Trains are packed as Metro's Expo Line extension to Santa Monica opens

It was 1953 when the last Pacific Electric streetcars traveled between downtown Los Angeles and the Santa Monica shore. On Friday, that popular old route was reborn with the extension of the Expo Line across a territory whose major thoroughfares now are routinely jammed, bumper to bumper.

It marked a potential turning point for L.A.’s public transit push, which grows more and more crucial with the gridlock. Unlike other, more prosaic routes, a train to the beach, after all, may have the sex appeal to lure large numbers of drivers — at least occasionally — out from behind the wheel.

On board the first train open to the public Friday morning were not only die-hard train buffs but also ordinary people who said they had taken time off work just to enjoy the sensation of reaching the sand without any arduous driving or parking involved.

Nancy Lee Kelly, 63, a downtown actress, singer and writer, said she hoped “maybe to put my toe in the ocean.”

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A group of Jehovah’s Witnesses said they planned to take advantage of the opening day to go out and share the Bible by the ocean.

Even so, the train, operated by Karmisha Myvett, left the 7th Street/Metro Center station at 11:28 a.m. with a few seats to spare.

Each stop after, however, more people were waiting — and there were hundreds on the platform at 11:56 a.m., when the train pulled into Culver City. So many pushed their way in when the doors opened there that not a single person more could fit.

Even squeezed uncomfortably close to each other, the passengers’ mood on this maiden voyage was holiday jovial — and most everyone cheered and clapped at 12:19 p.m., when they made it to end of the line in downtown Santa Monica.

After all, there had been something thrilling about seeing L.A. public transit so crowded. Metro officials estimated between 15,000 to 20,000 boardings from noon through 4 p.m.

Before the first public passenger train arrived, a more formal grand opening of the line took place at the station — with another train ceremonially powering through a banner across the tracks and hundreds of local residents and dignitaries in attendance.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti congratulated the neighborhood activists and transportation officials “who fought and dreamed and said this could be done.” He spoke about bringing the sprawling region together.

“At the end of the day, this isn’t about getting lines down,” he said. “This is about connecting with each other.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, alluding to the Pacific Electric, called the opening “sort of back to the future.”

The seven-stop extension of the line, which cost $1.5 billion, is only 6.6 miles long — and the trip from downtown to the beach takes a not-so-swift 50 minutes or so, roughly the  old Red Car speed.

But the new line has attracted a great deal of attention for traveling such a quintessentially Southern Californian route — and for giving some residents a commuting option other than the packed 10 Freeway.

Stefan Stasik was so excited about the big event that he flew from Canada on Thursday night to get on the first public train.

The 45-year-old information-technology expert waited downtown to board  with fellow transit buffs he’d linked up with on Facebook.

Rides on the Expo Line were free Friday, as they will be Saturday, when celebrations and giveaways will be held at the stations and the crowds are expected to be even larger.

Stasik said his trip from Victoria for the free ride probably will cost at least $1,000.

It’s worth it, he said, to celebrate the benefits of ditching your car — which he did for good over a dozen years ago when he was living in Boston.

“When you don’t have to be reliant on your vehicle, you end up having a lot more freedom,” he said.

Los Angeles’ transit system still has many gaps, however. Plenty of people don’t live very conveniently near Metro train stops — and only three of the stations that opened Friday have parking.

The city of Santa Monica hopes to use all the attention about the new line to jump-start a broader public-transit educational campaign. One of its aims is to show people how they can mix and match ways to get around without always resorting to driving.

Some of those possibilities were evident at the Downtown Santa Monica station on Friday, where a young man handed out cards for free Uber rides and cheery green Breeze bikes were lined up available for use. The bike-share program is free through Saturday, just  as the train is.

Two passengers brought another option with them.

Andrew Rice, 47, of Mar Vista, and Brennan Lindner, 45, of Venice boarded one of the first trains on Friday carrying paddleboards — which the new line allows, along with surfboards, as long as space is available. As the first to do so, they said, they were making history.

The two friends left the train at downtown Santa Monica and made a beeline for the waves, just a short walk west.

nita.lelyveld@latimes.com

laura.nelson@latimes.com

Visiting International Center for Journalists fellows Pablo Uribe Ruan and Kenia Mendez contributed to this story.

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