Nobody Drives in LA — The Great Metrolink Four Counties Ride

Last Friday was Earth Day. In honor of the day, Metro, Metrolink, (and doubtless many other local mass transit agencies) offered unlimited fare-free rides. I’ve read a couple of articles in the past in which the authors stated that they were riding every Metro line (although in both cases they meant Metro train lines, not bus — of which there are 115). Along the same lines, I decided I’d try to ride as many Metrolink lines as possible in one day. If Metrolink trains ran more often, it would be possible to ride the entire length of the system. Trains do not run that often, though, so I tried to figure out how I could ride as many lines as possible to as many counties as possible. My first thought was that I’d start with a trip either to Ventura or Oceanside, because both are beach towns and the trips, therefore, are presumably amongst the network’s most scenic. But trains to and from those destinations operate on very limited schedules and a trip to either would’ve been the only trip of the day. A free train trip to a beach town isn’t a bad way to spend one’s day, mind you, but it’s not much of a mission. Another difficulty the mission presented was the Los Angeles centrality of Metrolink. Every line except for the Inland Empire-Orange County Line runs in and out of Los Angeles‘s Union Station… a station loved by train riders for things newer Metro and Metrolink-built stations lack, namely restaurants and restrooms. In other words, riding multiple lines means leaving and returning to Union Station with each trip unless one incorporates the Inland Empire-Orange County Line into one’s itinerary.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography’s map of passenger rail, BRT, and ferry lines in Southern California

So, working within the network’s limitations, I created a route to visit the county seat of four of the six counties served by Metrolink. That is more than anyone has ever traveled on Metrolink in a single day until now. I don’t actually know if that statement is true but it seems well within the realm of possibility and so I’m going to repeat that claim until I’m contradicted. If you were to do this on a weekend, you could do it with a $10 weekend pass. Otherwise, the route would cost $34.50 — still not a lot of money for a journey of about 230 kilometers (140 miles) across four counties and through dozens of communities — especially for those who enjoy the journey by train almost as much as the destination. The train flâneur… the traineur? Please do plan ahead, though, as train schedules change and not all lines currently operate every day.

The route of the Great Metrolink Four Counties ride in red

When I have mentioned Metrolink to Angelenos, I have found, that most of them don’t know what it is… or think that it’s the same thing as Metro. This used to surprise me although the two networks do complement one another. The relationship between the two is a bit like the relationship between London‘s Underground and Overground. Metro (or the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA)), in this analogy is the Underground — a mass transit agency serving Los Angeles County with 113 bus lines, five light rail lines, two subway lines, and two BRTs. It has over a million weekday boardings. Metrolink, on the other hand, is more like the Overgounrd although it’s operated less as a regional rail system than a commuter rail system. It serves six of Southern California‘s ten counties. It has about 47,000 weekday boardings.

Metrolink is Southern California’s commuter rail service. It operates and maintains seven lines, 62 stations, and 859 kilometers of rail that serve Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Ventura counties. The remaining counties in Southern California — Imperial, Kern, and San Luis Obispo — are not served by Metrolink although they, like every county in Southern California, are served by Amtrak (which, incidentally, jointly operates Metrolink with the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (SCRRA)… except that Amtrak’s Sunset Limited doesn’t actually stop anywhere in Imperial County. SCRRA is itself a joint-powers authority governed by the Metro, the Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), the Riverside County Transportation Commission (RCTA), the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority (SBCTA), and the Ventura County Transportation Commission (VCTC). Metrolink connects to numerous smaller rail and BRT systems, including Los Angeles County’s Metro; North County Transit District‘s Coaster and Sprinter; and, sbX Green Line.

Metrolink operates the Antelope Valley Line (from Downtown Los Angeles to Lancaster… and, someday, perhaps, Kern County), the Arrow Line (opening to the public later this year and running between San Bernardino and Redlands), the Inland Empire-Orange County Line (from San Bernardino to Oceanside… in San Diego County), the 91/Perris Valley Line (from Downtown Los Angeles to Perris and later to be extended to San Jacinto, the Orange County Line (from Downtown Los Angeles to Oceanside, which is in San Diego County), the Riverside Line (between Downtown Los Angeles and the Riverside-Downtown Station in Riverside), the San Bernardino Line (between Downtown Los Angeles and San Bernardino Transit Center in San Bernardino), and the Ventura County Line (between Downtown Los Angeles and Ventura).

