Crowding on the Gold and Expo Lines

If Gold and Expo Line trains have seemed more crowded to you lately, that’s because they are. The Gold Line is seeing more riders since the opening of the extension to Azusa. And Expo is more packed since the line is now only running two-car trains, due to fleet maintenance and rail cars being used for testing on the extension to Santa Monica.

But are all the Gold and Expo trains jam-packed and over capacity? Are we all crushed on board like sardines in a can?

Well, no. Perception is subjective: let’s talk about how crowded the Gold Line really is and how crowded the Expo Line will be when it opens to Santa Monica on May 20.

First, some important backstory. In Oct. 2009, after a year of negotiations, a deal collapsed for Metro to purchase 100 new rail cars from the firm AnsaldoBreda. The purchasing process then had to begin anew and Metro signed a deal with the firm Kinkisharyo in April 2012 for an initial order of 78 light rail vehicles to be delivered by early 2017.

While that was happening, the Gold and Expo extensions were being built. That forced Metro to make a decision: delay the opening of the extensions until the 78 new rail cars were delivered and put in service or open the lines with shorter and/or less frequent trains. Metro chose the latter, deciding that it was better to provide service now rather than let completed projects sit idle.

Through late March, Metro has received 23 new rail cars and a new rail car are expected to be delivered roughly every week. But new rail cars do not go directly into service. It takes time for Metro to ensure the cars are up to spec and break them in. To be blunt: Metro’s fleet of light rail vehicles is stretched very thin at this time with most trains running with two cars. Trains on the Gold are running every 12 minutes between Sierra Madre Villa and Azusa and Expo Line trains will run every 12 minutes between downtown L.A. and Santa Monica.

And that, as some of you have noticed, has led to some trains being more crowded than in the past.

My take on it: I’ve been a regular Gold Line commuter between Pasadena and Union Station for the past five years. I usually ride south between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. and back north between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. Even before the Foothill Extension opened, there was some crowding and sometimes I had to stand.

Standing isn’t a big deal for me. I don’t mind leaving seats open for those who need them and I don’t like being squished in those three- and four-seat rows. Plus I spend too much time on my behind in my office cube anyway. Finally — perhaps because I work for Metro — I like seeing a lot of people riding mass transit.

Trust me, I am seeing what happens on our system firsthand and I’m also hearing it from you: part of my job is monitoring the agency’s social media. I read and respond to your tweets, etc., about being packed in like sardines, comments about it being unbearable, how everything is bad and nothing is good and is it going to be like this forever on the Expo Line and Gold Line?

The answer is: probably, to a certain extent. Adding stations to a line should result in more riders. While we DO have new rail cars arriving, it doesn’t automatically mean that every train will suddenly be longer. There are various reasons why not every rail car is placed into service. Some are in rotation for regular maintenance. And there are still some restrictions we must follow that impact frequency — things such as signal crossing coordination with local cities and train speed regulations.

Maybe a longer train means everyone gets a seat, but the thing is…that’s not really our goal. We’re not Amtrak and we’re not an airline. We’re a mass transit agency in the second-largest metro area in the nation. We want a train that carries more people than just the number of seats.

A screen grab of a Google image search for "Tokyo Compression," which are photos by Michael Wolf of crowding on the Tokyo subway.

A screen grab of a Google image search for “Tokyo Compression,” which are photos by Michael Wolf of crowding on the Tokyo subway.

Certainly we don’t expect trains to be as packed as they can get in Tokyo or Shanghai or Taipei — places where I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy mass transit in all its jam-packed glory. But our trains are wider than buses and were built to accommodate people standing.

Does this make some people unhappy? Sure, especially if they were used to sitting. But we need to get used to this new reality. If you’re going to ride at peak hours or other busy times, you may have to stand, and you may even have to stand close to someone else.

