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L.A. light rail on the move

Kinkisharyo P3010 128 ready to depart for LA from Santa Monica on 6 February 2017.

Los Angeles famously has some of the worst traffic congestion of any city in the world. Gridlock on urban highways often delays commuters for hours at a time and a recent study found that the average driver wasted over 100 hours in queuing traffic during the busiest peak periods in 2016. This equates to a penalty for the same driver of over USD2400 in wasted fuel and lost productivity and negative impacts on the city as businesses and leisure sites lose custom.

As outlined in TAUT 944 (August 2016), the LA Streetcar is a planned 6.4km (four-mile) urban light rail circulator linking various city centre neighbourhoods with existing subway and Metro LRT services at the 7th/Flower interchange. The project is aimed at assisting the revitalisation and reinvigoration of Downtown LA with its bars, restaurants and theatres as well as improving journeys to work. ‘Leave your car in one spot and use the Streetcar to get around’ is the mantra of the project with the aim of removing cars from much of the downtown LA area; this will also have a beneficial effect on air quality in the city, judged as amongst the worst in the nation for ozone and fine particulate emissions.

The cost of the full installation is estimated at USD282m, for a projected 2020 opening, reduced by USD15.6m if the Grand Avenue spur is not included in the project scope. Of the capital cost, USD100m may come from Federal Transit Administration Small Starts funds with the balance being raised locally, although the future of the former grant programme has been cast into doubt with the release of the Trump administration’s ‘skinny budget’ that proposes significant reductions in federal funding for new urban transit projects.

Part of the local contribution will come from a special tax district in downtown LA; the Communities Facilities District (CFD) measure will raise up to USD85m towards the project cost. A significant contribution will come from Measure M – a countywide sales tax approved in the November 2016 ballot to fund major transportation projects – but there are timing issues which must be resolved for the project to proceed and meet its planned construction start date of 2018. Ongoing operational funding for the next 30 years is estimated at USD295m; this will come from the 2008 Measure R tax revenues.

Development of the Streetcar

LA Streetcar Incorporated (LASI) is a not-for-profit organisation founded by LA businesses and stakeholders with a significant interest in improving the city’s downtown core. Modelled on similar arrangements in both Portland and Seattle, LASI is acting as scheme promoter and while not part of the City of Los Angeles the new agency works very closely with it. LASI and the City are also looking at a Public-Private Partnership to design, build, operate and maintain the system.

Eight vehicles will be required to operate the planned route, providing a seven-minute peak headway and 10-15 minutes at other times. The vehicles will be much lighter weight than the existing LA Metro LRVs, likely to be more akin to those used in Portland, Seattle and Dallas for their streetcar operations and those planned to be in service in Detroit later this year. In its publicity, LASI is modelling the system on the very successful Portland Streetcar which uses United Streetcar vehicles. This option is not available to LA as the United Streetcar plant in Oregon has been mothballed since December 2014, although LASI confirms that it has been in touch with a number of manufacturers; these include Inekon of the Czech Republic (upon whose designs the United Streetcar vehicles were based and built under licence).

Shane Phillips, LASI’s Project Director, told TAUT that the vehicles will be at least 70% low-floor, with station platforms designed to accommodate level boarding. He also confirmed that LASI is looking at off-wire solutions; whilst there is no aesthetic need for such a facility, if cost savings can be achieved by such an implementation then it will be seriously considered.

The planned panhandle-shaped route starts at the 7th/Flower Interchange near the Financial District and runs for four blocks before turning north along Hill Street to 1st Street, six blocks away. On 1st Street the alignment heads east for one block to Broadway where it then turns south through the Old Bank, Historic Downtown and Fashion Districts to 11th Street. Here it heads west and continues to Figueroa Street. It then turns north and runs for four blocks to 7th Street where it turns east back to the 7th/Flower Interchange. The route is one way in this direction. An additional spur is planned at 1st Avenue, which would run west along 1st Street for two blocks to Grand Avenue where it will then head south to a terminus at 2nd Street in the Bunker Hill district. A north-south city block in downtown LA is 226m, with an east-west city block being around 98m.

The alignment as designed will be largely single-track, although spurs would be created to deal with layovers and for taking streetcars out of service in an emergency. As it is all within the existing downtown LA one-way system, the wide streets should not cause major construction or operational difficulties. If the Grand Avenue spur is built it will be entirely double-track, although the recent announcement of the reopening of the Angels Flight funicular, planned for Labor Day – 7 September – has led to this necessity being re-evaluated.

