Sunday, 12 August 2012

LOS ANGELES Subway & Light Rail

My last stop on this year's U.S. tour was Los Angeles. I had already been here in 2008, and as it is actually a city I wouldn't go to twice, this visit (7-9 Aug 2012 - including a day trip to San Diego) was just to catch up with the latest developments and take the opportunity to fly directly back home on AirBerlin's recently established flight from LAX.

I arrived in L.A. on Amtrak via the Central Valley route, because back in 2008 I already took the Coast Starlight from L.A. to San Francisco, and so I chose the inland route which may not exist like that any longer if I happen to come back in the future, as it will be replaced by the new California High Speed Line between Sacramento/San Francisco and Los Angeles. The current train trip requires a bus from San Francisco's Ferry Terminal over the Bay Bridge to Emeryville, a train (the San Joaquin) from there to Bakersfield (approx. 6 hours) and finally a 2-hour journey by bus to L.A.'s Union Station.

Although L.A. has been expanding its rail system steadily since the 1990s, the current network is completely insufficient and to what I observed, rather infra-utilised. Considering that this is a mega-city, rather short trains run at rather long intervals and I saw none really crowded.

SUBWAY

The proper metro lines are the best L.A. has to offer. They provide a considerably faster journey than buses, especially on the long run out to North Hollywood. Going through the popular Hollywood area, trains also get busy with tourists. But considering the population of the city, it is surprising that at midday a 12-minute headway on each branch with shortened 4-car trains is enough!

They introduced a separate colour for the Wilshire branch back in 2006 (?), but this colour is still absent from most signage. I already critizised this back in 2008, but nothing has changed, it seems. A passenger arriving at Union Station who has to travel to Wilshire & Western simply will not find the Purple Line as it only exists on maps, but no sign in the station points towards such a colour! I consider this a severe negligence, as in the first place there was no real need to add an extra colour. I suppose that entrance signs on street level at the two Purple Line-only stations are in red then still, I didn't check. Metro, like many agencies in the U.S., seems to implement changes only half-heartedly.

Once again I observed that the trains have unusually large, though hard seats. A slimmer design would create more space for standees and make extremely overweight people feel a bit more unconfortable. The trains are rather noisy, so announcements are often hard to understand. Selected announcements, like transfer options are made in Spanish, too. What is good is that they also annouce places which are near the respective stations, like “Civic Center – exit here for the Disney Concert Hall and L.A. Cathedral”.
At Union Station and North Hollywood, and I suppose at Wilshire/Western too, trains reverse in the station (at least during off-peak), which is feasible with these long intervals. The scissors-crossover before the station is passed at a rather low speed, though.
Next-train signage is not ideal. There are large TV screens, showing adverts etc., but the next trains are only displayed in very small font, and with the departure time instead of the minutes remaining as is more common on metro systems. At Union Station it is not easily visible whether it's a Red or Purple Line train. It is announced acoustically, though.

Otherwise stations have all complementary information, such as network maps, even bus maps, area maps, etc. And of course, L.A.'s subway stations are among the most pleasant in the U.S., each with a different themed design. They are also perfectly clean.
Fare gates are present in all stations now, but you don't have to use them, many tickets are still available as paper tickets, so you just need the fare gate for the TAP smartcard. Once again, a half-hearted implementation.

LIGHT RAIL

This time I mostly visited the new extensions opened in recent years, i.e. the East L.A. Gold Line extension and the Expo Line.
Compared to the original Gold Line section, which has several high-speed metro-like sections, the East L.A. extension is more of a light rail route, although there is a tunnel with even two underground stations. On the at-grade sections, however, there are many level crossings and trains have to wait for the normal street traffic lights to cross, whereas on the Pasadena branch, which follows an old rail alignment, automatic barriers close and allow trains to run fluidly. Stations on the new section have very interesting designs, mostly expressed in a different roof structure. Soto underground station has a pleasant mezzanine level dedicated to birds.


