Saturday was a shoulder-to-shoulder day of firsts for the Gold Line light railway, the region’s newest multimillion-dollar effort to pry people from their automobiles.
The 14-mile line from Union Station to Pasadena was open to the public for the first time, and transit officials found themselves with an unusual problem: The masses overwhelmed the mass transit system with more than 70,000 passengers.
“Grab a limb; just make sure it’s one of mine,” shouted Julie Gower, 40, of South Pasadena to her 4-year-old daughter, Hayley, as they rode a packed train through Pasadena around lunchtime. The onslaught overwhelmed a railway expected to handle about 30,000 rides on weekdays.
By midafternoon, there was a wait of one to two hours to board the trains at some stops along the route. At Union Station, the line of people stretched the length of the terminal and then snaked through an underground parking garage.
The trains were so swamped that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority dispatched 15 buses to run from station to station, offering an alternative to those tired of waiting.
For the most part, reviews of the new rail line were positive, although there were gripes from those who waited in the heat.
Any semblance of a schedule was shot. At one point, five trains went through the Memorial Park Station in downtown Pasadena but all were northbound.
“That’s why it’s free; we’re the guinea pigs,” said Rick Pinon, 33, of Los Angeles. “It’s overcrowded, but people will do anything for free.”
Ed Scannell, an MTA spokesman, said the agency had expected big crowds and long waits but had been surprised nonetheless by the public’s appetite for the Gold Line. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rail line so eagerly awaited by so many people,” he said.
Six seconds after the clock hit 3:56 a.m., the first 49-ton Siemens train eased out of downtown.
Thirty-seven people were aboard, many of them die-hard train enthusiasts who had been waiting for this day for years. None was happier than David Hardy.
Hardy became the first Gold Line passenger when he stepped onto train No. 232. “That’s one small step for man!” he said, easing back into his seat.
It would be hard to find more passionate riders than those who made their way to Union Station for the first round-trip ride. “In the ‘50s and ‘60s I rode on the last trains of the old electric cars,” said Jed Hughes. The retired workers compensation specialist from Long Beach recalled the days when there was a vast network of commuter lines across the region. “I saw the old ones die out. Now I’m riding the first train to Pasadena.”
One person too focused on his job to think about the meaning of the moment was train operator David Reyes.
“I’m kinda nervous,” he said, his MTA uniform already showing signs of perspiration. “I don’t want anything to go wrong.”
But after he made it into Pasadena, something did go wrong: the first Gold Line train breakdown.
At one of the stops, a door in the rear car opened but wouldn’t close, forcing Reyes to shut down the train. When he unplugged the door’s power system, it closed and 10 minutes later the train was back in action.
By the early afternoon, each train was packed with about 500 riders and the first graffiti was spotted inside one car.
Most of the riders said that they would use the Gold Line occasionally. People in Chinatown said they would go to Pasadena to shop. People in Pasadena said they would ride to Chinatown to eat.
Others stood on platforms, quietly calculating whether they could shave time off their commuting by riding the train instead of driving.
Doug Enslie, 50, of San Gabriel debated whether it would be worth it to drive to South Pasadena, take the Gold Line to Union Station and switch to Metrolink to get to his job in Glendale. The verdict: Probably not on a regular basis.
But he said he might ride to parking-poor Old Pasadena for a few drinks and “stumble home on this. That, or wake up in Union Station.”
Not everyone considered the Gold Line a viable, or even attractive, option. Several residents of South Pasadena set up a table at the Mission Street stop to protest trains that they say are too loud and crossing gate bells that they consider too piercing.
There were street festivals near many of the stations along the route, including Chinatown, where MTA workers looked down longingly from the platform at 20 whole chickens roasting on a spit. At the Heritage Square station, a man dressed as Spiderman and wearing a sombrero roamed the parking lot.
Once on the trains, riders were treated to intimate views of neighborhoods along the rails: people splashing in backyard swimming pools and walking through their homes along Marmion Way in Highland Park. A homeless encampment near the Arroyo Seco. Workers busy in a garment shop in Chinatown.
For some, the scenes were sentimental. Mary Jaco and her fiance, Eric Perez, were among the first early-morning Gold Line passengers.
As the train passed through Lincoln Heights, Mount Washington and Highland Park, neighborhoods where they had grown up, the two looked wistfully out the windows. They peered at homes where they had lived, streets they had walked, the hill where Jaco’s father jogged with her when she was a little girl.
“I’m feeling great,” said Jaco, 28, with a wide smile and glistening eyes. “There are a lot of memories along this line.”
Times staff writer Joy L. Woodson contributed to this report.