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52,800 Ride the Rails of History as Subway Rolls

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After 20 years of planning and $1.4 billion, the city known for its dependence on the automobile embraced its first modern subway Saturday as thousands clogged underground stations for their first free ride.

While colored lights shone from above and a taped version of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” echoed through the tunnel, Los Angeles’ first Metro Red Line car pulled into the station at downtown’s Pershing Square at 11:35 a.m. On board, shoulder to shoulder with an assortment of dignitaries, Mayor Tom Bradley beamed.

“I’m very excited, very happy about this day; it’s been 20 years coming,” said Bradley, who in the final months of his unprecedented reign saw the realization of one of his biggest and most controversial dreams. “The Red Line is going to deliver us to the 21st Century.”

Saturday’s subway opening, many agreed, was more symbolism than substance. The train schedule was closely followed, after weeks of practice, and security was evident--all calculated to ease fears of commuters who cling to their autos like security blankets.

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Many of the 52,800 who flocked to the subway’s five stations from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. saw the train as more of a curiosity than a journey, considering its 4.4-mile first segment boasts few exciting destinations.

Three hundred passengers, some dressed up, jammed into each subway car. Some had driven more than an hour for what amounts to a seven-minute ride. This, they told one another, is history.

Robert and Debbie Newcombe brought their 6-year-old daughter, Laura, to ride the trains. “Fifty years from now, when they are celebrating the anniversary, she could say she rode the Red Line on opening day,” said Robert, a writer who lives in North Hollywood.

For Angelenos, the opening was a major milestone in a three-year period that saw the emergence of the Blue Line, linking downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach, and the start of commuter rail service on suburban Metrolink trains.

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At first, the Red Line will operate as little more than a link between these systems. But ridership is expected to increase substantially when segments are added and the entire 22.7 miles of subway is completed in 2001 at a cost of $5.3 billion. With the addition of other light rail lines, the subway will be the centerpiece of a $183-billion regional transportation system that will probably change the face of the county over the next 30 years.

“It’s a historical cycle that once embarked upon, you don’t turn back,” said Kevin Starr, professor of urban and regional planning at USC.

Yet even when the network is completed, it is not expected to serve the kind of ridership seen in Eastern cities such as New York, where most workers use subways to get to their jobs. In Los Angeles, officials hope someday 20% of commuters will use public transit, up from about 5% today. Although that is not expected to unclog crowded freeways, some planners say at least it will keep things from getting much worse as Southern California’s population continues to grow.

During Saturday’s ceremony at the Pershing Square station, it became clear that the automobile is not about to be usurped by rail. As well-wishers tooted on horns that sounded like rail whistles and donned blue and white railroad engineers’ caps, Gov. Pete Wilson presented Bradley with a license plate for his car. It read: “GO METRO.”

On Saturday, the politicians and officials were the first to board the subway. At 11:30 a.m., the train carrying Bradley and Wilson glided out of the 7th Street station, and those aboard pulled out their cameras. Some hugged; some kissed in the crowded aisle of the train.

One official asked another: “Do the brakes work? " But within seconds, most were commenting on the smooth ride as the Italian-made cars zipped toward Pershing Square, where a throng of media and politicians waited at the platform, wearing “THINK RED” buttons.

It was a ride that former Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, 72, never thought he would live to take.

“I should have had the faith, but there have been so many problems,” said Hahn, whose campaign for a sales tax measure provided money that was essential for this and other transit projects. “Today, I feel like a father whose baby has been born and I’m passing out cigars.”

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As the politicians spoke, crowds gathered at each of the Red Line’s five stations. At MacArthur Park, some waited for nearly two hours as 3,000 queued up in lines that snaked around the block.

And many riders endured their first lesson in subway etiquette. One young boy raced up the subway stairs yelling: “Where’s the bathroom? Where’s the bathroom?” A murmur rippled through the crowd as the youngster was told the stations have no bathrooms.

Local transit officials say they have learned from the experiences of subways in New York and other Eastern cities where public restrooms have become magnets for crime.

They also hope to avoid the widespread vandalism and graffiti that have plagued other systems by dispatching highly visible police patrols and by creating an open, art-filled environment in each station.

And while most other subway operators face fares lost to gate jumpers and other passengers resourceful enough to avoid paying, in Los Angeles riders will be on the honor system. Riders can board the Red Line free today, but starting Monday transit police will spot-check to ensure that passengers pay the 25-cent fare. (The fare is expected to be set at $1.10 after a month of service.) Those who are caught more than once face fines up to $250.

