Metro Estimates West Santa Ana Branch Surface Heavy Rail Could Cost More Per Mile Than Purple Line Subway

For the West Santa Ana Branch, Metro staff is recommending three two-billion dollar tunnels, and ignoring a higher capacity surface heavy rail alternative. Map via Metro
For the West Santa Ana Branch, Metro staff is recommending three two-billion dollar tunnels, and ignoring a higher capacity surface heavy rail alternative. Map via Metro

Late last week, Metro released reports dismissing heavy rail as an option for its planned West Santa Ana Branch line. According to the Metro staff report, surface heavy rail on the WSAB would cost between $12.3 and $18.4 billion. The project is currently funded to the tune $4 billion, so, if Metro’s cost estimates were grounded in reality, surface heavy rail would be prohibitively expensive.

For a full background, see Streetsblog’s earlier editorial recommending Metro look at heavy rail.

Metro’s WSAB heavy rail estimates show a cost of $0.67 billion to $1 billion per mile. That means, on a per-mile basis, Metro is estimating that WSAB surface heavy rail could cost Metro more than it currently costs to tunnel heavy rail subway below Wilshire Boulevard.

That’s just not credible. Building a train on an existing ROW does not cost more than a whole new tunnel and tracks through downtown.

One problem appears to be that Metro’s estimate is, according to the staff report, “based on recent Metro projects” which sounds like Metro is doing a surface rail estimate based on heavy-rail subway project costs, because Metro has not built surface heavy rail. Surface heavy rail – on an existing right-of-way – costs orders of magnitude less than Metro’s upper project bound. Rail project costs vary around the U.S. and no two sites are exactly the same, which is why Metro should do some real math on this one, instead of blowing it off with bogus math. Metro’s low-end estimate would mean that the WSAB would cost more than double per mile than any surface heavy rail project built in the U.S.

Meanwhile, Metro staff is recommending three light-rail subway alignments through downtown estimated to cost $5.4-$5.8 billion, with the caveat that “Cost estimates are expected to increase, resulting from further defining the project during the environmental review and public, stakeholder and partner engagement processes.”

Each of Metro’s three recommended routes include at least two miles of tunneling under downtown Los Angeles. The cost for the two-mile tunnel would likely be a bit more than the cost-overrun-plagued long Regional Connector subway, a 1.9-mile long LRT subway currently, halfway built, with a total project cost of $1.75 billion.

The reason Streetsblog suggested a heavy rail alternative on the line is it can use the existing subway tunnel from the southern part of the Arts District to get into downtown–so no new tunnels are required.

The WSAB item will be on this week’s meetings of Metro’s Planning and Programming Committee and Construction Committee.

  • James Fujita

    In hindsight, they could have built the Red Line similar to Tokyo’s Hanzomon Line – overhead wire, but built more like an underground electric commuter train than a light rail line. Then the “surface 3rd rail” issue wouldn’t be a problem. Oh well.

  • Roger R.

    You can run 3rd rail powered trains on, below, or above ground. It’s done all over the world, in a variety of configurations. The LIRR, MetroNorth, the Chicago El, the Boston Blue Line, the London Overground, BART. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wckuXsTwegM

  • James Fujita

    I didn’t think BART had any grade crossings; I thought it was all very
    controlled with fences, underpasses and elevated sections. But yes, I see your point that it is technically possible to do surface third-rail. However, those other systems you mentioned are older systems. Metro or the FTA may be worried about safety.

  • Roger R.

    “I didn’t think BART had any grade crossings; I thought it was all very controlled with fences, underpasses and elevated sections.” It is. So what? That’s just another option. Or you can do this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chiZwesVhtY&feature=youtu.be

  • Ben Phelps

    Hey Roger- I just don’t know if Metro has this imagination.

  • Ben Phelps

    You should post the FIRST video to Steve Hymon. Shows at-grade crossing of third-rail train.

  • Randy O’Toole, not the greatest supporter of Rail Transit in America, chides the RTD A-Line on Denver, which runs to the current Denver Airport, for costing $52 Million per mile (USD 1.2 Billion divided by 23 miles).

    The line involved using existing right of way like WSAB *and* building new corridor, and that project is *the reason* why Phil Washington was recruited by Metro Los Angeles from Denver’s RTD.