I also took another ride on the Pasadena branch to stumble across another of Metro's half-implemented changes: is it "Mission" or "South Pasadena" station? All maps and annoucements on the train call it 'Mission', but all signs on the platform call it 'South Pasadena'! So what is that?
The last three stations in the northeast are located in the median of the Foothill Freeway, a 12-lane motorway! So waiting on the platform is rather noisy and some kind of sound barrier in the form of glass walls or so would be useful.
Only one section on this branch is a bit awkward, that's just south of Highland Park station, where trains run on-street through a residential area at low speed. The right-of-way is, however, segregated from road traffic and slightly raised.
The Gold Line is now mostly served by the new Ansaldo Breda cars, which offer a pleasant ride and I couldn't see much difference to the older stock, in fact the interior is quite similar in all cars. They have bus-type seating, with seats looking away from the driver's cab. Access is pretty level so no additional ramps are needed.

The brand new Expo Line was a bit disappointing. For most of its route it is really just a light rail line, with numerous intersections, especially on the inner section. As it gets further west, it becomes more of a metro, with some elevated stations spanning across the streets and thus avoiding level crossings. There is also a short tunnel at the USC (University of Southern California).



The design of the stations is pleasant, although they lack the diversity found on the Gold Line's East L.A. branch. Instead, they have a standard design which is enhanced by individual tilework placed at platform entrances. If I hadn't been told before, I wouldn't have noticed that all metal parts are painted in the line's assigned colour which is defined as Aqua! I wouldn't match that colour with the colour used to depict the line on maps and signs, I would describe it as grey with a blue tone in it, whereas the line's colour to my eyes appears to be light blue. So they could have chosen just any colour to distinguish the line, as certainly 'Expo' is not a colour and the line name breaks with a convention introduced only a few years ago. So once again, Metro is not consequent in what they do.

Arriving at Culver City was very disappointing, too. I expected that to be a place with a certain downtown character, but instead, the station is just a road intersection with not much around. And the 733 rapid bus to Venice Beach doesn't even stop there, so you can either walk to the next stop or get the slow 33 local bus.


ORANGE LINE
The Orange Line is also shown on rail maps, although it doesn't have any rail. It is a dedicated busway for most of its length, although with numerous road intersections. At some there was a longer wait, while generally I found the ride quite fluid and smooth (you notice that especially as the bus switches to a normal road after Canoga station to approach the Warner Center terminus). The buses run every four minutes during peak hours on the main stretch, but I happened to get to North Hollywood at midday and the buses ran only every 10 minutes and fairly packed! I did not try to squeeze myself into the first one and waited for the next one instead. Probably to avoid yet another road intersection, passengers have to cross a major road at the North Hollywood terminus on foot to get to and from the Metro Red Line. I would suppose that it would have been possible (at an additional cost, of course) to build an entrance to the metro station directly from the Orange Line station. The current situation is not very satisfying, more so, as the metro entrance actually points in the opposite direction towards the terminal for other city buses. Also, depending on the bus, the drop-off point may be located quite a long way back.

Also on the rail map is the Silver Line, which is slightly different from the Orange Line. It does not have its own busway, but uses the carpool (HOV) lanes on the freeways with only a few stops on the way (the stops are like islands between motorway lanes, but fully built stations). Through downtown these buses use normal road lanes. As the service is apparently very fast, Metro charges a separate fares for these routes.
INTERCHANGES

Transfers are quite convenient at 7th/MetroCenter where the Red/Purple Lines are directly beneath the Blue/Expo Lines. At Union Station, however, the Gold Line uses tracks 1+2 of the mainline station above ground, and exits from the Red Line are either on the north or the south side of the station complex, so transferring passengers need to walk a longer distance and get mixed with other rail passengers in the tunnel below the tracks. Hopefully the Downtown Connector will finally be built to link the Gold Line directly to the Blue/Expo Line and create two long cross-city lines and thus eliminate many transfers required nowadays.

All in all, I think it will take a few more years if not decades, before the L.A. rail system makes proper sense, as now it is of very limited use and hardly able to get car drivers to use it if they have to take a bus to continue their journey. Bus rides can be very tiring especially due to overcrowding and long distances.

