Tag Archives: Gold Line

Gold Line Foothill 2B on the Cheap

In my post on the virtues of LA’s LRT system, I noted that from a network perspective, you want to avoid building anticipatory lines and start with where you already have demand. The Gold Line Foothill Extension Phase 2B is a little weak in that regard; the northern edges of the San Gabriel Valley are lower density (by LA standards, though still higher than most US suburbs). In theory you could allow a lot of new development there by upzoning, but who knows if it will happen? Indeed, the project has many features that should give you pause: extension for the sake of extension, lower density areas, shared ROW and expensive infrastructure (long flyovers at Lone Hill Av and Towne Av) to accommodate low-volume freight without upsetting FRA bureaucrats.

As a result of this, the project has been taking some licks on Twitter recently from folks like Erik Griswold and Market Urbanism. The momentum behind Phase 2B has been compared unfavorably to the lack of double-tracking and other improvements to Metrolink’s San Bernardino Line. However, between LA Union Station and La Verne, these routes don’t serve the same places. The obvious advantage of Metrolink is that it will (should) be a much faster ride from Pomona to LA Union Station, serving the middle of the San Gabriel Valley (Covina, Baldwin Park, and El Monte). The Gold Line serves Pasadena, a regional node (and regional nodes are more important in LA than other cities), along with Northeast LA and the northern fringe of the San Gabriel Valley (Arcadia, Monrovia, Duarte, Irwindale, Azusa, Glendora,  and San Dimas).

So it seems like there is still value in a transit service along the corridor. However, since the nature and density of development aren’t right for full-blown LRT, we should consider a much more cost effective option. This would be sort of like the old “interurbans”, borrowing from shared infrastructure best practices in places like Karlsruhe.

I’d split the project into three sections:

  • Azusa/Citrus to Glendora (1.1 miles): this section would remain typical double-track LRT, and run on the same headways as the existing Gold Line.
  • Glendora to La Verne (5.8 miles): this section would be single-track with a single passing siding at San Dimas, and run on 15 minute peak headways.
  • La Verne to Montclair (5.3 miles): this section would operate over the existing Metrolink San Bernardino Line, which is presently all double-track, and run on 15 minute peak headways.

Note that throughout, I’m assuming the existing freight track and grade crossings between Azusa and La Verne are unsuitable for conversion to LRT operations, and must be replaced entirely. This may or may not be true.

Azusa/Citrus to Glendora

I’m a little more optimistic about the Gold Line to Azusa than some people. A huge new master-planned community, Rosedale Azusa, is under construction on the north side of Azusa/Citrus Station, and it will have a ton of apartments and townhomes on the part of the site closest to the station. Across the city line, Glendora just annexed some adjacent vacant land, suggesting that someone may have development plans in store there as well.

In terms of the development along the corridor, Glendora is pretty similar to Azusa. Therefore, I’d keep this section double-track, all at grade except for the diagonal crossing of the intersection of Grand and Foothill. The Glendora Station should be located at this intersection, which means it would have to be an elevated station. The reason that the station should be here, instead of at Vermont, is that this location facilitates a transfer to transit on Grand, one of the main north-south arterials in this part of the San Gabriel Valley. (I should add a rule to my network design principles: never build infrastructure that screws up an obvious future line.)

The freight track that’s been maintained from Azusa/Citrus west as part of Phase 2A would tie in to the LRT track just east of Azusa/Citrus. An at-grade runaround track would be provided at Glendora Station, since the viaduct grades would be too steep for freight.


This section would require track, signals, OCS, and traction power infrastructure similar to what’s proposed under the current Phase 2B plan.


Ok, so far all I’ve done is increase the cost of the project. Fortunately, we’ll more than make up for it on the rest of the corridor.

Glendora to La Verne

At almost 6 miles but with only one station, this portion runs through less intense development in Glendora, San Dimas, and La Verne.

