Morning Train Beats Cars to Santa Barbara

To kick-start the new morning service, train commuters between Ventura and Santa Barbara ride free in April.
Paul Wellman

When the new morning train pulled into Santa Barbara’s Amtrak station, spilling several anxious Cottage hospital workers onto the platform, it had moved 200 people across Ventura County, said Jennifer Bergener, whose agency LOSSAN runs the Pacific Surfliner. It was, however, about an hour late. The Pacific Surfliner still beat Ventura highway traffic, said Dennis Story, who’d been welcoming new passengers at the Ventura station as a rail ambassador. Traffic stalled on the 101 on his drive back to Santa Barbara, Story said, and the train got to town first.

The hospital workers’ shifts were due to begin around 7 a.m., and they hurried to the waiting transit buses, which worked “seamlessly” to take people to their jobs, said Gregg Hart, deputy director for S.B. County Association of Governments, which has been coordinating the commuter effort on the Santa Barbara County end. According to Story, most others boarding at Ventura were headed for Goleta and had more flexible schedules.

Having risen at 3 a.m. to catch the maiden commuter journey in Burbank, Paul Dyson, president of the Rail Passenger Association (RailPAC), said a prolonged delay is not unusual considering that there’s only one track north of Los Angeles. At the Camarillo station, the dispatcher routed the train to the wrong platform, Dyson observed, resulting in a 20-minute back-and-forth that compounded when the off-schedule Surfliner then had to wait at Oxnard for a southbound Metrolink, and again at Seacliff for a southbound Amtrak train.

Dyson said a number of the riders boarding in Los Angeles were students headed back to school after spring break; they normally would have taken the 7 a.m. train, which was re-timed to become Santa Barbara’s morning commuter. A handful boarded at the various stations in between, he said. About 25-30 people got on board at Ventura, said Story, who is chair of RailPAC’s Santa Barbara unit.

Additional siding track in the Padaro Lane area has been identified by RailPAC as a location that would help prevent delays due to conflicts between north- and south-bound train schedules, Dyson said. A passenger train might idle there for several minutes about five times a day, he theorized, then rumble on. No siding exists between Seacliff and east Santa Barbara, he explained, and trains must therefore wait in Ventura until the track through Santa Barbara is clear.

SBCAG’s Gregg Hart noted that passengers were very patient with the delay and remained upbeat about the new service. He also promised the snafu would be worked out before Tuesday morning’s commute.


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