METROLINK
Metrolink operates several lines radiating from Union Station, which is a terminal station. None of these lines operates all day and all have very irregular timetables, although all carry many passengers during peak hours in the typical long double-deck push-pull diesel trains. Single tickets are rather expensive for short journey (6 USD to Burbank), whereas they are quite cheap for longer trips (15 USD to Oceanside for a 2-hour journey as opposed to 27 USD on Amtrak!).

I cannot understand why a city or region like Los Angeles doesn't have a proper regional rail system with trains operating at regular intervals throughout the day. I know of the issue of freight trains and Amtrak sharing the same tracks, but often rail corridors are wide enough to add another pair of dedicated passenger tracks and I guess people would then use it much more, not just commuters. Many buses terminate at rail stations, but as there are hardly any trains, this potential is not well-used. Melbourne, which is also an extremely sprawling city, could be a good example.

L.A. Fare System
For Metro, a day pass is available for only 5 USD, but this is ONLY valid for Metro's bus and rail lines. However, there are numerous municipal companies serving the same area, often sharing stops, but these require a different fare. I assume that eventually the TAP smartcard will be usable on all modes. Single fares are valid just for one line, no transfers, so day passes are even more the better option. Add-on fares are however, available to transfer to municipal lines.
Unfortunately, all route info is available for each individual operator only, I have not seen a comprehensive map illustrating Metro's bus routes and those of other operaters, like LADOT's DASH lines in downtown L.A.
All in all, a not really satisfying situation. For passengers it shouldn't matter who operates a bus or a train, for them it should be a single system. On the other hand, one could argue that the parallel operation of buses of different operators actually allows passengers to choose which company to travel with, the often demanded real competition, but who needs that really. What is needed is an efficient, passenger-friendly system composed of different modes which complement each other, and not competition.

LINKS


L.A. Subway & Light Rail at UrbanRail.Net


17 comments:

  1. The name of "Mission" has been recently changed to South Pasadena station and the new name is already shown on the maps on www.metro.net, but obviously not on the maps in the trains and the station. However, the last Expo Line extension came about 1 month later, so maps should have been changed anyway.

    More: http://southpasadena.patch.com/articles/metro-mission-stop-gets-new-name-south-pasadena

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  2. I've been following your blog and website for over 3 years now and I get much of my information on urban rail from here! Very well organized!


    For more information on all types of urban transport go to:
    www.urbantransit.webs.com

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  3. > so I chose the inland route which may not exist like that any longer if I happen to come back in the future, as it will be replaced by the new California High Speed Line between Sacramento/San Francisco and Los Angeles

    You are overly optimistic about the future of the California High-Speed rail. It may never see the light of day, given the current political climate at the federal level, with utterly obstructionist Congress, not willing to spend anything at all on any form of transportation other than roads.

    > At Union Station and North Hollywood, and I suppose at Wilshire/Western too, trains reverse in the station (at least during off-peak), which is feasible with these long intervals.

    At Wilshire/Western trains reverse in station as well, simply because there is nowhere to reverse west of the station - there are no crossovers there, only dead-end track stubs.

    > At Union Station it is not easily visible whether it's a Red or Purple Line train.

    Yes, indeed, the situation at Union station was terrible for years, with no clear indication which trains leaves first, from which platform, and to which destination. It has been like this for more than a decade, and NOTHING has been improved in all those years. Union station is by far the worst station on the Metrorail system - both in terms of poor signage and very long transfers between the Red/Purple and Gold lines.

    > And the 733 rapid bus to Venice Beach doesn't even stop there [at Culver City], so you can either walk to the next stop or get the slow 33 local bus.

    Indeed, 733 does not serve the station directly, which is a major mistake on Metro's part (although there is a stop at Venice and National, about a block north of the station).

    They also planned to ignore the possibility of Expo line - Silver line transfers in the initial set of bus service changes. I wrote several emails to them and even published an article in local paper about their stupidity before they finally introduced a Silver line stop next to the 23rd Street Expo line station, which now provides a reasonable transfer option for travelling from south to west or vice versa. Metro does seem to run its system with complete disregard to convenient rail-bus interchanges (not to mention "timed transfers" - they have never even heard these words perhaps - even though such timed transfers are necessary due to very long wait times on many bus lines).

