The Expo Line’s earlier days — recalled by men who worked it

Freight trains on the old Expo Line right-of-way in the early 1950s. Photo by Alan Weeks, via Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

The Expo Line may be brand new, but passenger rail service to the Westside is nothing Los Angeles hasn’t seen before – it’s just been a long time as in half a century ago. The path taken by Phase I of the Expo Line to Culver City and Phase II to Santa Monica was traveled by Pacific Electric’s Santa Monica Air Line, a passenger and freight rail service that ran on the same right-of-way. Passenger rail service carried passengers down to Santa Monica until 1953 and freight trains also used the tracks until the late 1980s.

The Air Line was a coveted track to work because it was an easy local run from downtown Los Angeles to the ocean. Only the highest seniority Pacific Electric rail men got the chance to work the Air Line – just ask Larry Fredeen, a former P.E. conductor.

“I was lucky to work the line at all,” said Fredeen, who worked the Air Line as a brakeman in the late 1970s. “I was so sad when I heard it was abandoned due to lack of business. I had a lot of good experiences working that track. I’m glad it’s returning, although in a different form.”

Two of Fredeen’s predecessors, conductors Virlon Smoot and Jim Guerin, also worked as brakemen on the Air Line and feel the same about the line’s rebirth as the Expo Line. Both men have fond memories of their trips down Exposition Boulevard. When they heard that Expo would be running trains back to the Westside, they were immediately on board.

“I think it’s great that transportation has returned to the old Air Line. Hopefully it will remove many vehicles from the gridlocked Westside,” said Guerin.

All three men are looking forward to riding the Expo Line once it opens.

The original track itself was built as a steam railroad from Los Angeles to Santa Monica back in the 1870s, and the railroad line became electric by the early 1900s. Pacific Electric consolidated the track in 1911 and called it the Santa Monica Air Line because it was a straight line, traveling almost as a bird flies. As of 1913, hourly service was provided from Main Street Station in Los Angeles to Santa Monica, where cars terminated at Broadway and Ocean, just three blocks from the Expo Line Phase II terminus at 4th Street and Colorado.

The electric line was powered by three substations, one of which can be reached from the Expo Culver City Station, which will open this summer. The Ivy Substation is listed on the National Historic Register. Renovated in 1992, it is now home to Actor’s Gang Theatre.

In mid-1924 service was greatly reduced, with cars running in morning and evening rush hours only. Sunday service ended around 1926, and by the end of 1931 only a single round trip remained from L.A. to Santa Monica. This continued until 1953, when passenger service was abandoned completely and diesel locomotives took over all freight movements. The line was completely abandoned in 1987 and remained untraveled until today.

“It was always a wonderful line,” said Smoot. “Beautiful weather out there. I always hoped trains would run out that way again. Well, it may not be the Pacific Electric running them, but thank goodness Metro is! This is absolutely fantastic.”


Photos of the Expo Line through history

4 replies

  1. In reference to the reduction in passenger service over the years on the Santa Monica Airline: the freight operations were very extensive and lucrative for this line featuring both local freight trains and express box motor service (Pacific Electric in conjuntion with the Railway Express Agency, the UPS/Fed Ex of that era). However, there were three competing “heavy-hitter” Red Car Lines from downtown to the Westside that siphoned off passengers from the Air Line. These lines were arguably faster and served a more developed part of the West Side. Primary was the “Venice Short Line”, which ran from Downtown straight out Venice Blvd to Venice/Santa Monica; at Vineyard Jct a second line diverted down San Vicente Blvd to Santa Monica via Beverly Hills; and a third major line went down Santa Monica Blvd to the Beach Cities via Hollywood/Beverly Hills. The service provided by these routes relegated the Air Line to secondary status except for freight business. In a bit of irony, after the sale of Pacific Electric’s passenger operations to Metropolitan Coach Lines in 1953, the PERY was obligated to run a “Francise Car” on the Air Line for a short time (in order to maintain operational agreements) until these could be re-negotiated and the end of “official” passenger service could take place. This was the actual last operation of passenger service by the PacificElectric Railway; subsequent service on other rail passenger lines was provided by MCL/MTA.

  2. The history of the this route goes back further than the Pacific Electric. Built in 1875 from LA to Santa Monica by the Los Angeles & Independence Railroad, originally a narrow gauge railroad. The intention was to build the railroad all the way to a mine to Independence, California in the Mojave desert. It never achived that goal. The line was purchased by the Southern Pacific in 1891 and standard gauge to 4 foot 8 and one half inch. PE took over the line with the Great Merger of 1911. October 26th, 1953 saw the end of PE passenger service on this line. The Southern Pacific operated freight on this line all the way into Culver City, West LA, Santa Monica, Beverley Hills and West Hollywood for many years after passenger service ended. Freight ops ended in the summer of 1989.

  3. Dont let the naysayers bother you.I predict within 1 year, this line is going to be running over capacity, within 3-5 years,with expo line part 2 open, numbers close to, or equal to current blue line passenger numbers.We need this line, its here, ride it, enjoy it!

  4. “by the end of 1931 only a single round trip remained from L.A. to Santa Monica. This continued until 1953, when passenger service was abandoned completely”

    This is a key point on why this line may be difficult to make work, at least along the first phase, if massive investment in TOD does not come and if bus connections are neglected. There wasn’t any development along this corridor focused on transit when the area was “settled”.