A Metro Rail Substitute Is On Line

<i> C. Kenneth Orski is a transportation consultant in Washington and former official in the Urban Mass Transportation Administration. </i>

For more than a year now, Los Angeles’ dream of a 21st-Century subway system has looked more like a nightmare. The route has been shortened, federal funding is still uncertain, and engineers have been busy redrawing the system’s path through the Westside to avoid tunneling through pockets of natural gas. And staunch supporters like Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) have changed their minds. Waxman has called the project an “ill-fated idea” and has asked for a fresh effort to draft a more realistic and flexible rapid transit plan “that meets the needs of the entire city.”

Such a plan is within Los Angeles’ grasp. It is predicated on a close partnership between the public and private sector, and rests on the principle that before embarking on construction of costly new facilities, every effort should be made to make good use of existing assets.

Already, officials of the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe railroads have been talking with city and county officials about doing just that. The railroads, whose merger is pending, are proposing that a network of their trackage now being used mostly for freight operations could be adapted with relative ease to serve Los Angeles commuters.


Most prominently mentioned as potential commuter lines are Southern Pacific branches from downtown to Santa Monica and through the southern part of the San Fernando Valley to Chatsworth. Presumably, the Amtrak commuter service from San Diego to downtown could also be expanded along the Santa Fe right-of-way through Orange County.

In the past, railroads have rebuffed proposals for the joint use of their rights-of-way, calling commuter service incompatible with their freight operations. But today, railroad management tends to take a more accommodating attitude. Railroad-owned property, especially near commuter stations, has more development potential, thus increasing its value. No doubt this is one reason for Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe to have such a change of heart.

To be sure, the mere cooperation of the railroads, essential and welcome as it is, does not guarantee the feasibility of the project. Many requirements must be met to make commuter rail service workable. The alignments must be wide enough to accommodate extra tracks for commuter trains; track bed geometry must allow safe side-by-side operation of freight and passenger traffic, and there must be excess land available for stations and park-and-ride lots. Above all, the alignments must be located in potential high-volume corridors.

Fortunately, the Los Angeles Basin is graced with a dense and ubiquitous rail network.

For example, the Santa Monica branch of Southern Pacific parallels the Santa Monica Freeway and connects with spur lines running along the Los Angeles River into the central district downtown. Similarly, SP’s Burbank branch starts in Chatsworth in the West Valley, goes through Canoga Park, then travels eastward through Burbank where it meets up with the coast mainline and access to Union Station. Other Southern Pacific and Santa Fe branch lines extend into the southeastern portion of the county and the San Gabriel Valley.

In sum, there already exists a network of rail corridors offering direct, unobstructed access into the downtown core. Even allowing for construction of new track and stations, line electrification and new signals, a regional commuter rail system could be implemented in a fraction of the time and for a fraction of the cost required to build the Metro Rail system. Using modern lightweight cars and simple, yet attractive, stations, the system would offer a level of service comparable to that proposed for Metro Rail.

A preliminary feasibility study being shown to Los Angeles officials estimates that a trip on the Burbank branch line from Chatsworth to downtown would take about 80 minutes--or 15 minutes less than the same trip by an express bus using freeways. Annual operating cost of about $12 million could be met from the fare box at a break-even point of $3.15 per trip, assuming a daily ridership level of 15,000 trips. Capital costs are estimated at $310 million, less than 10% of the $3.3-billion price tag for the first 18.7 miles of Metro Rail.

The Santa Monica branch alignment offers comparable opportunities. Travel time from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles is estimated at 60 minutes--15 minutes more than by an express bus on freeways. Ridership on the line is projected at 11,000 to 13,000 per day. Capital cost requirements would be in the neighborhood of $270 million.

A chimera, or an alternative deserving serious consideration? Only a more detailed study will tell. Certainly, the railroads’ interest lends serious credibility to the project. And with the future of Metro Rail more clouded than ever, any proposal that offers a serious alternative to the starter line desires careful consideration.