Why BART has Faster, more Direct Service than LA Metro July 10th, 2014
By Noel T. Braymer
I am not a big fan of BART. One of my biggest complaints about BART is their less than ideal connections to Caltrain, Muni Metro and Amtrak. But between BART routes, the connections are excellent. I can’t say the same about LA Metro. Transferring between the Blue Line to the Red or Green Lines requires taking stairs or riding an elevator to get to different levels between trains. Often just as you see the platform with your connecting train at it, you see it leaving the station. There is often a lot of time wasted waiting for trains.
On BART, 2 lines every day start at Millbrae, with 1 connecting at San Francisco International Airport and is combined with 2 other lines at Daly City. These 4 lines all use the same double track railroad, much of it subway. After crossing the Bay to Oakland these 4 lines branch off with two going north and the other two going south. Trains go north to Richmond and Pittsburg/Bay Point, while the trains going south go to Fremont and Dublin/ Pleasanton. There is also a East Bay only line running between Fremont and Richmond.
Most trains on BART offer direct service. But should you need to transfer between lines to get to where you are going on BART, it’s easy to do. There is plenty of information at the stations on how to do it. You can get off at a station and stay at the platform to wait for your next train. Often it is the next train coming and arrives in a manner of minutes. BART uses an old railroad practice of having a “trunk” line between Daly City and Oakland where most of the travel is. From Oakland the different “branches” spread out of the “trunk”.
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In Los Angeles by comparison most of the routes have only 1 or maybe 2 train lines. At Union Station there is the Red and Purple Lines which share the same tracks to Vermont where the Red Line splits off to North Hollywood while the Purple Line continues down Wilshire to Western Ave. The Blue Line shares tracks with the Expo Line from 7th and Flower in downtown Los Angeles to Washington and Flower St. The Green Line will share a short piece of the new Crenshaw Line to connect with LAX. But that is about it for now in Los Angeles.
There is progress with the planned Region Connector. The Blue Line will be extended from 7th and Flower to Union Station and will use the current Gold Line tracks which will soon to go as far as Azusa. The Expo Line will split off at 1st and Alameda and head to East Los Angeles on the Regional Connector. This new 2 mile tunnel will save time and reduce congestion at transfer stations in downtown Los Angeles. This will be needed before ridership on the Purple Line grows as it is extended west first to La Cienega and finally to Westwood.
Generally LA Metro doesn’t like sharing rail lines. Back when the Green Line was being built in the 90′s on the 105 Freeway, there were 4 possible connections that could be made with the Blue Line. A connection was needed to transfer equipment from the Green Line to a maintenance yard on the Blue Line. Connections could have been made between Long Beach and the LAX area and or between downtown Los Angeles and LAX. But Los Angeles County in the 90′s built the connections between the Blue and Green Lines between Long Beach and Norwalk. This was the connection least needed to provide direct service for popular markets. When I asked the engineer in charge of the project why was this done, his answer was in effect that connections to LAX would make operations too complicated. Most of the Green Line ridership is based on transfers, particularly with the Blue Line.
The biggest problem with direct service between the Blue and Green Lines is it would overload the Blue Line. As it is the Blue Line is already very busy. LA Metro now operates Light Rail trains every 6 minutes during rush hours. That is quite a feat for Light Rail service with street running and grade crossings. That is 10 trains an hour in each direction. But a fully grade separated service like BART can operate trains up to 90 seconds apart or 40 trains an hour. Many subway systems operate up to 10 cars while Light Rail usually run 3 to 4 car trains. To build a connection today between the Blue and Green Lines to LAX would not only be expensive, but would likely require major upgrades of the Blue Line to increase capacity.
The Green Line however is fully grade separated. It would be possible to run many more trains on it. If we look at the Crenshaw Line under construction now from LAX to Exposition Blvd, it is only 8.5 miles long. But it has several tunnels and aerial structures making it largely grade separated. At 8.5 miles it will be the shortest single transit rail line in Los Angeles.Passengers will be able to transfer from the Crenshaw Line to the Exposition Line. Like the Blue and Green Lines, passengers transferring between the Expo and Crenshaw lines will have to take stairs or elevators to transfer. There may be long term plans to extend the Crenshaw Line to the extended Purple Line. From a ridership standpoint it would make sense to extend the Crenshaw Line on the Expo Line to downtown Los Angeles now. The problem with doing that is from traffic conflicts on the Expo Line along Flower Street, particularly were the tracks cross roads to ramps for the Harbor Freeway. This problem can be fixed but won’t be cheap.
There is interest now to replace the buses on the Orange Line in the San Fernando Valley with Light Rail. It make more sense to just extend the Red Line along the Orange Line right of way and eliminate the need for passenger to transfer. Back in the 1980′s the late Dr. Adrian Herzog and I wrote an Op-Ed article in the Los Angeles Times calling for a single rail car for all rail transit services in Los Angeles County. We pointed out that Light Rail and Heavy Rail refers primarily to the track structure, not the vehicles. We stressed the value of flexibility by sharing heavy rail and light rail tracks. This would require fewer transfers and and faster, more direct trips to more places.
By the 1980′s many European Cities had built subways, usually in the city center with trains from many branches. These subways in some cities are quite extensive. But as you left the city center, the transit lines branch off to serve other areas where the expense of full grade separation wasn’t needed. This type of extended direct service was faster and easier than forcing people to transfer. The San Fernando Valley in the 1990′s was a good example of how this could work. Some trains could have been extended at North Hollywood at the end of the subway on a much cheaper Light Rail right of way all the way to Chatsworth, if there were standard rail cars for all lines.
This didn’t happen in large part because the RTD (Los Angeles Rapid Transit District) which ran most of the buses also was building the subway at the time. The RTD wanted to build “Heavy Rail” service with third rail. They felt threaten by the advocates of Light Rail. The then LACTC ended up building the Blue and Green Lines because the RTD wasn’t going too. Sooner or later Los Angeles County is going to need spend money to upgrade some of their lines to create trunk lines that can have branches.
This lesson ought to be learned by High Speed Rail. It is a good thing that the California High Speed Rail Authority is actively working on connections with Amtrak, Metrolink, Caltrain and ACE. But if you look at most of the High Speed Rail systems, particularly in Europe you see the High Speed Rail tracks are basically trunk lines. But many of the High Speed Trains branch on and off of existing rail lines from the High Speed trunk to economically serve more of the region and reduce the time wasted needing to transfer.