Orange Line Bridges: Are they strong enough for light rail?

Rendering of Lassen Street Orange Line bridge leading to the Chatsworth Amtrak/Metrolink Station.

A couple of Source readers commented on our blog post last week about new busway bridges now being built on Metro’s Orange Line Extension Project. Readers wanted to know whether the new bridges over the L.A. River, the Santa Susana Wash and Lassen Street were being built strong enough to carry future light rail cars.

It’s a fair question. Due to the line’s very strong ridership — which exceeded ridership estimates from Day One in late October 2005 — there’s been talk of some day converting the busway to light rail. (By the way, the Orange Line’s sixth anniversary is just around the corner on Oct. 29).

Ridership on the line has hovered in the low- to mid-20,000 range on average weekdays this year. However, in September boardings reached 26,883, near the record of 27,596 set in September of 2008. The cause is most likely the return of the school year.  The 14-mile busway between North Hollywood and Canoga Park serves several local schools and community colleges.

I posed this question to Hitesh Patel, head of construction for Metro’s Orange Line Extension Project. He reports that the new Orange Line Extension bridges have been designed and constructed to be capable of handling the weight of a light rail vehicle for any potential conversion of the line to light rail in the future. The existing Orange Line bridges, including the bridge in the Sepulveda Recreation Area were also engineered to handle the weight of light rail cars.

Call it good engineering.

But before anyone gets too excited about the prospect, it’s important to note that Metro does not have any imminent plans to convert the Valley’s busway to a light rail line. There is no money in Measure R for a project of this kind, although money is identified for other key Valley transportation improvements, including the Sepulveda Pass Transit Corridor project. See the full list here.

So, for the foreseeable future, the Orange line and four-mile extension to Chatsworth will be on rubber tires, not steel wheels. The bridges won’t be an issue.

29 replies

  1. I have mixed feelings about the Orange Line. I’m not a Valley resident, so it’s not like the project directly affects me.

    At the same time, I can see how the Orange Line could potentially affect other projects. Like a lot of transit fans, I remember what a ridiculous political fiasco it was when the Valley basically let NIMBYs run the show. It should have been rail from the start.

    Still, the thing does work, apparently according to those who ride it. So hooray for six years of experimental busway.

    I’m glad that the Orange Line can be converted to rail, but honestly, there are other projects which are more important.

  2. Before anything can happen, the Robbins bill that banned light-rail in this corridor must be repealed.

    There is an election coming up. Ask all candidates to the state legislature to support repealing the Robbins bill.

  3. The Orange Line converted to a light rail line may appeal to more riders, as there is a type of allure that people have regarding rail that cannot be found in buses, even those in BRT systems. I wonder whether a conversion will ever happen, as there are many benefits of a LRT system.

  4. Glad to see that the bridges were built with LRT in mind. With that said though, I really think there should be serious consideration to convert this line to rail since that was what it was supposed to be originally. This should be put forward in a second measure R whenever that may be. Or maybe this should be funded instead of more car centered freeway projects. The benefits of LRT would be huge: Level boarding, gated crossings (the line is almost entirely within a RR row therefore it would be required by CPUC to have RR crossings.), much higher capacity therefore less overcrowding, smoother more comfortable ride, much faster due to RR preemption so the train would not need to slow down or stop when crossing streets. When I tell people that we have to take a bus to the red line, they are doubtful and would rather drive. If I could tell them that we can hop on a train, that would certainly change their will to use said transit. The fact is a bus is still a bus and it simply is not an attractive transit option compared to a train.

  5. I can’t help but suspect that this bus-verses-train debate will be mooted by bus improvements over the next 10 years or so that make buses more and more like cheap trains.

    Examples:
    -Fixed guideway provided by roadside markers and computer steering (allows shorter headway and higher speed).
    -Electrification.
    -Overhead catenary power replaced by in-station charging of ultra-capacitors.

  6. […] People mostly like the Orange Line busway in the Valley, but you always hear the complaint that it s… “Orange Line Extension bridges have been designed and constructed to be capable of handling the weight of a light rail vehicle for any potential conversion of the line to light rail in the future. The existing Orange Line bridges, including the bridge in the Sepulveda Recreation Area were also engineered to handle the weight of light rail cars.” Don’t get too excited: there’s no money for the conversion and there’s legislation banning light rail, as opposed to a subway, in this part of the Valley.Image of Lassen Street bus bridge via The Source[The Source] Share and Enjoy: […]

  7. Not likely and light-rail is NOT happening for the Orange Line since NIMBY politicans will stop this.

  8. […] People mostly like the Orange Line busway in the Valley, but you always hear the complaint that it s… “Orange Line Extension bridges have been designed and constructed to be capable of handling the weight of a light rail vehicle for any potential conversion of the line to light rail in the future. The existing Orange Line bridges, including the bridge in the Sepulveda Recreation Area were also engineered to handle the weight of light rail cars.” Don’t get too excited: there’s no money for the conversion and there’s legislation banning light rail, as opposed to a subway, in this part of the Valley. Image of Lassen Street bus bridge via The Source [The Source] […]

  9. The Orange Line is pretty cool. I’d never ride it, but if it were converted to a train, I sure would. And, lots of other people would too. Ridership would probably double to 50,000 a day. Operational costs would increase too, I suspect.

