By Noel T. Braymer
On Sunday of the Memorial Day Weekend I decided to go for a train ride to Los Angeles. With the $10 dollar weekend day pass on Metrolink, I couldn’t find a better deal. This is the first time I’ve ridden Metrolink on a weekend since the pass was introduced. For over 20 years I’ve usually worked on the weekends. I didn’t mind since the weekend are usually quiet at work and shopping during the week was less hectic than on the weekends. Since I am easing into retirement I thought this would be a good time to try Metrolink’s weekend day pass. I didn’t want to make a full day of it so of the 4 round trip weekend Metrolink trains between Oceanside and Los Angeles, I took the second late morning train of the day. This would get me to Los Angeles in time for a late lunch at my favorite Mexican food place in Chinatown. As usual it was busy so I feel no need to advertise it to make it more crowded.
I got to the Oceanside station at least a half hour early in case there was a long line to buy tickets. Both ticket machines were working for once and there was no one in front of me at the ticket machine when I got my ticket. The machine was selling only day passes so buying a ticket was easier and faster than on a weekday with no stations to find the button for. Only when I finished getting my day pass did I notice people coming to buy day passes behind me. Like most of my train trips I was on the hunt for good pictures to take. I couldn’t help noticing several new major construction projects next to the tracks not far from the Oceanside Transit Center which is also the train station. It reminds me of the development that has happened around the downtown San Diego train station. I believe that the same company which owns most of the land around the San Diego station is behind the new development in Oceanside. I know that when the ATSF and the SP were planning to merge they first combined all their real estate property into a separate independent company. The ATSF dropped out of the merger and later the SP was bought by the UP, but the new land company owning the former SP and Santa Fe properties remained. It has changed names and owners a few times over the years and sold Los Angeles Union Station to LA Metro. Between San Diego and Oceanside, business seems to be good for this company.
While traveling next to the I-5, the freeway between San Diego and Los Angeles and up to Seattle, I noticed in the middle of the day traffic southbound was stop and go into Oceanside and into San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente. This happens most of the time when I ride the train. Better rail service would go a long way to reducing traffic congestion. But that will require some expensive track work to get full double tracking between Los Angeles and San Diego where the tracks are near the ocean. Without rushing, the train arrived in Los Angeles at least 12 minutes early. I was to learn later there was extra schedule padding for the weekend trains. I checked around Union Station to see if anything was new and headed out for lunch. I looked inside the old Fred Harvey Restaurant site which has been closed since 1967 at Union Station. The restoration work is finished and I could see signs of work to bring in a new restaurant at the historic building was ongoing. Hopefully we might see a new restaurant there by next year. I checked out the self-service bike rental service at Union Station. You can use your credit card to rent a bike for $3.50 for not a day, but for a half hour. It’s cheaper to bring your own bike. Speaking of bikes they (being the station owner LA Metro) are building a bike storage building called the Bike Hub on the north end of the station near the old Postal Annex. Next to the bike building is where they moved the Dodger stadium shuttle bus for Dodger games. Los Angeles Union Station is being transformed from just an old train station into making Los Angeles the surface transportation hub for Southern California.
After a satisfying lunch, I had almost 3 hours to explore. Since the last train home on Metrolink left in the late afternoon, I didn’t want to miss it. So I mostly checked out the route of the Regional Connector tunnel which will bring the Blue, Expo and Gold Light Rail Lines together through downtown Los Angeles. I was able to use my weekend day pass to ride the southbound Gold Line train to the Little Tokyo stop. The current Little Tokyo station will be replaced by 2021 with a subway station across the street which will extend Blue Line trains from Long Beach on the Gold Line to Pasadena and to the east. It will also extend the Expo Line to East Los Angeles on what is now the Gold Line. One problem with trying to take pictures in Los Angeles of its many rail transit projects is most of the work now is underground. I walked along 2nd St which is above the route of the Regional Connector between Flower St and Little Tokyo. Doing so I was able to find the 2nd and Hope Streets station site. This station is near the popular Music Center with the Dorthy Chandler Pavilion and Walt Disney Concert Hall as well as the recently built Los Angeles Cathedral. The station is on top of Bunker Hill which has many large office buildings, but the Regional Connector tunnel and platforms will be something like 5 stories below the 2nd and Hope station entrance. The plan is to use large elevators to carry passengers to and from the trains to street level. Doing so with escalators was deemed impractical in such a confined space.
