Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Expo Line Marches Forward

Source: Expo Construction Authority

When I glanced through the LA Times this morning I noticed a story about a collision on the Blue Line. The train and a bus collided, injuring 7, and doubtless severely damaging the bus.

This made me think about grade separated rail (i.e. trains without intersections), which made me think about Damien Goodmon, which made me think about the Expo Line, the next light rail line slated to open in LA (in 2011), which, like the Blue Line, is mostly at grade (i.e. at street level, with intersections).

The latest news is that the California Public Utilities Commission approved a plan to build a new station at Farmdale Ave., near Dorsey High School, which has been a flash point for Goodmon and his grade separation advocacy.

It seems like Mr. Goodmon has managed to make himself quite a few enemies in the blogosphere (look at the comments here for example). Metro and pretty much the entire political elite of Los Angeles County want the lines to be built as planned.

My take on this is that grade separation is great. It makes trains faster, safer, potentially less noisy (if done right) and less disruptive to traffic. It's also expensive. But when we think about the cost of at-grade versus grade-separated we have to remember that at-grade means more collisions will happen. These collisions have costs. Sometimes they cost people their lives. In the latest example, Metro probably lost a bus, which isn't exactly cheap to replace. Collisions also have a PR cost: they make Metro look bad, regardless of fault.

The first phase of the Expo Line will be built largely as planned, albeit with a new station. But the battle for grade separations is unlikely to end.


  1. My stance on grade separation: if done properly, with quad gates and pedestrian warnings, signal priority and the like, at-grade rail is safe. It's not going to be accident-free, but the people who get hurt have to disregard so many warnings that they were going to run into the train no matter what.

    Grade-separated rail is great- it allows for faster run times, safer operation, and lower labour costs (through automation: see Vancouver's Skytrain- 4 minute headways from 4am to 1am). That said, you can build two or three at-grade lines for the price of one grade-separated line. I'd much rather have three decent rail lines than one really good one. If our politics weren't broken, we'd have the money for subways everywhere... but we don't, so we ought to do the best we can, which is what Metro is doing.

  2. I think Metro has made a decision to prioritize a large number of miles of new rail lines over some of the advantages grade separation would bring.

    If there's one criticism I have of Goodmon (besides his abrasive style) it's that I'm much more willing to accept elevated track (which is cheaper to build than tunnels).

    It's interesting to think about it from your perspective in Riverside too. Since you don't have any light rail, and the political climate is less favorable to it there, you've taken a practical position.

    Since LA County has Measure R funds I don't think it's a question of money. It's a question of building a lot of rail at grade, or building less, but of higher quality, grade separated.

  3. I think my position is practical for both LA and Riverside. If we were talking about a rail extension in, say, New York or Chicago, with their extensive grade-separated systems, I'd probably like to see new extensions of the system as grade-separated lines. However, we're talking about LA, which has only had rail for a couple of decades, and still doesn't have nearly enough of it. The benefits of putting lots of trains on the street *now* outweigh the costs of ensuring they're grade-separated.

  4. Also, for the record, our political climate isn't terribly bad for light rail. City officials have approached RTA about finding funding for, and building, a light rail down Magnolia and Market, mirroring the old Pacific Electric line that used to run there. Even the best ridership estimates on the line suggest that it wouldn't make financial sense to do so. (Light rail is financially better than buses around 12-15k riders daily.)

    What RTA DOES want to do is an Orange Line-style separated busway on the corridor, and City officials are completely uninterested in modifying the street design for that project.

  5. I think this conflict is so interesting. Different strategies follow from different priorities.

    If the priority is boosting ridership in the short/medium run, at grade will probably accomplish more. The ridership on the Blue Line is about double the ridership on the Green Line, even though the latter is completely grade separated. That makes the point that the surrounding land uses are probably more important that grade separation for ridership (they're also both about the same length).

    However, if the Blue Line were grade separated, about 80 people who are currently dead would probably be alive today. There would also be less noise in the communities that the train runs through (which I have documented in other posts on this blog, and argued about extensively on Streetsblog). The full run on the line would also probably be about 15 minutes faster each way, which matters a great deal if you're considering commuting on the thing.

    It comes down to an emphasis on ridership versus an emphasis on safety, speed and the quality of life concerns of the people who live near the lines. My take is LA can't and shouldn't build rail everywhere. I think it should pick the most important places to build rail and do it really well. In the long run, if Metro does a good job, more funding will come. It'll take longer, but at the end, there will be a better rail system.

    But like I said before, I don't expect this to settle the debate.

  6. "There would also be less noise in the communities that the train runs through (which I have documented in other posts on this blog, and argued about extensively on Streetsblog)."

    I haven't seen your arguments, but my understanding is that elevated rail is actually the noisiest because the noise projects through the air over larger distances (instead of being absorbed by the earth.)

  7. For me, the biggest issue isn't grade-separated vs. at-grade. The biggest issue is street-running. That is the slowest form of at-grade. Like the Blue Line down Washington Blvd and Flower St. In areas like that, I wish they would just elevated it (or if there is money, put it into a cut-and-cover tunnel).

  8. @ ME32

    My preferred method of building elevated rail is with sound walls, otherwise it can cause serious noise issues. At-grade configurations generate noise from the rails themselves, the crossing bells, and the horn honks the trains do.

    One post I wrote in this blog about it is called "My Stroll Through Compton".