just a fact of life."
From 1998 to 2001, the railway's trains were involved in 64 collisions, according to statistics compiled in a national database kept by the Federal Transit Administration.
During that period, nine people were killed in accidents at Metrolink crossings, the database shows. During the same period, six people were killed in accidents at crossings of the Bay Area's Caltrain, a commuter railway close in size to Metrolink. Figures for 2002 were not yet available.
Rubin said accidents will continue unless major changes are made. He believes Metrolink should embark on a massive effort to have trains run above or below street level to minimize contact with cars. Such changes are extremely costly. A separation at just one intersection could cost $10 million to $20 million, engineers say.
Rubin recommended interim steps, such as putting four arm gates at crossings to block traffic in all directions. Crossings like the one in Monday's collision have just two gates, said Metrolink spokeswoman Sharon Gavin. She agreed that having trains and vehicles on different levels would be ideal, but said that the agency's public education programs on trains, combined with crossing gates and light signals, provide ample safety.
Also critical of Metrolink is transit consultant Ryan Snyder, who has opposed Metrolink for a decade, waging a futile campaign against the railway since it started. "Spending over $2 billion has been a massive misuse of public funds," said Snyder, an advocate of low-cost alternatives such as busways and bike lanes. "Just imagine what that money could have done to create dedicated bus lanes. There's only so much money to go around, so decisions have to be made with a lot of wisdom. I'm afraid that didn't happen here."
Metrolink Chief Executive David Solow insists the money, much of it used to buy a network of abandoned tracks, was well spent. Metrolink now owns about 70% of its tracks, many miles of which might have been sold to developers if the transit agency had not stepped in. Metrolink eventually will be able to add more trains on track and right of way it owns but is not using, Solow said.
He also said the money his agency has spent is a bargain when stacked up against the high cost of rail projects in the region's dense urban areas. In Orange County, for example, the proposed CenterLine light railway covers 11 miles at a cost of $1.4 billion. In Los Angeles County, a planned six-mile light railway from downtown to East Los Angeles could end up costing more than $1 billion.
Solow, 50, received high marks in April for his quick work in restoring service after a Metrolink train was hit by a freight carrier in Orange County, killing a passenger. Ridership quickly returned to normal.
Far more common than the moments of crisis is the railway's daily effort to add trains, stations and ridership. In 1992, Metrolink was a three-county railway that stretched 112 miles and had about 2,300 weekday passengers riding on 24 trains.
The system expanded into Riverside County in 1993 and into Orange and San Diego counties in 1994. Metrolink also got a big boost from the Northridge earthquake, which forced many commuters off closed freeways and onto its trains for the first time.
By 1995, in a nod to the rapid growth of small cities far from downtown Los Angeles, Metrolink established its first essentially suburb-to-suburb service, running from San Bernardino to San Juan Capistrano.
Funds for Future
Ten years from now, Metrolink hopes to provide 46,000 trips each weekday. To get there, the agency -- funded by the counties, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, state and federal governments and rider fares -- projects it will need to add $300 million to its budget. Officials plan to use the money to extend hours of operation and add track and trains.
Critics continue to say that would be money wasted. Some contend that middle-class commuters who already have cars shouldn't get well-appointed taxpayer-financed trains.
Others say that Metrolink hurts Southern California by enabling sprawl. USC engineering professor Jim Moore said that the only people who truly benefit from Metrolink are smug public officials willing to waste money, and the railway's relatively small base of riders. Moore calculates that fewer than of 1% of the region's total commutes occur on Metrolink
"Does this make a measurable difference in the level of service available to travelers on the road network? No, it does not," Moore said. "Los Angeles is becoming both bigger and less dense. This is not a pattern that fixed rail systems serve well. So, no, Metrolink is not likely to become a relatively more attractive transit option in the future."
But those who ride the trains say they love them, often spreading books and laptop computers atop ample desk space as they ride on comfortable seats.
The riders, who pay fares that run as high as $300 per month, are an affluent lot -- averaging a yearly income of $61,000, according to Metrolink.
Boarding the train on a recent day in Moorpark, where Metrolink started 10 years ago, was Janis Verdugo. Once aboard her train, the 46-year-old legal assistant dabbed on eye shadow to get ready for work. She said she loves her leisurely ride, even though she pays about $180 a month for it.
"It's not cheap." But she added, "I'll do anything not to have to drive."
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Ridership growing but still small
Ridership on Los Angeles' commuter trains has shown a steady rise over its 10 years, but the numbers are well below other areas.
Metrolink lines and 2000-01 ridership
San Bernardino -- 2,539,721
Orange County -- 1,456,012
Santa Clarita --- 1,354,643
Riverside -- 1,136,728
Ventura -- 917,859
Inland Empire/O.C. -- 701,111
Burbank -- 119,703
Riverside/Fullerton/L.A. -- 24,400
Total -- 8,250,177
Comparison of selected commuter rail systems
System: Long Island Rail Road
Weekday riders: 341,200
System: METRA Weekday riders: 287,300
Weekday riders: 146,000
System: n/a Weekday riders: 101,400
Weekday riders: 33,500
System: Caltrain Weekday riders: 31,900
Sources: Metrolink, American Public Transportation Assn.