Transit Trip in Trouble: OCTA-NCTD Connection Under Attack

The Transit Gods both giveth and taketh away, nowadays. It was just a few months ago when transit fans were excited over the possibility of an all-transit trip between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

But now another classic all-transit trip is threatened. The connection between the Orange County Transit Agency and the North County Transit District may go away, due to budgetary and other issues.

Currently, OCTA and NCTD meet in southern San Clemente, at the Orange-San Diego County border. OCTA route #1 continues via Pacific Coast Highway to Long Beach, while #191 is a local circulator through San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, and Mission Viejo. NCTD #395 (formerly #305) connects San Clemente and Oceanside via the Camp Pendleton Marine Base.

But the magic is in the connection between OCTD/OCTA and NCTD at Carls Jr restaurant at the southern tip of Orange County. For a few dollars (much less than Greyhound or Amtrak fares), people could take a cheap (but lengthy) trip between San Diego and Los Angeles by transferring from bus to bus to bus…


Camp Pendleton and its Transit Service

The United States Marine Corps acquired 122,798 acres of a former Mexican Rancho and built Camp Pendleton in 1942. As Los Angeles and Orange County developed, San Diegans began to consider the Marine base a buffer between their county and the urban sprawl of the counties to the north.

In 1946, Greyhound agent Ray Campbell began a taxi service between the San Clemente bus station and northern Camp Pendleton. As ridership increase, the taxis gave way to buses. Ray named his bus company  “San Clemente Stage Lines” and operated two routes: one linking San Clemente with Camps San Mateo, Christanitos and Talega via the San Mateo Gate, the other serving San Onofre and Horno through the San Onofre Gate. In 1967, Community Enterprises (same company that owned several local transit lines in Orange County) acquired the system. Service operated from 4 pm to 2 am on weekdays; 8 am to 3:30 am on weekends. At some point [mid-1970s?], Pinetree Service Corporation bought the operation and operated yellow buses (school buses?) on the routes.

Meanwhile, in the mid-1970s, the Orange County Transit District implemented a network of bus lines throughout the county. One line in particular (#1) connected all of the communities along Pacific Coast Highway, from San Clemente to Long Beach. In northern San Diego County, the local transit systems in Oceanside and Escondido were merged to form the North County Transit District. NCTD ran a bus (#305) between Oceanside and the southern portion of Camp Pendleton. Connections between NCTD and the Yellow Bus were possible. But the infrequent Yellow Bus service, plus the need to pay an additional fare, made transferring between the two services inconvenient.

As early as 1984, NCTD discussed taking over the Yellow Bus service and operating one continuous line between Oceanside and San Clemente. In mid-1985,  NCTD did just that; a year later, the agency added limited weekday daytime service.


Riding the Base Bus

Although the Marines and their visitors were the primary users of the NCTD route, other passengers used it to transfer to the OCTD in San Clemente and continue on into Los Angeles.  These souls included VA patients needing to visit the Veterans’ Administration hospital in Long Beach, homeless and transients going from San Diego shelters to ones in Los Angeles, the occasional bus fan or transit advocacy group, and folks who simply wanted to do something different on a day off. Contrary to some people’s fears, illegal aliens rarely used the buses serving Camp Pendleton. The ID checks and other screenings on the bus as it entered the base undoubtedly deterred them.


The Threat to Transit

When NCTD took over the Yellow Bus, the agency hoped that the resulting San Clemente-Oceanside route would be a moneymaker. Instead it ended up being a high subsidy route, costing at least $5-7 per passenger. Large deployments of Marines (such as to the Persian Gulf) caused ridership to dip dangerously low. But public support for the military kept the buses running.

The 2008 closure of the San Clemente Greyhound station, combined with limited Amtrak service, diminished San Clemente’s importance as an access point for long-distance transportation. The Marines preferred to ride the bus to Oceanside and its frequent Amtrak and Greyhound service..

Recently, Camp Pendleton began to close its northernmost gate (Christanitos) in the early evening. Night trips on #395 detour via the San Onofre gate and onto I-5, adding nine miles (one way) to the trip. The longer distance also discouraged ridership to San Clemente on the night trips. In 2011, NCTD cut back the number of daytime trips to San Clemente and eliminated night service north of Camp San Mateo, forcing passengers to ride back to Oceanside to make their connections.

Also in 2011, OCTA, facing budgetary problems of its own, is considering removing all fixed-route service south of the San Clemente Metrolink station. Although OCTA proposes alternatives such as dial-a-ride, most area bus riders consider such services more inconvenient than fixed route buses. Eliminating the service to the NCTD transfer point will certainly make those inexpensive San Diego-Los Angeles trips much more difficult.



Southern California Association of Governments. Transit Development Program.
(contains histories of bus routes up to 1971)

Shaffer, Ralph E. “To Tijuana, Via RTD, the OCTD, the NCTD.” Los Angeles Times, Mar 4, 1979.

“San Clemente Stage Lines Granted Increase in Fares.” Los Angeles Times, September 28, 1989

Sherman, Lola. “Bus -service plan revived despite Marines’ concerns.” San Diego Evening Tribune, October 18, 198

Sherman, Lola. “Orange County bus tie sought.” San Diego Evening Tribune, December 14, 1984

Ray, Nancy. “Door-to-door Van Service to Replace Bus in Fallbrook.” Los Angeles Times, Apr 12, 1985

“Bus routes.” San Diego Union, June 4, 1985

Western Transit, June 1986 (Weekday daytime service on NCTD #305)

Manson, Bill. “Buses Took 9 ½ Hours, but He Got There Cheap.” Los Angeles Times (San Diego County Edition), Jan 25, 1987.

Manson, Bill. “You Can Get Here From There…and for Only $1.85.” Los Angeles Times, April 6, 1992

Western Transit, March 2002 (NCTD #305 replaced by #395, with some route modifications)

Swegles, Fred . ”A road less traveled: the $2 tour of scenic Camp Pendleton.” Orange County Register, December 31, 2007

Nichols, Chris. “Sparsely used bus routes on chopping block.” North County Times, July 12, 2010

OCTA Transit System Study. February 2011

Swegles, Fred. “San Clemente may lose nearly all OCTA bus service.Orange County Register, July 15, 2011

Swegles, Fred. “San Clemente wants to preserve bus service.Orange County Register, July 20, 2011




3 Comments to "Transit Trip in Trouble: OCTA-NCTD Connection Under Attack"

  1. Bob Davis's Gravatar Bob Davis
    July 27, 2011 - 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for mentioning the 1979 article by Ralph E. Shaffer. I think that’s the story I remember about two young men who went from West Covina to San Diego the hard way (no way they could have gone home on the same day–they gave in and used Amtrak for the return trip). Note that this was about two years before there was any revived electric rail service in Southern California, and the Amtrak service was rather sparse compared to today’s “Surfliners”. As I recall, the critical point in the 1979 journey was the Carl’s Jr. stop on the south side of San Clemente (which I remember from my days at the San Onofre nuclear plant). Apparently the bus from Oceanside didn’t always cover the full route to the restaurant, and the adventurers were glad when for their trip, it did.

  2. mjhorgan's Gravatar mjhorgan
    March 5, 2017 - 4:24 am | Permalink

    Rumor has it that Route 395 is going to become a FLEX zone aka scheduled Dial-A-Ride service. The new service would not serve Orange County, but would offer door to door ridership if needed. This is still in proposal, but NCTD also wants to cut Route 392 which also serves Camp Pendleton. The Coaster extension to MCRD still has not been finalized, but maybe someday that can be replaced with a Coaster service, but still offer the FLEX if need be.

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