For the USC and Exposition Park neighborhoods in Los Angeles
by Ben Poston and Laura J. Nelson
A major selling point for the Expo Line extension has been the travel time between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica, which officials touted would be comparable to driving in sluggish rush-hour traffic on the 10 Freeway.
But in June, its first full month of operation, the 15.2-mile Expo Line was the least timely route in the Los Angeles County rail system, according to a Los Angeles Times review of Metropolitan Transportation Authority data. During evening rush hour, more than one-third of trains arrived at least five minutes behind schedule.
Early performance issues have not dimmed L.A.’s enthusiasm for the first rail line to the Westside in six decades. Since the $1.5-billion extension’s debut, weekday trips have risen by 40% and weekend trips have soared by more than half as commuters and beachgoers seek an alternative to driving.
But riders have also griped about punctuality problems, as well as crowded conditions and packed platforms caused by a shortage of rail cars.
The Expo Line’s growing pains underscore the challenges Metro faces as its rail system rapidly expands. More than 18 miles of track have been opened in the last six months, with 17 more miles slated to open within the next decade.
While most Expo Line delays are not serious enough to hobble the system, recurring reliability problems undermine one of Metro’s key selling points: that taking the train is a convenient, dependable alternative to driving.
Just 25% of eastbound trains made the trip from Santa Monica to downtown L.A. in the scheduled time of 47 minutes, the Times analysis found. Trains heading west fared better, with 58% of trains pulling into downtown Santa Monica on time or early.
Most late trains arrive within 15 minutes of their scheduled time, but some delays linked to disabled train cars or electrical problems can drag on much longer.
Metro does not consider a train late until it has missed its scheduled arrival time by five minutes. By that standard, 24% of Expo Line trains were late in June, the data show. In contrast, 17% of Gold Line trains and 16% of Blue Line trains were late.
Early schedule issues aren’t uncommon for a new rail line, Metro officials say. Operators often aren’t familiar with the quirks of the route yet, and new transit riders may prevent trains from leaving by blocking the doors or jumping onto a crowded train.
If the Expo Line is still consistently running late at the end of the year, officials will add time to the schedules, Chief Operating Officer Jim Gallagher said. That change would “reflect reality,” he said, and would discourage operators from doing anything unsafe to try to make up for lost minutes.
Some early problems along the Expo Line have stemmed from “the vagaries of traffic,” Gallagher said, including in West L.A. and Santa Monica, where drivers are still adjusting to trains passing through intersections.
Unlike rail networks in other major U.S. cities, much of L.A.’s 105-mile passenger rail system runs at street level, including several portions of the Expo Line. Building the system above ground has lowered the cost of construction, but it also means that the region’s infamous traffic can dictate the speed of the trains, particularly during rush hour.
In some instances, drivers waiting at red lights have stopped on the train tracks and held up service, he said.
“These conditions will clear up once people realize that yes, there’s a train there every few minutes,” Gallagher said.
Trains running near downtown Los Angeles often stop at traffic lights along Exposition Boulevard. Although trains can reach speeds of up to 60 mph, they must follow the posted limit for drivers, which is mostly 35 mph.
Andy Kwan, 23, takes the train most days from Pasadena to his engineering job in West L.A. Commuting by train is preferable to driving, he said, but he hates watching the train slow to a stop near USC and downtown.
“It’s frustrating when you know you could be going faster, especially when it feels like cars are getting priority,” Kwan said.
Officials said Metro’s most congested junction, where the Blue Line and Expo Line converge onto a shared track, has also posed problems.
Because Blue Line trains are often longer than a city block and can obstruct two intersections at once, they receive the first go-ahead signal through the Washington Boulevard crossing. Expo Line trains — which are mostly shorter — wait, sometimes idling for several minutes.
At the end of this year, Metro plans to double the frequency of Expo Line trains to every six minutes, meaning a train will pass through the juncture every 90 seconds.
Accurate schedules will only become more important as the Metro rail system continues to grow, officials said.
Over the next decade, Metro plans to connect Mid-City to Westchester by rail, tunnel further west along the Wilshire subway to Beverly Hills and Century City, and knit together three light-rail lines in downtown Los Angeles.
The downtown project, known as the Regional Connector, will allow light-rail trains to travel seamlessly from Azusa to Long Beach and from East L.A. to Santa Monica without stopping. It will also dramatically increase the number of trains passing through shared tunnels beneath downtown.
“This system is going to get more complicated and increasingly difficult to manage,” Gallagher said. “It’s going to take a lot of brainpower on our part to keep those trains on time.”
In June, some Expo Line trains were affected by “the usual lineup of things that are unpredictable,” Gallagher said, including a surge in the power supply to the line’s overhead wires, a person struck by a train, and a suspicious package found at a station.
While a late train can be irritating, customers care more about frequency than they do about the train’s schedule down to the minute, Metro spokeswoman Pauletta Tonilas said.
“If I’m waiting at the stop and the timetable says it’s going to come at 7:31, and it comes at 7:34, and there’s another that comes another 12 minutes after that, what do I care?” Tonilas said. “It’s coming every 12 minutes.”
When the Expo Line extension first opened, Lisette Perez tried to time her departure from her office near the Santa Monica College station so she wouldn’t have to wait long for a train.
But trains ran behind schedule frequently enough that she often waited longer than expected, she said, and checking the schedule “seemed like a waste of effort.”.
Now, she downloads a podcast before she leaves the office, and just gets on the first train that arrives.
Some delays may stem from passengers preventing the doors from closing as they rush onto the train, or operators who hold a train for a few moments longer to wait for a straggler, Tonilas said.
“If you have that happen 10 to 20 times per day, that does have an effect,” she said.
The analysis also found thousands of stops on the Expo Line where trains arrived early. But if those trains then also leave early, that can frustrate commuters who expect it to depart on time and instead just miss it.
Operators on trains that are running early are trained to wait at certain stations until their departure time matches the schedule, Gallagher said. Still, he said, the volume of early trains suggests that that’s not always happening.
“We coach them to depart on schedule,” Gallagher said, “but the data is telling us that our coaching needs some coaching.”