The Red Line just turned 30. Here’s why it matters.

The B (Red) Line has always been the busiest line in our transit network. On an average weekday, the B Line has about 75,000 boardings. Together with the D (Purple) Line, which shares some of the same track, the B Line has seen more than 400 million boardings over the past decade. Today, however, subways are ubiquitous. Nobody bats an eye.

Before the first 4.4-mile segment of the Red Line debuted in 1993 between Union Station and MacArthur Park, the idea of underground rail in Los Angeles most definitely raised eyebrows. After all, Angelenos had never had a modern subway before. Would the new system be safe? Would it hold up in an earthquake? Would it be fast and compelling enough to lure Angelenos from their cars?

The leaders of Metro’s predecessors, the Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD) and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC), were determined to assuage the public’s concerns. They put out informational videos, like the one below, demonstrating how the new system would work for millions of would-be riders. Safety from natural disasters was a top priority, and the engineers had planned for everything. Seismically-reinforced tunnels, fire-resistant vehicles, emergency sprinklers. You name it. The Red Line could weather an apocalypse.

Yet even if the new subway’s engineering was state-of-the-art, the L.A. region was a driving city. The streetcars were long gone, the Blue Line was in its infancy. You had to give people good reasons to get them out of their cars.

Crowds on the Red Line shortly after it opened.

To drum up excitement for the new subway, SCRTD initiated a public art element. Officials dedicated .05% of the capital project budget for public artworks in each station. This was considered a huge sum at the time.Each station was envisioned as an underground gallery that channeled a unique sense of place (such as Stephen Antonakos’ 12 neon sculptures that paid homage to the first neon-illuminated building in Pershing Square, or Roberto Gil de Montes’s allegorical triptych describing the descent underground at the 7th Street/Metro Center Station). Art was also regarded as a social salve that could discourage litter and vandalism. “If we can get people to better respect these stations,” one commissioner remarked, “the money for public art will be well spent.”

None of this should make you believe that building the Red Line was easy. It took 6.5 years to complete the first segment, which cost $330 million per mile. But for many Angelenos, it was worth the wait. More than 52,800 people rode on the first day. Over 91,000 people rode it on the second day. By April 1, 1993, the Red Line had welcomed its millionth passenger. The lucky rider was honored with $100 worth of tokens (this was pre-TAP) and a gift certificate to Langer’s Deli, which had seen pastrami sales triple thanks to its proximity to the MacArthur Park/Westlake Station.

Equally important, the Red Line inspired awe among its first riders. “For now, the novelty of the Red Line seems to have created a jovial atmosphere,” the Los Angeles Times reported in February 1993, nearly a month after it opened. Unlike the New York City subway, where people were accustomed to avoiding eye contact, Angeleno riders “are still intrigued enough by their new surroundings that they have yet to develop the surly exterior of commuters whose only concern is to get quickly from here to there.”

This sense of awe extended to the trains themselves. When the Red Line debuted, keeping the sleek Italian-made subway cars clean and pristine was all-important. If riders didn’t feel comfortable descending into the stations, LA’s bet on rail would be worthless. So Metro invested in an ambitious cleaning campaign, preparing for the worst. Despite their concerns, however, there was little to clean, especially during those first months. Two instances of graffiti. Some gum. Some stains and candy wrappers. Angelenos seemed to take pride in their brand new ride.

So here we are, 30 years later. The Red Line is now officially known as the B Line  and continues beyond MacArthur Park; by the year 2000 it had been extended all the way to North Hollywood. There have certainly been new challenges — the COVID-19 pandemic, the increase in our region’s unhoused population. We’re working to make our entire system feel safer and more comfortable for everyone. Read more about those efforts here.

Still, we can’t overstate the Red Line’s significance to our mission. The Red Line introduced a new mode of transportation to a city designed for driving. It was a proof of concept that local rail can work in Los Angeles in spite of claims that it couldn’t be done. It was a critical step toward the brighter, fairer, and cleaner future that inspires everything we do.

Construction of the new twin tunnels.

A rendering of a Red Line station.

L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley at an opening event. He pushed hard to modernize our local transit system.

And, of course, the inevitable Elvis impersonator at a Red Line opening event 🙂

 

 

 

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23 replies

  1. Mr. Hymon and TheSource staff, do you ever read what the public is saying or, better yet, pass it on to the senior leaders and management at Metro? In a meaningful way that actually gets their attention and at least a false promise to look into these issues? Or is this just a blog to stroke your egos and showcase what you choose to showcase while ignoring everyone’s desperate pleas for more service on your busiest line? If you really care about better transit service, why are you not addressing the fact that this line runs only every 15 minutes during rush hour?! 15 minutes is the appropriate frequency of service for a low ridership bus line, not a heavy rail subway that hundreds of thousands of people ride each week (and each day before the pandemic and your service cuts). When are you going to address this? After ridership plummets further and all you have left are homeless people on the trains, further encouraging the few that have to ride to find an alternative? When will you restore service? Enough with these articles congratulating yourselves, start talking to your bosses and tell them why 15 minutes is a joke for a subway line.

