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Los Angeles: Light rail to the beach – and beyond

Light rail service returned to Santa Monica on 20 May 2016, after a 63-year break. — Courtesy of LA Metro

Although a relative latecomer to the US LRT renaissance, with two significant openings already in 2016, this November could see funding released for a raft of new projects that would see Los Angeles County take its networks to the next level. Vic Simons reports in words and pictures.

With a relatively loe population density considering its spread over an approximate 12.3km2 area, Los Angeles County is the most populous in the United States by some margin. Including more than 80 towns and cities as well as the vast city of Los Angeles itself, major population centres close to the city include Long Beach, Pasadena, Torrance and Santa Monica all require efficient public transport connections in a region plagued by congestion and long cross-county commute times. The city of Los Angeles has a population approaching four million residents. There are over ten million in the wider county and the Greater Los Angeles ‘five-county’ area includes San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange and Ventura with a regional population closer to 19 million. Road building had long been seen as the solution to movement, forcing people to drive, but with major arteries reaching gridlock proportions – and the associated poor air quality – the past three decades have seen concerted efforts to move towards a regional rail-based network focused around key employment centres and attractions.
County transportation comes under the auspices of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority – branded since 1993 as Metro. Metro is not only the operator of rail and bus services, but also provides the funding and fulfills the planning and administrative function for commuter and highway projects across the county.

A little history
Public transport first came to the city of Los Angeles in 1873 and within just a few years a variety of operators were running services using steam, cable and horse traction.
By the early part of the 20th Century the main operators were the Los Angeles Railway (Yellow Cars) using a 1067mm (3ft 6in) gauge operating largely within the city and the standard-gauge interurban Pacific Electric Railway (Red Cars) operating cross-county and beyond, both of which had electrified networks. At its height in 1924 the Yellow Cars had a complex 1003km (642-mile) network, but with a post-war transition to suburban communities and more affordable ownership, the shift towards private car usage was inevitable. Within 20 years of the end of World War Two the transition was complete.
Struggling to compete with its new competition, the last Yellow Car ran in 1963, with a shift to motorbus operation. Pacific Electric operation ceased the same year; this system included a small subway which was taken over by buses in the 1950s. It is fortunate that many of its rights-of-way have been retained, forming large sections of the current Blue and Expo light rail lines.
It wasn’t long before the city and county’s prosperity – and population – outgrew the highway-facilitated policies and the first rail-based transport schemes were devised in the 1970s. It would be another 15 years before the political will and funding drove these plans forward, although it is clear that the catastrophic 1994 Northridge earthquake accelerated the process as although freeways were badly damaged, rail-based networks were back up and running within days.
The first modern LRT line opened in July 1990, heading southward from 7th Street in downtown LA to Long Beach. Known as the Blue line, this incorporated much of the trackbed of the former Pacific Electric line to the large coastal community and as such was an obvious first choice for ease of implementation. The USD877m (approx. EUR762m) line is 35.4km (22 miles) long, has 22 stations and is much more of a traditional interurban in its nature. It leaves its underground terminus at 7th/Metro and emerges to the surface near Pico station before taking up the former Pacific Electric alignment south to Long Beach. Here there is a short section of street-running, incorporating a four-station terminal loop; seven Blue line stations have park-and-ride facilities with provision for over 2000 vehicles. End-to-end running time is around 72 minutes, with 12-minute headways at most times of the day, enhanced to every six minutes during the Monday to Friday peaks.
The next line to open was the 32km (20-mile) east-west Green line, opened in 1995 at a cost of USD718m (EUR624m). With 14 stations, the Green line serves an important corridor in southern LA County and connects another two significant communities, Redondo Beach to Norwalk. Currently the closest line to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), it uses the median of the I-105 freeway – which was designed to incorporate the line – and intersects with the Blue line at Willowbrook/Rosa Parks where there is an elevator connection between platforms. Using a dedicated elevated alignment, it offers a 34-minute end-to-end running time with services running every 15 minutes at most times, halved during Monday-Friday peaks and lengthened to 20 minutes in the evening.
There would be an eight-year hiatus before the opening of another LRT line in the County. The first 13-station phase of the Gold line (plans for which date back to the 1980s) began operations in 2003, from Sierra Madre Villa in Pasadena to Union Station, and providing easy interchange not only with the Red and Purple subway lines but also with Metrolink and Amtrak services. This was extended in 2009 by eight stations beyond Union Station eastwards to Atlantic Station in East Los Angeles, including two underground stations at Mariachi Plaza and Soto, forming a large horseshoe alignment.

