By Noel T. Braymer
Orange County with a population of over 3 million is the third largest county in California and the sixth largest in the United States. It has a larger population than 21 states and is the second most densely populated county in California after San Francisco. From north to south the county is about 40 miles long and even narrower. What makes Orange County different from most urban areas is it is not dominated by one large city. Its largest city is Anaheim with a population of about 335,000, while the county seat, Santa Ana is not far behind with a population of around 325,000. If the these and the other nearby cities were to agree to merge, combining the cities of Anaheim, Santa Ana, Fullerton, Orange and Garden Grove would create a city of over a million people. Because of urban sprawl created after World War II when the population of Orange County was about 200,000, transportation has been dominated by the automobile and the freeways. Because of this the county lacks major centers for public transportation.
Train service in Orange County today has 11 round trip Pacific Surfliner trains,7 days a week running north to south along the I-5 corridor in the county. In addition to there are on the weekdays 10 round trip Metrolink trains to Los Angeles that run on most or all of the same route as the Surfliners with more station stops. In addition there are 4 additional Metrolink trains that run in Orange County terminating at Fullerton. There is also a fifth round trip Fullerton train that goes as far south as Oceanside in San Diego County. Lastly Orange County has Metrolink service to the Inland Empire which is comprised of the counties of Riverside and San Bernardino. There are 8 round trip Inland Empire/Orange County trains on the weekdays. Orange County is job rich, with many people making a “reverse commute” from cheaper housing in the Inland Empire to jobs in Orange County. That means for much Orange County during the week there are 34 round trip passenger trains running throughout the weekdays.
There have been many attempts to create local rail transit in Orange County which have all failed. The 5 round trip trains terminating at Fullerton in northern Orange County was an attempt to get more local travel by train in the county by adding more service to fill in service gaps during the day. So far not many people use the 23 weekday Metrolink trains for local travel. The five trains terminating at Fullerton have very light ridership. What ridership there is seems to be for passengers transferring to Inland Empire/Orange County trains. Part of the problem is riding the train for short distances is more expensive than taking bus transit and is not as frequent. Also many of the Amtrak/Metrolink stations are not close to destinations in the county local residents want to travel to. What would increase ridership on Metrolink trains in Orange County would be more connections to the larger Southern California region, not local travel.
The current effort for local rail transit in Orange County is for a 4 mile long “Streetcar” service between Santa Ana and Garden Grove. This Streetcar would connect the Santa Ana train station and transportation center to downtown Santa Ana running on city streets. From the edge of downtown the Streetcar would use a short segment of former railroad right of way called the West Santa Ana branch now publicly owned to Harbor Blvd in Garden Grove. Harbor Blvd has the heaviest bus service in Orange County and is along side of Disneyland. The railroad right of way being used for this service extends well into Los Angeles County. Los Angeles County is planning to use this right of way and another now publicly owned railroad between Long Beach and downtown Los Angeles to run Light Rail service in the next 20 years from Artesia near the Orange County boarder to Los Angeles Union Station. There has been discussion about combining service for Orange County/Los Angeles County Light Rail service on this route. But so far Orange County has not committed to such a project.
Recently the Orange County Transportation Authority suspended planning for another Streetcar project from the Anaheim transportation center and future High Speed Rail train station to connect with and serve the area around Disneyland almost 3 miles away. The Transportation Authority has decided to concentrate its efforts into building the Santa Ana-Garden Grove Streetcar service which it plans to open by 2020. This service could easily be extend to Stanton which is on the old rail right of way and is near the border with Los Angeles County. If service was extended on Harbor Blvd it could also serve Disneyland and might be able to go as far as Fullerton.
Stanton is an old railroad junction. The line between Santa Ana and Artesia crossed the Stanton Junction at a 45 degree angle. There are still tracks and some freight service at Stanton with a line that goes south towards Huntington Beach paralleling busy Beach Blvd. At a 90 degree angle to the south line are tracks that head east paralleling Katella Ave which is also a border for Disneyland. The tracks come close to the back of the Disneyland Hotel and goes around Disneyland to join the tracks used by Amtrak and Metrolink. These branchline tracks are own by the Union Pacific Railroad and have at best light freight traffic. On the east side of the I-5 freeway there are at least 2 miles of track in the middle of 2 Anaheim streets. Another UP branch line comes off the Metrolink controlled tracks south of the Santa Ana station and turns west. These tracks come close but doesn’t reach South Coast Plaza which is a major shopping mall and commercial center. These tracks are along the boarder roughly between Santa Ana and Costa Mesa. While nothing is planned, this rights of way could be improved and used as part of a local rail service in the county.
The best hope for rail transit in Orange County would be to extend the starter Santa Ana-Garden Grove service to more of the county. Improving connections between the different stations in Orange County to more activity centers would help train ridership. Rail service on the UP tracks junctioning at Stanton could be handled with self powered rail cars. What will be expensive is providing connecting service from Stanton between Disneyland and the Anaheim transportation center which is near Anaheim Stadium and Honda Arena. Expanded Metrolink weekend service would also make rail service more attractive for Orange County residents.