Two years ago, Southern California transit officials decided to pursue a controversial vision: a futuristic rail line that would guide driverless trains between Los Angeles International Airport to Norwalk, using electronic sensors to detect any obstacles on the tracks.
Today, after spending more than $60 million for the driverless system, officials are seeking up to $5 million more to modify Metro Rail's Green Line to carry conventional driver-operated cars. Otherwise, they fear, the line will not be ready for a scheduled opening by 1995.
The $5-million request is the latest evidence that the Green Line will never be fully automated, meaning that transit officials have spent tens of millions of dollars for a technology that will not be used.
"I believe that it will not be driverless," said Arthur T. Leahy, assistant general manager for the Southern California Rapid Transit District, the agency that will operate the Green Line. "The (Los Angeles County Transportation Commission) is preparing the way to have a driver-operated system."
More than half of the $60 million spent on making the Green Line driverless was related to a sophisticated switching system that would allow remote control of the trains, said Ed McSpedon, president of the LACTC's rail construction subsidiary.
"We're not going to pay for (more) driverless equipment until and unless a decision is made" by commission members to recommit to a fully automated system, McSpedon said.
The rise and fall of the driverless Green Line proposal is an example of how politics on the transit commission can influence crucial engineering decisions that cost millions of dollars. The principal advocate of driverless trains was Mayor Tom Bradley, who touted them as a state-of-the-art showpiece for the region's new transit system. But Bradley is leaving office this year and his pending departure leaves automation without a strong backer.
Bradley declined through a spokeswoman to comment on the fate of the automated trains.
Another LACTC member, Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman, said: "What we have here is a more expensive system for switching than we need." Edelman initially supported the driverless concept but changed his mind last year.
Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs, a candidate for mayor and a critic of spending for a driverless system, said "it's incredible" that taxpayers are being asked to pay to scale back the system. "It's happened because all the decisions that are being made are political," he said.
The Green Line, budgeted at $722 million, is a component of the $45-billion Metro Rail system, which includes the Los Angeles to Long Beach Blue Line and the Red Line subway.
Running along the Century Freeway, the Green Line initially will connect Norwalk and El Segundo but may be extended three miles north to Los Angeles International Airport. It is financed through local and state sales tax and bond revenues.
No segment of the Metro Rail project has gone through so many transformations. "This has been the granddaddy of them all, in terms of how many times it's changed," McSpedon said.
At first, the Green Line was envisioned as a conventional driver-operated trolley line, similar to the Blue Line. By 1990, the design plans began to change to accommodate a fully automated system without drivers.
Proponents said the increased start-up investment of a driverless system would be offset by reduced labor costs and offer passengers more timely service.
Opponents said the system was too expensive and would be difficult to operate and maintain. They pointed out that the driverless technology never had been applied to a U.S. commuter rail line.
Prodded by Bradley, transportation commissioners voted 7 to 4 in December, 1991, to authorize the use of driverless trains. "If you don't like vision, if you don't like taking risks, you should get off this board," Bradley told his fellow commissioners.
The vote came despite a staff report from McSpedon concluding that the cost of constructing the fully automated system would exceed any expected savings. Commissioners at the same meeting took what proved a more controversial step--awarding a $121.8-million contract to Japan's Sumitomo Corp. to build the driverless trains. Opponents argued that transportation funds should be spent with Southern California firms. In January, 1992, the commission voted unanimously to cancel the contract.
However, the commission continued to pursue the driverless train concept. On April 23, the panel affirmed a contract with Union Switch & Signal Co. of Pittsburgh for a fully automated switching system.
So far, $60 million to $65 million has been spent to equip the Green Line for driverless operation--including $35 million for the extra features of the switching system alone, McSpedon said.
LACTC staff, who have long opposed the driverless concept, came to the conclusion that they could not open the Green Line on schedule as a fully automated system. In October, at the staff's request, the commission authorized purchase of 15 driver-operated rail cars from Sumitomo for the opening of the system in late 1994 or 1995.
The cars--though identical to those on the Blue Line--cost more than twice as much, at $3 million each. Transit officials said the 15-car purchase cost more because it was a small, rush order.
Officials plan to buy 34 more cars from an as yet unidentified manufacturer for mid-1996 delivery. The bids are to be submitted to the commission today.
In addition, staff is requesting up to $5 million to amend the Union Switch & Signal contract "to provide early Green Line (opening) with manual operation and Metro Blue Line cars." No date has been set for a vote on the request.
A number of transit officials said privately that, as a practical matter, the Green Line never will be converted to driverless operation. They cited the cost and operational difficulties of converting the cars to driverless operation and noted that unions representing the drivers would strenuously resist such a move.
A number of officials said they are reluctant to state that the plan for driverless trains is being abandoned because they do not want to offend Bradley.
But the mayor is leaving office in June--and boosters of the fully automated trains say they now hold little hope for driverless trains.
"Once the thing has manual operation, it is unlikely it will change to driverless," said Donald H. Camph, a transportation consultant who has been a leading advocate for making the Green Line fully automated.