LA Metro quietly trying to do something never before tried in building the Regional Connector

A look at the cavern under 2nd Street in a photo taken in January of this year. Photo by LA Metro.

A view of the cavern from summer 2019. Photo by Ken Karagozian for LA Metro.

When the Regional Connector project is completed, three Metro light rail lines — the A (Blue), E (Expo) and L (Gold) — will finally be joined together via a pair of 1.9-mile twin tunnels under downtown Los Angeles. Connecting three rail lines is a massive, complex and ambitious feat that is unique among rail projects in the United States, past or present.

Making things even trickier: these three busy rail lines will continue to offer service during construction of the $1.8-billion Connector project, which is presently 63 percent complete.

We’ll get to the construction challenges in a moment, but first let’s look at the substantial benefits for everyday riders and those who don’t know much about the project:

A map of the Regional Connector project with one potential operating scenario. The Metro Board is schedule to consider an operating plan later this year.

•Eastside L Line (Gold) riders will no longer have to ride all the way to Union Station first and then transfer to the subway to reach the heart of downtown L.A. Instead, trains from the Eastside will enter the new rail tunnel at 1st and Alameda and continue to 7th/Metro Station with stops along the way at 1st and Central (to access Little Tokyo and the Arts District), 2nd and Broadway (the Historic Broadway corridor and Civic Center) and 2nd and Hope (Grand Avenue, i.e. the Music Center, Disney Concert Hall, the Broad, etc).

•Similarly, L Line riders coming from Azusa will no longer have to exit their trains at Union Station and transfer to the subway — a time muncher of a transfer. Instead, L Line trains will continue from Union Station through downtown to 7th/Metro and then beyond.

•A Line and E Line riders will not have to exit trains at 7th/Metro, the current terminus of both lines. Trains at 7th/Metro will continue north through downtown and then run either to East Los Angeles or Azusa.

In essence, the Connector fundamentally changes the way Metro operates its rail system. With more direct service and by reducing or eliminating transfers, commuting times for riders will be reduced by up to 20 minutes. 

The project also creates new operational possibilities for Metro’s light rail system. One example: via the new tunnel, we could run trains from Santa Monica to East L.A. Or between Azusa and Long Beach, a distance of more than 40 miles. An operational plan for the project will be considered by Metro’s Board of Directors later this year.

“We could have easily maintained the status quo with these three rail lines and never tried to connect them because doing so would be too difficult,” said Metro CEO Phillip A. Washington. “Instead, Metro rose to the challenge. We’ve successfully tackled every obstacle this project has thrown at us — and we’ll keep doing so until the project is complete. The project will confer enormous benefits on riders with faster trips to and through downtown L.A. with far fewer transfers and one seat rides across huge swaths of Los Angeles County.”

The Grand Av Arts/Bunker Hill Station in Nov. 2019 with Disney Hall and The Broad in the background. Photo by LA Metro.

The original plans for the Gold Line to Pasadena in the 1990s involved extending the line through DTLA to 7th/Metro to connect with the A Line (Blue). Funding challenges and politics prevented that from happening. The idea was revived after voters in 2008 approved Metro’s Measure R sales tax which provided local funding that, in turn, attracted enough federal dollars (a $670-million grant and $160-million loan) to build the project.

In the early planning stages, the project was envisioned as being a street-level project. That idea was scuttled after many stakeholders argued trains should be underground to avoid running amid vehicle traffic. Another benefit: the tunnels helped preserve one of the three remaining Japan towns in the nation.

Tunneling, of course, greatly raises the cost of a project. In the case of the Connector, tunnel depths range from 25 feet to nearly 120 feet below street level. At 2nd and Hill, the new tunnels cross under the Metro B (Red) and D (Purple) Line tunnels with just seven feet of clearance.

As for construction, one mile of the tunnels was excavated using a 400-foot-long tunnel boring machine while digging from the street (cut-and-cover) was used to the build the tunnel under Flower Street between 3rd and 7th streets during weekends to minimize impacts to the Financial District. To connect the new tunnels to the existing 7th/Metro Station, walls were removed using wire concrete saws to avoid impacts to A and E Line operations.