    Surely the same numbers pencil out here, especially given that the ROW is already in Metro’s possession (Thanks again Baxter Ward!) and this is NOT requiring compliance with the more expensive FRA standards Denver had to meet.

    https://pagetwo.completecolorado.com/2016/05/31/otoole-taking-rtds-billion-dollar-a-train/

  • But them pitchers is from a furrin’ country that’s not Murica!

    We don’t do that here in God’s Country!!

    Oh wait a sec:

    https://flic.kr/p/9A5rTz

  • Also happens in London on the Overground:

    https://youtu.be/LIrtcRzY-j4

  • But of course that’s a new-fangled stuff!

    Well except it isn’t!

  • Boston Blue Line switches to Pantograph at Maverick or Airport (see below) and has no public grade crossings, IIRC. Of course the Blue Line is a converted streetcar line and so their rolling stock is similar in size to the Los Angeles LRT car dimensions.

  • This is something I first heard described at a Metro Citizens’ Advisory Board meeting at least ten years ago. It should be submitted as a comment as an option deserving further study.

  • Joel Villasenor

    BART here in the Bay Area is a heavy rail system with several elevated, at grade, and underground portions. I just couldn’t imagine BART running short light rail cars as opposed to the longer heavy rail cars that hold more people. The system here is already overloaded with demand.

  • Andrew

    Building out the heavy rail system on new lines is stupid. Most of the lines are light rail, so it makes sense to keep that going since cars, personnel, etc. are interchangeable. One of the benefits of the West Santa Ana branch is the possibility to route trains onto either the Blue Line or West Santa Ana line during construction, accidents, etc. If the lines use different cars, that major benefit disappears.

  • Vooch

    $4 billion dollars ( the cost of 2 short tunnels ) would pay for EIGHT THOUSAND miles of PBLs.

    what would increase mobility more ?

  • James Fujita

    OK, so you’ve proven through the power of snark that a third-rail train can convert into a overhead-wire train. (Most nerdy M.A.S.K. vehicle ever, BTW.)

    And you’ve proven that third-rail can coast across grade crossings. I highly suspect that the old third-rail crossings have been grandfathered in, rather than approved by current FTA or FRA.

    That still leaves the question of how much will a Red Line equipment conversion cost. The whole point of this heavy rail extension is to save money over Plan G, which I still like.

  • James Fujita

    The A-Line sounds good, although from what I’ve seen, the equipment they use doesn’t have enough doors.

    It’s also not a Transformer, which you would need to hook up WSAB with the Red Line – unless Metro wires up the Red Line tunnels.

  • Mike

    I sometimes wonder if we have the expertise in this country to properly design rail projects

  • Richard

    Perhaps the Silver line in DC would be a good comparison. It’s heavy rail on a mostly existing ROW. 11.7 miles, 6.8 billion dollars.

    Stations would be a little longer, but there are less grade crossings.

  • Richard

    The A line in Denver does have a new 3 mile tunnel under downtown…. Easily the most expensive single part of the WSAB’s growing costs

  • J V

    SAME.

  • Kyle Jonathan Chang
  • The A-line in Denver runs in a tunnel? Where?

  • Richard

    somehow my edit deleted the ‘not’

  • The A-line uses FRA-compliant EMUs which were ordered jointly from Rotem by Denver and Philadelphia. They are “Silverliner V” (where V is roman numeral 5).

    You can add pantographs to existing cars, or add them to the yet-to-be-built CRRC cars.

  • The Joe and Roger proposal involves hooking up the WSAB to the Art District area/Division 20 tracks of the Red/Purple Lines. Is there any tunneling involved? It is the option that runs Light Rail to the 7th/Metro Center area (Option G) that involves tunneling as I understand things.

  • The new Red/Purple line fleet from Communist China has not been built yet. Add a pantograph or add the capability to add a pantograph later on in the design of these new cars.

    You may have the small set of Breda cars that can’t go south of Division 20. Easy to work around.

  • James Fujita

    I had to look the Silver Line up, but it sounds good. No crossings would certainly be less.

