By Noel T. Braymer
Growing up in Southern California in the 50’s and 60’s, most of what I knew about passenger trains was that they were going away. My Father took the family on a train trip to the San Diego Zoo when I was a preschooler. He wanted his children to ride a passenger train before they all went away. My only contact with the streetcars of Los Angeles was around 1958 when my Father took us to a Dodger’s baseball game at the Los Angeles Coliseum. What I remember most were the streetcars on Vermont Ave. because they frighted and fascinated me because of their size and of the sparks coming from the trolley pole and wheels.
By 1961 the last Pacific Electric trains, those running between Los Angeles and Long Beach were cancelled. In 1963 the last 6 streetcar lines were converted to bus service. In 1951 the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) was created to study building a Monorail from Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles and out to the San Fernando Valley. After this plan was dropped the MTA was given the role to plan a regional transit system in Los Angeles County. In 1958 it took over operation of the remaining Pacific Electric trains, Los Angeles Streetcars and many bus services in Los Angeles. The MTA was the agency that shut down both the last of the Pacific Electric and Streetcar services in Los Angeles. In 1964 the MTA was reorganized as the Southern California Rapid Transit District (RTD). It was responsible for bus service to the Inland Empire and parts of Orange County and given the job to plan a Rail Rapid Transit system in Southern California. This was at the same year in 1964 that the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) project began construction.
The forces rail passenger service had to content with included cheap cars and gasoline, massive construction of new roads, lots of free parking and the opening up of cheap land outside of urban areas to development. These new developments were easily accessible by auto but not by rail service. Much of this development was driven by government policy with construction of freeways around the county and economical mortgages for houses bought by the parents of the baby boomers. As rail service declined, so did many of the big cities in the United States, including in many in California.
The mission of the RTD was to build a BART like fully grade separated rail system able to compete with autos in terms of travel time. The original plan for BART was to run up to 80 miles per hour for average speeds of over 50 miles per hour. This later was found to be uneconomical. I remember in the 60’s living in Orange County reading in the Los Angeles Times and watching TV channels in Los Angeles of the many efforts to build a Rail Rapid Transit service in Los Angeles County. Most plans called for a subway under Wilshire Blvd.(which had never had rail transit before). Most of the other lines were planned as largely elevated trains often to be build on former Pacific Electric rights of ways. Every few years through the 60’s and 70’s there would be ballot measures to build Rail Rapid Transit in Los Angeles County. At everyone of these elections the critics would come out and say the same things such as :” We don’t need it-It costs to much- It is a boondoggle-no one will ride it- we can build more or double deck freeways” and so on. None of these efforts to build rail rapid transit by ballot measure were able to pass after running the gamut of the opposition.
By the early 1980”s Los Angeles County had Federal and local funding to start construction for a subway down part of Wilshire Blvd., up to Hollywood and the reaching the San Fernando Valley. At almost the same time a separate project was approved to build a Light Rail service between downtown Los Angeles and downtown Long Beach using mostly the right of way of the old Pacific Electric line. Los Angeles County voters had recently passed a half-cent sales measure for transportation improvements which included money for both roads and rails. This was supervised by the new Los Angeles County Transportation Commission which took over the planning for Light Rail, while the RTD remained responsible for subway construction. The Los Angeles- Long Beach Light Rail project was successful from the start in 1990 and in the 90’s there were plans to add Light Rail on the then under construction Century Freeway between Norwalk and El Segundo crossing the Blue Line between Los Angeles and Long Beach instead of bus lanes. Soon there also plans to extend service from the east end of the Century Freeway to Metrolink in Norwalk and to LAX from El Segundo. There were other plans to build Light Rail from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica on an old Pacific Electric rail line.There were also plans to build light rail across the San Fernando Valley on an old SP/PE right of way from the North Hollywood subway station to the west San Fernando Valley and extend the Blue Line to Pasadena on the old ATSF route to San Bernardino of the Super Chiefs.
While things were looking bright for Light Rail in Los Angeles County, the RTD had plenty of problems building the subway to the San Fernando Valley. The project was well over budget, there were problems with cave ins building the tunnels creating damage to buildings in Hollywood and early ridership was well below projections.There was also a methane explosion in the Fairfax area near Wilshire Blvd which prompted a ban on extension of the subway west of Western Ave. while the Red Line was under construction. Los Angeles County went so far as to ban all new subway construction after the Red Line was finished in 2000. The cost overruns of the the Red Line subway forced the Transportation Commission to drop plans to extend the Green Line from the Century Freeway to Norwalk and LAX and plans to extend the Blue Line to Pasadena. Local homeowner opposition stopped planning on Light Rail service to Santa Monica and from the Red Line terminal in North Hollywood to the west San Fernando Valley. By 2000 things looked bleak for expanded rail service in Los Angeles.
So did a miracle happen? No; traffic in Los Angeles kept getting worse and local communities increased their demands for rail service. Ridership was strong on the Blue and Green Lines. Ridership also started to grow on the Red Line, in large part with transferring passengers from the Blue Line. The leaders of East Los Angeles wanted Light Rail to replace earlier plans to extend the Red Line to East Los Angeles. But a short segment of tunneling was needed in a part of the densely populated area of East Los Angeles. This lead to dropping the subway ban. People in Pasadena demanded Light Rail to downtown Los Angeles. They proposed creation of a new construction organization for Pasadena Light Rail to get it built with more oversight, independent of the now Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro). The LA Metro in 1993 was created to take over both the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission and Rapid Transit District. These independent construction organizations are how rail projects are built now in Los Angeles. In the San Fernando Valley, a busway was built instead of rail across the San Fernando Valley due to opposition from some residents. Ridership is so high on this bus service, that future growth will likely require conversion to rail. Years of grass roots promotion of Light Rail to Santa Monica led to construction of the Expo Line to Santa Monica. In the cases of both the San Fernando Valley and the Santa Monica Lines, most of the opposition was limited to a small group of very loud residents in a single neighborhood.
Recently there has been talk again of extending the Green Line to the Metrolink Station in Norwalk. Already construction is underway to extend the Green Line to a future People Mover to LAX. The new Crenshaw/LAX line will connect to the Green Line, LAX and the Expo Line between Santa Monica and downtown Los Angeles. Construction is also underway to extend the subway under Wilshire west of Western to Westwood. With a new downtown subway the Blue Line will be connected to Pasadena and out to Azusa, while East Los Angeles will be connected to Santa Monica. Los Angeles Union Station soon will be undergoing a major overhaul with a new concourse and run-through tracks to greatly increase train capacity and turn it into the major rail passenger hub of the Western US. High Speed Rail may be coming to Los Angeles now as early as 2024 to both Las Vegas and Merced.
The opponents of Rail Passenger service have won many of the battles to kill rail passenger service. But they continue to lose the war. This is not only happening in California, but increasingly throughout the country. The conditions that created dependence on autos: cheap gas, cheap suburban housing and new freeways no longer exists. The current cost of living for transportation and housing leaves people with less money left over than people had in the boom years after World War II. Today rail service is becoming popular as an alternative to gridlock, the high cost of energy and cost of housing. Good transportation is also central to a healthy and growing economy. Across the United States more places are demanding expanded rail service. Several cities in Florida, Texas, Colorado, Washington State, Oregon, and Arizona have either Light Rail, Commuter Rail service or both. A private company is building a rail passenger service in Florida between Miami and Orlando. Local cities have banded together to get long distance passenger service to remain in New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas. Cities in Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida are working to get long distance rail passenger service back along the Gulf Coast. This is just sample in this county of projects being considered for more rail passenger service.