Metro needs to get its rail plan right
By Roger Rudick and Dennis Lytton
In 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads met in Utah.
They hammered in the Golden Spike, completing the transcontinental railroad. Now, imagine how foolish they would have looked if the tracks and trains of the two railroads were incompatible. This is the scenario that Los Angeles County could face in a few years as it builds out its transit system.
In 2008, county voters approved Measure R, a half-cent sales tax. It enables the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or Metro, to build a network of lines. One of these lines, the Pacific Electric West Santa Ana Branch, will run on an abandoned right of way through Orange County, continuing north towards Union Station.
A separate project, and the centerpiece of Measure R, will extend the Purple Line subway under Wilshire Boulevard all the way to Westwood and, eventually, to the sea. The Purple Line includes a short surface extension on the opposite end — Metro will add an Arts District station at the subway storage yard on the L.A. river, south of Union Station.
That means the West Santa Ana Branch Line will run into the L.A. subway’s eastern terminus at the bank of the river. But, unless changes are made, it will be impossible to join the two lines.
Why? In the legally required Alternatives Analysis for the West Santa Ana Branch, Metro and the Southern California Association of Governments are studying modes that are completely incompatible with the subway and will therefore require billions in redundant infrastructure to reach Union Station, where riders will be forced to transfer.
The West Santa Ana Branch consultants insist their line can’t link up because subway trains collect electricity from a third-rail and their project, because it runs on the surface, must use overhead wire for power.
This is bunk. There are many third-rail powered surface lines around the world with nearly identical characteristics. The Long Island Railroad, the nation’s biggest commuter rail system, is just one example. Moreover, there are off-the-shelf “dual mode” trains that can run on third rail or overhead wire. But the study ignores such obvious solutions.
This is a symptom of a problem with rail planning in Southern California that dates back to the collapse of the Hollywood subway in 1995. Metro has managers and architects on staff who know how to design bus lines. A few have worked on light rail in small cities. But now the agency is trying to build mass transit on par with London, Paris or New York. So they get hoodwinked by consultants who can’t afford to admit when they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Designs for other Measure R projects show similar failures to understand basic rail technology. And the timing couldn’t be worse: New rules, coming into effect over the next few years from the Federal Railroad Administration, will give Metro more flexibility than ever to build a coherent, integrated system that blurs the differences between light rail, subways, commuter trains, and even high speed rail. But the advantages of the new regulations will be lost if Metro doesn’t have the technological expertise to exploit them.
Soon, voters will be asked to extend that Measure R tax. And they should; by borrowing against it, Los Angeles can build rail lines faster than ever dreamed possible.
But first Metro has to fill its ranks with qualified engineers and planners. Metrolink, its sister agency that runs Southern California’s commuter rail system, recently took a step in the right direction by hiring Michael DePallo, general manager of New York and New Jersey’s PATH subway, to be its CEO.
Now Metro, which runs L.A.’s subway and light rail, needs to embark on an extensive head-hunting mission to London, New York, Paris, Tokyo and other cities. That’s the only way it will successfully build the world-class transit system this region so desperately needs.