“The complexity of building a transit project in a high-density area is always a great challenge, and building this type of complex transit project in the heart of downtown Los Angeles magnifies that ten-fold,” said Metro’s Chief Program Management Officer Richard Clarke, whose department is overseeing Metro’s contractor,  Regional Connector Constructors.

Another huge challenge was building new rail tunnels through the maze of utilities and building foundations in DTLA while ensuring utility service continues for businesses and the growing number of residents in DTLA. The utilities include electrical, telephone, fiber optic, sewer lines, storm drains and natural gas lines, some of which were more than 100 years old and badly in need of repair. For example, Metro had to replace deteriorated electrical lines in the Civic Center at a cost of more than $27 million.

The storm drain hanging from the temporary ceiling of the Historic Broadway Station in a photo taken last fall. Photo by Ken Karagozian for Metro.

To clear the way for the station at 2nd and Broadway, Regional Connector crews in 2017 had to excavate around a decades-old concrete storm drain. Metro replaced the pipe with stronger materials and then suspended the new pipe from the station’s temporary ceiling. This creative engineering allowed the storm drain to remain in service during construction.

Excavating stations amid downtown has also been a big task. The bottom of the new station at 2nd and Hope will be 110 feet below street level, making it the deepest in the Metro system. Metro also had to create a 287-foot-long cavern under 2nd Street to accommodate switches between the tracks.

“Excavating the cavern is one of the construction milestones we’re most proud of,” said Metro’s Executive Officer for the Regional Connector, Gary Baker. “This is a massive undertaking, the likes of which haven’t previously been seen in L.A. County.”

The new tunnel portal in Little Tokyo for trains going to/from East Los Angeles. Photo by LA Metro.

The work in Little Tokyo also presented unique hurdles. To build the tunnel portal in the middle of 1st Street for the Eastside Gold Line, tracks were shifted to the north side of the streets in 2016. That tunnel portal is now almost complete.

Now a second portal must be built for trains to/from Azusa. There isn’t the space required to move the tracks, so bus shuttles will replace rail service between Union Station and Pico/Aliso Station this fall. That allows Metro to dig the new tunnel portal, demolish the existing Little Tokyo/Arts District Station and then build a new ramp to the bridge that carries trains over the 101 freeway. The work is expected to begin this fall and take 22 months to finish. When completed, full rail service from East L.A. will resume with trains running directly into downtown L.A.

After the tunnel structures and tracks are done, there is the tough work ahead of integrating communication and signal systems of three rail lines built at different times and then testing the systems and trains. There are undeniably big hurdles to clear, but with a big payoff to Metro customers when everything is finally done. 

“The Regional Connector provides the missing link between three separate rail lines — a project unique in our region and elsewhere,” said Gary Baker, Metro’s Executive Officer for the Regional Connector. “There is not another transit project here in the United States that is currently building this type of underground system that will serve so many people and help them save so much time.”

One of the new twin light rail tunnels under DTLA as seen summer 2019. Photo by LA Metro.

Grand Av Arts/Bunker Hill Station work last summer. Photo by Ken Karagozian for LA Metro.

Grand Av Arts/Bunker Hill Station last summer. Photo by Ken Karagozian for LA Metro.


39 replies

  1. Dear Metro: Please be more careful when you use station names, in order to avoid confusion. The text says that “bus shuttles will replace rail service between Union Station and Pico Station this fall”. In fact, the text should say that “bus shuttles will replace rail service between Union Station and Pico/Aliso Station this fall”.
    We all know that the Pico Station is adjacent to Staples Center, so the text implies that rail service through downtown will be compromised. I assume that is why people were asking whether the B and D line services would be interupted.

  2. I think it’s time to reintroduce express trains again. LB to LV or SM to ELA is too long of a distance to cover. It would be smart to have some sort of express train to get to these destination faster. Use the switches and hold the local train until the express trains has pass by.