But enthusiastic crowds Saturday seemed prepared to follow the rules. As subway trains approached, the crowds erupted in cheers, hoots and whistles.

Thirteen-year-old Maia Myers had never ridden a train, let alone a subway. She pressed into the car with her friends. As the doors closed, her eyes grew wide.

“Cool,” said Myers of Pomona. But as the train lurched forward, she changed her assessment: “Scarreeeey.”

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Not everyone got on the train. Nancy Larsson, 56, a radio program producer, waited two hours at MacArthur Park to board the Red Line. But as the train pulled in, she realized that she had parked her car in a two-hour parking zone. She backed away from the subway, saying: “I can’t afford the parking ticket.”

Some passengers who had grown up in other cities measure the Red Line against their earlier experiences. The Red Line was quieter than Chicago’s subway. It was certainly cleaner than New York’s subway. It seemed a little like Washington’s Metro.

Paul Clark, 49, a general contractor, rode New York’s noisy subways for 30 years. He rode the Red Line like a connoisseur tasting a fine Cabernet.

“Very smooth, extremely smooth,” he sighed. “Very clean. But you know, it does seem odd to be riding underground here.”

Transit officials are hoping the oddity will wear off.

Ralph Cipriani, a principal planner for regional mobility at the Southern California Assn. of Governments, predicted that the Red Line will find its niche.

“It can’t be looked at as the panacea because there is no single solution for the region,” he said.

“It’s too diverse. The major significance of the Red Line is not so much its ability to solve the congestion we have but a recognition that we have to do things differently, that we can’t rely on the automobile.”

BACKGROUND

Transportation officials have been careful to call the Red Line the city’s first modern subway. That is because it succeeds the Hollywood subway, which opened Nov. 30, 1925, running underground for almost a mile between Hill and 1st streets at Glendale Boulevard. Despite ambitious plans, the Hollywood subway never expanded. It closed in 1955 after 30 years of service. Six years later, the Red Cars that once spanned the region--trolleys powered through overhead cables--stopped operation. The Metro Red Line subway, which opened Saturday, is a heavy rail train, electrically powered by a third rail. By definition, a subway can be either heavy rail or light rail trolleys that are underground.

The Red Line

The Metro Red Line is Los Angeles’ first modern subway system. The initial 4.4-mile segment of the Red Line, which runs from Union Station to MacArthur Park, opened Saturday . The $5.3 - billion project, being built in three segments, will eventually travel 22.7 miles. Today, trains will operate from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. As of Monday, trains will operate every 10 minutes from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week. The first two days will be free, and the fare for the next month will be 25 cents. The regular fare is $1.10.

SUBWAY INFORMATION

Security: Officers on cars and platforms.

Services: No bathroom facilities or food outlets.

Travel time: Union Station to MacArthur Park, seven minutes.

Connections: After the first two days of free fares, Blue Line passengers can purchase a 25-cent transfer to connect at the 7th Street/Metro Center station. Red Line passengers can also purchase 25-cent transfers to connect with RTD buses at stations along the way; Red Line passengers transferring to the Blue Line must pay the full fare. Metrolink passes or tickets will be honored for Red Line connections at Union Station.

Tickets: Available from vending machines at stations. Monthly passes, good for bus and Metro Rail transportation and some transit agencies, are available. Tokens are also available.

WHAT’S NEARBY

Station: Union Station

Address: Alameda Street at Sunset Boulevard

Background: A major transportation hub with connections to the Metrolink commuter line, public transit, park-and-ride lots and a “kiss-and-ride” drop-off point. Near Olvera Street and El Pueblo de Los Angeles.

*

Station: Civic Center

Address: 1st and Hill streets

Background: Near Los Angeles City Hall, county offices and courthouses, shopping areas and Little Tokyo.

*

Station: Pershing Square

Address: 5th and Hill streets

Background: Near the jewelry center, major business areas.

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Station: 7th Street/Metro Center

Address: 7th and Flower streets

Background: Near the financial and central business districts. Passengers can transfer here to the Metro Blue Line, which goes to Long Beach.

*

Station: Westlake-MacArthur Park

Address: Wilshire Boulevard and Alvarado Street

Background: Near MacArthur Park, has a “kiss-and-ride” drop-off point.

Compiled by Times researcher Nona Yates

Source: L.A. County Transportation Commission, Southern California Rapid Transit District


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