Refurbished A Line Off to Rough Start, Delays All Too Common

Monday's Evening rush hour crowds at 7th Street Station. Metro A and E Lines suffered major delays due to power issues. Photo by Rafael Vega
Monday's Evening rush hour crowds at 7th Street Station. Metro A and E Lines suffered major delays due to power issues. Photo by Rafael Vega

It has been a rough couple of weeks for the newly opened Metro A Line. The former Blue Line is supposed to have been faster and more reliable, but operations have instead been plagued by numerous breakdowns and delays.

On November 2, Metro re-opened the refurbished Blue Line, renaming it the A Line. Portions of the line had been closed since late January for the $350 million “New Blue” refurbishment project. New Blue’s completion was delayed more than a month from the initially announced “late September” anticipated completion.

The New Blue improvements are difficult to see. There are new switches, new signal systems, refurbished overhead wires, some new rails, and upgrades to the power system, but the new A Line looks pretty much the same as the old Blue Line. What riders should experience is improved travel times and better reliability.

Since at least 2013, the Blue Line timetable showed a 58-minute end-to-end trip. In 2017, Metro CEO Phil Washington pledged to reduce downtown L.A. to downtown Long Beach trip travel time by 10 minutes. Last month, Washington announced that A Line end-to-end trips would be just seven minutes faster – 51 minutes. The A Line schedule shows a 53-minute trip, only a five-minute improvement. It is anecdotal, but earlier this week SBLA timed trips taking 58 and 54 minutes. Metro has improved travel times somewhat, but has been unable to make these improvements consistent.

The trains are not much faster, but what about reliability?

Not good. At least not yet.

The Long Beach Post reported that “rider after rider is expressing frustration, anger, and stress” over A Line performance.

Metro CEO Phil Washington responded to concerns authoring a LB Post editorial where he acknowledged “some startup hiccups” that Metro is “working aggressively to resolve.” Washington asserted that the situation is getting better, citing that “Service has improved over the last few days.”

But then on Monday, hundreds of evening rush hour A and E Line riders were temporarily stranded in downtown L.A. due to a “power issue at 7th/Metro.”

And that was just the biggest of four A Line outages that occurred on Monday.

In just 19 days of operation, the A Line has experienced 24 significant outages (per Metro’s rider alerts):

So far alert-free days are less common than alert days. Many days see multiple alerts. Many downtown L.A. issues impact E (former Expo) Line riders who share the same tracks.

These outages are attributable to various causes.

In the Post editorial, Washington seemed to shift the blame to factors outside the agency’s control:

…riders should recognize that there are a lot of factors that can affect our train schedules, including competing car traffic, accidents, emergencies and police activities. We are working through them.

In regard to travel times, we are working with the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach to prioritize train service through intersections which, when completed, should yield additional travel time benefits.

In an email to SBLA, Metro spokesperson Brian Haas similarly asserted that:

The majority of service alerts and disruptions since have largely been unrelated to the operation of the A Line, such as a non-Metro-related vehicle crash Monday morning that shut down part of the A Line for more than three hours while it was being cleaned up. Those types of service disruptions are unfortunate, but out of Metro’s control.

The alerts listed above appear to tell a somewhat different story.

Many outages stem from the systems that New Blue refurbished: signals and power supply. Very few of these (two cars and one trespasser – in italics above) are clearly attributable to “competing car traffic, accidents, emergencies, and police activities.”

Washington wrote that, “A sober assessment of our relaunch reveals that 99 percent of our intensive renovation work was successful” and that “It’s like learning a new dance as Metro train operators and controllers adjust to the different service plan.”

But it certainly appears that the A Line reopening was rushed. The new systems were not quite ready.

Today, A Line riders are frustrated and disappointed. They endured an aging line, then closures, and now these operations issues. Imagine that newly opened road or freeway experienced so many “hiccups.” Drivers would not tolerate it. Recently, Westside drivers threatened to  recall L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin over a few minutes delay. But so-called “captive” transit riders are expected to put up with “new dance” delays.

In the near term, the state of good repair should mean a more reliable A Line. Hopefully Metro will make this consistency happen very soon – before too many riders jump ship. Once Metro gets past the hiccups, new power supply and signal systems will be more reliable than the 30-year-old ones they replaced.

In the long run, Phil Washington still needs to make good on his pledge to save A Line riders more time. Metro needs to work diligently with cities to continue to prioritize trains to improve travel times. This is predominantly in downtown Los Angeles, where A and E Lines share tracks. Work is already underway to maximize E Line signal prioritization. Frequent trains there – carrying hundreds of riders – still get delayed due to L.A. City catering to single-occupant vehicles. L.A.’s climate mayor Eric Garcetti needs to think bigger and not be too timid to restrict car traffic to improve A and E Line service.

For decades the Blue Line has been at the heart of Metro’s – and even the region’s – transportation systems. The line posted Metro’s highest ridership numbers while serving many disenfranchised neighborhoods. The A Line needs to up its game if it is to reliably function at the core of a world class transit network.

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