  3. Hey Steve,

    So what’s the plan for East L.A. trains while the Little Tokyo station is out of commission? Will they be bustituted or run a truncated route? If so, why not bring the Regional Connector online and connect the east side line first, running through trains Santa Monica East L.A. and *THEN* demolish the old Little Tokyo station to build the northern portal? That way both segments of the existing Gold Line will have functional transfers to the Red/Purple lines (Azusa segment at Union Station, East LA segment at Metro Center), instead of leaving the East L.A. segment orphaned with no rail connections for almost 2 years?

    • Hi JS;

      We’ll announce plans for Eastside Gold Line service during construction later this year — and well before construction. As for maintaining service, the answer is there is still plenty of work to do on the rest of the connector tunnels/system/stations before integrating the new section with any of the existing light rail lines.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  4. Wish they would run this Santa Monica – Azusa. This would make Union Station much more convenient for Expo corridor riders and the major jobs and tourist destinations that Expo serves.

    Either way, can’t wait for this to open. Maybe, just maybe, it will allow me to take Expo to my office in the Arts District in a reasonable amount of time.

    • An every other system would be great. Santa Monica to ELA, next train to Azusa. LBC to Azusa, next train to ELA. Same coverage in DTLA. Same coverage on the spokes. Just more options later.
      (However, all you have to do is step out of the train in DTLA, wait 3 minutes, presuming the 6 minute headways remain, and board the next train on the other line.)

      • This makes the most sense — at least during daytime operations. e.g. look at how BART has daytime trains that go from Richmond and Fremont to SF when headways are short, but at night they require a transfer. If I only have to wait a few minutes for a direct train, I’ll wait. If I have to wait 15 minutes I’ll take a transfer.

        Due to the street-running nature of light rail they unfortunately can’t do timed-transfers like BART can.

        One thing they could do to alleviate transfer headaches in low-frequency periods is to have short-turn trains staged next to downtown to pick up transfers, but there’d need to be a siding for them to wait at since they didn’t have to foresight to include third tracks in the underground stations. You could build a good siding at Union Station by taking out the small parking lot next to the existing platform there, or on the site of the current bypass tracks in Little Tokyo (though I think they should reconfigure the tracks they have now after the access tunnel is built so there’s still a possibility of heading directly from East LA to Union Station without having to go underground).

  5. What will the Status be on the Original Lincoln Heights Gold Line Yard?

    That Yard Only can hold only 50 Rail Cars as I was Told as well as at Several Service Council Meetings & was a Problem for Gold Line Riders who Claimed that Rail Cars were Overloaded due to UCLA & Rose Bowl & Rose Parade Riders, as well as Events at the Rose Bowl & that was Before the Azusa Portion Opened in March 2016, because Lincoln Heights Yard was at Capacity & after the Gold Line Extension Opened in November 2009, because Metro Simply did Not Have Space at its Lincoln Heights Yard for More Cars.

    When the Extension Opened in March 2016, so did the Monrovia Yard that can Hold Nearly 100 Rail Cars & is also a Rail Training Center for Operators Also.

    Bottom Line is… when the Regional Connector Opens in 2022 & Trains go from L.B. to Azusa & Later to Claremont or Montclair, will Lincoln Heights Yard be a Backup for the Long Beach Yard & Monrovia Yard & also a Backup for the Santa Monica to East L.A. Yard since the Santa Monica Yard can Only Hold 45 Rail Cars?

    If Not there will be a Real Problem in the Future for Metro!

  6. Ok, I’ve been a team player here for awhile but someone needs a wake-up call (The Source staff excepted).

    – The 1st/Alameda station is 48,000 square feet of primarily concrete (and 12 trees!) at street level – two blocks from Skid Row. For comparison, the main concourse at Grand Central Station in New York is 35,000 square feet. We’ve done this over and over. People have universally hated it. It’s failed. It’s unsafe. It’s expensive. It’s unsightly. It’s a waste of urban space. Broadway station is almost as bad. Yet, here we go again.

