So-Cal Rail RenaissanceWritten by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor
PASSENGER RAIL FOCUS, RAILWAY AGE FEBRUARY 2023 ISSUE: Whoever thought that Southern California, which decades ago ripped up much of its extensive passenger rail network, would become a rail transit mecca? Agencies like Los Angeles Metro Rail, NCTD, Metrolink and Amtrak are returning the region to its glory days.
On an unusually hot day at the end of March 2015, the Rail Users’ Network (RUN) held a conference in downtown Los Angeles. I moderated a panel, and as part of my remarks, said something like this: “When I first visited this city in 1979, Metrolink and Metro Rail did not exist yet. There were only buses, which seemed to take forever to go anywhere. If anybody had told me then that I would be speaking at a rail conference 36 years later in this city, talking about all the rail transit the area has offer and how it was making downtown popular again, I would have told them they were crazy!”
Yet, not only the City of Angels, but also San Diego and the LOSSAN Corridor in between, have seen a dramatic rebirth of trains and local rail transit.
Once upon a time, the Pacific Electric system of interurban and streetcars was one of the biggest anywhere. At the end of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), which was set in 1947, one of the characters remarked that L.A.’s transit was some of the best in the world. That might have been an exaggeration by then, but Pacific Electric’s red cars and the Los Angeles Railway’s yellow cars moved millions of Angelinos around the city and into the suburbs. The decline was under way, though, and the cars were all gone by 1963.
All the while, the environment declined, along with the transit. A popular joke heard on radio and TV in the 1950s went: Q: How do you know when it’s morning in Los Angeles? A: When you wake up and hear the roosters coughing! I personally found it somewhat difficult to breathe during my first visit there in 1979 but, clearly, the air is better now.
Then, a generation later, things began to change. The first light rail line opened between downtown and Long Beach, a town on the water south of the city. It was the start of Metro Rail, which has grown for the past three decades and has plans to keep growing for at least the next three. Mayors Antonio Villaraigosa (2005-13) and Eric Garcetti (2013-22) pushed hard for more rail transit and got it, despite a requirement in California that new tax-supported public expenditures must be approved by a two-thirds vote. Transit advocates and many Angelinos hope that the new mayor, Karen Bass, will continue the trend toward more rail transit. One of those expansions, the Downtown Connector, is under construction and scheduled to open later this year.
The Metro Rail system currently consists of seven lines. The B Line (Red Line) is an underground subway line, the type New Yorkers would recognize. It goes from Union Station northward and westward to North Hollywood, where it connects with a busway that might be converted to rail someday. The station at Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street is noteworthy for its cinematic motif, complete with 35mm film reels on the ceiling. The D Line (Purple Line) shares track with the B Line downtown and as far as Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, when it turns left onto Wilshire and continues for two more stops. An extension is under construction, and plans call for the line to continue under Wilshire all the way to Santa Monica, to be completed in three stages by 2027.
The A Line (Blue Line) was the first light rail line in the city’s transit revival, heading south from downtown, through Watts and Compton, to a street-running loop in Long Beach. The C Line (Green Line) runs south of downtown, on an east-west alignment. There are plans to extend it to Los Angeles International Airport. The E Line (Expo Line) runs from downtown to Santa Monica, close to the famous Santa Monica Pier. It passes several museums and the campus of the University of Southern California on the way. The L Line (Gold Line) runs outward in two directions from Union Station: toward East L.A. to the southeast, and toward Citrus Community College to the northeast, through Pasadena and Azusa. There is a plan to go further, on the Foothills Extension, to Pomona. The newest line is the first operating segment of the K Line (Crenshaw Line), which opened on Oct. 7, 2022. It will be extended on both ends eventually, with a bus connection to the airport.
For riders going further than the reach of Metro Rail, there is Metrolink, a regional rail system with eight lines; all except two of which radiate from Union Station. Metrolink is geared toward peak-hour commuting, and service is sparse at other times. The sort of robust “off-peak” service found on the legacy systems in the New York (including New Jersey Transit), Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago areas does not exist on Metrolink. Most lines have a small amount of service on weekends, but service is limited to as few as two or three trains in each direction, and no more than eight.
Some of Metrolink’s lines are among the longest in the country, extending to Ventura (on the way to Santa Barbara), Oceanside (on the way to San Diego) and San Bernardino. The longest is the Inland Empire/Orange County line, running between Oceanside and San Bernardino through Orange County and bypassing Los Angeles. Some runs on that line are scheduled to take as long as two hours, 40 minutes.
The newest is the Arrow Train between San Bernardino and Redlands, a college town east of there, which began running Oct. 24, 2022. The San Bernardino County Transit Authority built the line. Trains run more frequently than on the line between San Bernardino and downtown Los Angeles, usually as a shuttle. Although operated as part of Metrolink, the Arrow service runs with Stadler DMU equipment. Plans call for a unit powered by hydrogen fuel cells to begin running in 2024, and we at Railway Age are looking forward to experiencing it.
