Beneath DTLA, ghost trains take final testing of LA Metro Regional Connector
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Beneath DTLA, ghost trains take final testing of LA Metro Regional Connector

Aug 25, 2023

After nearly 10 years of construction, for the first time empty trains are being sent down the new tracks and through the twin tunnels to test the nearly completed LA Metro Regional Connector rail line beneath downtown Los Angeles, signaling the long-awaited subway is nearing its debut.

Testing the empty trains is the last step in an arduous construction process that began in 2014. Opening the line to the public is next. Although a January progress report cited April 21 as the date Metro would allow paying riders, train watchers say that date will be missed and the underground subway that connects the L (Gold), A (Blue), E (Expo), B (Red) and D (Purple) lines will likely open this summer.

LA Metro will not give a time frame, but says this is a major step forward. Among other things, the line from Long Beach to Azusa will be the longest light-rail line in the world. "Metro expects to open the Regional Connector later this year. No new date has been announced," wrote Patrick Chandler, spokesman, in an email on April 4.

The riderless trains are click-clacking on the new tracks late each night, as operators test the switches, signals, electric power, communications systems, as well as safety systems involving proper ventilation, smoke detectors and fire-alarm response times, Chandler said.

Testing started in February, Chandler said, and has continued nearly every night since. Train watchers who have followed its progress since inception said testing a complex new line that involves melding with other lines will take several more months.

The testing has slowed the project and other delays were caused by tunneling issues and COVID disruptions, including supply-chain kinks that delayed delivery of materials, Metro reported.

The line's construction began in late 2014 and is now three years beyond its opening date, and has grown in cost from $1.42 billion to $1.67 billion.

Gold Line from Atlantic Station enters the Regional Connector to Santa Monica

— Austin 🚋🚌🚲🍃 (@multimodalLA) March 29, 2023

But the delays and cost overruns haven't dampened the excitement of rail lovers. Some have posted videos of the ghost trains on the tracks and the new signage on trains and platforms, while others talk about the long-awaited connector as revolutionizing train travel in a car-centric region dominated by jammed freeways and car ownership.

"The reality is it is going to change rail transit in Los Angeles," said Bart Reed, president of The Transit Coalition, a group that advocates for mass transit in Los Angeles County.

The Regional Connector is a 1.9-mile twin tunnel running under Downtown Los Angeles from Bunker Hill to Little Tokyo. It connects the A, E and L lines through downtown, providing quicker rides with fewer transfers in the heart of L.A. to the suburbs in Azusa, Pasadena, East Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Long Beach.

The new connector ties three existing lines together into two new rail lines, the A and the E lines. The new A Line runs north and south between Azusa and Long Beach — and eventually between Pomona and Long Beach once the eastern foothills segment now under construction reaches Pomona. The new E Line runs east and west between East Los Angeles and Santa Monica.

The line adds three new underground stations at Little Tokyo/Arts District, Historic Broadway and Grand Avenue Arts/Bunker Hill.

"The regional connector is a transformative project," said Eli Lipmen, executive director of Move LA, which advocated for the Regional Connector at its inception and promotes accessible mass transit with the goal of removing single-passenger cars from the roads.

"That new line, the one that will go from Long Beach to Azusa, will be the longest light-rail line in the entire world, which is pretty incredible considering Los Angeles is known as a car city," Lipmen added.

He said commuters to the Westside from eastern sections of Los Angeles will be able to skip the drive on the 10 Freeway, helping reduce traffic. "This will be a one-seat ride from East L.A. to Santa Monica," he said.

By 2035, average ridership is estimated at 100,000 trips each weekday, according to the January Metro report.

Reed says it could reduce cars on the 110 Freeway if commuters find it convenient to ride the line. "Instead of inching along (the 110) from Slauson into Downtown L.A. — a 30- or 40-minute trip by car — you will have a rail option," he said.

"When you put more choices into the grid, you’ve exponentially increased transit choices," he added.

Jerard Wright, government affairs director for the Greater Los Angeles Realtors, was working for the Sierra Club and The Transit Coalition 20 years ago in support of the Regional Connector. He said as a Long Beach resident, he’ll ride Metro rail into downtown L.A. and to Los Angeles Kings games at Arena.

The biggest changes are for suburban residents in eastern L.A. County and East Los Angeles thanks to the east-west rail connection in the new system. "It will revolutionize rail, especially for folks in Pasadena and the East L.A. area," Wright said. "Without having to transfer, that cuts out waiting by 20 minutes."

Some examples of how the connector will impact passengers include:

– On the L (Gold) Line, passengers from Azusa and East L.A. now must get off the train at Union Station, walk to the B (Red) Line, travel to another station and get off, and wait for the E (Expo) Line to go to the L.A. Coliseum, Exposition Park and/or Santa Monica. The connector will enable such riders to travel directly to DTLA, including the Disney Hall, Broad Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art. A rider will be able to catch the E Line at any DTLA connector station without taking escalators to upper platforms, cutting riding time by up to 20 minutes.

– On the A (Blue) from Long Beach, passengers can get a "one-seat ride" to Pasadena, Azusa and eventually, Pomona, once that phase of the extension is completed. The A Line will also take passengers into DTLA's historic core without having to transfer.

But the cost of building underground rail service has some Metro watchers unhappy, arguing that Metro should spend more on buses than rail because the majority of Metro users ride the bus.

"We are calling for a moratorium on rail," said Eric Mann, a co-chair of the Bus Riders Union, "and we are also calling for one million more bus hours" — positions he shares with co-chairs Barbara Lott-Holland and Channing Martinez.

The group obtained a court order and a consent decree from 1996-2006 that required Metro to provide additional bus service. Since then, Mann said that Metro has not supported its bus service and has favored rail systems. "Metro is not a transit agency. It is a rail construction agency," he said. He argued high rail costs should be paid with private funds.

Digging under downtown Los Angeles caused many problems. Construction crews encountered foundations from old buildings, sewer pipes and old rail spurs. A seven-foot-long single streetcar rail was discovered 10 feet below the street, the Metro January report stated.

Shards of glass bottles dating back to 1906 and into the 1930s were part of a "refuse deposit" likely from the Wieland Brewery of that era, the report said.

Tunneling had to stop to remove the foundation of the former Union Ice Co. building, which in the early 20th Century was used for storing beer, possibly during Prohibition.

Metro had to pay a jury award of $5.6 million to the Japanese Village Plaza for disrupting the businesses in Little Tokyo in April 2017, according to the report.

Material costs rose during the past three years due to the COVID pandemic and supply chain disruptions, the report said. "Materials and equipment delivery delays and reduced testing progress are affecting Substantial Completion," read the report.

There's a discussion in the report indicating that the final cost is anticipated to reach $1.76 billion. Metro would not comment on delays or cost overruns.

"These rail projects are construction boondoggles," Mann, at Bus Riders Union, said. "They are there to please every board member who wants a rail project in their district."

Supporters contend that while costs are high the project is delivering on promises made in tax Measures R and M, which county residents supported in the hope that rail service would shorten commutes and provide convenient, stress-reducing trips that connect to where they live and work.

"We are starting to become a more connected city," Wright said.

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