  10. Before they convert the Orange Line to rail they should:

    1. Redo the Orange/Red pedestrian connection
    2. Build an escalator (that works) from the Red Line Universal stop to City Walk
    3. Extend the busway to Burbank.

  11. 3. Extend the busway to Burbank.

    Going to agree completely with that. The space is there with minimal costs from the NoHo Red Line Station along the Chandler Bike Path to the Downtown Burbank Metrolink Station / Downtown Burbank.

    Rough route: http://g.co/maps/ehfgh

  12. Again, with the election coming up, ask your candidates running to represent the San Fernando Valley in the state legislature to commit to repealing the Robbins bill that prohibits light rail in this corridor.

  13. Being a former Valley resident, I can see how a light rail line would work where the current Orange Line bus is being served.

    But as stated, there is not enough funding, or even if there were, operational and maintenance costs would skyrocket, jeopardizing the other projects that are in the works.

    We really need to figure out a better way of making more money available in these tough times. We cannot count on lawmakers in Congress for more federal grants. We need to start looking elsewhere for revenue.

  14. The problem with converting the Orange Busway to Light Rail is that you create a completely separated LRT system not connected to the rest of LA Metro’s LRT lines and you need to build a place to maintain the LRT cars. With busway, you just drive the buses to the garage using existing surface streets and freeways.
    What needs to be looked at is can these bridges handle subway trains so that someday the Red Line can use the Orange Busway right-of-way to be extended without having to be completely in tunnel or trench.
    The Red Line can run on the surface if it has bridges or underpasses to cross streets that would have to remain open.

  15. I can foresee the Orange Line one day becoming a true Orange Line in the route spectrum of the Metro Rail system. May not be anytime soon, but it’s inevitable.

    The question of a facility would be relatively temporary as the system expands. A logical link would be to the existing Gold Line through the SGV (which would by then become the Blue Line after the Regional Connector is done).

    As for the NIMBYs…by then, most of them would be extinct…just sayin’ 🙂

  16. But as for the short-term, how ’bout knocking down a wall, digging a diagonal hole and having another Red Line entrance on the west side of Lankershim? Transfering from Red to Orange without having to cross the street is a must. It’s also much safer for pedestrians and motorists alike.

  17. @ Erik G
    It’s true that a new facility would be needed, but I’m sure finding a place to put it would not be very difficult given the sprawling land use patterns in most of the valley, especially by the Canoga avenue alignment. Not only that, any new rail facility could probably be shared with a future Van Nuys corridor – Sepulveda Pass line just as long as they have track switches to the orange line tracks.

    In terms handling HRT “subway” trains. I agree and think it could be done with level RR crossings the way that the CTA does it in Chicago in the at-grade sections. This could be done when crossing less significant streets between main arterials.

  18. @Eric G. – not really – the third-rail power transmission system used by the Red Line is not appropriate anywhere people have access to the rails (that is, anywhere but a subway) – only Overhead Catenary is safe above ground.

  19. I am fine with the Orange Line staying as BRT because of the cost, and I would like to see lines 741, 734, 761 incorporated into an Orange Line “System.”

    I would love to see full grade separation of the orange line, you cannot call it “a subway on wheels” when it stops at almost every light!

  20. @Dan Wentzel I disagree with you, I think SFV should be split from LA and split from Metro. I don’t want any light-rail from Metro here in the SFV.

    I know the city of LA and Metro don’t care what I think but this is how I feel.

  21. To all those suggesting a better connection between the Red and Orange Lines should be excited to hear that Metro is funding a connector between the two lines

    Just go to P.26 of the Metro 2012 Budget where Item 103 on the Capital Projects list allocates $700,000 dollars this year for a connector between the two lines. The full cost of the project is expected to cost $17 million dollars so where still a while away before its completed.

    http://www.metro.net/about_us/finance/images/Adopted_Fiscal_Year_2012_Budget.pdf

  22. A world class city (SFV is part and will always be part of Los Angeles) deserves world class public transportation. Bus=OK, Light Rail=Better Subway=Best

  23. @Lincoln
    Not exactly. It is possible to run third rail HRT at grade as long as the row has protected gates that only open when the train is coming. Here is an example of third rail HRT running at-grade in suburban Chicago:

  24. @RR: When you say “Light Rail=Better; Subway=Best” do you mean you prefer heavy rail vehicles or you prefer below-grade rail? I ask because light rail can be run as a subway, not just heavy rail.

  25. Connor Gilliland, the ridership on the Orange Line is nothing to sneeze at, and has exceeded it’s expectation, but it’s not at a level that merits Heavy Rail technology.

    Light Rail technology will do just fine with two railcars, and if need be, you can easily add a third railcar to the train, or perhaps even a fourth one, like what’s proposed for the Blue Line during NFL stadium games at Farmers Field.

    Higher than that, and THEN you start thinking about Heavy Rail.

  26. @JDRCRASHER
    I don’t dispute the fact that LRT would be sufficient with capacity. I was merely suggesting HRT as a means of having one single line that connects the whole valley as part of the red line so there would be no need to transfer. My main point was to point out that there is a misconception that HRT cannot be run with level crossings because it can.