Leon Worden

Freight trains coming home to Valencia?

By Leon Worden
Wednesday, December 16, 1998

or all of the hoopla that accompanied the City Council's adoption of the Circulation Element, sort of its Master Road Plan for the future, the community was awfully quiet when the council adopted a study a couple of weeks ago that could eventually be used to drive freight trains through Valencia, rip out a healthy portion of our new trail system and wreak environmental havoc in the Santa Clara River.

There's a reason for that. The silence from the community, that is. Nobody knew about it.

I'm not accusing the city of acting in secret, exactly. But let's just say they adopted the study late one night at the end of a council meeting, with zero input from the community. And they certainly didn't go out of their way to tell anyone what they were up to.

God knows, when they WANT you to know about something, like the Cowboy Poetry Festival or the Crime Tip Hotline, they flood The Signal with press release after press release until we finally suffocate under the weight and end up sticking the information in six different sections of the paper.

(Tip to businesses and community organizations: If you want your information to get out, send a press release or two. Nobody will know about you if you don't communicate.)

So where were the press releases that said, "City to adopt study for driving trains through Valencia?"

Come to find out, a multi-agency steering committee was formed some time ago to look at various rail corridors. It's sort of like the secret (whoops!) steering committee that thought it would be a good idea to consider driving a road through the middle of the future Central Park in Saugus. This new committee decided on a "preferred" rail corridor that would run tracks from the Santa Clarita Metrolink station west to Ventura, essentially following the old Santa Paula branch line of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

That's why the new project is called the "Ventura Rail Right-of-Way Restoration Study." In 1887, SP built a line from Old Saugus to Castaic Junction and beyond to Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula and other points west. Cars replaced passenger trains and big-rigs replaced freight trains as the primary mode of transport for people and goods after the 1965 construction of the Interstate 5 freeway, and within a decade, Southern Pacific had abandoned or sold many of its rights of way for trains — including the old Santa Paula branch line. Over the years, The Newhall Land and Farming Co. removed the tracks and built homes and shopping centers.

The hitherto-unknown steering committee (sorry) was given a set of criteria for the new rail corridor. First and foremost, it had to accommodate both passenger and freight rail service. It had to accommodate speeds of 80 mph for both passenger and freight, allow for future connections to Los Angeles and the Antelope Valley, provide service to the Santa Clarita Metrolink station, "minimize" impacts and result in a "reasonable" construction cost.

In the Nov. 24 City Council meeting, planning director Jeff Lambert was careful to tell the council that what they were doing was adopting a corridor, not an exact alignment. The corridor, he said, is like a line on a map, showing approximately where the tracks would go, maybe 10 years from now. He said that by adopting the study, the council was not committing itself to either passenger or freight service at this time. There will be many more steps in the process before that could happen.

What the council DID do was adopt a recommended corridor where the tracks, regardless of the precise alignment, would somehow ford the Bouquet bridge, uprooting the ARCO station; remove part of the city's new river trail system, currently used primarily by joggers and bicycle riders; run along the river in front of the existing Avignon townhome community and the future Bridgeport homes; and then "significantly impact" a section of the Santa Clara River known as Significant Ecological Area 23.

The council voted 4-1 to accept the study and the "preferred" corridor, directing city staff to perform the next step in the process. No word yet from SCOPE.

    Leon Worden is The Signal's business editor.

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