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    1. One should also remember that Santa Monica and Culver City have their own bus lines which provide the overwhelming majority of service not only within those city limits, but also in surrounding areas that belong to the City of L.A. In deciding where the 733 bus should stop, Metro almost certainly took into account the fact that several Santa Monica and Culver City bus routes include a stop at this rail station.

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  4. > Probably to avoid yet another road intersection, passengers have to cross a major road at the North Hollywood terminus on foot to get to and from the Metro Red Line. I would suppose that it would have been possible (at an additional cost, of course) to build an entrance to the metro station directly from the Orange Line station. The current situation is not very satisfying, more so, as the metro entrance actually points in the opposite direction towards the terminal for other city buses.

    The second exit from the Red line station was planned to lead to the western side of the avenue right next to the current Orange line terminal, but Metro claims it would cost them more than $25 million to build it. The second exit would begin at the fare-gates level and have another tunnel and another set of escalators up. Instead, they should have built a single escalator set, but complemented it with an underpass under the busy avenue.

    The expensive design with two escalator sets pointing in opposite directions and the resulting huge cost of the second exit is a direct consequence of Metro's (and its contractors' and consultants') incompetence in building pedestrian distribution passages. They always build a single hole in the ground instead of several exits on all corners of an intersection with pedestrian underpasses connecting various exits on all corners. The smart solution is to bring the escalators not to the ground level, but inside a network of the underground passages just below the ground level, with multiple exits to the ground from that underpass level. The result of their current planning is a very pedestrian-unfriendly environment, where passengers have to cross various busy streets at level crossings. Despite spending huge amounts to build these stations, their incompetence prevented them from creating multiple convenient access points to each of them. Comparing L.A. to Moscow, for example, entrance/exit network designs in L.A. look absolutely amateur and unprofessional, to say the least.

    > As the service is apparently very fast, Metro charges a separate fares for these routes.

    Metro charges separate fares only on Silver line, but not on the Orange line. Moreover, I believe some passes are accepted on Silver line without surcharges. But yes, having different fares for different routes is very regressive and complicated for the customer.

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  5. > Metrolink operates several lines radiating from Union Station, which is a terminal station. None of these lines operates all day and all have very irregular timetables

    This is not quite correct. One Metrolink line - the San Bernardino line - offers regular hourly service throughout the day (with regular service every 20 minutes during rush hours).

    > I cannot understand why a city or region like Los Angeles doesn't have a proper regional rail system with trains operating at regular intervals throughout the day. I know of the issue of freight trains and Amtrak sharing the same tracks, but often rail corridors are wide enough to add another pair of dedicated passenger tracks and I guess people would then use it much more, not just commuters.

    Robert, some of these corridors are extremely busy freight rail routes. For example, the line from L.A. to Fullerton (which carries both the Orange County and the 91 Metrolink lines as well as Amtrak trains to San Diego), sees almost a hundred freight trains a day. This double-track line is at capacity, and BNSF made it clear that no new trains can be added on this line before the third track project is completed. It took them years of time and hundreds of millions of dollars to build it, and this project is still incomplete. Of course, the question "Why is it so damn difficult to lay an extra track in the U.S. while it is a pretty routine project in any other civilized country?" is a rhetoric one.

    > Single fares are valid just for one line, no transfers, so day passes are even more the better option.

    This is another extremely regressive feature of the Los Angeles transit system: they price each segment of the journey rather than each continuous trip. This is pretty much the only major transit system in North America with such an anti-passenger anti-network attitude. This is yet another indication that Metro is run by amateurs rather than professionals.

    > Unfortunately, all route info is available for each individual operator only, I have not seen a comprehensive map illustrating Metro's bus routes and those of other operaters, like LADOT's DASH lines in downtown L.A. All in all, a not really satisfying situation.