This section should be built as single track, with the track located so that constructing a future second track would be easy. Since vehicle malfunctions most often occur at stations, the logical place for the sole siding is at San Dimas station. This station would be a center platform with pedestrian at-grade access, located just east of San Dimas Av. With a critical single-track section of just less than 5 miles, if we assume an average operating speed of 50 mph between Glendora and San Dimas, it will take a train 6 minutes to traverse this section. With 6 minutes eastbound, 6 minutes westbound, and some schedule pad, the target 15 minute headway is achievable.

We should also eliminate the dedicated freight track on this section. Freight can run at night or during midday on the same track as the LRT trains. The current design for this section has two long, costly flyovers, one each at Lone Hill Av and Towne Av, so that the exclusive freight track can run on the north side of the ROW and service customers on the north side of the track between those streets. The freight track runs on the south side in the rest of the project. It is illogical to spend so much money on exclusive track and grade separations for a freight branch currently serving one train per day, with little prospect for growth.

Significant cost savings can be achieved just through building only one shared track instead of two LRT tracks and one freight track, but there are additional savings that could be had in systems (a nebulous term that refers to signals, OCS, and traction power).

LA’s existing LRT network runs on fixed-block cab signals. Current LACMTA design criteria specify that the LRT branch lines (i.e. everything except the future Regional Connector and the existing Blue/Expo between 7th/Flower and the Flower/Washington junction) must be able to support 3 minute headways. Minimum headways are a major driver of costs in signal systems, because shorter headways require shorter blocks, which means more signal locations and all their expensive equipment. If we’re going for 15 minute headways, designing the signals for 3 minutes is overkill, and we could go with much longer blocks. Really, there’s no need to have any signal blocks between Glendora and La Verne, other than at the San Dimas siding.

We could take this a step further and say that we don’t really need cab signals – at all. Even the FRA (more on them later) allows you to run 59 mph with no signals and 79 mph without cab signals, speeds well above what would be necessary for this service. For the purposes of cost estimating, let’s say we have cab signals. I’m not willing to accept the risk of a train overrunning a signal at San Dimas, resulting in two trains heading towards each other on single track, with neither train being warned of the impending collision. Since all trains will presumably be stopping at San Dimas, we can put out a fixed approach signal heading into the station in each direction. On the five mile section between Glendora and San Dimas, we’ll need a few cut sections, which should be placed such that they don’t interfere with logical future infill stations, say at Loraine and Lone Hill.



The final cost savings we can squeeze out of this section is using spring switches instead of power machines. The switch is set up so that a spring holds the switch in the correct position for facing moves (trains that are heading towards the switch points, from the single-track to the double-track). For trailing moves (trains heading from the double-track to the single-track), the weight of the train pushes the switch points into the correct position, compressing the spring. Thanks to some railfans in Virginia, we have confirmation that spring switches are used on mainline LRT operations.

For traction power, we could save money by building fewer or smaller substations, since we won’t need as much juice to support 15 minute headways. The next step would be to consider eliminating electrification altogether, which I’ll address separately. For cost estimating, assume the line is electrified.


La Verne to Montclair

Between La Verne and Montclair, we already have two tracks. Headways on the San Bernardino Line are constrained by a long single-track section that’s stranded in the middle of the 10 between the 710 and El Monte. Fixing that is probably a billion dollar project, which won’t be happening anytime soon. So let’s make the most this double-track capacity and just run the Gold Line trains on these tracks.

Since we’re saving money elsewhere, why not make this project benefit Metrolink too? Today, the SB Line bumps up against Arrow Hwy just east of San Dimas Canyon, just across the street from the Gold Line corridor. The SB Line then curves south before meeting up with the Gold Line ROW east of White Av, after a 40 mph reverse curve that crosses Arrow Hwy at grade. The fix would be to swing the SB Line north onto the Gold Line ROW east of San Dimas Canyon. Arrow Hwy could fly over the SB Line on a new highway bridge; there are no intersections or driveways to preclude the bridge, and there’s plenty of ROW. I’m showing this as an optional cost. The Gold Line would merge with the SB Line here at a new interlocking.

The combined single-track railroad would cross Wheeler, A, D, E, and White at-grade, merging in with the existing double track section of the SB Line east of White. La Verne Station would be a center platform just west of E.