The first transit railroad in California was the Sacramento Valley Railroad, which began operation on 22 February 1856. The first steam train appeared in Los Angeles in 1869, nineteen years after the city was incorporated. The first horsecar showed up in 1874. The first trolley began operation in 1885. The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad arrived in 1885. Historically, Los Angeles was served by a host of passenger rail providers, including, most famously, Los Angeles Railway and the Pacific Electric Railway Company. Much of Southern California’s inter-city rail service was taken over by Amtrak when that agency was formed in 1971. There were other short-lived inter-city services, though, that followed Amtrak. CalTrain connected Union Station in Downtown Los Angeles to Oxnard for just four and a half months in 1982 and ’83. In 1990, the Orange County Transportation Commission initiated the Orange County Commuter between Los Angeles and San Juan Capistrano.

Senate Bill 1402, passed on 25 May 1990, directed local transportation authorities to create a comprehensive regional plan by the end of that year. That October, SCRRA announced that it had purchased 228 kilometers of track, maintenance yards, and train stations from Southern Pacific Railroad. Metrolink began operation on 26 October 1992. There were initially three lines: the San Bernardino Line, Santa Clarita Line (later renamed Antelope Valley), and Ventura Line. The Riverside Line opened in 1993. In 1994, the Orange County Commuter was transferred from Amtrak to Metrolink for the Orange County Line. The Inland Empire-Orange County Line opened in 1995. The 91 Line opened in 2002.


I woke up on Friday morning, packed a thermos full of coffee and a flask full of Japanese whiskey in my bicycle bag, and boarded Metro’s 96 Line, which took me Downtown to Union Station. There are earlier trains but a 9:38 departure seemed early enough to me. I walked through the beautiful, historic train station and boarded my train without issue. My train car was mostly empty and quiet. Metrolink may’ve been offering free rides but I suspect most people with jobs are at them on Fridays as the clock approaches 10:00. After the train stopped at Cal State Los Angeles Station, a group of older Hongkongers boarded the train. They were loud. When one wandered from the group, they grew very loud. One apologized to me for being so loud and I assured her that I didn’t mind. They said they didn’t know where they were going but that they were all riding just because the train was free. I wondered why, though, they’d chosen to head toward the Inland Empire instead of, say, the Pacific Ocean but their English was seemingly limited and my Chinese even more so.

I was less amused by a couple of Korean women who would not stop going onto me about Jesus‘s love. One wore Chanel and a sandwich board further proclaiming Jesus’s love. They were both pretty and smiling but surprisingly aggressive and for some reason, when they got in my face, they pulled their masks down to speak. One dangled a sealed plastic bag in my face containing a Bible tract and a Snickers mini while asking me questions even though I had earbuds in my ears, a mask on my face, and was in the Office Hours Live Zoom room on my phone. I felt like a toddler or pet. If I wanted candy, I had to learn about Jesus’s love. I told her that yes, I am a major Jesus fan. I’ve read the Bible, the Gospel of Thomas, the Qur’an, and tons of Chick tracts. However, I do not go to church, I am not Christian, and Mars‘s candy bars taste like vomit to me. They left and I thought I was safe but before long they were back, accosting me again, robotically repeating their spiel. Unsure of what to do, I made the Japanesedame” (だめ) gesture and they again moved on. They, the Hongkongers, and most other passengers got off at the lovely San Bernardino Santa Fe Depot. I probably should’ve done the same but, having never been to San Bernardino, I didn’t know.

Our train arrived in San Bernardino around 11:21. The 90 minutes had gone by quickly… although certainly wouldn’t have been mad if it had taken half that long. From the Pomona Valley to San Bernardino, it seemed like we passed through a vast and endless liminal zone of indistinguishable office parks. I exited the train at the less-lovely San Bernardino Transit Center. After I exited the platform, a tall black man wondered aloud for the benefit of all within earshot “of all the places for tourists to go… don’t come here!” I mentioned to him that Metrolink was free — which he felt still didn’t explain why anyone would choose San Bernardino. A couple of older Latinas asked the way to Downtown San Bernardino and he said, “This is it. Don’t expect anything spectacular!” He asked where they were from. They excitedly said, “L.A!” He shook his head. We all laughed.

