By Noel T. Braymer
I’ve only been waiting for about 35 years to see Light Rail service come back to Santa Monica. Back in 1981 when the San Diego Trolley opened, I and a handful of others thought much the same could be done in Los Angeles County where I lived back then. San Diego was able for $87.5 million dollars to build in about 6 years 16 miles of Light Rail service. It was a bare bones service with single tracking limiting it to 3 trains an hour. But it was a success. Central to its low price and quick construction was the use of existing railroad rights of way. Los Angeles County had plenty of railroads, several from the old Pacific Electric in 1981 that could be used for rail transit. There was hope in 1981 that Light Rail service could be built in time for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. It would make sense to combine the old PE Line from Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles with the PE Line from Santa Monica which junctioned with the Long Beach Line. After all the old Santa Monica Air Line went right past the Coliseum on Exposition Blvd, the main venue of the 1984 Olympics. Instead we were lucky to get the Blue Line from Long Beach to Los Angeles built by 1990. We also secured miles of old railroad rights of way, many of which are still being used in planning for more rail transit.
I got up early on May 20th, and caught the last morning Metrolink train from Oceanside. With online ticketing, the long lines are gone at the ticket machines. I had one woman in front of me who was having trouble getting a ticket. A helpful young woman with station security discovered this woman was trying to get to Long Beach on Metrolink and she only had $3 dollars. The security office was able to convince this confused woman to let me get my ticket. The problem still remains that many of Metrolink’s ticket machines have trouble reading perfectly good credit and debit cards. I gave up and ran over to a nearby ATM and got cash to buy my ticket. Even with online ticketing, I still needed a paper ticket with a TAP chip to transfer to Los Angeles Metrorail service to get to Santa Monica this morning. You can’t do that yet with online ticketing, not until bar code scanners are installed at LA Metrorail turnstiles.
The trip was uneventful to Los Angeles Union Station. We did get held up for a while by a freight train at Fullerton. But even with that the train was about 10 minutes early which is common for this late morning arrival. By 10:30 AM I was on the Red Line subway to transfer to the Expo Line at the 7th and Flower Streets station. When I got to the platform for the Expo Line, the display board said the next Expo train would be there in 2 minutes, then 1 minute then no train. There seemed to be some problems running the Expo and Blue lines on time that day. In no more than 10 minutes I got on the next Expo line train to get to Culver City. One thing that is noticeable, is that Light Rail service would go faster if the trains got priority at the traffic lights. There is quite a bit of waiting at red lights on the Expo and Blue Lines. These will soon be the 2 busiest Light Rail Lines in Los Angeles County. The traffic department of Los Angeles has been refusing to give Light Rail priority, even though many more people are on the trains than the number of people in cars and trucks on the street at the same time as the trains. More people in Los Angles County are calling for signal priority for Light Rail.
I had to get off at Culver City because the first passenger carrying Expo Line train wasn’t scheduled to arrive in Santa Monica until Noon. I had around an hour to wait to transfer to the first Santa Monica train at Culver City. There were lots of preparation for the events for the day at all of the new stations as well as at Culver City. There was lots of security with many LA County Sheriffs Deputies, as well as LA Metro Employees wearing orange reflective vests and hats showing they were with LA Metro. Several people tried to stay on the trains past Culver City. But several Metro employees checked and double checked each car to make sure there were no passengers on board before the noon arrival. With each train unloading at Culver City, more people were crowding the platform. For several weeks all trains have been running between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica as part of testing and training to get ready to extend passenger service to downtown Santa Monica. Every empty trains this morning that left Culver City went on to Santa Monica before returning to Culver City and Los Angeles.
About 20 minutes before noon, the first passenger carrying train to Santa Monica in 63 years arrived in Culver City. When the doors open, this train already had standees. Somehow most if not all the people on the platform at Culver City squeezed in. This included people with bikes and women pushing strollers with children in them. Much the same continued as the train stopped at the new stations at Palms, Westwood Blvd, Sepulveda, Bundy, 26th Street and 17th Street before terminating at downtown Santa Monica. What I noticed despite standing up with crowds of people, was the heavy use of sound walls in many of the residential areas along the new service area. Much of the delays to building west of Culver City was fear of noise and traffic by residents from restoring rail service on this right of way. Another thing I noticed was there were miles of new combined walking and bike paths built on the right of way of the Expo Line. This combined with the new Light Rail Service will go a long way to get more people to more places without driving a car. Unlike San Diego back in 1981, this project cost more than $87.5 million dollars. The 6.6 miles of new railroads between Culver City and Santa Monica came in at $1.5 billion dollars.
Before heading back to Union Station and home, I traveled (it was all free between Santa Monica and Culver City after 12 PM on the 20th) back and forth on new line to get a better view while sitting down of the stations and the area around the right of way, I was surprised to find a rail car maintenance facility in Santa Monica. I couldn’t help but noticed how much things have changed in Los Angeles since I moved away in November 1988. Even when I visited and check up on construction of this project over the years, it is hard to find familiar landmarks. No doubt this process will accelerate as more rail service is built in Los Angeles County.