At Pomona, Claremont, and Montclair, new high level platforms would be needed for the Gold Line. At Montclair, a new siding track would be built on the north side of the ROW so that Gold Line trains could layover at the station without interfering with Metrolink operations. Fortunately, there’s an existing interlocking just across Monte Vista, so the siding track could be added to that interlocking rather than being an entirely new interlocking. The westbound home signal on the northernmost track would need to be relocated.


Again, for the purposes of cost estimating, assume that the line is electrified and uses cab signaling. I’ll explain electrification and signaling concerns like PTC in more detail below.



Avoiding the cost of electrification infrastructure is another way to save capital costs. The service could be operated with DMUs from Montclair to Glendora, with passengers transferring to the Gold Line there. The disadvantages are significant: forced transfers, introduction of new type of rolling stock, captive fleet, inability to interline with the Gold Line, and inability to change service patterns without incurring major capital costs.

There are also disadvantages to electrification: freight limitations due to wire height, and the introduction of traction return current on the SB Line between La Verne and Montclair.

To me, the advantages of electrification outweigh the drawbacks. It is undesirable to have a captive fleet of a new type of rolling stock, especially such a small fleet, and the transfer is a major inconvenience to passengers. Finally, it is bad form to lock in service patterns with hard infrastructure constraints.

Meanwhile, the disadvantages of electrification are relatively easy to address. It is possible to construct the OCS to be high enough to accommodate double stack freight clearances (22’-6”). For example, UTA’s Trax LRT system is set with a wire height of approximately 22’, which would allow for double-stack freight. I’m not sure if LACMTA’s existing LRT vehicles have pantographs capable of operating on wires that high, but it would be a reasonable assumption.

At any rate, between Glendora and La Verne, we’re talking about a minor dead-end freight branch line with low volume, all of which is local traffic. BNSF isn’t about to start running double-stack unit intermodal trains here like they do on the 91 Line. Between La Verne and Montclair, there’s probably a little more freight, but UP is running the majority of its traffic on the Los Angeles Sub and the Alhambra Sub. There aren’t any active customers between La Verne and Montclair, so any oversize items could be brought in from either the west via the Alhambra Sub or the east via the San Gabriel Sub. For the freight service that’s going to be operating here for the foreseeable future, 19’ of clearance would be just fine.

The existing signal system on the SB Line between La Verne and Montclair is probably not compatible with traction return current in the rails. The existing system most likely uses electronic track circuits, which use coded pulses of electricity in the rails to communicate information about track occupancy and signal aspects to adjacent signal locations. This system can be modified by adding equipment that uses a modulating frequency to distinguish the signal information from traction return and cab signal indications for trains. Cross bonds at signal block boundaries would also be required.

Platform Height, Length, and Width

Current LACMTA design standards call for LRT platforms to be built for level boarding (3.25’ above top of rail), long enough to accommodate three-car trains. Level boarding is absolutely the way to go, for legal reasons (ADA), moral reasons (equality of access), and practical reasons (boarding/alighting efficiency & vehicle interoperability).

However, three-car trains are probably overkill for service on this line, so I’m going with one-car trains. This does save a little money on construction costs. It should go without saying that space should be left to extend the platforms to three-car length in the future. If you want to get really chintzy, you could build wooden platforms, but for the sake of argument, I’m going to assume typical concrete platforms.

Level boarding platforms that comply with ADA requirements on the gap between an LRT vehicle would have a platform edge 54.77” (4’ 6.77”) off track center per LACMTA standards. These platforms are therefore not compatible with normal mainline passenger or freight equipment, which is up to 5’ 4” off track center. For Glendora and Montclair, which would be exclusive Gold Line use, that’s not an issue. For San Dimas Station, where freight would likely be run at night, the platform could be built with flip-up edges to allow passage of freight.