    Moreover, I would say that Metro's system map is absolutely the WORST system map of any major transit system I have ever seen in my life (and I have seen hundred upon hundreds - I collect them!). I call it "the orange mess". It is completely unusable and it is impossible to untangle their mess of orange lines. It is impossible to say where each route begins or ends, and it is impossible to say which streets it follows. The scale is distorted severely, it is not even a map - it is a very poor diagram. The map is practically useless. Overall, the contractor responsible for that map should be fired and never allowed to draw a transit map ever again.

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  6. Agreed on the confusing system map. Staying with a friend off the Hollywood Freeway, I was delighted to see that there was direct bus service to where I needed to go. Not that there was much help getting onto that bus - only a busy sign outside the Hollywood and Highland Red Line station informing me that there was service on a "48 minute frequency during peak periods", or something similarly absurd, and nothing pointing out where the bus actually stopped.

    So, no help with Metro Local buses. The FlyAway bus to/from LAX was very reasonably priced and comfortable, but I didn't realize that was the best option at first. I carried baggage with me on the shuttle, Green Line, Blue Line, and Red Line, which was sheer misery in rush hour. Metro trains DO get crowded! The frequencies do not seem adequate - the Blue Line was a solid mass of bodies, and people were having to wait 15 min or so for the next train.

    I found it encouraging that ridership has taken off, but there are definitely issues to work out.

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  7. The reason why the Expo Line hasn't been assigned a proper colour is that it's a temporary service. Once the Regional Connector (a second subway tunnel through downtown) has been completed, the Expo corridor is to be served by the Gold Line, which will then run from Santa Monica to East LA, while the Blue Line takes over the Pasadena/Foothill service.

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  8. > I cannot understand why a city or region like Los Angeles doesn't have a proper regional rail system with trains operating at regular intervals throughout the day. I know of the issue of freight trains and Amtrak sharing the same tracks, but often rail corridors are wide enough to add another pair of dedicated passenger tracks and I guess people would then use it much more, not just commuters.

    I think before this can happen to a significant degree there needs to be a major cultural shift--people here have to internalize the fact that rail transit is now a viable option for reaching many popular attractions in the city and the region. Metrolink does do some marketing to the leisure traveler, but you have to go to their website to see it. Meanwhile, it should be noted that Metrolink does provide a significant amount of off-peak and reverse-peak service along some of its routes. On the routes to San Diego and Santa Barbara, Metrolink shares tracks not only with freights but also with Amtrak, which already provides several round trips a day between L.A. and Santa Barbara, and almost hourly round trips to San Diego.

    A major regional bottleneck with respect to commuter and intercity rail transport results from the stub-end track layout of Union Station, which means all trains have to pull in and back out, or vice versa. This obviously slows down operations and reduces the viability of rail travel for any trip that goes through Union Station.

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  10. As an infrequent rider, I've made a couple of trips on the rail system in the past week, starting at Culver City with the Expo Line and changing to the Red Line at 7th Street Metro Center. Definitely the system is more crowded with people than it used to be, and the railcars have begun to acquire a well used look and feel. Sadly, this look is sometimes near to dinginess, yet it's perversely gratifying to me that enough riders are using the system now for that to be possible.

    >Arriving at Culver City was very disappointing, too. I expected that to be a place with a certain downtown character, but instead, the station is just a road intersection with not much around.

    The station is on the old right of way, as one would expect, while downtown Culver City is a short distance to the west. That's just the geography Metro had to work with. And the park-and-ride lot, as ugly as it is, is a very necessary part of solving the "last mile" problem.

    ETA: I've noticed in a number of American and Canadian cities, particularly in the West, that the main railroad station tends to be on the edge of the downtown district, and may be a couple of miles away from the commercial center. L.A.'s Union Station is definitely like this, and so is Vancouver (BC)'s main VIA Rail terminal. Similarly, because of its location at the tip of a peninsula, San Francisco doesn't even have an intercity railroad terminal, although of course, within the city I think there's a CalTrain commuter rail terminal.

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  12. >My last stop on this year's U.S. tour was Los Angeles. I had already been here in 2008, and as it is actually a city I wouldn't go to twice

    I'm glad you didn't let us trouble you a third time.

    >Although L.A. has been expanding its rail system steadily since the 1990s, the current network is completely insufficient and to what I observed, rather infra-utilised. Considering that this is a mega-city, rather short trains run at rather long intervals and I saw none really crowded.

