Southern California’s Missing Rail Lines

When, back in the late 1970s/early 1980s, Los Angeles’s MTA began planning a return to interurban rail, it was obvious that two (later three) of their planned lines would logically continue into San Bernardino and Orange counties. Both the Santa Ana and San Bernardino lines, primarily using as they did old Pacific Electric right-of-ways, made the most sense if they continued to follow those right-of-ways to their original P.E. destinations. Indeed, the Santa Ana line barely made sense as a line at all without Santa Ana as a final destination (though a stub version of it, reaching only Bellflower, was planned as an alternative).

This, of course, required negotiating with both the San Bernardino County Bus System (later SBCTrans) and Orange County Rapid Transit (OCRT) authorities. In both cases, joint ownership/operation of the sections of those two lines (and, later, the small stub into Seal Beach in Orange County) were agreed upon. The counties involved would pay first for the construction of the line, then for their operation and maintenance, and both would operate their own vehicles with agreed upon joint usage.

In practice since that date, both Orange and San Bernardino counties have then turned around and contracted the MTA to provide “their” portions of the vehicles and operators needed for service. So while the financial arrangements are complicated, to the ordinary rider it simply looks as if the MTA is the sole transit company involved on these lines.

But while these joint projects came to fruition, both counties also planned their own wholly internal rail lines, much as the MTA had. Over thirty years later, though, none of these “SBC-Rail” or “OC-Link” lines have ever gotten farther than a started construction, though literally dozens of studies have been made. These are the missing links in Southern California’s interurban rail network.




SBC-Rail

San Bernardino County initially proposed three lines that would all almost entirely follow their earlier P.E. counterparts.

Number one on that list was the “Redlands Line,” which would leave San Bernardino’s Santa Fe Terminal east on 3rd Street (which would be double-tracked and moved to its own dedicated right of way), turn south on Waterman, then follow a badly underused spur line (which actually would be abandoned in 2005 and acquired by the county at that time) east to Redlands, a distance of ten miles.

Construction was slated to begin in 1995, following the completion of the joint MTA/SBC Bus San Bernardino Line, but delays in finalizing a contract with Southern Pacific for use of its spur kept pushing the start date back. In 1998, the whole project was dropped during the reorganization from SBC Bus Lines to SBCTrans.

Then, as mentioned, in 2005 Southern Pacific abandoned the line and it acquired by the county, bringing forth plans to restart the project. In this new version, the route was essentially the same, but the line was to continue a further three miles east and a little north to the town of Mentone. Construction actually began in 2007 on the 3rd Street portion of the track, moving and double-tracking the portion between the station and the freeway, when county finances suffered a major setback due to a mix of poor investment planning and the economic downturn of 2006-08. With less than half a mile of the planned thirteen miles of track laid, the project again was delayed, then halted “for the foreseeable future.” As of 2014 the line remains in a bureaucratic limbo, with the only work being a 2011 study as to whether it should follow the original 3rd Street and Waterman route, or whether moving it wholly onto the old spur’s right-of-way all the way to the station would be preferable (the final decision of that study being that while the spur-only route would be somewhat cheaper, the street/spur route would serve more people).

The second line proposed was the “D-Street/Arrowhead Line,” which would initially share 3rd Street with the Redlands Line as far as D Street then, as suggested by the name, head north on D Street for a little over two miles until it reached Highland, where it would jog east to Mountain View Avenue and again head north for two and a half miles, along the right-of-way the old P.E. Arrowhead Springs line followed, finally coming to a stop at 48th Street after a total of six miles. The line was designed to provide service to most of northern San Bernardino.

Unfortunately, construction of this line depended on construction of the 3rd Street segment of the Redlands Line. As delays pushed that project back, the D-Street Line was also left in limbo. Further, the transit authorities considered the Redlands Line to be far more important than the D-Street Line, so the delays also meant more and more of their time and effort was spent trying to get that project up and running, leaving the D-Street almost a planning orphan. When the Redlands Line was canceled in 1998, so too was the D-Street/Arrowhead Line, almost as an afterthought.

Proponents of the line were excited to see work starting on 3rd Street for the Redlands Line in 2007 as that meant that there was a good chance their line could be restarted as well. But the less than half-mile constructed before the project stopped once again was less than half the distance from the Terminal to D Street, so even had money (and will) been available, the line was once again an orphan.

As of 2014, though, things may be looking up for this line. Studies have show that due to its relatively short, straight length, the available right-of-way for nearly half of that, and the large number of potential users, the D-Street/Arrowhead Line would provide the biggest “bang for the buck” of any of the proposed three lines. Current plans are now for the tracks on 3rd to be completed as far east as the D Street junction which if nothing else would connect the civic center to the Santa Fe Terminal, then the line can work its way north from there in affordable, short – but useful – segments. Work is scheduled to begin in late 2015.

