Eyes on the Street: Metro Blue Line Improvements Take Shape in South L.A.

"Heads Up! Watch for Trains!" is seen on the train passing the memorial for Gilberto Reynaga, struck down by a Blue Line train at age 13 in 1999. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
"Heads Up! Watch for Trains!" is seen on the train passing the memorial for Gilberto Reynaga, struck down by a Blue Line train at age 13 in 1999. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Late last year, Metro finished pedestrian and other safety upgrades to eight intersections along the Blue Line.

The improvements were part of the $1.1 billion’s worth of upgrades to the line that have been underway since 2014. Thus far, overhead lines have been replaced, platforms have been improved, and pedestrian access has been made safer in Compton and Long Beach. Pending improvements include the replacement of the 27-year-old trains, changes to signalization to shorten travel times to downtown L.A. by 5 to 10 minutes, and finishing pedestrian improvements throughout South L.A. and the County [Other short-term fixes proposed to make merging of the Expo and Blue Lines smoother are separate but also much needed.]

The pedestrian improvements finally taking shape at the remaining 19 intersections – 12 of which are in South L.A. – have been in the works for some time and continue to prove challenging.

I first wrote about them in 2013, after watching Vijay Khawani, Director for Corporate Safety, page through a thick packet of possible reconfigurations for intersections where Blue Line tracks paralleled one or two sets of Union Pacific Railroad’s (UPRR) freight tracks.

The fact that Long Beach Boulevard was split by four sets of parallel tracks complicated things in South L.A., Khawani told me then.

For one, there wasn’t much room to implement fixes like pedestrian swing gates. Without significant interventions to many of the intersections and their crossings, he suggested, wheelchair-bound pedestrians might have to roll back into the intersection just to open such a gate.

A new curb cut in the crossing at 48th illustrates how little room there is for pedestrians along Long Beach Blvd. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
A curb cut in the crossing at 48th illustrates how little room there is for pedestrians to maneuver along Long Beach Blvd. The crossing is in the process of being upgraded (the active pedestrian gate next to the cone is new).  Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Where Metro is adding new active pedestrian gates but is unable to widen narrow spaces, it is lengthening them to create room for pedestrians to maneuver more easily (and ensure ADA compliance).

Above, Metro has added concrete slabs to the crossing at 48th Street. The slabs extend to the right on the far tracks (where the yellow tape is). According to plans for the intersection (below), there should also be some extension of paving along the UPRR tracks.

Changes are on the way at 27 at-grade crossings along the Blue Line, adding a total of 62 gates. The original project would have only allowed for 19 intersections to see improvements and only 11 active pedestrian gates. Source: Metro
Changes are on the way at 27 at-grade crossings along the Blue Line, adding a total of 62 gates. The original project would have only allowed for 19 intersections to see improvements and only 11 active pedestrian gates. Source: Metro

The finished product will look something like the image below from 92nd and Graham – a pedestrian swing gate, a lengthened crossing, and an active pedestrian gate (arm that lowers) that allows for straight-ahead passage when the path is clear.

New pedestrian gates are being installed along the Blue Line through South Los Angeles. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
New gates and pedestrian barriers appear at the crossing at 92nd and Graham. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

Significantly, the improvements are going in on all four corners of each intersection, and extending to the far curbs on each side along Long Beach Avenue. Metro even went so far as to use eminent domain to acquire corner space at Florence in order to be able to implement pedestrian gates there.

At present, where pedestrian barriers exist, they are only on the Metro side.

This has made it easy for pedestrians and cyclists to move onto the tracks while trains approached. Notably, this has also been considered to blame in a number of collisions, including that of middle-schooler Gilberto Reynaga, killed in 1999 when he clambered over a stopped freight train at 55th and Long Beach Ave. only to be hit by a passing Blue Line train. [See more in-depth discussion of collisions, safety issues here and here.]

