By Noel T. Braymer
Orange County is the third largest by population county in California and the sixth largest county by population in the United States. At over 3 million people, it’s population is slightly greater than Iowa’s and greater than 21 States. What makes Orange County different than most places is that is doesn’t have one major city dominating the region. The largest city in Orange County is Anaheim with roughly 345,000 while the second largest city is the County seat, Santa Ana with roughly 334,000 is not much smaller than Anaheim. There are a number of cities in Orange County with populations over 100,000 including Irvine, Huntington Beach, Garden Grove, Fullerton, Costa Mesa and Orange. The result of this is Orange County doesn’t have a transportation hub or single commuter destination like most traditional urban centers. Most traffic in Orange County is centered around the Santa Ana, San Diego, Riverside and Garden Grove Freeway corridors.
Most of the current rail passenger traffic in Orange County runs on the the former Santa Fe line with both Amtrak Pacific Surfliners and Metrolink Orange County Line trains between Buena Park and San Clemente. There is also service between Laguna Niguel and Riverside using the BNSF Transcon Line to the Inland Empire with Metrolink’s Orange County/ Inland Empire service. Many employees work in Orange County but live in the Inland Empire which makes the Riverside Freeway very congested in Orange County. There is also Riverside to Los Angeles Metrolink service which goes through Fullerton. Amtrak’s Southwest Chief between Los Angeles and Chicago also stops in Fullerton and Riverside.
There have been many attempts in Orange County to start a regional Light Rail service for the most densely populated parts of Orange County. These have all failed to win popular support needed for funding. The result is Orange County spends a great deal of money expanding its crowded freeways, building toll roads and improving its Metrolink service. Orange County has 34 round trip trains during the weekdays. This includes 11 round trip Surfliner trains between San Clemente and Fullerton to Los Angeles, 15 weekday round trips on the Orange County Line, 5 of these trains run mostly in Orange County and don’t go to Los Angeles. Also there are 8 round trips during the weekday on the Orange County/Inland Empire line which serves much of Orange County between Laguna Niguel/ Mission Viejo and Orange. There have been attempts to use this local service for local travel in Orange County. The problem with doing this is generally the train stations are often not near to destinations transit riders are headed for. Also the frequency of service and the cost of travel is not competitive with existing local bus service. The 5 round trips Orange County Line trains which terminate in Fullerton are generally lightly used. In the case of the last two afternoon departures from Oceanside which includes a Fullerton bound train, many passengers use the trains to transfer to the Inland Empire trains at Laguna Niguel/ Mission Viejo for travel to the Inland Empire.
There are plans to expand rail passenger service between Los Angeles and Orange County. The railroad between Los Angeles and Laguna Niguel/ Mission Viejo is double tracked. To add more trains between Fullerton and Los Angeles will require more triple tracking to handle both heavy freight and passenger train traffic.Triple tracking is being built as more grade separations are built. When all the existing grade crossings between Fullerton and Los Angeles are grade separated it will be possible to build a 4 track railroad with separate tracks for freight and passenger trains. This will allow faster running times for passenger trains. This should be done in roughly the next 12 years.There are plans to add more trains between Los Angeles and San Diego through Orange County. But the number of additional trains is limited by single tracking in San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente with local opposition to double tracking without tunneling.
Orange County now is planning to build a “streetcar” for its first light rail transit service. Earlier this year the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) voted to not go ahead with efforts for a 3.2 mile, $300 million dollar streetcar service between the Anaheim transportation center and train station to the Disneyland area. Instead they chose to concentrate their efforts on building service between the Santa Ana transportation center and train station to Harbor Blvd in Garden Grove. This $298 million dollar, 4.1 mile project is expected to begin construction next year and be in service by 2020. The City of Anaheim is still going ahead with the planning for the Disneyland Streetcar since that is already funded. But the future of Light Rail service in Orange County will likely depend on how well the Santa Ana-Garden Grove Project does.
The Santa Ana-Garden Grove Streetcar won’t be run only in streets. As part of the this project the old Pacific Electric West Santa Ana Branch right of way will be used at the west end of Santa Ana up to Harbor Blvd in Garden Grove. All of the old West Santa Ana Branch in Orange County is owned by the County of Orange and much of it is also owned in Los Angeles County by that county. This leave open extensions of streetcar service on both Harbor Blvd and on the West Santa Ana Branch. Harbor Blvd is one of the busiest roads in Orange County, has the heaviest transit use and borders Disneyland. This would make possible an extension on Harbor Blvd to Disneyland and to the Anaheim transportation center. There has long been plans to build Light Rail in Orange County using the old West Santa Ana branch. This could make possible service up to 34 miles between downtown Los Angeles from Union Station to Santa Ana. Los Angeles County is now planning to build by 2028 a new connecting station to its Green Line in Paramount to a new line on the old West Santa Ana Branch which will come close to the Orange County Line in Artesia. The city of Cerritos in Los Angeles County is right on the Orange County border and the West Santa Ana Branch runs through it. But for now it appears it is opposed to Light Rail service. For now Orange County has no plans to extend the Santa Ana-Garden Grove Street car past Harbor Blvd.
Orange County has additional existing rights of ways which could be used for light rail service which could connect to Amtrak and Metrolink. In the city of Stanton there is railroad junction called Stanton Junction where the West Santa Ana Branch right of way crosses at a diagonal a railroad between Anaheim and Stanton. Just west of this crossing is a wye track which heads south towards Huntington Beach. Between Stanton and Anaheim the railroad parallels busy Katella Ave and the tracks come very close to the Disneyland Hotel. The line heads north to connect to the UP branch to Los Angeles. There is also single track on the UP, often with street running in Anaheim east of the I-5 freeway which connects to the Metrolink Orange County Line with connections to another UP Branch in south Santa Ana which heads west near South Coast Plaza Shopping Mall and almost reaches Harbor Blvd. If a connection to Disneyland and the Anaheim transportation center were built to the UP line to Stanton, this could provide links to future service on the West Santa Ana Rail Branch right of way to Los Angeles County. Using the wye at Stanton could provide rail service with connections to Los Angeles County and Anaheim to Huntington Beach. This rail line parallels busy Beach Blvd which is second only to Harbor Blvd in traffic. This right of way could provide service to Gold West Community College and several shopping centers just off of the 405 freeway. It could also have stations with bus connection on major streets which also cross Beach Blvd.