Union Station, where Amtrak trains stop and most of Metrolink’s trains originate, is again a living monument to rail travel, with its grand Spanish Revival architecture and some art deco and a bit of kitsch thrown in. It was almost dormant during the 1970s and ’80s, but Metrolink and increased Amtrak corridor service brought it back. It’s also a hub for tourism, with the historic Plaza, Olvera Street and Chinatown within a few blocks, and such attractions as Griffith Park and Hollywood Boulevard easily accessible on transit. Downtown was scary and almost deserted in 1979, but the neighborhood’s attractions have survived, and now the buildings have been restored to office and residential use.
There is also a line under construction in Santa Ana, south of Los Angeles and served by Amtrak and Metrolink. It’s Orange County Transit Authority’s OC Streetcar, scheduled to open in 2024. It will be 4.15 miles long, mostly in downtown Santa Ana, and terminate in nearby Garden Grove.
The historic Santa Fe Surf Line between Santa Barbara and San Diego has become one of the busiest rail corridors outside the Northeast, at least under normal operation. At this writing, there is an ongoing track outage between San Clemente and Oceanside (some freight at restricted speed, but no passenger trains). Metrolink is not running there, and Amtrak is running limited service with a bus bridge between Oceanside and Irvine, but that situation is temporary. Normally, there are five daily trains in each direction between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, and two go further north to San Luis Obispo. The corridor between the City of Angels and San Diego hosts a dozen or more daily trains in each direction under normal operation, with different schedules on weekdays and weekends.
Oceanside is a busy transit center, with two rail services run by the North County Transit District (NCTD) in San Diego County. One is the Sprinter, running with Siemens DMU units (NCTD calls it a “hybrid rail service”). It runs eastward to Escondido, with a running time of 53 minutes, on a half-hourly schedule with some hourly service periods on weekends. The service day ends in mid-evening on account of a temporal separation for freight, but there are later runs on Friday and Saturday nights.
There are also Coaster trains making local stops along the Surf Line between Oceanside and San Diego. Trains take 62 minutes for the full run and operate hourly with some longer gaps on weekdays. On weekends, they run at alternate 80- and 100-minute intervals. Service ends in mid-evening, later on Friday and Saturday nights.
Traveling between Los Angeles and San Diego on Metrolink and Coaster with a change at Oceanside is nothing like riding between New York and Philadelphia on NJ Transit and Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority with a change in Trenton, N.J. The robust service that allows connections at most times in Trenton does not exist on Coaster and Metrolink. There are no feasible connections on weekdays, and only a few on weekends. Same-day roundtrips are not feasible on weekends, either. A trip like that requires Amtrak.
San Diego boasts the first modern light rail system in the United States, with three long lines. It is known as the “San Diego Trolley,” though the cars are long Siemens articulated units with pantographs to collect power from the overhead wires. Actual PCC-type “trolleys” with trolley poles were gone by 1949. The first segment of the current system opened in 1981, running on the South Line between downtown and the Mexican border. That 26.3-mile original segment is part of today’s Blue Line, which extends between San Ysidro at the border and UTC, a collection of high-rise buildings north of the University of California San Diego.
The Orange Line, running east from downtown and northeast to El Cajon, opened in 1986. The Green Line, running east from Old Town through El Cajon and to Santee, opened in 2005. Those lines share track along the northeastern part of their routes. There is also the Silver Line, which runs on weekends on a loop through downtown, with historic cars: two vintage PCC cars painted in historic San Diego livery. They once ran in San Francisco and now operate with pantographs, along with the first light rail car purchased by San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) in 1979.
For 32 years, like Los Angeles for 27 years, San Diego had only buses for transit. Today’s “trolley” system serves downtown, as well as areas within and outside the city. Those include such scenic and historic neighborhoods as the Gaslamp Quarter, Balboa Park and Old Town, where the city got its start and which has a station where Amtrak and Coaster trains stop today.
Transit is not what it used to be in Southern California, but it’s coming back. So is downtown Los Angeles, along with other neighborhoods and points of interest in the city. Some Angelinos choose to live an auto-free urban lifestyle today, which would have been nearly impossible a half-century ago.
One of famous voice actor Mel Blanc’s many characters on the old Jack Benny Show was a train caller at Union Station. Blanc would always call: “Train leaving on Track 5 for Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga.” There was never such a physical train because those places are on different lines. Today, though, it is possible to take Metro Rail’s L Line to Azusa, leaving on Track 1 or 2. Anaheim is on Metrolink’s Orange County Line, and Cucamonga (officially Rancho Cucamonga) is on Metrolink’s San Bernardino Line. None of those places had any passenger rail service for decades, but now it’s possible to visit Anaheim, Azusa and “Cucamonga” by rail from Los Angeles Union Station, even though the trip takes almost all day.