For La Verne, Pomona, and Claremont, that wouldn’t be acceptable, because Metrolink equipment needs to run at the same time as Gold Line equipment. These platforms could be designed with 5’ 8” clearance and platform extenders, similar to those that NYC MTA had at the old South Ferry station. Mechanical components are undesirable, especially at open stations, because they require diligent maintenance, but I don’t see a way around this that wouldn’t have high capital costs, like gauntlet tracks. (And really, it’s a symptom of how spoiled we are in the US that people would argue for millions of dollars in capital costs to avoid having to do regular maintenance.) I’ve included an allowance for platform extenders in the costs.

Service Pattern

By going with one-car trains, I’ve tipped off that I don’t plan on making the service a straight extension of some Gold Line trains. I propose that the new service run one-car trains between Montclair and Pasadena. An offsetting number of three-car Gold Line trains would short turn at Pasadena so that the number of trains on the line between Pasadena and Montclair would stay the same.

service pattern

The short turn three-car trains would turn at Sierra Madre Villa, where there’s already an interlocking just west of the station. To expedite the short turns, home signals would be added at the east end of the platform. The one-car trains would turn just south of Fillmore, where an interlocking and short new siding would be constructed at what appears to be a previous siding location. The overlap complicates operations, but it’s logical given that it results in all short turn trains serving all Pasadena stations. I’m assigning a capital cost here of $3m ($2m for signals, $500k for track, $500k for OCS & miscellaneous crap).


A more ideal setup would be as I’ve sketched below, because it would allow the short turn trains to diverge and merge without interfering with opposing traffic. There may be space for this if you do strip ROW takings to the north and south, but I’m not going to make that assumption.


A rapid transit service that has some vehicles turn back before the end of the route is more operationally challenging than one where all trains run to the end of the line. You’re trying to insert the short turn trains back into traffic quickly enough that they don’t delay following outbound trains, but without screwing up the inbound headways either. A scheme with all three-car trains, and some turning back at Glendora, would have one such location (Glendora). The scheme proposed above has two such locations (Glendora and Pasadena) and is therefore a little trickier.

However, it offers considerable savings on the capital cost side because it allows shorter platforms and reduces the size of the vehicle fleet needed to operate the service. It also reduces traction power loads, which reduces the costs of substations. There are operations cost savings as well, since a one-car service will use less electricity. (The operations costs won’t be 1/3 of a three-car train, since much of the cost is the labor of the driver.)

Not to short change the operational challenge of running this type of service pattern, but if the MBTA can make the Green Line work, with its 90-second headways, multiple turnback locations, and merges from branch lines that aren’t even under central control, we can make this work.

Regulation Protestation

You didn’t think I would just come out and propose some crazy Euro scheme without at least considering the US-specific regulations that have precluded this type of service, did you?

Freight Clearances

First of all, on the freight side, if UP has retained final say over freight clearances on the SB Line, that is a potential fatal flaw, because it would be virtually impossible to overrule them. Getting CPUC to approve the clearances might be challenging enough. The cost of building gauntlet tracks at La Verne, Pomona, and Claremont would probably exceed what could be justified by expected ridership. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that flip-up platform edges are acceptable.

PTC and Cab Signals

We’re getting to some genuine weirdness here. But let’s think everything through.

  • LRT trains won’t interface with the PTC system. But they’ll be forced to stop by the cab signals, so they won’t rear end each other or Metrolink trains.
  • Metrolink trains won’t interface with the cab signals. But they’ll be forced to stop by the PTC system.
  • If a Metrolink train is accidentally dispatched onto the Gold Line, it will be stopped by a PTC wayside unit fixed at stop. (Freight running at night would be stopped by the PTC and call dispatch for permission to proceed.)
  • If a Gold Line train is accidentally dispatched to the west of La Verne or east of Montclair, it will be stopped by getting no cab signal. (Electrification infrastructure should extend just far enough west and east to allow the train to remain on the wire in the event of such a mishap.)

That leaves the issue of the Gold Line interface with the “kitchen sink” functionalities of PTC – the miscellaneous goodies that have nothing to do with the Chatsworth crash that supposedly moved Congress to pass the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. In this case, that means overspeed derailments and work zone incursions.

