LA’s Orange Line should have been a Rail Line from the Start

By Noel T. Braymer

The Orange Line in the San Fernando Valley is run with buses on a “Busway” between North Hollywood and Chatsworth. The main problem with it right now is that it is crowded and nearing capacity. From the start the project was something of an afterthought. The Orange Line Buses are parked across the street from the Red Line Subway station in North Hollywood. But when the Orange Line was getting ready to open no thought was given to putting in a pedestrian crosswalk  so passengers could transfer between the buses and trains. Only after public outcry was a crosswalk put in.

Today almost every bus that arrives or departs on the Orange Line at North Hollywood is full coming in and when leaving. Most of its passengers are transferring to or from the Red Line. The original plan was to build light rail to connect with the Red Line at North Hollywood. But a combination of local NIMBY opposition and budget shortfalls due to cost overrun’s from building the Red Line killed the San Fernando Valley Light Rail project. This Light Rail service was expected to use an abandoned Pacific Electric/Southern Pacific right of way  owned by Los Angeles County. This right of way instead was used to build the now Orange Line Busway as a “cheap” project in order to do something in the otherwise ignored San Fernando Valley.

All of this could have been avoided by doing the right thing in the first place. Back in 1982, Dr Adrian Herzog and I wrote an Op-Ed article for the Los Angeles Times (“L.A. Rail-Transit Proposals Fail to Talk to Each Other,” Sept. 1, 1982). We had a solution that would have avoided many of the problems Los Angeles County transit has today. A major point we made back then was that rail vehicles don’t determines what is Heavy Rail or Light Rail. The term Heavy Rail generally means a high capacity transit railroad that is usually fully grade separated and capable of handling trains from more than one route. It is usually a trunk line fed with one or more branch lines. Light Rail is often cheaper to build than Heavy Rail. It can include grade crossings and sharing roads as right of way. Light Rail service doesn’t run as frequently as Heavy Rail service.

The point we were making was Los Angeles would be better off with a single, standard transit rail car that could be run on both Heavy and Light Rail. In this case, Los Angeles would have saved a great deal of money with a standard transit rail car, and have been able to run rail transit service from Los Angeles Union Station to Chatsworth via North Hollywood without passengers having to transfer between Heavy Rail and Light Rail or with buses. Trains with a standard car could run in the Heavy Rail Subway and continue running past North Hollywood on a “Light Rail railroad” to Chatsworth. This is done in San Francisco and Boston as well as many cities in Europe.

The problem back in the 1980’s was that there were 2 separate agencies planning rail transit service in Los Angeles County. The Southern California Rapid Transit District or RTD as is was usually known was formed in 1958 to build an all Heavy Rail “Rapid Transit” system for Los Angeles County. This was modeled after BART which was being planned at the same time. Year after year in the 60’s and 70’s the RTD’s proposals for “Rapid Transit” lost at the ballot box because of lack of support and questions about ridership and costs. In 1981 San Diego opened the first modern Light Rail service in the United States which used an existing rail right of way with grade crossings and street running.The San Diego Trolley was quickly and cheaply build and soon very popular with riders.

Because of the success of the San Diego Trolley, support grew to replicate something like it in Los Angeles County. The RTD would have nothing to do with anything that wasn’t “Heavy Rail”. The RTD saw Light Rail as competing with it for funding for their projects. So the Body that then oversaw all transportation including transit, the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) found itself responsible for planning Light Rail which started with what is now the Blue Line between Long Beach and Los Angeles.

Both the Blue and Red Lines were being planned and built at about the same time. It was during this time that Dr. Herzog and I proposed using a standard transit rail car on both and all future transit rail lines in Los Angels County. It is likely this car would have a pantograph and the tracks to have catenary. This as not acceptable to the RTD, even though the fastest, largest passenger trains use pantographs and catenary. Although  in Chicago some third rail transit service is run with grade crossings and extra fencing.

But back in the 80’s in Los Angeles every rail line was being planned with incompatible cars to other lines. The original plan for the Green Line was to use driverless, automated cars that would be unique to the Green Line. The Blue Line cars with pantographs couldn’t be used on the Red Line with third rails. Even the loading gauges where different making it impossible to use the same platforms.

The Blue Line opened in 1990 with strong ridership from the start. The Red Line’s first 4 mile segment opened in 1993,  late and over budget. As construction continued there were accidents and damage to property above the tunneling. Early ridership for the Red Line was below projections. Los Angles County for a while outlawed future subway construction. But as the network of transit rail lines grew with the Green, Gold and now Expo Lines so has ridership for the entire system, including the Red and now Purple Lines. Extension of the Purple Line subway from Wilshire and Western to Westwood is now planned. There are now 90 miles of rail transit in Los Angeles County with more still to come in the future.

So what is the best solution for the problems of crowding on the Orange Line in the San Fernando Valley? Just extend the Red Line on the Orange Line right of way all the way to Chatsworth. This will be a little more expensive than building Light Rail. But it save the hassle for passenger of needing to transfer between services. This would eliminate the need for a new maintenance and storage facility in the San Fernando Valley for this isolated Light Rail project. Extending the Red Line would also attract more riders than transferring people to Light Rail. While not a perfect solution, it is the best solution under the circumstances.


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