Streetcar stops will, said Phillips, be up to the usual Metro LRT standards with covered accommodation and seating. Ticket vending machines will be onboard the vehicles rather than at stops. Although the final fare system is still being evaluated, Phillips reiterated the stated goal of “full integration with all trains and buses in LA, minimising barriers to travel”. Interestingly, Phillips is one of those rare LA citizens who does not own a car, relying primarily on public transport for his own journeys with the occasional use of Uber private hire cars as a backstop.

In such a constrained city environment, a major challenge is car maintenance and storage. LASI is talking to the site developer in the city block bounded by 2nd, Hill, 3rd and Broadway about the possibility of including a car barn/depot as part of a joint development to include residential, commercial, and/or hotel uses. As yet no agreement has been reached, but if the car barn is housed in such a facility there could well be savings for both the developer and LASI.

When asked about whether LASI would develop a second spur to Union Station to significantly improve connectivity with other mass transit services, Phillips said that while this is being considered longer-term it is not a current priority as the streetcar’s immediate goal is to link downtown with LA Metro and take people out of their cars. Drivers should only need to park their cars once and use light rail to travel into the city, he believes; then they can use the streetcar and buses to get around. As such there will be no park-and-ride on the new system. This also avoids the practical issue of finding suitable available space in the city, which carries a high premium.

The LA Streetcar will bring rail-based transport back to the streets of downtown Los Angeles after a 57-year gap. LADOT Streetcar General Manager Seleta Reynolds admitted to frustrations over the lack of funding confirmation, but is otherwise enthusiastic and confident that the streetcar will be built in the projected timeframe and that it will be a great addition to the city’s multi-modal mix.

Angels Flight

The Angels Flight in September 2015, showing the two original cars halted mid-way on the tracks; the system is due to resume service in September 2017 following a major upgrade. (Image credit: Boris Kasimov)

Following a four-year closure, the 116-year-old Angels Flight funicular in downtown Los Angeles is to reopen in September 2017. This follows the conclusion of negotiations for a public-private partnership between the City of Los Angeles, the Angels Flight Railway Foundation and ACS Group to modernise, operate and maintain the line for a 30-year period. Dragados USA is the main contractor for the refurbishment work, with its project partner Sener Engineering.

Opening on New Year’s Eve 1901, the Angels Flight was built to allow travel between Hill Street and Oliver Street for residents of the wealthy Bunker Hill neighbourhood to get to and from the business district near the Plaza. The 762mm (2ft 6in) funicular uses two counterbalanced cars, named Sinai and Olivet, each seating 38 passengers.

The line was designated a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in 1962, but redevelopment of Bunker Hill saw the line close on 18 May 1969. The two original cars and much of the original infrastructure lay in storage for almost 27 years before being rebuilt a few hundred metres to the south, adjacent to California Plaza.

Re-opening on 24 February 1996, the funicular has seen troubled times in the 21st Century. A fatal accident in 2001, caused by a malfunction in the drive mechanism that saw Sinai descend the track at speed and collide with Olivet, saw the system closed for nine years for a comprehensive rebuild. It re-opened again in March 2010, although further safety issues saw brief closures in 2011. A derailment in September 2013, with no serious passenger injuries, closed the system again and it has remained so since then with the two cars sat mid-way on the tracks. Vandals targeted the two cars in 2016 with graffiti.

The latest full-scale modernisation includes comprehensive safety upgrades whilst retaining as much of the original infrastructure as feasible. Having carried more than 100m passengers over its 116 years, it is hoped that Sinai and Olivet will run again in time for Labor Day.

Metro’s future plans

Although there are many ongoing enhancement programmes, three major light rail projects are now in advanced planning or under construction that will greatly enhance public transport alternatives in LA County.

Firstly, the biggest enhancement to the Metro LRT network is the shortest in terms of distance – the 3km (1.9-mile) Regional Connector linking the Blue and Expo lines with the Gold line. This USD1.55bn project is expected to open in 2021 and will extend the tunnel at the existing 7thStreet/Metro Center Station terminus (the future interchange with the Streetcar) underneath Flower Street to 2nd Street. From here it will turn east towards the existing Little Tokyo/Arts District Station. Here it emerges to the surface to join the existing Gold line in both directions. The Regional Connector will tie together the Blue, Expo and Gold lines via twin tunnels that will allow faster rides to and through downtown LA with fewer transfers.

