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Los Angeles Revamps Mass Transit System
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New refurbished car on the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transporation Authority's Blue Line light-rail system
The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority is upgrading its Blue Line light-rail system by adding new or refurbished cars, new rails, and new power lines and substations. Wikimedia Commons/Justefrain

Once thought of as the most car-centric city in America, Los Angeles has been adding mass transit lines for years, and has plans for more. In the meantime one system—the Blue Line—will be upgraded with new rails, new and refurbished cars, and track and power line replacements.

February 4, 2014—When the Blue Line light-rail system opened in 1990, connecting Los Angeles with Long Beach—home of the nation’s two busiest ports—Los Angeles was the epitome of car-dependent urban development. And it still may be, but in the years since, the city’s transit system has added four new light-rail lines with 80 stations and integrated bus rapid transit and commuter rail into a seamless system.

The 22 mi Blue Line has proven to be extremely popular, attracting 19,000 weekday boardings when it first opened and more than quadrupling that number, to 88,000, by 2013. Estimates for fiscal year 2014 put the line at an average of more than 107,000 per day—that’s 28 million for the year.

But that increase in ridership has taken a toll on the infrastructure, so the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or Metro, has embarked on a $1.2-billion rehabilitation of the Blue Line with plans to refurbish and replace train cars, replace worn overheard power lines, and rehabilitate sections of track.

Preliminary work has been under way on the line for a few years. Some $260 million has already been spent upgrading pedestrian swing gates and crossing gates, as well as on improving pedestrian markings, grade- crossing lighting, in-roadway warning (IRW) lights, and active warning signage. Nineteen of 20 traction-power substations have also been replaced to make the system more reliable.

According to Metro, station platforms and canopies are now being freshened up with durable epoxy paint. New lights are being installed and light-emitting diode (LCD) displays are going up, to relay train time and customer service information to passengers.

But 2014 will see the beginning of more comprehensive work on the Blue Line. Metro will spend $850 million to upgrade and replace trains, for example. Fifty-two light-rail cars that are currently in service will be upgraded. Some require only new paint, new decals, or new interior fittings. Others will be rebuilt from the chassis up. In addition, the transit agency will purchase 78 new cars. The trains’ manufacturer, Kinkisharyo, is even moving its operations from Massachusetts to California to fulfill the order.

But in terms of engineering, it is the track and power line replacements that will generate the most work. Tracks will be replaced along a 3.5 mi stretch embedded near the line’s southern end, which forms a loop as it passes through Long Beach. Because Long Beach is near the coast, it’s subject to damper, more corrosive air than elsewhere in the system, and Metro was starting to see signs of corrosion at the web and foot of the rails.

When the Blue Line was first put in, aluminum forms with a bit of insulation were used for corrosion protection for the running rails; it was the best technology available at the time. This time the agency will use a rubber rail boot—made by Northwest Rubber Extruders, Inc. in Beaverton, Oregon—to insulate and protect the track. The plan is fairly straightforward: expose the track, install the rail boots along it, and for the parts that are too corroded to remain in use, pull out the track and replace it. Then fill in the areas of asphalt that have been saw-cut to expose the rail.

Doing the work now rather than waiting another decade is “prudent advanced work while we have plenty of time to get it done,” says Michael Harris-Gifford, Metro’s executive officer for wayside systems.

Metro has some experience with this kind of preventative work, having completed a similar exercise in downtown, where corrosion was the result of moisture associated with irrigation from nearby landscaping. Light-rail trains don’t wear out the rails by themselves very quickly, Harris-Gifford says. “If we can protect them against these other forms of corrosion, they’ll almost last forever.”

The new insulation should last 20 to 30 years, he says. Other than grade crossings, the work should have no effect on road traffic, and exposing the tracks won’t prevent trains from operating on them.

At the same time, Metro is replacing part of the overhead-contact power system. The carbon strips at the tip of the train’s pantograph, which collects electrical current, eventually wear out the overhead copper wires. “What we need to do is go in there and replace it before it gets too thin,” says Harris-Gifford. “If we leave it too long, it’ll lose its strength and it will break.”

The Blue Line rehab won’t be completed until FY 2019. In explaining the long timetable, transit officials say they have to weigh the desire to finish the project quickly with keeping the system up and running, especially when it serves transit-dependent riders. “We could do it a heck of a lot quicker if we shut the railroad down,” says Harris-Gifford, “but that’s not a practical proposition.”

Metro is likely to either extend nonrevenue hours a bit so they can close the line earlier, or they may shut the line during weekends to expedite the work.

The project is but one piece of a rapidly modernizing transit system. In 2008 Los Angeles County voters overwhelmingly passed Measure R, which levies a half-cent sales tax to raise some $40 billion for transit projects over the next 30 years. As a result there are now five new transit construction projects underway in the county. The second phase of the Expo Line, which runs 8.6 mi from downtown to Culver City and opened in 2012, will extend that system another 6.6 mi to reach downtown Santa Monica (See “Light-Rail Line in Southern California Offers Alternative to Driving,” Civil Engineering, March 2012, pages 24 and 26.). At the other end of the system, Metro is also conducting a $735-million, 11 mi extension of its Gold Line to Azusa. Further, the long-awaited extension of the city’s Purple Line, linking downtown with points west along Wilshire Boulevard, will be add nearly 9 mi to that system, enabling it to move past Interstate 405 to the edge of Santa Monica.

Metro has also just broken ground on a new $2-billion light-rail line between its existing Green and Expo lines that will serve the Los Angeles International Airport area area. And downtown, work is under way on a 1.9 mi regional connector tunnel to improve the flow of passengers on lines traveling through downtown.

With the extension of the Expo Line and the regional connector, “we’re going to see a significant increase in rail traffic,” says Harris-Gifford. “So not only do we want to do a replacement of the existing OCS before it gets worn out, we’re also going to upgrade the capacity in the Flower Street area in anticipation of a significant increase in service.”

The transit boom may be enticing a new generation of engineers and construction workers to Los Angeles to help refashion the city for the 21st century. “Let’s say you’re a young engineer coming out of university someplace in Dusseldorf or Tokyo or anywhere,” says Metro spokesman Paul Gonzales. “What you want to do is use your skills as best you can in order to do interesting projects. And where are those interesting projects? Well, they’re here. We now are a magnet for talent.”

While the perception may remain that streetcar-era Los Angeles was the high point for the city’s transit infrastructure, as Gonzales puts it, “You can make a case that this, the time we’re living in right now, is the golden age of rail.”


 

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