Pedestrians cross the Union Pacific tracks at Vernon in 2013, even as a Blue Line train approaches. Meanwhile, the cyclist remains behind the pedestrian barrier. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
Pedestrians cross the Union Pacific (near) tracks at Florence in 2013, even as a Blue Line train approaches on the far tracks. Meanwhile, the cyclist remains behind the pedestrian barrier. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.

The lack of infrastructure, it turns out, was also by design, Khawani informed me: Union Pacific constituted the other major hurdle to upgrades.

Fearing that allowing Metro to install anything more than the most basic of safety protections alongside UPRR’s right-of-way (ROW) would trigger an avalanche of demands for them to do the same along the thousands of miles of tracks they manage across the country, UPRR consistently pushed back against Metro’s plans to improve intersections where UPRR tracks paralleled the Blue Line. So much so that when the plan to make pedestrian improvements was first floated in 2012 (in response to an uptick in collisions along the Blue Line that year), the project was limited to targeting 19 intersections and implementing just 11 active pedestrian gates.

The struggle to get UPRR to take pedestrian safety seriously can be seen in Metro’s Blue Line Safety Task Force report from November of 2012. Where input from Metro, LADOT, the City of Long Beach, and the City of L.A. seemed to indicate a commitment to the installation of upgrades at the intersections hosting multiple sets of tracks, UPRR’s comments suggested otherwise. [Comments begin on p. 6.]

I'm not sure this would really work for the Blue Line. Source: PhillyH20
I’m not sure this what one would call a reasonable solution to the Blue Line’s safety issues. Source: PhillyH20

Some of the UPRR comments about potential upgrades contained the complaints that people would probably tamper with pedestrian gates (rendering them inoperable) or ignore them altogether (rendering them a waste). Other comments, apparently made in all seriousness, endorsed the notion that Metro look into “cowcatchers” for the front of its trains so as to minimize pedestrian deaths (at right). And UPRR reiterated several times that it expected to be reimbursed for all costs related to the design, construction, and maintenance of any infrastructure on its side of the tracks.

It seemed that UPRR would have its way until about September of 2014, when the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) intervened. The CPUC ultimately required not only that UPRR implement the same upgrades on both sides of the ROW, but that Metro go the full distance in overhauling all 27 intersections to install the full range of safety measures currently required on new construction.

Doing so raised the costs of project substantially and further slowed it down. Instead of sending out the RFP as planned in 2013, Metro had to return to the drawing board to design a whole new set of interventions. The cost for the project, initially estimated at just under $8 million, ballooned to $30,175,000. [Find the cost breakdown here.]

Despite the fact that the Blue Line has, with 51 fatalities between 2010 and early 2015, proven three times more deadly than the Expo and Pasadena Gold Lines combined, Metro’s own 2015 discussion of the impact of these safety improvements is rather cold-hearted. The reason for this, it appears, is due to Federal Department of Transportation guidelines on how to evaluate policy alternatives and calculate the value of statistical lives saved. But it makes for a pretty awful read.

Essentially, Metro notes that the

costs of defense and payments to injured pedestrians or survivors have been very small, because of the comparative negligence of decedents and injured parties as well as existing statutory immunities for rail design. The average annual costs total $679,448, with $310,424 spent on Workers’ Compensation and $369,024 spent on third parties. These costs include legal expenses, payments to third parties, temporary and permanent disability payments to Metro workers, and medical costs, but exclude other unallocated expenses such as Metro staff time to administer or investigate the incident, Sheriff costs, and others. Therefore, expected financial benefits to Metro from safety improvements on the [Blue Line] today are relatively small, although risks are growing.

There are other benefits to reducing fatal and non-fatal pedestrian collisions, too, Metro adds, including “fewer service disruptions, the opportunity cost of investigation and administration and the significant expense of providing medical care and disability benefits to highly traumatized rail operators, some of whom never return to work.”