I next walked down Hope to 7th and Flower Streets and caught the next light rail train to the Pico and Flower Station. This is where light rail in downtown Los Angeles comes to the surface and the Blue line runs on Flower St before turning left on Washington to its mainline to Long Beach. The Expo Line continues on Flower south of Washington turning rights on Exposition Blvd which is on its mainline to Santa Monica. There is lots of construction with 4 skyscrapers under construction along Pico on the block between Flower and Figueroa. On Figueroa is the huge Los Angeles Convention Center and the Staples Center which is the arena for professional basketball and Ice Hockey in Los Angeles. Just this station will increasingly become a major station to handle the increased traffic from all this construction. The main bottlenecks are the traffic lights on Flower St south of Pico which don’t give Light Rail priority over road traffic.
From Pico I walked down Flower to 18th Street which is parallel to the 10 freeway. This is one of the biggest bottlenecks on Flower for Light Rail. 18th St is a T shaped intersection where the east side of 18th St turns into an on ramp for the east bound freeway. Flower St crosses the T but Light Rail trains normally carrying hundreds of passengers usually have to stop to let cars turning left across the tracks to get on the freeway, and then cars on 18th street to cross Flower and the tracks to also get on the freeway before the trains are allowed to pass. LA Metro is responsible for transportation in most of Los Angeles County including rail transit. But the City of Los Angeles has control of the roads in the city, and the city traffic engineers don’t want to give priority for the Light Rail trains on the streets of Los Angeles. LA Metro is looking at building grade separations on Flower to improve service for the Blue and Expo Lines.
By this time I had over an hour before I had to catch my train home, but I decided to get to Union Station early to make sure I didn’t miss the last train of the day home. I walked up to the platform where my train was over a half hour before train time. I was not alone on the platform with other people waiting to get on the train. Usually during the week days Metrolink crews open the train doors at least 30 minutes before departure. At the very least this reduces crowding on the platforms and a rush to get on the train. The crew of this train opened the train doors around 15 minutes before departure. What was very unusual was the crew didn’t give the customary 5 minute and 1 minute announcements before departure. With no warning the doors closed and with a lurch the train left the station. It was all very humdrum until we came to Santa Ana. We approached Santa Ana very slowly and came to a halt for a while with the train blocking Santa Ana Blvd which is along side the station. There was an announcement that wasn’t very clear that had something to do with the platform. Once we stopped in Santa Ana we sat for several minutes without an explanation. In the meantime a northbound Metrolink train arrived at the station, stopped and continued on while we sat. Then the train backed up. Finally we continues on our way about 15 minutes late. I don’t know what happened. But I did see a man in a wheel chair waiting as we entered the station at a handicap ramp on the north side of the platform. Did the engineer overshot the handicap ramp coming in? Who knows.
We were a good 15 minutes late by the time we got to San Juan Capistrano. As we approached the north end of Sierra Siding I could see the late northbound Metrolink train from Oceanside held at the siding to let us pass. Yet despite this we arrived in Oceanside about 5 minutes early. It takes about 90 minutes without traffic problems to drive the 90 miles from Oceanside to Los Angeles. By Amtrak it takes just under 2 hours. By Metrolink it is scheduled for around 2 hours and 7 minutes depending on the train with about 10 minutes of padding. On a good day Metrolink trains often arrive 5 to 10 minutes early into Union Station. On the weekend trains, the schedule was more like 2 hours and 15 minutes between Oceanside and Los Angeles. It makes me think that with a few improvements the trains could run on time with tighter schedules in less time. The new locomotives for Metrolink have been delivered but are not yet in service. When in service they should go a long way in improving service reliability.
In closing I am pleased that starting this Memorial Day weekend, Metrolink is pushing to increase ridership and revenue on the weekends. This Memorial Day, Metrolink didn’t for once reduce or not run trains, but kept their weekend schedule. I hope Metrolink does this for all the major holidays. Metrolink is promoting beach train service to San Clemente and Oceanside while now accepting surfboards on the trains as well as connecting travel out of Los Angeles. With the day pass, passengers can transfer for trips on LA Metro to Hollywood, Universal Studios, the beach at Santa Monica or Long Beach and many other places without dealing with traffic or finding parking. I believe there is more Metrolink can do to increase ridership with discretionary travel both on the weekend and week day non rush hours. This will need more frequent trains on the off peak times to attract more riders. This will be easier to do on the weekends when equipment and track capacity will be available. This can also make it easier to make connections between Metrolink lines as well as with Amtrak Pacific Surfliner trains. Also promoting better connections to major airports, theme parks and special events ( Rose Parade for example) would improve ridership and Metrolink revenues.