A year of openings
March 2016 saw the opening of a third 18.5km (11.5-mile) phase to take the Gold line further east from Pasadena, with six more stations, to APU Citrus College in Azusa. This project included a new stabling and maintenance facility at Monrovia, the approximate halfway point on the extension, and park-and-ride facilities at most of the new stations with multi-storey lots at some.
Apart from offering many more travel opportunities to Downtown LA, Metro has recorded a significant increase in ridership between Azusa and Pasadena with as many as 66% (according to Metro surveys) being new to transit. Interestingly, the agency has noted a reduction in use of the parking facility at Sierra Madre Villa since the extension opened. The 12 260m2 (132 000ft2) Monrovia maintenance facility has been built as a response to growth as the existing Chinatown depot lacked the expansion room to serve the longer line, and features a three-storey main building that houses offices, a training centre for up to 200 employees and maintenance and stabling facilities for up to 84 LRVs, reducing the need for sub-contracting. Environmental considerations are key to the development of the 9.7ha. (24-acre) site, with recycled materials featuring heavily in construction and resource-friendly innovations such as solar arrays that supply a third of the site’s power requirement, and smart water metering.
The only major criticism of the Gold line is the high noise levels at those stations located in the median or parallel to the ten-lane I-210 freeway in Pasadena; simple, semi-transparent noise mitigation barriers could have been constructed to protect the platforms, enhancing the otherwise impressive passenger experience.
An example of the modal integration that drives Metro is the new 501 express bus route. The ‘NoHo Express’ links the North Hollywood Red line terminus with Pasadena and Gold line stations at Memorial Park and Del Mar, avoiding crossing downtown LA. Making just eight stops and running at a half-hour frequency it has an end-to-end running time of around 40 minutes, taking advantage of the car pool and transit lanes on the CA-134 freeway. Enhanced fares are charged for the service.
Gold line headways are generally every 12 minutes, reduced to six minutes in the peak. At weekends service is every 12-20 minutes.
Alongside construction of the Gold line route further into the San Gabriel Valley, Metro’s other major project has been the construction of the Expo line to the west side coastal resort of Santa Monica. So-named because of its primary routeing in the median of Exposition Boulevard, which runs east from downtown LA and parallels the I-10 freeway, the first 12km (7.5-mile) section opened in 2012 with ten stations from 7th Metro to Culver City. This first phase cost USD930m (EUR830m) and offers modal interchange to regional bus services at Culver City.
The USD1.5bn (EUR1.3bn) second stage, which opened on 20 May, extends the route a further 10.6km (6.6 miles) and returns rail-based service to downtown Santa Monica after a 63-year gap. The new terminus is just four blocks from the Pacific Ocean. The new alignment drops down from the elevated former terminus at Culver City Station using the old Pacific Electric right-of-way and just beyond 26th Street joins Colorado Avenue. Here it runs in the centre of the street for the final stations at 17th Street and the three-track downtown Santa Monica terminus. There are seven new stations, but only three feature park-and-ride facilities; whilst it is easy to see that the route’s geography makes this provision problematic, time will tell if the lack of parking will inhibit ridership. Bus services have been significantly recast to connect with the extension, however, so this may mitigate the lack of parking and Metro is at least addressing the issue with blog posts of how best to reach the extension without a car. The extension also incorporates a paved bikeway between Culver City and 17th Street stations and a new operations and maintenance premises with six stabling tracks and a capacity for 48 vehicles at Stewart Street and Exposition Boulevard in Santa Monica. With a running time of around 50 minutes, the Expo line operates to a 12-minute headway. At a preview run on 9 May 2016, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti explained to TAUT that the key to delivering such major projects were ownership and clear understanding and communication between all stakeholders towards the common vision. He regarded the extension as a game-changer for the city and just the start of much wider expansion. Since the turn of the 21st Century Los Angeles has benefitted from Democratic mayors with a strong transportation vision and with such a pro-transit official such as Mr Garcetti the future looks bright indeed.
Metro now operates 140km (87 miles) of light rail, with the two under-construction extensions adding another 16km (ten miles) – excluding the Red and Purple lines and busways – it will be the largest LRT system in the US.