  2. Sad part is we have new cars on the way, but unless they are kept cleaner throughout the day, they will look like the existing fleet in short order.
    It is really time to put larger, better fare gates and station attendants in now and get the subway portion of the system back to respectability before the Olympics get here. Otherwise it has been all for naught.

  3. too bad all of the complaints posts here will fall on deaf ears…assuming they even get forwarded to the complaints department or someone in management.

  4. Has there been improvement in the past 30 years? It smells of urine, and there are mentally ill people on every train intimidating passengers. Because frequencies are so low, you can’t just get off the train and wait for the next one.

    Also, the rendering of the station with all its 1980s glory is much nicer than what we have now.

  5. I do hope the comments here are taking into account by metro leadership. The people that A) read the Source and B) felt compelled to comment on the status of the Red Line are the LAST people metro should be trying to win over with a congratulatory post about the metro systems poster child of neglect.

    As others have said, the Red Line is an embarrassment, even to those who want it to succeed so much. For the life of me, I can’t see increased ridership or appeal for the Red Line until Metro improves frequencies AND cleans the system thoroughly.

    As the city and state seek opportunities to provide more housing, where housing is most needed, the critical piece of infrastructure is our substandard transit network / service. Critically, the success of LA’s growth and future hinges on its ability to integrate mass transit that is efficient, effective and comfortable.

    Now it seems LA has a very long way to go to lure people out of the cars and it really doesn’t seem like the outlook will change much…

  6. If Metro actually cared about its customers and safety, Metro would not force everyone to wait 15 minutes or more for the next Red Line train, when lower ridership rail and bus lines operate at higher frequencies. You are actively sabotaging your own recovery by refusing to operate more service on what Metro admits is their highest ridership line. If demand is so high for this line, why not operate with something better than 15 minute service? 4 trains per hour per direction is something you should only see on low ridership lines, or late at night. Not in the middle of the day, for your most high demand line in your entire system!

  7. Is this an early April Fools joke? You wrote an entire article on the Red Line without mentioning how it operates today, making everyone wait 15 minutes all day for the next train, on your supposedly “busiest, most used” line! Does The Source not see the irony in pointing out these facts while ignoring the awful service frequencies being operated today? 15 minute frequencies is suited for l low ridership lines or late at night, not all day service for what Metro acknowledges is their busiest and highest ridership line. How can you expect the people of LA County to ride, let alone rely on, this “busiest” line when you refuse to operate it more frequently than every 15 minutes, including during rush hours?

  8. One must also factor in the interspersal periods of the Purple Line trains which share the same tracks as the Red Line trains during part of the time!

  9. Hate to pile on but the Red Line has been so neglected that it’s almost shocking. I always have to wait 15-20 minutes to ride the train, the trains are dirty, they smell, they lack ventilation, and some of the station platforms look like they haven’t been cleaned in months, with escellators that never work and sketchy activity everywhere, both on the train and off. As someone who’s been riding for years, I’ve never seen the line so bad.

  10. What’s the point of articles like this outside of stroking one’s own ego. It’s really embarrassing watching a government agency pat its own back.

    Watching old red line videos is depressing because even in the 2000s the system was still fairly clean.

    Now just like every government agency, you just point the problem elsewhere and say “it can’t be helped.”

    At the very least restore pre-COVID service on the Red Line to begin with.

    With White collar jobs now on the decline, I would expect an uptick in ridership.

    Just stop bragging about LA having a “world class transit” when that system was killed by the 60s. Even your core riders are no longer oblivious to the fact that public transit is decades ahead in different cities, let alone outside the country.

    • I agree that we should have a much better B/D Line (It is not Red anymore. You really need to practice your letter names:) It is in great need of repair. It is dirty, gross, infrequent and loud (homeless play loud music at the stations), but just complaining won’t help. We should support the organizations that are trying to help LA be more transit- orientated or if you really want to improve it so badly. Then people should become a Metro Janitor or Ambassador.

      Our city deserves a high class system!! Maybe it won’t be like the system in the 30s, but at least it can transport Angelenos reliably around our city. It may not be soon, but I think that one day. The system will be considered a reliably alternative to driving by the general public.

  11. Sadly it has deteriorated badly. The train cars are old, dirty and run down. The trains are basically homeless shelters. I don’t feel safe on the trains anymore. And the stations are basically empty.