Meanwhile the third of SBCTran’s proposed lines has had its delays driven more by politics than lack of funds or recalcitrant railroad leasing. It was initially known as the “Colton Line,” and was planned to, like the D-Street Line, follow the 3rd Street tracks east to D Street. There, though, it would head south along D Street for about three-fourths of a mile before angling southwest to follow the old P.E. right-of-way to Colton. Total length would be under four miles – shortest of the three – and with an already existing right-of-way for most of that distance, this seemed to be the easiest and fasted line to build, while connecting the third largest city in San Bernardino County to its largest.

Possibly because it was so simple and fast, however, almost immediately the plan began to acquire additions. As a P.E. line, the route had originally run not just to Colton, but all the way to Riverside. And like between San Bernardino and Colton, much of the right-of-way between Colton and Riverside was still there for the use. So it seemed logical, nay, unavoidable that the line should instead run all the way down to Riverside, restoring the P.E. service that once existed and providing Riverside County with its own interurban link to the rest of Southern California.

The problems started when San Bernardino County began planning this line, now called the San Bernardino/Riverside Line, without even consulting with Riverside County. Which, since those plans assumed Riverside County would end up paying for the bulk of the route, was a considerably oversight.

Understandably miffed, Riverside County demanded all planning on this adventure cease until talks could be arranged between the two counties. That was in late 1995. Talks began in early 1996 and then continued, and continued, and continued...

By 1998, the same Redlands Line cancellation that decapitated the beginning of the D-Street Line, had also shorn the Riverside Line of its connection to San Bernardino Station. Riverside County, which all throughout the talks had been at best luke-warm to the idea of a rail line, took this opportunity to call a halt to the talks “until such time as San Bernardino County shows it can build any rail line, let alone one that would link two counties.”

2007’s restarting of Redlands Line construction brought renewed interest in this line well – and now from both Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. Unfortunately, this time the City of Riverside was the one to clear its throat and point out that no one had done anything about asking them, in spite of the fact that several miles of this line would be within the city limits and a mile of it would be down the middle of two main downtown streets.

Its possible all these conflicts would have been worked out, but again San Bernardino County’s 2007/08 financial collapse put an end to those talks almost before they could begin. And their third planned line also returned to limbo with its siblings.

As of 2014, there are talks to return to building just the initial Colton portion of the line, linking it in with the D-Street Line project. Any extension from there to Riverside would be a separate project, if/when the details between all the counties and cities are finally worked out. If funding is approved, construction on the Colton Line would begin in 2016 or early 2017.




OC-Link

If San Bernardino County had trouble with a mere three line proposals, totaling less than thirty-five miles of track, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Orange County’s intricate plans for more than seventy-five miles of new lines (not counting the fourteen miles of the MTA’s Santa Ana Line, which provided the backbone for the system) would have troubles of their own from day one.

In some ways, it was more ambitious than even Los Angeles County’s plans, as those seventy-five miles would connect up almost all of the county’s major population centers through multiple hubs while providing two connections to the Los Angeles County rail network. When finished, only the sparsely populated southern half of the county would be farther than a couple of miles from an interurban, and that area’s needs would be more than handled by the Santa Fe trains on their way to San Diego.

Still, Orange County understood the size of the job they wanted to take on, and thus broke up the total project into three “phases,” of two, three, and four lines, respectively.

Phase One would create and spread from the “Stanton Hub,” where the Santa Ana line crossed Stanton Avenue. There two lines – one headed south, the other east – would follow leased railway right-of-ways. The southern one would head straight south, ending a little less than eleven miles later at Huntington Beach, thus connecting the Beach Cities to Santa Ana. The eastern one would follow a far less straight and slightly longer route, but would pass through Anaheim and end up in downtown Orange.

These two lines alone would increase rail access to within range of fully fifty percent of the county’s population.

Phase Two would run a nine mile line along the coast to connect the end of the Huntington Beach line with the end of the MTA’s Seal Beach line, passing through almost all the beach cities and giving the network its second Los Angeles County connection. Then a second line of just less than nine miles would run from the Anaheim line north and west to connect Fullerton and Buena Park. Finally a third would mostly follow the route of the Santa Ana river from the Santa Ana line north to Placentia, ending in Yorba Linda. Planners saw this as the potential beginning of a line that would run from there east to Corona and on to Riverside (and through the SBC-Rail line, to San Bernardino), but considered this to be something “for the future.”