Next up and planned to open in 2019 is the USD2.06bn Crenshaw line linking the Expo line at the existing Expo/Crenshaw Station with the Green line at Aviation LAX. This new route is seen as vital in improving connectivity with Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), achieved by means of a peoplemover built by LAX owner Los Angeles World Airports, with a connection at Aviation Boulevard and 96th Street. The Crenshaw line will also link the cities of Inglewood and Westchester to Los Angeles and will feature a major park-and-ride at Fairview Heights. The route will be a mixture of underground, overbridge/viaduct and at-grade sections and includes Southwestern Yard, a new 70-vehicle repair and maintenance facility near the airport at Aviation Boulevard and Arbor Vitae.

News on the third LRT project, the ongoing Gold line extension to Montclair, is less positive. Completion appears to have been put back from 2023 to 2025 as various tasks now have to be undertaken in series rather than in parallel, although utility relocation work is still expected to begin this October. The financial impact of these programme changes is projected to increase the overall cost by USD118m to USD1.37bn. USD70m of the funding will come from San Bernardino County, the balance being met by LA Metro using proceeds of the approved Measure M sales tax increase which comes into operation in July 2017. Six new stations are planned, with connections to the Metrolink commuter rail system in Montclair and Claremont.

Metro has inaugurated the NoHo to Pasadena Express, Line 501 − an express bus service that utilises HOV (High-Occupancy Vehicle) lanes on the CA134 freeway to connect the North Hollywood Red line station with the Gold line in Pasadena. Although it’s possible the line will eventually be converted to light rail, linking with the Orange line to Chatsworth, initial ridership levels for the express bus service have been disappointing. Metro CEO Phil Washington says the agency is undertaking further marketing to boost passenger numbers.

Upon riding the line, the biggest issue appears to be freeway entry and exit as the express lanes are next to the median and it is necessary to cross four busy traffic lanes to join and leave the freeway. An unsolicited proposal has been received to convert the Orange line to light rail by means of a PPP; this is currently being evaluated by Metro and would be a major accelerator of the project.

The Expo line opened on 20 May 2016 and ridership has significantly exceeded expectations, leading Metro to explore the operation of three-car trains for most of the day to expand capacity. Washington explained that such a service enhancement cannot be undertaken until more rolling stock arrives. Kinkisharyo LRVs are currently being delivered at a rate of five vehicles a month from a contract signed in 2012 that could see as many as 235 new LRVs in service over the next decade if all options are exercised.

Platform gates at Santa Monica station on the Expo line; such gates are becoming more prevalent on the LRT system, particularly at those stations with the heaviest usage.


A line-up of the latest P3010 LRVs within the Santa Monica facility on 8 February 2017.

Measure M: A game-changer

Washington explained that in addition to many new projects, as a result of Measure M there may well be significant acceleration of those already mentioned, citing the Purple line extension as a prime example. Whilst the first stage of the eventual 14.5km (nine-mile) extension to VA Hospital – 6.3km (3.9 miles) with three new stations as far as Wilshire/LA Cienega is underway, funding and approval has now been received for stage two to take the Purple line 4.2km (2.6 miles) westwards with two new stations through Beverly Hills to Century City. USD1.6bn has been obtained from Federal sources, including USD1.2bn confirmed from the New Starts programme, USD300m from the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) initiative and just under USD200m from the Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality programme.

The third phase is planned to take the Purple line a further 4.2km (2.6 miles) with two new stations to Westwood/VA Hospital. The total estimated cost for all three phases is USD7.8bn. Whilst not in the current project scope, the longer-term ambition is to extend to Santa Monica.

On 23 March, LACMTA confirmed that it has placed a firm order with CRRC MA for 64 new railcars for the Red and Purple lines, with an option for a further 218 that could take the order value to USD647m. The contract marks CRRC’s third major US subway win; vehicle bodyshells will be built in Changchun in northeastern China, with final assembly in Springfield, Massachusetts. A new LA facility is planned for components, including traction and air-conditioning systems. The first cars are expected in 2020.


Grateful thanks are given to LASI’s Shane Phillips; Seleta Reynolds and Russell Hassan from LADOT and Phillip A. Washington, Pauletta Tonilas, John Sanchez, Jose Ubaldo, Kim Upton and Joni Goheen from LA Metro for their assistance.

Feature originally published in May 2017 TAUT (953).