How LA went from “don’t need rail” to “can’t live without it.”

Opinion and History by Noel T. Braymer. Photos by the author.

Arriving at Los Angeles Union Station today what first strikes you are the crowds.

Crowds coming and going rushing to catch Amtrak, Metrolink and subways trains on the Red and Purple Lines or the Gold Line up on platforms 1 and 2.

It wasn’t like that when I was a college student in Los Angeles in the early 1970’s. I knew fellow students who would go to Union Station to study because it was a nice quiet place. Now Union Station is busier than ever, busier than in the 1940’s. There are plans to extend local rail transit around LA in every direction as well as improvements for Metrolink and the Surfliners. This won’t be cheap. When finished the new Expo Line at 15 miles from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles will cost over 2 billion dollars. To extend the Purple Line from Wilshire and Western 9 miles to Westwood near UCLA will cost over 4 billion dollars. Why is Los Angeles now so in love with rail? It wasn’t love at first sight. There was heavy opposition to rail service in Los Angeles for over 50 years. Yet the same politicians who for years fought Light Rail to Santa Monica or extending subways to Westwood are now major supporters. What caused this turnaround?

LAUS was a very quiet place in 1979, but no longer.

Was this the result of a master plan? Actually it is the result of many master plans, none of which went according to plan. Even before the last PE Red Car stopped running or the tracks of the narrow gauge LA Streetcars were paved over there were plans to build an all new grade separated rail rapid transit system. From the late 50’s until the 1980’s planners worked on what is now called Heavy Rail which always got voted down in Los Angeles County. The arguments against it were always the same: too expensive, no one will ride it, people in California love their cars too much, Los Angeles doesn’t have the population density like New York to support a subway and so on. By the 1980’s planners were working on a starter line which would go from downtown Los Angeles to North Hollywood which could be built with Federal grant money without a popular vote. At about the same time citizen activists like me became interested in what was going on in San Diego with the Trolley and with Light Rail. There were still plenty of old rail branch lines that could be quickly converted to Light Rail in Los Angeles in 1980. The goal of my fellow dreamers was to have Light Rail from Long Beach to LA and maybe even from Santa Monica to LA by 1984 in time for the 1984 Olympics. It was at this time in November 1980 that the first half cent sales tax was raised in Los Angeles County for a mixture of improvements to roads, bus and future rail transit.

Metrolink cab car with crowds waiting to board.

The Blue Line was the name given for Light Rail service from Long Beach to Los Angeles that opened in 1990. The first 4.4 mile leg of the Red Line opened in 1993. Many of the supporters of the Red Line felt the Blue Line was a terrible idea. It couldn’t carry enough riders and it would take money away from subways. Blue Line ridership quickly exceeded projections and was generally popular. The Red Line by comparison failed to meet original ridership projections at the start. The problem was fewer people were getting off the bus to ride the subway because for many riders the bus was more direct and convenient. Also the Red Line had few park and ride stations which most new rail services have to have to attract riders. What wasn’t expected were the number of people transferring at Union Station or from the Blue Line at 7th and Flower. With the Blue Line’s success the decision as made to put Light Rail in a court mandated “Transitway” which had to be built as part of the Century Freeway then under construction between LAX and Norwalk which was running by 1995. The “experts” predicted that few would ride buses or Light Rail “to nowhere” on the Century Freeway. The Green Line exceeded ridership projections and transferred riders to the Blue Line while the Blue Line continued to bring more riders to the Red Line.

The Green Line ended short of Los Angeles International Airport

In the 1970’s and 80’s James R. Mills was a California State Senator from San Diego. He was also the President of the California Senate. In the 70’s he pushed through legislation that created what became the San Diego Trolley: the first new-start Light Rail system in the United States. He also pushed through legislation which allowed California to pay Amtrak to run additional trains. The first new trains were between San Diego and Los Angeles. In the early 70’s Amtrak had 3 round trips between LA and San Diego that carried around 300,000 passengers a year. By 1979 Amtrak had 6 round trips and was carrying over a million passengers. This growth led the towns along the route to invest in new or improved stations. The success of the “San Diegans” led to local support for more rail services. Building on this success in 1990 the voters approved 2 bond measures worth almost 3 billion dollars to improve rail service in California. With some of this new funding 5 counties in Southern California were able to buy 175 miles right of way from the Southern Pacific in 1990 to start operation of Metrolink by late October of 1992 on 3 lines.

After the quake riders rode Metrolink in great numbers and Metrolink had to borrow cars from Caltrain.

Metrolink showed its value after the Northridge Earthquake in January 1994. With the Antelope Freeway cut off by earthquake damage from the San Fernando Valley much of Santa Clarita and all of Palmdale were cut off for months from the LA Basin with only a 2 lane road as an alternative. Metrolink service to Santa Clarita was quickly expanded and extended to Lancaster as was construction of new stations and track improvements. Metrolink continues to grow in the region now with 7 lines on 512 route miles. It has learned from the tragedies at Glendale in 2005 and Chatsworth in 2008 now with funding to prevent them from happening again.

Metrolink banner celebrating opening day in 1992

When the Red Line was finished at North Hollywood in 2000 it seemed like a disaster. It was well over budget, ridership was below projections and despite assurances to the contrary there were problems from the tunneling which caused cave-ins and damage to buildings along the route. Future subway construction in Los Angeles was banned. Because of budget problems caused by the subway, construction was halted extending the Green Line closer to LAX as well as plans to extend the Green Line to the Norwalk Metrolink Station. Because of opposition from one religious congregation in North Hollywood plans to build a Light Rail line from Chatsworth to the North Hollywood Red Line Station on an old SP Branch Line were abandoned. Later a Busway was built and ran as the Orange Line on this SP Branch Line mostly with passengers for the Red Line. Local bus service had suffered during the construction of the subway and a lawsuit forced the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority to spend more money on bus service. But Light Rail construction continued. Push by strong local support in the San Gabriel Valley, particularly in Pasadena, construction began on the Gold Line from Pasadena to Union Station which opened in 2003. In the East Los Angeles area desire for rail service was very strong. The problem in the Boyle Heights area was the population density was very high and the streets narrow. This broke the subway construction ban and the Gold Line was extended to East LA in late 2009. During the November 2008 election voters approved an additional half cent sales tax by a two thirds majority for transportation improvements, much of it of expanded rail service.

Crowds waiting to board a Red Line train at Los Angeles Union Station

The lesson from the Los Angeles experience is rail transportation is not based on technology but with a connecting system of services feeding riders to each other. Shiny, expensive and complicated projects are popular with politicians and contractors. But they are prone to costs overruns and local opposition by being seen as being imposed on local communities for something they won’t use. What has worked to create rail passenger service in California has been small projects with small budgets which quickly produce results and gain the support of local communities. With each new incremental improvement more riders are added to the system which creates demand for more and better service. A complicated project like the subway without a network of other services to feed passengers to it will not have the ridership to justify it. Now, many of the mistakes made by promoters of subways for Los Angeles over the years have been made by the promoters for High Speed Rail. Voter approval for High Speed Rail in 2008 benefited from the years good will created from the incremental improvements for rail service throughout California. The way to build High Speed Rail is one step at a time by supporting, not competing with existing services and using other services to feed passengers to High Speed Rail. Connections to the greatest number of places is more important for ridership than the speed of the train.

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