Photos: When the Metro Orange Line Was Rail

A Pacific Electric trolley at the North Hollywood Station along the present-day Orange Line right-of-way in 1952. Photo by Alan Weeks, courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

The Metro Orange Line: it's named like a rail line and looks like one on system maps, but you won't find tracks along this 18-mile transit corridor through the San Fernando Valley. In fact, state law has forbidden aboveground rail transit along this route since 1991 -- the legacy of local homeowners who fought against surface rail in favor of a much more expensive subway. Instead, since 2005 super-long articulated buses have rolled down the Orange Line's dedicated, paved roadway, which now stretches from North Hollywood to Chatsworth.

[Update, 7/9/14: Yesterday, Governor Brown signed AB 577, which repeals the 23-year-old ban on aboveground rail transit in the San Fernando Valley. Light rail along the Orange Line corridor may now be legal under state law, but such a conversion is still not part of Metro's long range plan.]

But change may be arriving soon. On Oct. 29, the Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution introduced by council member Tom LaBonge calling on the state legislature to repeal the 1991 ban -- a first step toward upgrading the Orange Line's bus rapid transit with the sort of light rail technology used on the Metro Blue, Green, Gold, and Expo lines.

If LaBonge's plan succeeds, the Orange Line will be returning to its historical roots. As seen in historical images from the region's photographic archives, for nearly 100 years rail vehicles of one kind or another -- steam locomotives, electric trolleys, diesel trains -- rolled down the Orange Line right-of-way.

It began in 1893 as the Southern Pacific's Burbank Branch, a double-tracked rail line that meandered through wheat fields and open ranchland. In its early years, the Toluca Flyer steamed along the route, serving passengers at Owensmouth (now Canoga Park) and Lankershim (now North Hollywood) stations, among other stops. In 1911 the fabled red cars of the the Pacific Electric Railway began sharing part of the route, and in later years diesel-powered freight trains rumbled down the line. By the time a cash-strapped Southern Pacific sold its Burbank Branch to L.A. County's transportation agency in 1991, the wheat fields had given way to residential neighborhoods and transportation planners looked to the route as the best possible transit corridor for a maturing San Fernando Valley.

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The Toluca Flyer, seen here at the Lankershim (North Hollywood) station in 1900, was the Southern Pacific's passenger train along its Burbank Branch. Courtesy of the San Fernando Valley History Digital Library, California State University, Northridge University Library.

A 1911 view of the present-day Orange Line right-of-way where it crosses Van Nuys Boulevard. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Detail of a 1925 rail map of Los Angeles County, showing the Southern Pacific's Burbank Branch. Courtesy of the Map Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

A 1960 view of the northwestern junction between the Southern Pacific's main line and its Burbank Branch, which ran alongside Canoga Avenue. Courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

As more automobiles began crossing the Burbank Branch's tracks, collisions became inevitable. This 1952 photo shows an auto-train collision at Lindley Avenue and Topham Street. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - Los Angeles Examiner Collection.

Pacific Electric trolleys near the North Hollywood station along the Burbank Branch. Photo by Alan Weeks, courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

A Pacific Electric car near the Tujunga Wash. A 1938 flood washed out the Pacific Electric's bridge over the wash, forcing it to share tracks with the Southern Pacific until 1952. Photo by Alan Weeks, courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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