The normal speed profile of this section of track would be enforced by the cab signals. But any slow orders would not; nor would temporary speed restrictions for work zones. Fitting the LRT fleet with PTC equipment would cost a lot of money. Can’t we just admit that PTC was a huge boondoggle, and. . .

(muffled sounds of struggling as FRA goons drag me out into the streets of Palms and beat me with spare Colorado Railcar parts)

Ok, where was I? If we can’t get an exemption from PTC functionality for the LRT trains, it should theoretically be possible to interface the PTC system with the cab signals, and use software to drop the cab signal when there’s a slow order or work zone. I’m not a huge fan of unique installations like that but as a last ditch solution, it might be acceptable.

Current Wars

There is one other issue that I’ve ignored so far: any future Metrolink electrification would likely use that punk Tesla’s AC distribution system, 2x 25 kV, while LRT uses DC at 750 V. You could write volumes on it, but for now, note that DC systems have proven to be the most common choice for LRT, while 2x 25 kV AC is the standard for commuter rail and intercity trains. Ultimately, this problem will have to be solved by having a small dedicated fleet of trains for this LRT service capable of running on both 750 V DC and 2x 25 kV AC. Dual mode trains are nothing new.

Metrolink electrification is not on the horizon, it doesn’t make sense to introduce 2x 25 kV AC on such a short segment of track, and it doesn’t make sense to procure a new, small, unique vehicle fleet if it can be avoided. The cost of a few dual mode vehicles for this service would practically be a rounding error in the overall cost of Metrolink electrification, but would be a major expense for this service as a standalone project. Therefore, I see no issue with going with 750 V DC for the time being.

What About Wheels?

Some light rail systems that are streetcar legacy systems, like the MBTA Green Line, use vehicles with wheels that have a flange depth less than mainline rail. These systems also often use flange-bearing frogs through turnouts. Using that type of turnout is not an option if you’re sharing tracks with mainline commuter and freight trains. To be honest, I’m not sure what type of wheels LACMTA LRT vehicles use, or if it’s an issue to run shallow flange wheels through mainline rail special trackwork – perhaps a reader could provide some insight? The answers to these questions could have some bearing on what turns out to be the most practical choice.

Total Cost

Throwing some money at design and contingencies, we come out at about $130m, or just over $10m/mile. Not bad for 12.2 miles of new rail transit, right?


Rough Schedule and Cycle Time

Based on typical speeds, I’d expect end to end running time from Fillmore to Montclair to be about 47 minutes. Allowing 5 minutes for turn at Fillmore and 8 minutes for turn at Montclair, that’s a cycle time of 105 minutes. To run 15 minute headways, you’d only need 7 vehicles. Meanwhile, short-turning an equivalent number of three-car trains at Sierra Madre Villa instead of Azusa/Citrus reduces peak period requirements by 6 vehicles. (See that? See what I did there?)

Moar Cheaper Pleez

The obvious ways to drive down costs even further are (a) start the single-track concept at Azusa/Citrus and (b) avoid electrification and the changes to signaling that result from it. The problem with (b) is that you then have to procure new vehicles, either dual modes or DMUs (which would never be allowed in the downtown tunnels because of fire hazards) or new EMUs that have battery backup for running between the SB Line merge and Montclair. With the latter, I’m assuming that you’d still electrify the line from Azusa/Citrus to the SB Line merge, and provide recharge capability at Montclair so that trains wouldn’t get stranded.

I estimate the cost of option (a) as $115m. For option (b) with EMUs, I estimate the cost at about $107m. For option (b) with DMUs, I estimate the cost at about $84m. For both scenarios in option (b), I included a vehicle cost of $10m. That’s much less than it would cost to procure a new fleet of 10 vehicles for the service, but I’m crediting these alternatives for reducing LRT fleet requirements. Ignoring that credit would bring the costs closer to $150m for EMUs and $125m for DMUs. This assumes that the new vehicles could be maintained at existing yards and shops.

Think About Your Future

There’s one final thing to consider when building infrastructure, and it’s especially true of rail infrastructure: it’s never going to be cheaper or easier to build it than it is right now, when nothing’s in the way. A surefire way to look foolish in front of the public is to undersize something and have to expand it in 5 years.