‘The new Measure is  key to growth’
Not content to rest on its laurels, two short – but key – routes are under construction that will provide much-needed connections between existing lines and helping to knit Metro’s LRT routes together into a far more cohesive network.
Next on the schedule is the Crenshaw/LAX line that will link the Expo line at Expo/Crenshaw with the Green line just north of Mariposa station to serve Crenshaw, Inglewood and Westchester and provide that all-important link to LAX. The US’ second-busiest airport, LAX caters for 75m passengers annually, and the project includes a 1.6km (one-mile) underground peoplemover from the new Aviation Century station into the main airport terminal. The 13.6km (8.5-mile) line will be partially at-grade, partially elevated and partially underground with seven new stations. Ground-breaking on the UD2.06bn (EUR1.77bn) project began in 2014, with construction planned for completion by 2019 ahead of a 2020 opening.
This scheme includes another new stabling and maintenance base, this time a 10 736m2 (115 650ft2) facility known as the Southwest Yard that has a construction budget of USD172m (EUR151m). Initial works on began on 27 May. Once open in 2019 it will house 70 LRVs and employ 200 staff. The site has further room to expand as the LRV fleet grows with further extensions to the Crenshaw/LAX and Green lines.
The other major scheme already underway is the Regional Connector; although only 3km (1.9 miles) long, this fully-underground alignment is one of the most challenging in construction terms. It follows Second Street (Alameda to Flower) and Flower Street (2nd to 7th) and familiar challenges with utility relocation and street closures have already seen the budget jump by 10% to USD1.55bn (EUR1.33bn) in the 18 months since construction began. The payoff will be an invaluable link between the Gold line near Little Tokyo station with the Blue and Expo lines at 7th/Metro station and Silver line busway services to South LA and San Pedro, opening up enormous opportunities across LA County. Through route services are planned to run from the San Gabriel Valley to the Long Beach terminus of the Blue line and from East Los Angeles to Santa Monica. There will be three new stations in central LA and this is scheduled to open in 2021.
Metro CEO Phillip A. Washington told TAUT that the success of the November 2016 ballot for the new funding arrangement would hold the keys to Metro’s ambitious future expansion plans. Revealed in March as a full USD120bn (EUR105bn) proposal, the new programme includes a raft of bus and rail expansion plans in return for a half-cent sales tax and continuation of the current half-cent tax known as Measure R.
The draft plan included 40-, 45- and 50-year options, although the agency is now favouring a “no sunset” version that would continue the tax until voters decide to end it. This proposal emerged after extensive public input and polling showed support for the “no sunset” tax to establish a sustained funding stream for the future.
The draft expenditure allocates 35% for new light rail (including the 6.1km/3.8-mile Los Angeles Streetcar – a downtown standard-gauge, street-running loop) – subway, BRT and Metrolink projects as well as major works at Union Station, 20% for operations and 17% for highway improvements including new toll roads. Washington explained that phases 2 and 3 of the Purple line extension are a priority for the agency. Importantly for transport campaigners in the region, for the first time the agency’s plan includes a 2% funding allocation for pedestrian and cycleway projects. If approved (Measure R only narrowly achieved the two-thirds vote required for approval in 2008), Washington hopes that the funding would allow acceleration of many of these projects for completion by 2024 in time for a possible Olympics Games in LA. The other major project is the Gold line extension from Azusa into San Bernardino County to Ontario Airport and Claremont; Metro is working with San Bernardino County to secure a USD68m (approx. EUR61m) contribution.
Washington expressed disappointment that a direct LAX – downtown rail corridor is unlikely in the short term, although he conceded that Metro is contributing USD20m towards a study of the best method of achieving this, regarding the airport link as a key component of future transit provision. When TAUT pointed out that next train information was not available at all stations, Washington responded by saying that this was being worked on, adding that “we must enhance the customer experience”.

Rolling stock
Metro has sourced its rolling stock from four suppliers since the 1990s, with mixed results: The initial 54-car order for the Blue line opening from Nippon Sharyo (P865) was delivered in 1989-90. Now also used on the Expo line, this fleet was supplemented by an almost identical order for a further 15 cars designated P2020, delivered 1994-95 – all of these first-generation cars are currently subject to a mechanical overhaul under a USD6.6m contract award at ORX in 2013. Between 1996 and 1999 Siemens supplied 53 P2000 units; primarily for the Green line, these cars can also now be found on the Blue and Expo lines. They too are subject to an axle assembly overhaul, this time performed by Monrovia-based PAMCO Machine Works. Fifty cars (P2550) were supplied by AnsaldoBreda between 2006-11 for use on the Gold line. Delivered late and experiencing weight and reliability issues, options for a further 100 cars in the original contract were not taken up.  In 2014 Metro’s largest LRV order to date was placed with Kinkisharyo for 235 P3010 cars, being assembled locally at a new facility in Palmdale, to the north east of LA. At the time of writing only a handful were in service on the Gold and Expo lines, although a number had been delivered to the new Monrovia facility and were seen on TAUT’s visit undergoing acceptance approvals.
As Metro requires all cars to be interoperable on all lines, a ‘standard’ design of two-section, doubled-ended vehicles has been established, with level-boarding centre sections and raised seating at the car ends. This configuration prescribes dimensions of 26.5m in length, 2.65m-wide and 3.5m high with capability for multiple unit operation. The P2550 AnsaldoBreda cars are slightly longer at 27.4m.

