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Blue Line’s Ridership, Safety Praised After Initial 6 Months : Transit: Officials say 18,000 commuters daily use the trains, three times the number expected. Crime is low; accidents with cars and pedestrians are main problem.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Transit officials report that an average of 18,000 commuters have been riding the Blue Line trains each day between Long Beach and Los Angeles--three times the number projected when the light rail line opened six months ago.

And the anticipated gang-related crime problems have not materialized along the 22-mile route, officials said.

“The first six months of operations have exceeded our expectations,” said Neil Peterson, executive director of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission. The rail line was built by the commission and is operated by the Southern California Rapid Transit District.

On the downside, four people have died in 35 train-and-car or train-and-pedestrian accidents and another 13 people have been injured, transit reports show.

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In the most recent accident, Shyrril McDowell, 38, of Gardena was critically injured Tuesday when she drove her car around lowered safety gates on Alondra Boulevard at Willowbrook Avenue, police said. The car was struck by a fast-moving southbound Blue Line train, police reported.

All told, 26 cars have tangled with trains at gated grade crossings or while making left turns in front of oncoming trains on Washington or Long Beach boulevards. The trains travel down the middle of these two streets.

From the start, the biggest problem faced by train crews has been pedestrians and motorists trying to run or drive around barricades as the fast-moving trains approach street crossings. The trains travel at speeds up to 55 m.p.h.

These trains run at 10- and 15-minute intervals, both northbound and southbound, between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. That means a train flashes through each gated intersection every few minutes, officials warned.

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The worst accidents have occurred in neighborhoods where the people were used to seeing slow-moving freights operating on tracks parallel to the Blue Line, investigators reported. Sheriff’s deputies have cracked down on motorists driving around the rail-crossing barricades, issuing 1,400 tickets, but the latest accident shows that motorists are still risking an illegal crossing.

Because the $877-million trolley line runs through several high-crime, gang-dominated areas in South-Central Los Angeles, transit authorities were initially afraid that vandalism, graffiti and crime would frighten riders away. To prevent that, the commission hired the Sheriff’s Department to police the rail line.

The cost of about $12 million a year makes the sheriff’s Transit Services Bureau the most expensive light rail security system anywhere, transit officials said.

The bureau has 116 officers patrolling the platforms, riding the trains and checking fares. Deputies also prowl the transit corridor in black and white cars, and special undercover teams work where needed.

“We have taken a very strong enforcement posture,” said Capt. Frank Vadurro, head of the Transit Services Bureau. In six months, deputies have written 8,000 citations for everything from drunk and disorderly conduct to jaywalking and fare evasion.

The crimes that have occurred have been “very minor,” Vadurro said. There has been one purse-snatching and a gold chain was yanked from the neck of a woman standing on a station platform, he said.

During December, deputies made 82 arrests for crimes such as narcotics possession, carrying illegal weapons and simple assault, Vadurro reported. An anti-graffiti unit has kept the line free of “taggers” and their marks.

Ridership figures show that on weekdays an average of 18,000 passengers board the quiet, smooth-running white and blue electric trains. And the riders seem happy with the service between the 22 stations.

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“I love the train,” said commuter Ronald Cheatham, 35, of Compton. At first Cheatham was skeptical about the trains because they go through gang-dominated areas, but now he says, “The trains are safe . . . and comfortable. It’s great.”

The Blue Line is the first segment of a planned 300-mile, $7.5-billion rail network that one day will stretch across Los Angeles County, linking five Southland counties, officials said. The system is to be completed within the next two decades, if all goes as planned.

A few minor problems developed in the $1.2-million electric cars and the operating systems, but generally the Blue Line has worked well, said RTD representative Andrea Greene.

Automatic car doors have stuck open, shutting down a train. One train was derailed, another lost power when overhead power lines sagged and a section of the system had to be shut down for an hour to fix the wires.

When such problems disrupted services, buses carried passengers around the problem, Greene said.

The fare on the Blue Line is $1.10 one way, for all destinations--about half what it costs to ride an RTD express bus from Long Beach to Los Angeles. The $42-a-month RTD bus passes also are honored on the trains, officials said.

The single-rate, introductory Blue Line fare was set low to lure riders, transit officials said. The fare eventually will be raised, with the price based on destination or length of ride.

Because of construction delays, the trolleys coming into downtown Los Angeles have had to stop at the Pico Station, at Pico Boulevard and Flower Street. That dropped commuters a mile short of the planned Blue Line terminus in the underground station at 7th and Flower streets.

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Construction of the $50-million, two-level subway station is a year behind schedule. Eventually, this station will be the transfer point between the Blue Line trolleys and the $3.7-billion Metro Rail Red Line subway that is supposed to open in the fall of 1993.

The Blue Line area of the new station will open for train service Feb. 14. Starting then, the trains leaving the Pico station will go underground near 12th and Flower streets and travel the last mile into the subway station through a new tunnel, officials said.

“Opening of the station will make the Blue Line even more attractive,” said Art Leahy, the RTD’s supervisor of bus and train operations. He said 3,000 commuters board at the Pico station daily now. “We’re certain the number will go up when the trains start using the station,” he said.


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