Adding a second track is more costly when you have to work around an active railroad instead of on an almost vacant ROW. That means if you are going to build a “startup line” or single-track line, you need to be pretty certain that the single-track will be sufficient for long enough to make the future capital premium worthwhile in today’s money. I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of writing this post if I didn’t think a single track would work for a while, but this is still something to take seriously.

Fire Away

Alright, I’m pretty sure there are a lot of questions and issues I missed, and this isn’t a slam dunk. So, fire away: tell me what I got right, what I’m overlooking, what I could improve, and your thoughts on the overall viability.

LACMTA Rail Ridership Update – October 2013

Longer, more interesting posts still in progress (I promise), but in the meantime, a quick look at performance of the rail network since January 2009 (the earliest year for which monthly data is published on Metro’s website).

First, the raw data:


Red/Purple, Gold, & Expo are all near all-time high ridership. Blue & Green are a little weak relative to late 2012. The data there is questionable – I find it hard to believe the Blue Line gained 6,000 riders per day in June 2012, another 4,000 per day by November 2012, and then lost 5,000 per day by January 2013 – but it is what it is, we have nothing else to go on.

Monthly data really is too noisy to see patterns:


You have to look at a rolling 12-month average to really see what’s going on. Call it seasonally adjusted:


Blue, Green, and Gold surged a little through 2011 and 2012, but have tailed off a little lately. Red/Purple Lines have been increasing steadily.

A better way to look at the productivity of the lines is boardings per mile, and as you can see, Expo Line has been kicking ass and taking names. After 18 months in service, it’s closing in on the boardings per mile achieved by the Blue Line after 18 years.


Consider that Expo Phase 2 is only 6.5 miles long, and it’s going to serve:

  • Palms (one of LA’s densest neighborhoods)
  • Expo/Westwood (sneaky close to Pico and a natural transfer point to get to UCLA)
  • Sepulveda/Pico
  • Olympic/Bundy
  • Olympic/26th (Santa Monica’s booming tech area)
  • Colorado/17th
  • 3rd St Promenade, Santa Monica Pier, and the beach

I’m going to make a prediction and say that Expo Line passes the current Blue Line boardings per mile (4,000) within three years of Phase 2 opening. Reason, your crow is served.

Make Your Light Rail Look Like LA’s

Regular readers know that this blog doesn’t have a devotion to any particular transportation technology. I’m all about efficiency. The best options are the ones that move the most people and goods as fast as possible. Now you can drift off into daydreams about “slow transit” but fact is, people usually want to get where they’re going quickly and reliably. People vote with their feet and if you want their feet on your transit vehicle instead of on the gas pedal, your transit better be competitive. People don’t want slow transit any more than they want slow freeways.

So, if you’re investing money in a light rail network, you ought to make it look like ours in Los Angeles. Chances are your city doesn’t have the density of Manhattan or narrow streets of downtown Boston that make subways the only practical option. If you look at LA’s light rail network, you’ll see a combination of pragmatic decisions that gets a lot out of the money put into the system, and generates good ridership. At the other end of the spectrum are cities where decisions seem to be made based on an infatuation with trains as they worked 100 years ago, and everything else flows from there.

Let me say at the outset that I don’t want to come off as trying to beat up on Portland. I’ve never even been there, and I’m sure that planners there have good reasons behind their choices. Those choices are often driven by regional land use planning rather than just transportation considerations. However, the “Portland model” is inescapable these days. You read about it everywhere, and many cities in the US cite Portland as an example when promoting their own streetcar or light rail plans. So as far as I’m concerned, Portland’s network design in general is fair game. If you want your city’s plans to be successful, I think you’re better off trying to emulate LA than Portland.

There are several ways in which LA’s network design is superior; in order from broad planning down to engineering details, they are: service area, overall route configuration, station spacing, grade separation, and route geometry.

