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New Calif. train line takes scenic route

(The following article by Fred Alvarez was posted on the Los Angeles Times website on November 18.)

LOS ANGELES -- Easing past vehicle traffic, transportation officials and elected leaders took to the rails Wednesday to launch new train service between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo, a round-trip line designed in part to help relieve congestion along the Ventura Freeway.

Amid a celebratory send-off, the Amtrak train left Union Station at 7:30 a.m., slicing through inner city Los Angeles and fertile Ventura County farm fields before cruising along the sun-kissed Santa Barbara County coastline.

While not strictly a commuter service, officials hope the additional Pacific Surfliner train will draw motorists frustrated with stop-and-go rush-hour traffic between Ventura and Santa Barbara.

"There's just no way we can freeway ourselves out of this transportation challenge," said Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson (R-Santa Barbara), who has worked for years to expand rail service along the coastal corridor and was among the dignitaries on the inaugural trip.

"We have this natural public transportation opportunity with the railroads," she said. "Quite frankly, the best way to get people on the train is to just let them sit in traffic and watch the train whiz by."

Launched through a partnership among Amtrak, Metrolink and the state Department of Transportation, the new service is the second to offer daily round trips between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo and the sixth to ferry passengers between L.A. and Santa Barbara.

Officials said the new service could be ideal for commute-weary college students or families looking to get away to the Central Coast's tourist spots. Metrolink monthly pass holders can ride the Pacific Surfliner free.

At the Oxnard Transportation Center, newly appointed Caltrans chief Will Kempton told elected leaders and others gathered to greet the train that the service was launched at no additional cost to taxpayers.

"We're just delighted to be able to initiate this service today," he said. "We are doubling the rail service we provide in this corridor."

The new line is the result of years of effort to add commuter-friendly train service throughout Southern California, particularly to people traveling between Ventura and Santa Barbara.

With the Santa Barbara workforce gravitating south toward more affordable housing, the 30-mile commute between the coastal cities now takes about an hour by car during peak hours. Commuters endure twice as much stop-and-go traffic as they did a decade ago. By comparison, the train trip lasts 44 minutes, but officials say the service is as much about ease of travel as it is about saving time.

Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum, who was at the Santa Barbara station to greet the train, said she hoped more employers would find ways to provide workers the flexibility they need to travel by rail.

While not ideal for early morning commuters, the new train leaves Ventura at 9:34 a.m. and arrives in Santa Barbara at 10:13 a.m. The return trip leaves Santa Barbara at 4:05 p.m. and gets into Ventura at 4:42 p.m. The train leaves Los Angeles at 7:30 a.m. and returns at 7:10 p.m.

"With computers and cellphones, you can do a lot of your work on the train," Blum said. "What we'd really love is to see one rolling in here about 8 a.m., but we'll take what we can get."

After riding the train from Oxnard to Santa Barbara, sitting in a glass-enclosed dome car that offers views of leaping dolphins and the Channel Islands, Jackson said she hoped the new service would spur more mass transit along the coastal corridor.

"When we first started this we were told it couldn't be done, but this is truly the little engine that could," she said. "Really, this is just the beginning."

Thursday, November 18, 2004

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