Metro Rail Operations staff is always monitoring load factors to make sure the situation doesn’t become unsafe. We have staff at stations when there’s a need. You may have seen staff in yellow safety vests at Union Station during the afternoon rush hour assisting Gold Line passengers. We’ll probably do something similar at some Expo Line stations after the extension opens.

Is there room for improvement? Of course. That’s why your feedback is important, and you should continue to provide it via Twitter, Facebook or by emailing Customer Relations. There are also little things that make traveling with a lot of people a little easier — not crowding around doors or blocking seats with bicycles or backpacks. Another option is adjusting your schedule and/or commute time.

But on the matter of crowding, I think we could be on the cusp of a paradigm shift. The long-running joke about there being no transit in L.A. is old and stale and wrong. We have plenty of transit and clearly people are riding. Metro will try to add capacity to its system, but we also want the mass in mass transit to happen.

Because that’s what a world-class system is: one that lots of people are using.

Follow Anna on Twitter for more transit musings and other misadventures.

131 replies

  1. Bikes on crowded peak hour vehicles are a problem. The solution is to focus on (secure) bike parking at stations, and possibly bike sharing at the destination end, so people don’t feel the need to take bikes on the train. You can park many more bikes than you can put on the train.

    BART in the San Francisco Bay Area is having big time crowding problems, and their new railcars won’t be in service for another couple of years. One experiment they’re trying is having seats that are two across on one side, one across on the other, to provide a wider aisle and more standing room.

    • BART prohibits bikes during rush hours but many cyclists bring them onto overloaded rush hour trains anyway. A related problem is passengers with large backpacks. I regularly ride BART during the PM rush.

    • I applaud your realism. But I will point out that is NOT the type of mentality BART had building their system. They wanted people to sit because they knew how large their geographical area is. Maybe its time to set aside funds to extend stations to accomidate 4 cars on the most crowded lines. Anything is possible with the right funds.

      • Hi Chase,

        To be fair, BART is more comparable to Metrolink, and commuter rail standards are a little different.

        Anna Chen
        The Source, Writer

  2. I would like to suggest that Metro temporarily remove some seats around the doors to accommodate more passengers. This will also make ingress and egress faster. An example of that is on the subway cars where seats were removed to store bicycles and in practice passengers frequently use this area to stand. More passengers can be loaded into a rail car per square foot if they stand, compared to where they are sitting.

  3. It could be worse, if Metro had signed the contract with AnsaldoBreda, Los Angeles might be still waiting for the first car from what is now Hitachi Rail Italy

    Honolulu signed a contract with AnsaldoBreda for cars for the new HART system in late 2011 for delivery of 16 in 2014:

    The first two just arrived in Hawai’i last month:

    Miami fell for the “we’ll build our ‘permanent’ factory where we’ll build your cars and all other orders we get for the rest of the world” nonsense in late 2012:

    The “factory” which is just a warehouse at 11149 NW 122nd St, Medley, FL 33178, has just been “opened”:

    No cars have been delivered although the promise was for later this year.

  4. Doliork
    It is prcisely your Econ 101 solution that is driving many riders AWAY from the distance based and HIGH fare Metrolink San Bernardion line to use Goldline extension. If we really want to see immedeate relief to MTA’s lack of LRT cars on Gold Line, the fares on Metrolink should be LOWERED to keep PAX there “where they belong.” Somehow I don’t think MTA ever thought that there would be so many Metrolink riders choosing the far cheaper Goldline extension option. Well, it is what it is. We can’t blame Metrolink commutters trading in their expensive ride for the far lower fare of the Gold Line extension, and that makes Gold Line attractive, and making all forms of public transit attractive is the point, not createing dis-incentives to using public transit like distance based fares for metros (distance based fare for commuter rail is accdepted by commuters–and BART is a commuter rail system, not truly a metro) and OVER crowding and lack of dependable adherence to published schedules. This unbearable issue is not crowding on the MTA trains, but OVER crowding with the Gold Line extensino not operating at what it should. If there were enough LRT cars making it possible for 6 minute headways using 3 car trains, I don’t think many people would be complaining. FWIW, I’ve seem 3 car trains at spread the crowding very well. Yes, with standees, but not ridiculously over crowded. Let’s not forget, in other cities around the world, they do not have the automobile option; we here in LA WILL cease riding trains if it becomes to much trouble, unreliable, or just too crowded becasue we can. This is why it is so important to make the commute as comfortable as possible.