Service Area

The first, biggest planning question is what part of your region you’re going to serve with your light rail system. Odds are you don’t have enough money to crisscross your city with rail lines in any time frame other than the region’s long-range (30-year) transportation plan. For the uninitiated, this plan is where politicians and planners stow the projects that you want but the region has no plausible way to finance. Any project that’s currently on the books to be done by 2040? Yeah, we’re about five years away from it being pushed back to 2050.

That means that you have to make hard choices about where you’re going to build your first line or two. Don’t screw it up, because a failing line will be fodder for a Randal O’Toole blog post and might turn the electorate against you. Well, at least if you’re not VTA, it might.

Many people, from developers to planners to politicians, often see LRT lines as corridors for potential development. This can backfire if the development doesn’t actually occur, or if it does occur but fails to generate appreciable ridership. Instead, it’s better to focus on places where there’s already a lot of travel demand and additional development potential. Since most American cities have relatively low density, there’s plenty of these places around. The takeaway here is that it’s better for transit to be reactionary – that is, serving travel demand that already exists – than it is for it to be anticipatory – that is, serving travel demand that may theoretically exist in the future.

Now take a look at the Los Angeles LRT network.


The first line, the Blue Line, connected downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach, the second largest city in the region. It’s in an area where there’s already a crapload of travel demand, as indicated by the congestion on the 110 and the 710. And there’s virtually unlimited upzoning potential all over the place, even if it hasn’t really been capitalized on just yet. Is it any surprise that the Blue Line is closing in on 100,000 riders per day, while the entire MAX network generates just 130,000? LA’s system generates about 2,800 boardings per mile (with the Blue Line at about 4,000 per mile), about 1.5 times MAX, and that’s without a critical piece of the network even being built yet (Regional Connector).

LA’s other light rail lines follow the same pattern. They serve parts of the city that are already built up, have a lot of destinations, and have plenty of growth potential. The Gold Line north connects downtown LA to Pasadena parallels the 110. The Gold Line east serves East LA and isn’t far from the 60; this line suffers from poor connectivity to other lines but that will be rectified by Regional Connector. The Expo Line serves downtown LA, USC, Culver City, and Santa Monica, more or less near the 10 on the Westside. You could even throw the Orange Line BRT in here, since it serves built up areas in the Valley and is in the same corridor as the 101. All of these freeways are among the most congested in the country, and there’s a ton of demand for more development in these areas.
The Green Line, which runs from El Segundo to Norwalk in the median of the 105, is perhaps the most enigmatic of LA’s LRT lines; it doesn’t follow the same development pattern as the others. Nevertheless, it did better than expected for ridership, and I’m pretty confident it will become more useful as the network is built out. The upcoming Crenshaw/LAX LRT project is underrated as relief for travel in the La Cienega and La Brea corridors, and at any rate, the obvious intent there is to eventually extend the line north and south, making it very useful.

Now on the other hand, PDX built their system with some intent that development would follow the rail lines. They’ve managed to encourage some pretty impressive growth in the Pearl District and South Waterfront, but O’Toole’s been keeping the bills paid for years writing about vacant TOD lots. But here, ain’t no way he could ride the Blue Line and say that no one wants to use it, and Reason has already made a laughingstock of itself in about a year and a half of Expo Line operations.

Despite that, on the whole, I don’t really have a problem with Portland’s service area. They serve the central city and connect it to surrounding nodes of density – such as they are, since Portland on the whole is pretty low density. If there’s a failure of the service area, it seems to me that it’s a failure of overplanning, of trying to force development into certain parcels while protecting most of the city from redevelopment. Others have speculated on this as well.

Overall Route Configuration

Once you’ve figured out what areas of your city you’re going to serve, you need to lay out your routes. In general, you should follow Jarrett Walker’s route design guidelines for bus service: make ‘em straight, make ‘em long enough to aggregate demand, don’t deviate to serve specific points, and try to put something worth going to at the ends. A good yardstick for this is actually to pretend that the LRT network is a freeway network, and ask yourself if the highway department would propose it with a straight face.

