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