In short, according to the calculations found in attachment D, available here, saving lives will save the city approximately $202 million over 25 years.

This project is not about being warm and fuzzy, in other words.

So be it.

Cold-hearted or not, the takeaway is that Metro will not be relying on cowcatchers and, some time later this year, the communities along the Blue Line will finally have the safety improvements they should have had all along. And that is a good thing.

At Florence, a pedestrian still has to travel a pretty good distance to get across the tracks. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
At Florence, a pedestrian still has to travel a pretty good distance to get across the tracks. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog L.A.
  • Kyle

    “Pending improvements include the replacement of the 27-year-old trains, changes to signalization to shorten travel times to downtown L.A. by 5 to 10 minutes”

    When did changes to signalization get added to the project? That’s great news! Any word on what the changes will entail (full preemption, or just priority, and where)?

  • Sahra Sulaiman

    I got a press release from Mayor Garcia that mentioned the signalization. As far as I am aware, that was always part of the $1.1 billion project. At least, improvements that would shorten travel time by a handful of minutes. The more significant signalization and coordination with the Expo Line that they’re speaking about is far more recent. I linked to the story Joe wrote about that in February. The interventions he mentions are mostly longer term and would require some serious revamping of how the trains are traveling or perhaps the closure of streets. I don’t believe anything has been made definite yet.

  • Sahra Sulaiman

    But no, I don’t have specifics on signalization (to answer your question more directly…).

  • N Maddy

    What is that lone gate in the picture at the 93rd st crossing? That is the most ridiculous waste of material/money/time! I cannot see how that can be considered an improvement.

  • sahra

    @N Maddy It looks bizarre til the pedestrian gate and the gates blocking traffic come down at the same time. Together, they block folks from entering the tracks while a train is passing through. Before now, it was too easy for pedestrians to enter the tracks while a train was moving through on the far tracks. There was a man killed at this specific intersection who actually rode his bike into the train while it was already moving through the intersection. They will still be able to get around the the gates if they want, but they will have to work a little harder to do it.

  • davistrain

    A quote from the late George Carlin: “This item demonstrates how stupid the average American is. Every ninety minutes someone in this country is hit by a train. A train, okay? Trains are on tracks; they can’t come and get you. They can’t surprise you when you step off a curb. You have to go to them. Got that?”

  • calwatch

    The problem is that those stupid people get killed or their cars get crushed and that delays service for everyone else. Also, there are confused people who get on tracks and get hit unintentionally. This Metro board report is an interesting one on photo enforcement and one person who got confused, fought the law, and won: http://boardarchives.metro.net/BoardBox/2017/170309_Resolution_Government_Code_Claim_of_William_Taylor_and_Metros_Rail_Photo_Enforcement_Program.pdf

  • Erik Griswold

    It is a great shame that LACTC (the predecessor of Metro which obtained the Right-of-Way and built the Blue Line) did not purchase the entire “Roar of the Four” from the Southern Pacific, which had inherited the line from their subsidiary the Pacific Electric. The SP kept the two tracks not used by the Blue Line and in the 1990s merged with the Nebraska-based Union Pacific, resulting in the situation we have today. In addition, when the Pacific Electric ran freight trains, they used small electric locomotives (“motors” that used trolley poles) and at the time the (short) trains were made up mostly of box cars, not the double-stack container trains we see today. I’d love to see Metro at least openly attempt to purchase the UPRR tracks from UP, so that they would have control over them and could limit the number and/or intensity of the freight traffic, and push most of it over to the roughly parallel Alameda Corridor.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Balancing Safety, Security, and Saturation on the Blue Line

|
“Nobody uses it,” Liz told me. “There’s dookies in there!” She was referring to the 53rd St. pedestrian bridge connecting the two halves of the Pueblo del Rio housing development split by the four sets of Blue Line and Pacific Rail train tracks. Dookies, piss, and people waiting to relieve you of your possessions — […]