    – The station interiors are massive. Five times the size that they need to be. We learned that lesson over and over on the Red Line. With transit folk nothing is ever unanimous – except this. The EIRs, public meetings, and even The Source is full of people saying these cavernous stations are ridiculous, intimidating, costly and unsafe. What transit rider ever said “I’m so glad there’s a mezzanine?” The stations have to be deep because of Red Line, sewer, bedrock etc., but that doesn’t mean we have to build an underground city for each station.

    – The 1st/Alameda portals are messy and could have been avoided with some creativity. Since we’re demolishing the existing station and trenching the existing Alameda tracks anyway, why not go big and realign the tracks up Garey or Justin Ct.? Whatever extra cost for a second bridge access would have been saved because now you would only need one tunnel under Alameda. Would have saved the Eastside/Pasadena connection for future use and smoothed out curves too. The City owns 90% of the land. Oh well.

    • Agreed, the stations really are too big, this is something metro needs to address. It’s even cited as one of the main possible reasons American subway systems are so expensive compared to their European counterparts and is thus an issue nationwide. One has to wonder if there is a federal rule regarding the size and design.

      • Stations are made intentionally huge in Asia so that the transit operator can rent out the extra space for small retail. I wish American transit operators would try this funding model (buy land — increase value of land by building transit — fund operations from subsequent rent). The old streetcar suburb developers in LA could have kept private transit in LA alive with this funding model, but they were more interested in making quick money with outright sale of the land.

        But yeah… I wish they would do this. If you go to Japan, rail stations are hubs of commerce. In the U.S. you’re lucky if there’s a coffee shop. Union Station is a rare exception to this, but they could be doing more by encouraging some real destination services.

    • I bet if you look into this more, there is probably an assumption that streets above cannot be closed for long periods of time and that forces a lot of the sub par design. These stations are so important. They should just close the streets for 2-3 years if necessary and do it right.

  7. Starting in the Fall, how will the B and D Lines be affected for the next two years? Will certain stations be closed for almost that long?

    • Hi Roman;

      Construction of the Regional Connector should not impact B and D Line operations. As the article mentions, the Little Tokyo/Arts District Station will be closed starting later this year and that will last until the Connector opens.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  8. While in the tunnel, will trains be under Automatic Train Operation to maintain safe distances like in SF or will they be driven manually.

    • If they do it will only help headways in one direction, and even then only somewhat, because all trains will still have to enter/exit at the choke point going into Metro Center. San Francisco gets around this by turning some trains around at a large complex of turnaround tracks past Embarcadero under ATC, so there isn’t a choke point of trains waiting to switch to ATC at the surface entrance coming from Caltrain. ATC only helps with headways when the whole interlined track segment is under ATC. You can see this effect when ATC goes down in SF — it hurts inbound trains WAY more than outbound.

      If Metro tried to seriously push headway using ATC you’ll wind up with trains piled up at the exit heading to Pico waiting to get out behind the trains that got slowed down switching to manual control in mixed traffic. Similarly, the headway coming in would be limited by the surface headway of trains navigating their way past Pico into the tunnel. If Metro Center had a third tail track or two to turn around at, they could short-turn trains for extra headway in the tunnel like SF does, but no such tail track exists.

      (Note that in SF the choke points at West Portal and Duboce/Church still cause waits, but ATC helps at least merge the two branches together smoothly. That would be completely lost in the other direction if all 5 lines went through to Caltrain.)

      ATC would be a win if they could grade separate the route down to the wye where Expo/Blue split (not to mention speed the whole system up overall).

      But long story short — ATC won’t help if it’s bookended by a single non-ATC stretch that all trains must pass through.

    • Hi Morris,

      Sorry! The station will be about 45 feet below street level.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  9. Let’s also eliminate the “one tapping per line” policy, so that we do not need to look for a validator to tap again when we transfer between A Line and E Line at one of those new Regional Connector stations; likewise at Rosa Park Station when transferring between A Line and C Line, and many future transfer points.

    Tapping at the initial boarding station should be the only required tapping, except of course when turnstile is involved when we transfer.

    • Yep, this is common sense design for any network transit system. Metro, make sure you address this.