  12. I rode the Red Line to work from 96-99. This was just after the extension to Western opened and mostly before the Hollywood extension opened. It was quite pleasant and even though the 90’s were a high crime period, this didn’t filter into the subway. The stations and cars were beautiful. Fast forward to today and things have really fallen apart with tons of crime, drugs and anti-social behavior. We really need to get back to taking pride in the subway and not putting up with the crime and drugs

  13. What a great story on the history and importance of Metro’s busiest line. Now if only Metro could recognize its importance as a means to get around TODAY by running trains more often than every 15 minutes, as if this is some low ridership bus line on a Sunday night!

  14. If the Red Line was so important to Metro, it would not be running only every 15 minutes, especially during peak periods like 7 to 9 am or 4 to 7 pm. The highest ridership line in the entire Metro system, that serves the most people of any other line, running every 15 minutes is a complete joke, even for LA. There are better *off* peak headways on much less used lines than the Red Line during rush hour.

  15. As a daily rider, it really feels like 30 years of Metro neglecting the Red Line… No one knows when Metro will restore service on the Red Line. Service has never been worse than it is now; 15 min peak headways are awful, the system ends too early stranding passengers, the displays are almost always incorrect, zero enforcement of any rules, midday cleaning seems to have ceased after a few months, etc… Things seem to have gone downhill with Art Leahy’s departure. Metro no longer cares about running service and spent 7 years wasting time on the Office of Extraordinary Innovation, PPPs and Metro Micro. Voters trusted Metro in 2016 to pass Measure M and the only major rail line that has commenced construction since then is the Gold Line Foothill Extension. I’m not counting ESFV because only utility work has started and design is still in progress. The North Hollywood to Pasadena BRT should have been completed in 2022 yet construction won’t begin until 2024-2025. I feel naive to have trusted Metro and am heartbroken that Metro neglects its passengers and can’t adhere to the Measure M project timeline. Metro has failed on every single level as a transit agency except releasing pointless commemorative tap cards every month.

    • Metro has spent Measure M money on environmental impact reports that cost $100 million a pop with nothing to show for it. Meanwhile they continue to provide abysmal bus service creeping along at 5 mph, build train lines to places with no riders (Glendora, Torrance), and widen freeways while using the word “equity” in every third sentence.

      The Red Line should run at least every 5 minutes during peak periods, but Metro has made no apparent progress towards constructing the turnback facility due to “cost overruns”. If cost escalation is the problem, exempt these projects from CEQA. Use the existing exemptions provided by state law.

      • “build train lines to places with no riders (Glendora, Torrance)”

        *sigh*

        Have people in LA county ever left their bubble before? Even a quick Pacific Electric history would show that even that system was built to places where there was (or apparently still) where no riders like. . . Glendora and Torrance.

        Im not trying to be rude, and while I gladly criticize Metro everyday of the week, places like Glendora and Torrance may not have the ridership NOW, but thanks to the introduction of rail, will in the future. Many parts of south of Old Town and East Pasadena were nothing but dead zones that now have new communities thanks to the gold line which at one point had 15 min frequencies due to how low ridership was during the first 5 years of opening. It was the 2008 recession and new developments around the Gold Line that changed that.

        Now Glendora, Torrance and even Montclair which has been seeing a spike of new developments near the station will now flourish more thanks to these extensions. Why keep people who actually want to use the system stuck in a high density area instead of spreading them out?

        I don’t understand why people just want to build in the core of the city instead of shifting the population around. That’s already happening thanks to expensive housing as it is.

        • I don’t abject to building to these areas, it just shouldn’t be the priority right now.

  16. You wrote:
    ” Angelenos had never had a modern subway before. ”
    There was the 0.9 mile “Hollywood subway”, from the Subway Terminal bldg, 417 S Hill St, to Beverly Blvd & Glendale Blvd, from 1925 to 1955.

    • I’m guessing “modern” was meant in reference to heavy-rail subway systems like in New York (which had already been around for decades). By the 90s, LA certainly had the commuter and tourist traffic to support it – but perhaps not so much in ’55.

      • It did. The arroyo parkway and Hollywood freeway were already having traffic problems even while the Pacific Electric was still in operation under municipal control. This just goes to show you how much the government was also on a power hungry trip to make sure everyone drove and the poor would have to compromise with a bus.

        But yeah, choosing from 10 different flavors of yogurt at the grocery store is all the “freedom” we need, am I rig. . . No.

    • I looked twice on that one too. I think it is OK to let this one slide.

      The Blue Line ended at 7th/Metro for about a year before the Red Line Opened. I would think that would be considered modern since the upper and lower level were built at the same time.