Will south California be a region on rails?

Car-crazy southern California has become the drawing board for a whole slate of train projects striving to put the region on rails during the late 1980s. Proposed: two high-speed ''bullet'' trains (including one ''mag-lev'' that floats on a magnetic cushion at well over 200 miles per hour), an L.A. subway system, a ground-level light-rail train to Long Beach, and a new San Diego street-car line to connect with the Tijuana trolley.

More than two decades after the old Pacific Electric Red Cars that once crisscrossed Los Angeles county were finally shut down, trains may come back. Some are much closer getting off the drawing board than others.

Each venture has a different set of possible riders and different financial circumstances that will govern whether it is built and whether it succeeds thereafter.

But since most of them would reinforce each other - each line making the others more usable to passengers - the arguments over most of these projects come down to a common gist: whether trains are a glamorous grasping toward the future or a sentimental clinging to the past.

It's not a settled question, and isn't likely to be soon. But some of the rail ventures are moving steadily ahead.

Most expensive by a nose is the Metro Rail, a $3.4 million, 18.6-mile starter line that aspires to be L.A.'s first subway system. Its financing plan, including $117 million allotted by Congress last summer, is 95 percent intact, according to a spokesmen for the Southern California Rapid Transit District.

Metro Rail planners aim to open its doors in 1989. By the year 2000, they say , it will carry 376,000 passengers a day, and will save Los Angeles cars 1,730, 000 miles of driving a day.

The proposed line starts at Union Station downtown, bears west down Wilshire Boulevard, then turns north through Hollywood, past the Bowl, and into the San Fernando Valley.

The bullet train proposition linking San Diego and downtown Los Angeles, with a leg jutting west over to Los Angeles International Airport, is an entirely private venture.

The express train will take 59 minutes to travel 130 miles from Union Station in Los Angeles to Sante Fe Station in San Diego. American High Speed Rail Corporation, the company planning the bullet train, plans to start construction in 1985 and finish in 1988.

Political resistance to the train has hardened in the past year or so, especially in affluent northern San Diego County. Transportation analyst Greg Thompson at the University of California at Irvine speculates that the train company can overcome its political obstacles. But the political flak, he adds, may scare off investors.

The real test for the bullet train is convincing investors to underwrite the says the financing package will be complete by the middle of next year, with a quarter of the money coming from Japan.

In Nevada, the city of Las Vegas is planning a more glamorous, if experimental, sort of bullet train. The magnetic levitation (mag-lev) trains float magnetically an inch or two above the track without friction.

Such a train could slide silently from Ontario, in eastern Los Angeles County , to Las Vegas, about 250 miles away, in an hour and 10 minutes.

Although the city already has spent more than half a million dollars on studies, planners there say this train also could be privately financed. If everything goes as scheduled, they say, the train will be running in 1991, the world's first mag-lev railway line.

The 22-mile light rail from Long beach to Los Angeles already has its money lined up. Los Angeles County Transportation Commission says it will have this $ 400 million project running in 1988, along an old Red Car right of way. It's the surest thing among all the Southern California rail ventures.

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