L.A. marks 20 years of riding the rails — the second time around


The last Red Car to Long Beach rolled out of the station at 6th and Main streets just before 4 a.m. on April 9, 1961.

One hundred-thirty-nine Angelenos paid $4 apiece to take the journey that ended the Long Beach line’s nearly 60-year career. One of them was Wally Shidler.

The mood was part festive, part funereal, he recalls, because it marked the end of an era. Along the track, people ignited red flares and torpedoes that were used by the railroad as warning signals, making the night as loud as the Fourth of July.

“It was the last ride on the Long Beach, and we never thought it would come back again,” said Shidler, 71, a Southern California history buff and member of Metro’s Gateway Cities Governance Council.

It took nearly three decades, but on July 14, 1990, the Long Beach train did come back. And on Friday, Metropolitan Transportation Authority staffers gathered with city, county and state officials across the street from the Blue Line Pico/Chick Hearn station to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Blue Line’s opening and the beginning of the current Metro Rail system.

They dug through the contents of a time capsule — an oil drum buried at the station when the line opened — and pulled out pieces of memorabilia: a rivet from a Red Car-era bridge over the Los Angeles River, tokens from the 1984 Olympics, scrolls signed by people who showed up for the Blue Line’s opening day.

Standing under a banner of balloons, Don Knabe, Metro board chairman and a Los Angeles County supervisor, said, “We let it all slip away, and now we’re having to spend millions to bring it back. But we need to, and we’re all working together to make it happen.”

In 1925, at the peak of rail travel in Los Angeles, Pacific Electric ran its interurban Red Cars over 1,100 miles of track while the yellow streetcars of Los Angeles Railways crisscrossed 650 miles of city streets. Ridership declined after World War II as increasing numbers of Angelenos began their love affair with the automobile, and the last five streetcar lines and two electric trolley bus lines were replaced by buses in 1963.

After $8.47 billion in capital spending over a quarter century, the Metro Rail system encompasses five light-rail train and subway lines covering 79 miles of track and carrying 326,662 riders on an average weekday.

The agency is pushing forward with expansion plans that include a proposal to leverage the $30 billion to $40 billion that the Measure R transportation sales tax is projected to raise over the next three decades into federal loans that will enable the agency to complete 12 new transit projects in the next decade.

Metro chief executive Art Leahy said the money would go to develop an expansive intermodal system of buses, light-rail trains and subway lines that would ultimately surpass the breath of the old rail system.

“I don’t think it’s a gamble,” he said. “It’s an aggressive goal, and it’s an appropriate goal.”

There are still those who say that the investments in rail have been a costly mistake.

Esperanza Martinez, lead organizer with the Bus Riders Union, said the union still has many of the same concerns it did in 1994 when it sued the MTA alleging that the agency was neglecting poor and minority bus riders in order to build rail lines.

The settlement in that case resulted in a federal consent decree mandating improved bus service. Martinez said the legacy of the rail system in the last 20 years has been the diversion of resources from transit-dependent bus riders and “billions of dollars in debt.”

Leahy said the argument against rail is based on a “false premise” and that buses and trains have their place in transit system planning.

Some of the riders waiting Friday morning for the Blue Line had their gripes about service or coverage, but most said they were happy to have the rail system as an alternative to sitting in traffic on the freeway.

“I don’t like driving anymore,” said Bruce Levin, 60, an Amtrak worker from Buena Park who was headed to the Natural History Museum on his day off. As a native New Yorker, Levin could have looked down his nose at Los Angeles’ nascent rail system, but he shrugged at the comparison.

“I think it’s pretty good,” he said.