As I’d skipped breakfast, my first stop was Jovi’s Diner, a solid diner located near the station. Inside I counted no few than ten signs mentioning Historic Route 66. The jukebox was all slow rhythm & blues tunes by the likes of Barbara Lewis, John Holt, and Durand Jones & the Indications. My waitress had thick eyeliner and eye-poppingly long and colorful press-on nails. I was probably projecting but her polite questions seemed suspicious. Innocent inquiries like “Do you have any weekend plans, sir? Is everything OK, sir?” made me feel like I was an undercover cop who’d been made. When I told her that I was taking advantage of Metrolink’s free fare to ride the rails, her eyes grew large with surprise and she asked “visiting San Bernardino, sir?” I elaborated that San Bernardino was just my first stop and that I was moving on. A look of relief crossed her face.

After I paid my bill, headed off to explore Downtown San Bernardino. After going to bed the night before I’d awoken by an unexpected and heavy downpour. The rain stopped before I’d risen from bed but the sky was still filled with dark clouds and the wind was churning them in Baroque contortions. Not to punch down but the city below the contorted was equally tormented. The Harris Company flagship building was attractive but has apparently been abandoned since it closed in 1999. Across the street, stood an abandoned mid-1980s hotel. I passed a group of homeless men and arrived at a dead mall, built atop the graves of historic downtown buildings felled in the name of urban renewal. I walked a bit more past empty buildings with boarded-up or smashed windows and empty surface parking lots. There were a few businesses, all of which invariably had signs up that read “no public restroom.” I headed back toward the train station, past billboards for Sweet James and cellphone towers that looked like giant toil bowl brushes. The small group that waited inside the transit sat in silence except for the tiny speaker of someone’s cellphone, which played a Zapp & Roger tune. I don’t want to suggest, after such a brief experience, that San Bernardino is hopeless but it certainly seemed like the Downtown was struggling.

At 12:59, I boarded the train for Riverside, the county seat of Riverside County. I know a bit about Southern California but, having lived in Los Angeles for 23 years, prior to my train ride, I assumed that San Bernardino and Riverside were practically interchangeable. Riverside is the seat of Riverside County and the most populous city in the Inland Empire. San Bernardino is the county seat of San Bernardino County and the second-most populous city in the Inland Empire. Together, with Ontario, they form the core of the Riverside-San Bernardino–Ontario Metropolitan Area — a suburban statistical area with a population of roughly 4,678,371 people. Naturally, all blurred together in my vague imaginings.

The scene from the train window was one of litter and graffiti-strewn lots, corrugated metal, and cars parked in back yards that looked as though they had been given up on by owners once intent on fixing them up. A trio of wrecked Union Pacific locomotives sat off to the side. A passenger explained that there’d been a derailment in Colton not long ago. The train passed a couple of nice but abandoned-looking historic train depots. The apocalyptic was unshakeable and my mind wandered to my days of playing Wasteland. The train arrived in Riverside around 1:19. I didn’t notice that the sign over the tracks was also a pedestrian bridge and Google Maps tried to get me to hurl myself off of a bridge over University Avenue but I continued on.

Once I passed underneath the Riverside Freeway I felt my spirits immediately improve. I was greeted with the sight of a brewery, an attractive church, and multiple museums. An older man in a T-shirt emblazoned with a praying Tupac nodded respectfully. A couple walking a dog smiled. A carful of blonde young women informed me that I’d dropped something (my hat). I turned up Orange and then 6th, past the breathtaking Mission Inn. Each street was more charming. I turned down Main Street, only to find that — miracle of miracles — three blocks of it were blessedly car-free (something I’d wished Court Street had been back in San Berdoo). There was a nice mix of red brick buildings with ghost signs and mid-20th century midrises and it was imminently walkable.

I wished that I’d gone to San Bernardino on an earlier train so that I could’ve spent more time in Riverside. However, having passed parks, a Thai restaurant, and a library all within an easy stroll, I’d already checked off half the amenities which make me view a place as desirable. I had to leave, though, and headed back to the station. A group of young Latinos that I’d passed when I’d arrived in Riverside was still there with their cameras and tripods filming trains coming and going. I overheard one announce his intention to ride a train to Fullerton on National Train Day.

I left Riverside around 2:48. The train passed back yards planted with prickly pears and loquat trees and businesses with razor wire-protected parking lots. Train followed the winding route of the Santa Ana River as it meanders between the Chino Hills and the Santa Ana Mountains. As it passed through Yorba Linda, the view of the surroundings — and more importantly, Yoba Lindans’ view of the train — was obscured by ugly and cheap-looking walls. In 2004, Metrolink had proposed building a train station in Yorba Linda and the wise elders of Yorba Linda City Council voted unanimously to oppose it on the ground that it would [checks notes] “bring traffic to the area.” Apparently, even the sight of a train is triggering and thus an unsightly barrier was erected along the tracks.