  • Another item that needs to be put into the costs is the savings of being able to use the existing HRT maintenance facilities at Division 20 in the Art District. That will remove the need to build a new maintenance facility for Light Rail trains in Bellflower as is being proposed by the WSAB reports on Metro.net

  • The Silver Line involves/involved tunnels at Tyson’s Corner, a lot of elevated viaducts, and expensive freeway (Dulles Toll Road) median stations. Not really comparable.

  • BigNoel

    My question is how many trains does LA Metro plan to run through either their heavy rail tunnels under Los Angeles or the Regional Connector once finished for Light Rail. The generally accepted minimum headway for transit rail is a train every 90 seconds for 40 trains an hour. How many trains an hour does LA Metro plan to run in either tunnel? For now the Red and Purple Lines run about every 10 minutes for about 12 trains per hour 5 minutes apart in each direction. Even if you doubled that number that’s a train every 2.5 minutes for 24 trains an hour. That leaves 16 trains an hour capacity to run a third service through either of these tunnels for 40 trains 90 seconds apart. LA Metro will likely run longer trains before they would need to run trains with headways under 3 minutes, particularly with heavy rail.

  • stevehymon

    We thought this post about the cost of the WSAB needs clarification. In particular:

    Metro never said its cost estimate for heavy rail for the West Santa Ana Branch was for a surface heavy rail project. You wrote: “According to the Metro staff report, surface heavy rail on the WSAB would cost between $12.3 and $18.4 billion. The project is currently funded to the tune $4 billion, so, if Metro’s cost estimates were grounded in reality, surface heavy rail would be prohibitively expensive.”

    From the staff report:

    “Briefings, meetings, presentations and comment letters received from stakeholders in the northern portion of the project corridor yielded interest in additional alignments and an interest in having Metro consider heavy rail transit as the mode for WSAB. A rough order of magnitude (ROM) cost for a 20- mile WSAB heavy rail alignment based on recent Metro projects was prepared and found the cost to range between $12.3B and $18.4B. It has also been determined, in consultation with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), that the environmental process would need to be restarted, thereby impacting the project schedule.”

    And from our response to Streetsblog on The Source last night:

    “Here is the answer to your question about how the cost estimate was calculated for heavy rail for the WSAB:
    Without the benefit of reengineering and redesigning the project for heavy rail (HRT), Metro took the most recent costs we have for Metro tunneling projects. For aerial we applied the industry norm that aerial is approximately two-thirds the cost of tunneling. We then assumed that all 20 miles of WSAB would need to be grade separated, hence the range — all aerial or all underground.
    We assumed that a heavy rail alternative could not cross intersections at street level due to safety and other potential impacts. There are about 83 intersections along the entire 20-mile alignment, meaning that it would be difficult to run the line at street level for any length. Finally, there are equity considerations about what it would mean to run HRT through Southeast L.A. County at grade.”
    Nowhere in either the staff report or the blog post does it say the cost estimate was based on surface heavy rail.
    2. Streetsblog wrote:
    “Metro’s WSAB heavy rail estimates show a cost of $0.67 billion to $1 billion per mile. That means, on a per-mile basis, Metro is estimating that WSAB surface heavy rail could cost Metro more than it currently costs to tunnel heavy rail subway below Wilshire Boulevard.”
    The only heavy rail project that Metro is currently building is the Purple Line Extension — with sections 1 and 2 under construction. Section 1 is 3.92 miles long and has a budget of $3.154 billion. Section 2 is 2.59 miles and has a budget of $2.53 billion. That works out to $873 million per mile. (You can find current project budget estimates in this monthly presentation to the Metro Board’s Construction Committee: http://metro.legistar1.com/metro/attachments/070651a3-65df-4d48-a5cf-163c72692353.pdf)
    Thus the Streetsblog statement that that WSAB surface rail could cost more is misleading for two reasons. One, as mentioned above, the Metro cost estimate is not for a surface heavy rail project. Two, $0.67 billion per mile ($670 million) is less than $873 million per mile.
    We are well aware that different media and stakeholders are going to advocate for a variety of alternatives for this project and others — and that’s fine. However, the Metro cost estimate for heavy rail is not based on an entirely surface rail project and that the low-end range of the cost estimate Metro provided is less than the per mile budget of our current heavy rail project.

    Steve Hymon
    Metro

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