How High Speed Rail is like Rail Rapid Transit

Opinion of Noel T. Braymer

I grew up in Orange County in the 1960’s. In Orange County all the TV stations were in Los Angeles and my family subscribed to a local newspaper and the Los Angeles Times. Even as a child I followed the news and read the newspapers. I remember all through out the 60’s and 70’s Los Angeles every few years would propose a new “Rapid Transit” rail system which after months of publicity and criticism would die out until the next attempt was made. The proposed projects were usually fully grade separated and while they might share existing rights of ways including rail ROW no attempt was made of using the existing railroads. These projects were very expensive and often got the support of major construction companies and Labor Unions. The proposed cost and the questions about ridership usually shot these projects down. Finally in the late 1970’s Los Angeles concentrated on just building a Wilshire Subway by applying for a Federal Grant instead of depending on voter approval for a county wide system. In the early 1980’s the voters of Los Angeles County approved the first sales tax increase for improvement of all forms of transportation not just for rail transit.

In 1981 San Diego opened the first leg of its San Diego Trolley service. For many people this changed everything: it certainly did for me. I was living in Los Angeles at the time and I and a small group of advocates started promoting Light Rail between Long Beach and Los Angeles to be built in time for the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. The San Diego Trolley had been built for 86 million dollars in 1981 in a short period of time and we hoped to replicate the Trolley’s success using the existing Pacific Electric right of way. At the Los Angeles Caltrans Office planners wrote a feasibility study on how this could be done with a bare bones single track service like San Diego’s and proposed using Washington Blvd and Flower Street in Los Angeles to get trains from the P.E. to the west side of downtown Los Angeles at 7th Street. One of these Caltrans planners got a meeting with then Los Angeles County Board of Supervisor member Kenny Hahn who’s District would be served most by a Long Beach to Los Angeles Light Rail line. Kenny Hahn who remembered the Pacfic Electric Trains was won over to the project which was the turning point to getting Los Angeles County to adopt the project soon named the Blue Line.

The then Los Angeles County Transportation Commission now found itself with a project to build Light Rail between Los Angeles and Long Beach. The Commission was a fairly new organization with a small staff and the job of overseeing the road and transit services of the county. One thing the Commission was sure about was it didn’t want to give Caltran responsibility for this or any transit project. Caltrans was a very unpopular state agency with local governments  in the 1970’s. The Commission awarded a contract to a major consulting firm to write a new feasibility study which took about a year to do. Other than being on better paper, in color and more expensive it mostly replicated the work Caltrans had done. But now the project was fully double tracked and much more expensive with several grade separations. This pushed back completion of this project to 1990. At the same time the RTD or Los Angeles County Rapid Transit District was working to secure Federal funding and start work on the first leg in downtown Los Angeles for the subway which would go from Union Station to North Hollywood. Many people supporting the subway didn’t like the LA-Long Beach project which they saw as competing for funding and attention from their dream of county wide Rail Rapid Transit.

Well the Blue Line was finished first before the first leg of the subway. Ridership for the Blue Line exceeded projections and the service was popular. Because of this the decision was made to put Light Rail on a transitway to be built in the Century Freeway just starting construction. During this time early ridership of the subway was below projections  plus construction and accidents in construction were very disruptive particularly in Hollywood. The high cost of subway construction sucked up most of the available money for rail transit and delayed many future projects. The Green Line which was mostly built in the Century Freeway was expected by many “experts” to be a disaster with few people riding it. Again ridership exceeded projections with many passengers transferring to the Blue Line. Also interesting and unexpected by the RTD was that a significant number of people were transferring to the subway from the Blue Line. This grew after the Green Line was opened. Instead of hurting the subway Red Line, the Light Rail Lines where a major factor in feeding traffic to it.

Another factor the Rapid Transit believers didn’t expect was the creation of Metrolink. This grew out of the success of rail service on the state supported Amtrak trains between San Diego and Los Angeles. Many of the routes planned in the 1960’s for Rapid Transit in the Los Angeles region were finally being served by Metrolink. Using existing resources Metrolink service was much cheaper to build than Rapid Transit and ridership grew.

What does this have to do with High Speed Rail? Like the original planning for Rail Rapid Transit, most of the estimates for High Speed Rail are very expensive and the ridership projections attacked as unrealistic. Also like Rail Rapid Transit most of the planning for High Speed Rail has largely ignored connections with other services and had no desire to share trackage or facilities with other rail services. Modern Light Rail started in Frankfurt, Germany. In the 1950’s as Germany was recovering from the destruction of World War II, Frankfurt was working on what to do about transit. The city did a study looking at either building a Rail Rapid Transit system, a Monorail system or upgrading the existing Streetcar system. The study discovered that upgrading the Streetcar system was not only cheaper to do, but would attract more riders and allow faster trip times for most riders. The reason for this was by using a larger network with the old Streetcar lines passengers would have more direct service and save time because they wouldn’t have to transfer as much. Despite higher speeds the increased need to transfer with Rapid Transit or Monorails meant trip times were often longer. Frankfurt built miles of subway tunnels and upgraded the rights of ways and bought larger and more modern trains for their new Light Rail system. Over the years Frankfurt and other cities have evolved their rail service building incrementally a fast and extensive transportation network. Much can be learned about creating a rail service based on the experiences of Frankfurt.

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