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Blue Line Ridership Is Higher Than Expected

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Los Angeles’ new light rail line exceeded ridership projections on its first day of commuter operations Monday, but thousands of passengers had to endure travel times as long as two hours and the evening commute was marred by a train breakdown near a crowded downtown station.

By early afternoon 10,000 riders had used the 19-mile Los Angeles-Long Beach Light Rail Line, and transit officials predicted that a total of 15,000 passengers would ride by the end of the day--about three times the expected number.

“Things are running smoothly,” said Art Leahy, director of transit operations for the Southern California Rapid Transit District.

Later, however, a train broke down a block from the Pico Station in downtown Los Angeles, tying up traffic on the northern end of the line for 35 minutes and delaying at least 250 commuters on their trips home, officials said.

“I’m going to jump a bus and go home,” said Beatrice Hobbs, a computer operator from Long Beach.

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Neil Peterson, executive director of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, said that the opening of the $877-million Blue Line was successful, despite the breakdown and other difficulties.

“We had a spectacular day going,” Peterson said. “We expect things like this from time to time; they are unfortunate. We just hope the riding public has the patience with us as we all learn in this process.”

The public’s patience also was tested by the shuttle system that is linked to the ends of the train line. The shuttle trips added a half hour or more to the 55-minute Long Beach to Los Angeles trip, many riders complained in interviews.

The shuttles are being used temporarily because construction on several stations in downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach will not be completed until next year. Until then, trains are stopping short of their final destinations.

Transit officials say commuting times will be significantly reduced once the stations are completed. A number of riders said that even now it is worth the extra effort to ride in the comfort of a quiet-running, electric train rather than fighting traffic jams.

Other commuters said the added time needed to take the shuttles--and sometimes additional buses--into downtown Los Angeles had made them late for work and was too much aggravation.

“It took too much extra time today,” said downtown librarian Judy Kamei. The expected 1-hour, 20-minute return to Long Beach would make her late picking up her youngster at the baby-sitter, she said.

The 26 train cars, which cost $1.2 million each, had only a few minor mechanical problems early in the day, and two cars temporarily were pulled out of service.

Then, shortly before 6 p.m., a two-car train broke down on the northbound track as it approached the Pico Station, causing four trains to back up while hundreds of passengers were stranded on the trains and on the station boarding platform. While RTD officials said the cause of the power loss was not determined, passengers said that two teen-aged girls had tampered with an emergency switch, causing the train to stop and the doors to open.

After a few minutes, some passengers jumped off the trains, according to Robb Wagner, 24, a video technician from Los Angeles.

“People were helping each other off the train,” Wagner said.

There were no reports of injuries. However, one North Hollywood woman passenger was crying and hyperventilating, and was driven home by transit workers.

During the breakdown, stranded passengers grew impatient and grumpy. At one point, transit workers told them that they could walk to the next station--about five minutes--and catch another train, but there were few takers.

When power was restored to the disabled car about 35 minutes after the breakdown, it was taken out of service, officials said.

With about 120 sheriff’s deputies on patrol, there was little crime. One man was charged with battery after he allegedly shoved a woman during an argument on a train, and a drunken man was found wandering on the tracks. Deputies escorted him home, rather than arrest him.

During the morning commute, two gate crossings at intersections were knocked down by passing vehicles. Because the trains flash by these crossings every few minutes at 55 m.p.h., the situation was hazardous, but a deputy sheriff and a pedestrian quickly took action.

Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Sukik backed his patrol car across the intersection of 24th Street and Long Beach Boulevard each time a train whistled its approach. “I am the guardrail,” he said.

After a garbage truck tore off the crossing gate at Florence Avenue near the Florence Station, a pedestrian, Ignacio Marmolejo, voluntarily stopped traffic each time trains approached, giving workers time to fix the gate.

No traffic accidents were reported and little congestion developed along the route, officials said. RTD officials had been concerned that rush-hour traffic snarls might slow down the trains, especially along Washington Boulevard in downtown Los Angeles, but that did not happen.

Several commuters traveling from Long Beach told reporters they were getting a whole new perspective on the low-income neighborhoods of Los Angeles that they would not otherwise have seen.

“I saw the Watts Towers today,” said one Long Beach woman, who requested anonymity. “I’ve never seen them . . . I didn’t even know where they were and I’ve lived in Los Angeles all my life. . . . I think this (Blue Line) is going to be a great bridge for all of us.”

As anticipated, Monday’s ridership was far below the estimated 100,000 passengers that officials say rode the line during the two-day inaugural celebration over the weekend. But officials were more than happy with the line’s popularity during the first day of commuter runs.

The county Transportation Commission--the agency that built the line--originally estimated 30,000 passengers would ride the first trains and that ridership would go to 54,000 within a decade.

The projection for the start-up period was scaled back to 12,000 a day, then recently to 5,000 a day. Officials said they believe that fewer passengers will ride the line while they are forced to ride shuttle buses to reach many destinations downtown.

Shuttles will continue to run until September, 1993, when work is completed on the Metro Rail subway station at 7th and Flower streets. When the Metro Rail subway is completed, Blue Line passengers will be able to transfer to the Red Line and ride into the heart of downtown.

Until then, the Blue Line ends downtown at Pico Station at Pico Boulevard and Flower Street, and commuters must either switch to the shuttle buses or walk the rest of the way.

Monday’s morning commute started off slowly. The park-and-ride lots located near several of the 17 stations were nearly empty--a sign that rail transit authorities have yet to persuade large numbers of car-loving commuters that they should try the train.

Until midmorning, the trains were running at a fraction of their 450-passenger capacity, often with only 30 or 40 mostly white-collar riders.

Once the rush hour ended, the trains began to fill up with blue-collar workers, mothers with children, and teen-agers exploring the city.

By midday, patronage had increased abruptly, and by the end of the day, there was standing room only on many trains leaving downtown for Long Beach.

Many of the passengers gave the sleek, quiet Blue Line trains good reviews.

“This is a Godsend,” said Connie Shirey, of Long Beach, a state employee who works downtown. She said that even though the train and the shuttles made her commute longer, “I’m going to try to make it work, I’m tired of trucks on the Long Beach Freeway.”

Other people stepping off at Pico Station found themselves about 12 blocks away--much of it uphill--from the government offices and businesses in the Civic Center area. Free shuttle buses provided by the RTD only went as far as 6th and Flower, about halfway to the Civic Center. Some people got off there and literally turned in circles in confusion.

“There is no way I would do this when I have a time schedule to keep. I’d be too nervous,” said Norma Komoroski, a courthouse volunteer who rode in from Long Beach. In the end, her trip to work took 90 minutes and four vehicles--her car to the station, the Blue Line, the RTD shuttle and the downtown DASH bus. By the time she stood at the corner of 1st and Grand, gazing at the Los Angeles County courthouse, her transit enthusiasm had worn a little thin, but she was forgiving.

“It is just the first day,” she said. “I will continue to take it whenever I can.”

Neil MacReady, a 31-year-old fund-raiser for USC, agreed. He said he drove his car from Newport Beach to a Long Beach stop--a 45-minute trip--then took the train another 45 minutes into downtown. It took 30 minutes longer than it usually takes by car.

“It doesn’t save time, but it saves stress,” he said, patting the briefcase of paper work he planned to review while riding the train.

Times staff writers Fay Fiore, Andrea Ford and Richard Simon contributed to this story.

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