  10. I think in the following paragraph you are answering a question I’ve been asking and no one has giving me an answer:
    “The project also creates new operational possibilities for Metro’s light rail system. One example: via the new tunnel, we could run trains from Santa Monica to East L.A. Or between Azusa and Long Beach, a distance of more than 40 miles. An operational plan for the project will be considered by Metro’s Board of Directors later this year.”

    Did you mean to say that the “new operational possibilities” would be to go from from Santa Monica to East L.A., or between Santa Monica and Azusa? Since the tracks will be shared by the 2 trains from Little Tokyo through Pico there is no track structural reason why that can’t be done

    • Hi Tom;

      Our operations department is going to make its recommendations and ask for our Board to approve a plan. As you can see from the map, we’ve certainly been talking about two main lines — Azusa to Long Beach and East LA to Santa Monica but, as you mention, there are other possibilities and I’m sure the Board may want to consider those.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

  11. This is a great project but has operations figured out how they are going to operate 2-3 lines through the tunnels at rush hours with each line having 6 minute headway’s (the current rush hour headway)?

    • Since there would now be 2 lines, not 3, since the gold line would be merged into either the expo E or blue A line, that means the combined frequency would be a train every 3 minutes through the connector just like it is now between 7th / metro and the expo / blue split at Washington blvd. The trains coming through would simply alternate at their respective 6 minute headways between A and E lines making for very easy transfers between them (just step off the train and wait for the next train going the same direction).

    • it will run as two lines, and if both continue with 6 minute headways, then the core section has a train every 3 minutes (20 trains per hour) which is very easily handled by conventional signalling. I bet it could run 24 tph (trains every 4 mins on each line). 15 tph on both lines would likely be pushing it

  12. This is very helpful communication explaining the engineering necessities of a project that has taken so long. Surprised to read now that operational plans are not firm, seems obvious that L line goes away and A runs N/S and E runs E/W but curious to have someone explain the need for THREE lines running concurrently on these new tracks. Any rider can disembark at one of four stations in DTLA to change directions onto another line for their travels, nothing unusual in that process.

    • There won’t be three lines running on the new tracks. Although three lines currently exist (A/Blue, L/Gold, and E/Expo), once the Regional Connector is completed the plan is to have only two: an east-west and a north-south line.

  13. Which other 2 cities in the United States have Japantowns besides Los Angeles? I think that San Francisco is one city. What is the 3rd city?

  14. I’m still looking for a answers as to where they will store the former East L.A. portion of the Gold Line cars when the two sectors are severed. The expo Line Yard is at capacity currently with no room to expand it. Hopefully this will only be addressed the day the two lines are connected.

    • Our current rail yards will be used. We won’t have the ability to go directly between East LA and the tracks to Azusa but we will have ability to move rail cars around the system.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source

      • You still have not addressed the day to day operation as to where the current East L.A. Gold Line cars will be stored since the current Expo Line yard is at capacity. My guess is that this problem will not be addressed until the last minute much like the addition of the Expo Line to Seventh and Flower was when it began operation. Unlike most of the people who post here, I was an employee of the MTA when that fiasco took place. And yes, I vividly remember when the Blue Line began operation under the leadership of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission using RTD Operators and they had no plan as to how to collect fares since the ticket machines were not up and running. It was I who suggested Operators be stationed at each Rail Station with old bus mechanical fareboxes to collect the fares.

  15. Hi Steve,

    “The bottom of the new station at 2nd and Hope will be 110 feet below street level, making it the deepest in the Metro system.”

    By comparison, how deep will the station at 1st and Central be?

  16. “ That allows Metro to dig the new tunnel portal, demolish the existing Little Tokyo/Arts District Station and then build a new ramp to the bridge that carries trains over the 101 freeway. The work is expected to begin this fall and take 22 months to finish. When completed, full rail service from East L.A. will resume with trains running directly into downtown L.A.”

    Thank you so much for the heads up. Looks like I’ll be getting quite a workout walking from the Civic Center to Little Tokyo for the next 2 years.

    • Hi Dave;

      We’ll have more info about the closure as we get closer to it along with info on alternative service, etc. Hopefully this won’t be too much of a hassle.

      Steve Hymon
      Editor, The Source