For now, there’s plenty of room on Eastside trains : Only 13,000 riders daily are expected to use the new extension.
Behind the hoopla and celebration of the Gold Line Eastside extension opening this week, there are some sobering numbers.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority projects that the extension between Union Station and East L.A. will serve 13,000 riders each day by the end of the first year -- a paltry number compared to other sections of L.A. County’s rail system.
The Eastside link expands a Gold Line that has struggled to attract riders since it opened in 2003.
The original section of the Gold Line, from Union Station to Pasadena, serves an average of 21,322 riders each weekday, far below original estimates of 38,000 daily boardings.
Even when the new Eastside riders are added, MTA projections suggest that the Gold Line will remain at the bottom of the ridership rankings.
Moving the Gold Line farther east will clearly draw new riders. But some of the problems that have long hampered the Gold Line remain: The trains are slow, and there are limits on where passengers can go when transferring to another rail line or a bus.
“The biggest problem with the Pasadena Gold Line, which will be shared by the Eastside line, is that it really doesn’t go anywhere that people want to go,” said transit consultant Tom Rubin. “It serves Union Station, but it doesn’t serve downtown; as a result it’s just not a very fast way of getting people to their ultimate destinations.”
The Gold Line covers territory once served by a bustling streetcar network in Los Angeles through the early 1960s.
But today, only a fraction of those lines used by the Pacific Electric Red Cars and L.A. Railway Yellow Cars remain.
As a result, getting around on rail remains a big challenge.
For example, the new Eastside extension goes through the heart of Boyle Heights.
But instead of pushing west into the heart of downtown L.A., the line veers sharply to the north just outside downtown, going through Little Tokyo to Union Station. Riders who want to get into downtown then need to transfer onto the Red Line subway and go west and then south again -- or take a bus.
Bart Reed, executive director of the regional nonprofit group the Transit Coalition, said it’s important to see L.A.'s rail system as a work in progress. Further improvements could significantly improve ridership.
The MTA is seeking federal funding for the so-called “regional connector,” a rail line that would run directly through downtown L.A.
This line would allow riders on the Eastside Gold Line to switch trains as the Gold Line turns north, making for a much more convenient trip into downtown.
Reed also believes that the Gold Line could pick up more riders simply because people would favor rail over bus service.
Today, the MTA has two star lines that rise well above the rest: The Red Line, which runs underground from Union Station to North Hollywood, and the Blue Line, which runs above ground from downtown L.A. to Long Beach.
The Red Line (combined with the much smaller parallel Purple Line) has an average of 141,302 riders each weekday, according to MTA’s statistics for October.
The Blue Line averages 74,311 riders.
The Norwalk-to-Redondo Beach Green Line averages 36,453 commuters. The Green Line was supposed to connect to Los Angeles International Airport, but the MTA stopped it just outside the airport, a decision that many blame for the relatively low ridership numbers on that line. There is now a plan to extend the line into LAX.
It is much too early to tell how the Gold Line Eastside extension will fare.
Its public opening Sunday drew about 75,000 riders, many of whom waited in hourlong lines to try the new rail line for free.
The lines were much shorter Monday as paying customers boarded.
Marc Littman, an MTA spokesman, said Gold Line ridership would probably increase significantly in the coming years if development occurs around some of the line’s stations and if the pattern of the Eastside opening follows that of the Blue Line’s opening nearly two decades ago.
“The Metro Blue Line ridership has quadrupled since 1990 to become one of the busiest light rail lines in the country,” Littman said. “We will continue marketing the new extension so the ridership will steadily build.”
Reed agreed that the Gold Line’s ridership could improve, noting that the Eastside has many residents who can’t afford cars and who rely on mass transit to get around.
“There’s new habits to be built, but quite frankly that particular route, it was the old corridor for one of the heaviest used streetcars in the system,” Reed said. “It’ll maybe take a year or two.”