  5. I think its fair to say that Metro and connected authorities that have received hundreds of millions of funding, were extremely short sighted in researching potential ridership. Its already apparently a success with all parking structures filled up.

    Almost 1,000 parking spaces built at the Sierra Madre Villa station as it was end of the line… it made sense, yet barely 200 at the end of line APU/Citrus station? Only 200+ at the DT Azusa station? Not even 400 at the Irwindale station? So much ridership data, parking data, and funding… this really was a poor roll out. Maybe it would have been helpful if the people researching the parking and ridership were actual light rail users themselves.

  6. So City of Azusa has blocked off steet parking at DT Azusa, so essentially sections of the parking structure remains empty due to 3 hour parking etc. while commuters have no place to park. So much for that!

  7. The culver city expo parking lot at Venice is going to be developed into a small community of residential, retail, restaurants, hotel and office space what will happen to the parking spaces that we the ridership of the expo line have come to expect in order for us to commute on the train? Will there be a separate parking structure built for the metro station? Has metro considered and taken any actions to ensure that we continue to have ready access if not by providing parking at least to provide shuttles to the station for the surrounding areas? I am very concerned that if this lot is not available our family will no longer use the expo line and that will be a true shame as it is so convenient for us all.

    • Hi Rose,

      My understanding is that the parking will go underground as that area is developed, but I will check and see if there is more info available next week.

      Anna Chen
      Writer, The Source

  8. What a bunch of self serving nonsense. A few oher transit systems around the word have poor service so it’s okay for Los Angeles Metro to offer the same poor service.

  9. I can’t believe that Metro seems to be washing their hands of the parking issues. If we can’t park on the streets in Azusa, we simply can’t ride Metro. We need to leave our cars somewhere. This shouldn’t be the City of Azusa’s problem; this should be Metro’s. What about shuttles from park and ride lots? Why so little parking? I’m going y be devastated if I have to stop riding because there is no parking. I moved east of Pasadena because I knew the extension was going to open. I relied on the fact that I would be able to ride the gold line to work. This sucks royally.

    • Hi Anna;

      Have new restrictions on street parking been put in place in Azusa? Please let me know. Thanks,

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

      • I just saw signs this morning on Alameda and Dalton. “Residential parking only. No Gold Line Parking.” It doesn’t say how they plan on enforcing but I totally understand why the restriction. I just don’t know what I’m going to do.

  10. Hi Anna,
    While I appreciate your article, I don’t think that you’re getting the point. This rail line has been a God-send for many of us, however, there are some issues that need to be addressed. And not addressed with statements like every other city metro has problems, etc.
    1) Extremely crowded metro lines can be a safety hazard.
    2) Metro parking space is very limited forcing riders to park on the streets. Eventually as city residents complain of metro riders taking street parking cities will pass further restrictive street parking laws as Azusa has done.
    Both of these issues are going to decrease ridership and revenue. And at some point, the decrease revenue should catch someone’s attention.

    P.S. For the record, when you write articles, it might be a good idea not to annoy and frustrate your readers and customers with petty and obnoxious comments like, “you may have to stand close to someone else”.

  11. Now they’re running single-car “trains” on Expo. First they cut the service from every 10 minutes to every 12, without notice – they cut the three-car trains to two during rush hour – and now, just after rush hour, it’s one car? Extremely crowded. And, to make things worse, we were delayed by a test train, and the red line we were meeting didn’t wait.