Two years after the Gold Line began running, transportation officials are still struggling to fill it with riders. So, recently they announced with great fanfare that they would launch a rush-hour express service.
The express trains, they said, would stop at just five of the 13 stations, shaving five minutes off the usual 34-minute, 14-mile trip. What they didn’t say was that the new service, designed to woo new riders, would come at the expense of the old service and existing riders.
Instead of running additional trains, officials simply started having some of the regular trains skip stops, which left Gold Line regulars at the eight skipped stations waiting longer -- and fuming.
“The express just goes right past you as we’re all standing here!” exclaimed Maureen Casamiquela on a recent afternoon as a gleaming train whooshed through Memorial Park station in Pasadena without stopping for the dozens of passengers waiting.
The new service stops only at these stations: Sierra Madre Villa and Del Mar, in Pasadena; Mission, in South Pasadena; and Highland Park and Union Station, in Los Angeles.
The rocky launch of the new express service is another setback for the Gold Line, already the region’s least popular mass transit rail line.
On its opening day, nearly 80,000 curious folks climbed aboard for free rides on the route from Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles. Now the $900-million system carries just 16,300 riders a day, fewer than half of what planners had envisioned. More than two dozen Metro bus lines attract more daily riders than it does.
Last month, the Gold Line’s total monthly ridership was down 2% compared with a year ago. Nearly 10% fewer people now ride compared with two years ago.
In contrast, the Blue and Green light rail lines -- both of which have more than twice the Gold Line’s monthly ridership -- saw patronage grow by 12.3% and 19.1%, respectively, over the last two years. Since January 2004, the Red Line subway’s ridership has remained flat, while the region’s bus system carried 8% more passengers.
Some regular riders love the Gold Line’s uncrowded cars.
“There aren’t that many people,” marveled Arthur Schlenger, a Highland Park music producer, as he carried a bag of groceries onto a Gold Line train one recent evening. Schlenger said he liked the Gold Line much better than the subway in New York, where he used to live. “It’s cleaner and quieter. You can always find a seat!”
But to have a train line running with few riders is a waste of money, said professor James E. Moore II, director of USC’s transportation engineering program.
“It’s a white elephant, a boondoggle,” said Moore. “Rail is a pretty bad buy for Los Angeles in general. The Gold Line is the worst local example we have.”
The MTA itself has a history of mixed feelings about the Gold Line.
Years before it was built, some transportation officials tried to pull the plug on the project. Executives at the MTA’s predecessor agency tried unsuccessfully to tell board members that “we don’t have the money, we have to stop,” recalled Tom Rubin, a former chief financial officer for the Southern California Rapid Transit District, which later merged with another agency to form the MTA. The elected officials on the regional board, Rubin said, were too enamored with the idea of a big rail construction project to let it go.
In the late 1990s, a cash-strapped MTA did cancel the project -- only to have it revived by advocates in the San Gabriel Valley, who successfully lobbied for state legislation taking the construction project out of the transit agency’s hands. A separate agency was formed to build the line, which was then given back to the MTA to run.
“The decision to build the Gold Line was primarily based on trying to get a project to that part of the region -- and they got that project. It was based on politics rather than transit need,” said Brian Taylor, director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies.
The Gold Line has built-in ridership problems because it serves many affluent communities that are not dependent on transit, Taylor said. Some high-density housing is being built nearby, but the route mostly cuts through residential neighborhoods of single-family homes.
“If you’re in San Francisco, you’re going to get a lot of riders no matter what you do” because of population density, Taylor said.
Still, the MTA keeps trying. Agency officials believe that increasing the speed of the ride could be the key to increasing ridership. That’s why officials decided that, even though they couldn’t afford to add more trains, they would make one-third of the existing trains express during rush hour. That adds up to 12 trains a day in each direction.
“We don’t have enough funds to operate the service we have,” said Marc Littman, a spokesman for the MTA, which is projecting an operating deficit of $125 million next year. “We’re trying to be as innovative as we can, given our constraints. Any time we add service, we have to take it from some other source.”
The Gold Line’s logistical constraints limit how fast even its express service can run.
The line does not have double tracks, so a faster train cannot pass a slower one.
It also cuts through residential areas at ground level, without underpasses or overpasses at some street and pedestrian crossings. So to satisfy state safety regulators and quell community complaints, the trains roll like molasses through some areas, crawling up to some stops.
“The Gold Line has been criticized for being slow in the past,” said Gerald Francis, the MTA’s general manager for rail. But he said he hoped the express service would make the Gold Line “a little more efficient than what it is now, timewise.”
On a recent afternoon, many riders using the express service laughed about or shrugged off the increased efficiency, saying five minutes, either used or saved, would not make or break their days.
A different attitude prevailed for many riders at the non-express stops.
At the Memorial Park station, as the express train sped by, commuter Diane Otto stood on the platform, looking at her watch and frowning. She said having to wait longer for the next non-express train would cause her to miss her Metrolink connection to San Diego County.
“Now I’ll have to wait half an hour for the next [connecting] train,” she said, sighing. “I’m really tired today. I just want to go home.”
Another commuter, Karen Arakelian, said she was running out of patience.
“Now ... I lose time,” said Arakelian, an administrative assistant who says she now waits five to 10 minutes longer for her trains. “I’m getting frustrated. If this doesn’t work out, I’m going to drive.”