    Considering the history and geography of the city, I would rather say the glass is half-full. Twenty-five years ago there was *nothing* by way of urban rail transit here, soon what we have now is a good start in my opinion. You should also remember that in the postwar era, Germany busily went about rebuilding its urban centers, while in America, with a few exceptions, we saw the destruction of urban life not only through neglect of downtown neighborhoods and official policies that favored suburban housing, but also through the outright leveling of many old neighborhoods to make way for freeways and misguided urban renewal schemes. I don't say this was a good thing, but it is the history we have to work with. It's how we got to where we were in the late 1980s when the local political consensus turned pro-transit and pro-rail.

    BTW if you would like some more recent pictures that actually show crowded trains and platforms, I have several that I can provide. Try these:

    http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5524/12004411683_f9c7541cee_b.jpg
    Crowded upper level platform at 7th Street / Metro Center station, taken at about 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon. Most of these people were waiting for a Blue Line Train.

    http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7324/12004920466_3756e9fb6a_b.jpg
    Blue Line train arriving at 7th Street/Metro Center. Although this train had come up the Blue Line, it departed minutes later for a run to Culver City.

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    1. AimlessInLA's reply reflects my own thoughts pretty closely. Of course the state of urban rail transit in Los Angeles is pitiful compared to systems in Europe and Asia. I have no substantive critique of Mr. Schwandl's review that others have not made. I will note that the cultural and political hurdles to building a good system are huge here. Rail transit gets attacked from the left and right ends of the political system here, and by NIMBYs. In addition: anti-tax advocates in California have placed a 2/3 supermajority requirement on votes to raise taxes (for transit or other competing purposes); money from the federal government for transit has dwindled since the 1960s and 1970s when BART was built (L.A. missed the boat there); and the pro-individual, plutocratic, anti-socialist political system in the U.S. makes any public spending difficult unless favored by high-income earners, who tend not to care a lot about public transit (or education, health care etc. but I don't want to rant too much). Finally there's the problem of inertia: transit won't get better until more people use it, and people won't use it more until it improves. These conditions (other than possibly the 2/3 requirement for raising taxes) apply nationwide and I would suggest that Los Angeles is doing pretty well in comparison with other U.S. cities. Gold and Expo line extensions have been added recently, and 3 more lines - downtown connector, Purple line, and Crenshaw line - are actively under construction. I would suggest to Mr. Schwandl that he visit again after the downtown connector is in place - a small but important element in our little urban rail system. As to Metrolink corridors having a wide enough right of way for more tracks - that actually made me laugh. I consider the existence of any commuter rail at all in this land of the freeway to be miraculous.

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  13. Current ridership figures for the combined red/purple subways is 148,484 riders per weekday, and Wikipedia lists those two lines alone as being the 9th-busiest metro system in the nation. They have the 4th-most riders per mile in the nation, more than the Washington Metro, Chicago El or Bart. I can say through experience that red line trains are usually standing-room only midday, even on saturdays..

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  14. Some notes:

    As of September 2014, the cost of an adult fare has increased to US $1.75. However, passengers no longer need to pay for each individual leg of a one-way journey. Passengers are now allowed to complete a one-way journey on a single fare, provided that they make all transfers within two hours.

    Subway monitors now announce incoming trains with a minutes-to-arrival display, rather than time of day.

    A Metrolink ticket allows the passenger to travel on Metro bus/subway/light rail routes for the entire day at no additional cost. The paper Metrolink tickets contain technology that allows the passenger to operate the fare gates.

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  15. Robert says:

    "A passenger arriving at Union Station who has to travel to Wilshire & Western simply will not find the Purple Line as it only exists on maps, but no sign in the station points towards such a colour! I consider this a severe negligence, as in the first place there was no real need to add an extra colour."

    We've learned how to read the illuminated destination plates which are to be found on the front of the train and the side of each railcar. This is also needed at the current Expo and Blue Line terminus in downtown L.A, which usually uses the same platform for both lines, and a train coming in from Culver City might head out Long Beach or vice versa.

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