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Riders Give Green Light to Red Line : Transportation: The offer of free trips lured thousands to subway’s debut. Trains earned high marks almost all around.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lured by the promise of a fast, free ride, thousands turned out for the debut of the city’s new Metro Red Line subway, transforming the inauguration into a kind of “Amusement Park for a Day.”

By early Saturday afternoon, the bulging lines outside MacArthur Park stretched for almost three blocks, with prospective passengers eating tacos and hot dogs and sipping soft drinks as they waited their turns.

“We’ve never ridden in anything like this before,” said Isabel Sulu, who came from Chino with her daughter and three grandchildren.

A free-ride promotion this weekend bolstered turnout, enhancing the celebratory air. Serious transportation buffs accompanied the thrill-seekers and the just plain curious to the five downtown stations festooned with red balloons and shimmering works of art, from abstract neon sculpture to ceramic murals celebrating the city’s varied history and culture.

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Families and individuals generally exhibited patience as they stood in line for up to three hours to experience a ride that takes about seven minutes to cover the entire 4.4-mile loop.

Unaccustomed to subterranean trains, many trod gingerly into the cars or looked to others for guidance on riding etiquette. Joining the public riders were news crews, transit police and Red Line employees, who funneled riders onto trains and platforms and, afterward, back up to the streets.

When the sleek, red-trimmed stainless steel cars pulled up to the gleaming platforms, even many veteran users of more extensive systems elsewhere allowed themselves to be impressed--and to hope that the subway may augur a less cluttered, less polluted Los Angeles.

“I like it better than the subway in Mexico City,” said Ana Maria Rodriguez, who brought her three young children along for the ride. “I think it’s cleaner, and the people seem nicer.”

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J.C. English, a retired, 73-year-old welder who followed his curiosity onto a packed train rumbling beneath downtown, said: “This is just what L.A. needs. It’s beautiful.”

He and others bemoaned the loss of the Red Car trolleys, which once made up one of the nation’s most advanced public transportation networks before its deterioration and demise in the 1960s. “It’s like we’ve come full-circle. We tore up those tracks and now we’re building new ones,” said Caryl Thomas of Los Angeles.

Cleanliness and safety were much on the minds of riders, sending a clear message to transit officials. “I think it’s a great idea, but I wonder how viable it’ll be,” said Gareth Butler, who came from Laguna Beach with his wife and young daughter. “If there’s any indication that it’s not working, or if it gets all full of graffiti like New York, it’ll scare people off.”

All was not upbeat. As dignitaries gathered to launch the Metro, several marchers unfurled a banner outside the Pershing Square station lambasting the system as an earthquake-prone, billion-dollar boondoggle.

“I think the only people who should be celebrating today are the contractors and the politicians whose coffers they have filled,” said John Walsh, an activist opposed to the subway.

That was clearly a minority opinion. In fact, many sought to make return trips but were discouraged by the long lines.

“I thought it was great, but I don’t feel like waiting in line again,” said Ken Harris of Long Beach as he emerged from the MacArthur Park station. “We’re gonna take the bus back.”

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