I wasn’t completely certain whether or not my next destination. Yes, Santa Ana is the county seat of Orange County — and yet, Orange, the city, is the community which shares its name Orange, the County — and I’d thus far visited Los Angeles in Los Angeles County, San Bernardino in San Bernardino County, and Riverside in Riverside County. Also, Orange is easily one of my favorite communities in Orange County, with its Craftsman homes, Eichler Tracts, and walkable “Old Towne.” Besides, whereas my three previous cities had also been the most populous in their respective counties, Anaheim, not Santa Ana holds that distinction in Orange County. I also really like Santa Ana, though, which is inarguably the most urban city in Orange County. There are also more trains out of Santa Ana than Orange, which meant I could be more flexible with my departure time. I arrived in Santa Ana around 3:47.

Santa Ana’s station turned out to be surprisingly far from the city center. I strolled through the French Park neighborhood in the direction of distant midrises. I was ready to eat again but everywhere that wasn’t Jack in the Box or Burger King seemed not to open until 5:00. Even in Downtown Santa Ana, there were surprisingly few restaurant options. I walked along the route of the OC Streetcar Line, currently under construction, and stumbled across a vegan place, Munchies Diner, where I had a “BBQ chicken sando” made from oyster mushroom and had a beer. The vibe was “vegan bro.” The music was by mononymous millennials like Kaytranada and Miguel. I wolfed down the sandwich, which was good, downed the beer (also good), and began the long-ish trek back to the transit center.

As I walked back to the train station, I walked along curb-protected bicycle lanes with bioswales. You don’t see that sort of thing in Los Angeles where bicycle lanes are almost always designated by nothing but a line of paint. It struck me as another example of green urbanism that Los Angeles prides itself on exemplifying even as places assumed by Angelenos to be lagging behind pass them by. See also recycled water, common in Orange County while in Los Angeles we still rely on a dwindling supply of melted mountain snow stolen from the Owens Valley… or micro-plastic filled bottles of water stolen from public lands by multinational corporations and then sold back to consumers.

The train departed from Santa Ana around 5:30. It was about half full but not one passenger in my car was wearing a mask, which was a first. The hour-long journey went by quickly. A journey by automobile at the same time would likely take just a bit longer but be much more unpleasant. The only highlights of that slog are passing by the Clearman’s North Woods in La Mirada (a steakhouse designed to look like a snow-covered frontier hunting lodge) and Citadel Outlets (a repurposed tire factory designed to resemble an ancient Assyrian castle). From the train window, though, the scenery — no matter how mundane — acquires an air of romance and mystery. I’m talking suburban train depots; wide, dry riverbeds; vast, solar-paneled warehouses; tiny bungalows; endless railyards; all of it. The best part is when the track soars from Boyle Heights over the Los Angeles River into the Arts District, weaving between complicated, towering metal structures. Mine was the last train of the day, arriving at Union Station at 6:29 — about an hour before sunset. At night this final part of the journey might be the closest one comes to experiencing something like the Los Angeles of Blade Runner but I guess I won’t know for sure unless I ride again in winter… or Metrolink ads a night service. Now that would be something!

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubithe StoryGraphand Twitter.

6 thoughts on “Nobody Drives in LA — The Great Metrolink Four Counties Ride

  1. I love, love, love this post! I’m a ride-every-line-to-the-end person. It is great to hear about your experiences on Metrolink. I like your descriptions and your itinerary planning is excellent.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent, flavorful, and informative post! Enjoyed your video, too. A few clarifications:

    1) Though Amtrak does operate through Imperial County (with the “Sunset Limited,” a train that’s almost always late, due to the cavalier attitude of operator Union Pacific) it doesn’t actiually SERVE the county, as there are no stops between Palm Springs and Yuma;

    2) The Santa Fe Railroad actually began serving LA in 1885, through a lease arrangement using the tracks of the Southern Pacific between Colton and LA. It was in 1886 that the famous rate wars, with their temporary Kansas City-LA ticket price of $1, occurred, causing tens of thousands of Americans to check out the Southland and resulting in the “Boom of the Eighties,” the first huge episode of the region’s population growth and subsequent subdivision;

    3) The route between Riverside and Santa Ana passes through the canyon of the Santa Ana River.

    Again, thanks for your post and all your other content relating to our kaleidoscopic region… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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