Phase Three would deal with making interconnections. A six mile line would run south from Huntington Beach along the coast, then inland to Costa Mesa. Three miles of rail would connect the Fullerton/Buena Park line with the North Riverside one creating a continuous east/west line in the northern part of the county. On the western end of the Fullerton/Buena Park line, four miles of track would connect it to the Santa Ana line backbone just south of La Palma. Finally nearly ten miles of track would follow the Santa Ana River south, eventually connecting to the Costa Mesa line and creating a second north/south backbone line for the county.

All three phases of the system planned to use a mixture of abandoned P.E. right-of-ways, bought or leased right-of-ways from the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe, and surface-street lines to complete its network.

Orange County’s plans almost immediately hit a stumbling block that, unlike Los Angeles’s or San Bernardino’s, very little of their planned routes – apart from the Santa Ana line backbone, already under construction – had available P.E. right-of-ways to reuse. And most of the rail routes they planned to buy or lease were still in active, occasionally very active, use. Prices for leasing would be high and outright purchase was often out of the question except for short, rarely connected sections. Add in the expense of creating surface-street right-of-ways that would be both efficient (Orange had learned from Los Angeles’s problems with the Santa Monica and Burbank/Glendale lines), yet not take over the entire street, and the price tag for the whole project was rapidly spiraling out of control.

Still, with the Santa Ana line to Los Angeles completed in 1995, plans continued for Phase One of the project. The abandoned P.E. right-of-way for the southern half of the Huntington Beach line was acquired and negotiations began with Southern Pacific to lease rights on and along their Santa Ana subdivision tracks. Work was to begin on the Huntington Beach line in 1999 and the Anaheim/Orange one in 2001.

Then Southern Pacific balked at leasing their tracks in the Anaheim area, stating that using it for interurbans would cause unsupportable delays to their customers in central Orange County. The County and the company continued debating the issue, but by 1998 it was obvious that Southern Pacific was not going to budge on this issue.

The County then tried to salvage something and just lease the line to Westminster so that it could at least start the Huntington Beach line, but by now Southern Pacific saw any lease as a way to slowly chip away their rights in the county and negotiations collapsed in late 1999, just when construction was due to start.

With the halting of Phase One, planning on Phases Two and Three also came to a stop. With the exception of the North and South Riverside lines, all the lines from those two phases were dependent on Phase One being completed. No Phase One...and they became orphaned lines that lacked any connection to the system as a whole. Indeed, there was essentially no system.

And there things stood for over a full decade. Over that time OCRT made attempts to create new rail plans that would not require the usage of SP tracks, or build shortened starter lines that could be built upon when/if things changed, but all were in the end rejected as too expensive or simply not serving enough of the populace to make them worthwhile.

In 2010, however, things began to change. Traffic on SP’s Stanton to Westminster tracks had dropped to almost nothing and indeed SP traffic in Orange County as a whole had fallen 33% from its peak. Suddenly, a guaranteed income from leasing seemed like a good idea to the company.

Ironically, however, this was a poor time to approach the county on this. Only just finishing its recovery from the 2006/08 downturn, starting new projects was still frowned upon within the offices in Santa Ana. Still, the OCRT argued, it couldn’t hurt to simply discuss things with Southern Pacific. If nothing else, they could be used as a start for any future negotiations when the county’s finances were ready to resume rail construction.

So preliminary discussions began again between the OCRT and the Southern Pacific for the first time in twelve years. This time, however, the County had a much stronger position, so pushed to not only lease the right-of-way for the Phase One lines, but for all three phases where plans had the lines using SP right-of-way.

Southern Pacific balked at first – it seemed like their old fears that any lease was just a start of losing control in the County may have been correct – but when the number of customers in Westminster dropped to two in early 2012, they began negotiating in earnest, fearful that they’d have to abandon several of the lines the County wanted and be forced to sell them, rather than lease, and at fire-sale prices.

Over the next two years negotiations continued, with OCRT updating their plans to both handle the changes that had happened over the last fifteen years (three of the previously chosen station sites now had other buildings on them, for example) and to assure Southern Pacific that their freights would continue to move through the system, at worst with only minor delays.

Finally just a year ago, on June 13th, 2013, both county and railroad officials signed the lease agreement and OCRT could once again begin to plan for construction. Surveying and preliminary work has since been done, and construction on both lines of the long-delayed Phase One is due to begin on November 3rd, 2014.




SoCal Rail?

It now seems that after many years of delay, work will finally commence on the “lost links” in Southern California’s rail network. Five years ago it seemed unlikely that any of these projects would be completed. Five years from now...you could be riding on at least some of the planned routes.

The Pacific Electric that once linked four counties and their cities together is being reborn.