Subways, busways and Metrolink
Completing the Metro urban rail provision are two subway lines that serve central LA and North Hollywood in the north-west of the county. Built underground to serve the highest passenger loadings on the network, the combined 27.8km (17.4-mile) subway starts at the shared Union Station terminus with parallel running for six stations in the city’s downtown.
The first segment opened in 1993 to MacArthur Park and extensions followed at various times during the 1990s with the final Red line extension to North Hollywood opening in 2000. From Wilshire/Vermont, the Purple line (designated as a standalone line in 2006) is by far the shorter of the two and extends eastwards for a further two stations to the current endpoint at Wilshire/Western in the Koreatown district of Central LA.
The Red line heads north-west serving internationally-famous locations sites such as Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood Boulevard, the Walk of Fame and Universal Studios on its way to its current terminus at North Hollywood where passengers can change to the Orange line busway to Chatsworth. Trains generally operate every 12 minutes on each line with enhanced service at peaks and reduced service levels at evenings and weekends.
Following long-delayed plans, work began in November 2014 on extending the Purple line west to the VA Hospital Westwood station with the eventual aim of going to Santa Monica. The 15km (9.4-mile) route is being built in three phases. Phase 1 is to run beneath Wilshire Boulevard for 6.27km (3.9 miles) to Wilshire/La Cienega station at the eastern edge of Beverly Hills with two intermediate stations. It is hoped to open this first USD2.8bn (EUR2.46bn) phase in 2023, and the second phase, which is in the procurement process to select a contractor, by 2026. Although funding is being sought for the third phase, the ambition remains to serve Santa Monica by 2035.
Two busways complement the rail system: The Orange line links North Hollywood with Chatsworth Metrolink Station on a dedicated 28.8km (18-mile) roadway that opened in stages initially to the Warner Centre in 2005 before reaching its current terminus in 2012. Costing USD484m (EUR432m), the line has 18 LRT-type stations with raised platforms to allow level boarding and offers some bus priority; other than emergency vehicles only Metro buses and support vehicles are allowed on the busway.
The biggest issue with the Orange line is the poor connection with the Red line at North Hollywood. Although physically quite close, passengers currently have to cross a very wide and busy road to join Metrorail and other bus routes – to address this Metro is opening a new pedestrian underpass later this year. Service improvements are planned with the eventual aim of conversion to light rail, but there are no costs or timescales for this as yet.
The other busway is marketed as the Silver line and is an entirely different proposition to the Orange Line as it utilises transit lanes on the I-10 and I-110 freeways on either side of running through downtown LA. The route has ten stations in the freeway medians and cost USD587m (EUR524m) upon opening in 2009.
Metrolink is the commuter rail system operating across the five-county area with five routes radiating from Union Station and two eastern routes. Established in 1992, Metrolink service opened to Perris in 2016 by extending service on the 91 Riverside/Perris Valley line to Perris South – this is the first extension since 1994. Service is limited to three northbound trains in the morning peak with three southbound trains returning in the evening. This extension takes Metrolink virtually to the door of the Orange Empire Museum, the region’s major light rail museum, although, ironically the schedule is such that a car will still be needed to visit it.

The fare system
The cornerstone of the fare system has become the stored-value TAP card, used to tap-in at rail stations and on boarding buses and can be read by fare enforcement officers’ hand-held machines. Whilst the fare system is basically flat there are separate peak and off-peak fares for senior citizens and one-, seven- and 30-day passes are available. The USD7 (EUR6.15) one-day pass is reduced to USD2.50 (EUR2.20) outside peak hours and additional fares apply for the Silver line and Express buses (the 500-series routes). Fares are correct at June 2016.
Stations are similar across the network, all of which have seated sheltered passenger waiting areas and timetable displays. Metro makes a conscious effort to align the cars at the same point on the platforms at all times. To this end yellow posts have been placed on the platforms to designate the areas between vehicles. Whilst all platforms can accommodate four-car vehicles many services operate in two-car formations. Washington admitted his frustrations at the lack of integration with Metrolink, despite the fact that around 50% of the funding for those services comes from Metro.

Despite Metro’s incredible achievements to date, the agency still has an enormous task ahead of it to encourage people out of their cars and reduce the county’s notorious traffic congestion and improving air quality. Express and car pool lanes being available to public transport have helped, but much more needs to be done.
Washington is not unique in having his hands tied by constrained funding, but the political will for change appears to be in place and the success of the 2016 ballot measure is vital if progress is to be made.

Thanks to Phil Washington and his team, in particular Pauletta Tonilas, Dave Sotero, Russell Homan and Joni Goheen, for their support during TAUT’s visit to LA and subsequent preparation of this feature.