Long Beach Looks to Make a Better Blue Line Train

Robert Garcia, the vice mayor of Long Beach, wishes the Blue Line were a better ride for the estimated 88,000 transit users who board every workday. The 23-year old light rail line from downtown Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles is showing its age, with tattered platforms, neglected landscaping, and a sketchy reputation for safety.

Garcia is urging Metro to make improvements in maintenance, but the Blue Line's needs are more than cosmetic.

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Besides being the oldest line in the light rail system, the Blue Line is the most used. It's also the line riders seem to complain about most: overcrowded cars, disturbing encounters with unruly passengers, and rarely seen Sheriff's Department patrols. The complaints -- some of them discussed at Los Angeles Streetsblog and Metro's own The Source -- are troubling, particularly for women riding alone.

The Blue Line's operational problems go back to decisions Metro made in the late 1980s.

The line was built mostly "at grade," setting up traffic conflicts at intersections along the 22-mile route. Despite warning bells and horns on trains, crossing gates at intersections, and a massive educational campaign aimed at drivers, the Blue Line has one of the worst accident records for light rail in the nation.

Sadly, easy access to the right-of-way has made suicide a part of the Blue Line story, too.

Design also compromises efficiency. While most of the Blue Line runs off the street grid, the downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach portions of the line are "street running." The trains travel city streets just like a bus.

"Street running" in Los Angeles is relatively swift. Trains preempt red lights, reducing the number of stops. But in Long Beach, trains poke through 32 traffic signals, each one a potential stop. It takes upwards of 20 minutes to go from the Willow Street station in north Long Beach to the Long Beach transit mall, a distance of just over three miles.

There's a fix for that in the works, but there are cost issues, too.

The layout of some stations is another design problem. Originally, the system was to operate without gates. That policy changed with concerns about uncollected fares. But when Metro began gating stations two years ago, it was clear that some stations weren't big enough.

In Long Beach, for example, stations are fitted into a narrow street median, with just enough room for riders to get on or get off the train.

Vice Mayor Garcia hopes that gating Blue Line stations in Long Beach will improve passenger security ... or perhaps just the perception of security. The Sheriff's Department is working on perceptions, too. For two days in early April, deputies saturated parts of the Blue Line, ticketing fare avoiders and making more than 150 arrests. More saturation patrols have been promised.

Metro also is investing in better and more barriers to prevent traffic and pedestrian accidents, although Metro officials warn that there is only so much they can do to keep the careless or clueless from a tragic encounter with a train.

It will be harder to fix another structural problem that puts a limit on the frequency of Blue Line trains. Both the Blue Line and the new Expo Line share tracks from Washington Boulevard and Flower Street to the Metro terminus at 7th and Flower.

There are only so many trains an hour that can run on those tracks, and only so much capacity in the trains.

Which means that crowded Blue Line trains -- sometimes packed at 120 percent of capacity -- will stay crowded, often uncomfortable, and unappealing to some potential transit users.

Metro's investment in new construction should be cheered. The Expo Line and Gold Line extensions, the subway extension to Westwood, and the Crenshaw line will have a further transformative effect on transit, just as the Blue Line did in 1990

The Blue Line's reputation is a warning, though, that Vice Mayor Garcia hopes Metro will hear. Failure to invest in improvements along the Blue Line that make trains safer, cleaner, more welcoming, and more efficient will coarsen our transit-oriented future.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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