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.
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.