LA’s Blue Line has a dream alignment once it turns south off of Washington. In addition to stations in the middle that generate a lot more demand than TOD-types would expect, it’s anchored by downtown LA and Long Beach. Expo Line has a few medium speed curves, but it’s pretty straight, and anchored by downtown LA and Santa Monica. Gold Line has downtown LA and Pasadena. The big knock on the Gold Line in this regard is the really slow curves on both sides of Union Station, which could have been avoided by a straight alignment on Alameda. Now the benefit to this nasty routing is considerable: much shorter transfers to Red/Purple Lines, buses, Amtrak, and Metrolink at Union Station. I leave it to you to decide if the penalty is worth it.


The Green Line, again, is the lone man out. It’s a high-speed alignment the whole way, and has solid demand at El Segundo, but it doesn’t get close enough to LAX to be a real option, and on the east end it just sort of fades away in Norwalk. A short extension east to Metrolink might be useful in that regard, and long-term an extension along Imperial should shore things up. (More on that soon.) Crenshaw’s route is decent, and eventual extension to the north will make it a practical line between LAX and Hollywood.

Again, for the most part, I don’t have a problem with Portland at this level of design. The routes appear to be reasonably straight and have logical destinations. My real issues with their network are going to manifest themselves further down the chain regarding station spacing, grade separation, and local route geometry. However, I do have some questions about some of the outlying route terminals, which look like they’ve been built in a very anticipatory manner.
For example, here’s the southern end of the Milwaukie line, now under construction.


With the exception of Milwaukie’s tiny downtown, the area is surrounded by low-density SFR development. There’s a few apartment complexes off to the east and southwest, but it’s hard to see how this area is going to generate that much ridership.

Here’s the north end of the Red Line, ending at Portland International Airport.


We have a station in no-man’s-land in the median of the 205, bordered by low-density residential, an apartment complex or two, and vacant land. The next two stations serve, plausibly, a mall and big box retail, some airport-related industry, and airport hotels, along with vacant land and parking lots far greater than the developed area. The mall might generate some ridership, but you have to think that the hotels offer shuttles, since most people don’t want to carry their luggage from a station to the hotel. Hotel and retail employees would be potential riders.

Here’s the south end of the Green Line, at Clackamas Town Center.


I have to say, this one is really puzzling. The line ends at a big parking garage at the forlorn edge of an enormous mall. The next station north, Fuller Rd, serves a big parking lot, a few SFRs, some industrial land, and some big box retail. Obviously, the hope is that someday the mall and its sea of parking will become an urban neighborhood. But in the meantime, in between, there’s a slew of apartment complexes – most of which are just far enough way to encourage people to drive, especially since parking is provided. It looks like there might be enough space to put a station near Causey Av. What gives?

The Yellow Line is even worse.


Its northernmost two stations are literally surrounded by nothing, the southern one being saved only by what appears to be decent park-and-ride usage from people getting off the 5, which is rough with 15 minute headways. The only plausible explanation is that eventually you want to go to Vancouver, but Washington adamantly doesn’t want light rail.

Station Spacing

Now we’re getting into a level of detail where I have real beef with the Portland model. Stations should be spaced about a mile apart, assuming you’ve got enough density along the line to justify them – which you will if you plan your service area and route configuration properly. Closer spacing is acceptable in areas that are very dense with residents and/or employment, or at the very end of the line where slower speeds will affect fewer passengers, but even then, close stop spacing should be used sparingly.

Again, LA’s Blue Line has it right. The stops in downtown LA on the Regional Connector are about half a mile apart, which is appropriate for an area that dense. Things open up to about three-quarter mile spacing from 7th/Flower to San Pedro, and then it’s stations about a mile apart on a beautiful alignment all the way to Long Beach. The only problem is between Imperial and Compton, which is over two miles, and should probably have an infill stop at El Segundo Blvd. The two-mile spacing from Artesia to Del Amo is acceptable because it’s just industrial land in between them. Same goes for Del Amo to Wardlow, where a stop in between would be in the middle of the LA River and only serve a golf course and the Blue Line yard. In downtown Long Beach, we go back to half-mile spacing from Willow to 5th, and the stops are very close on the loop. I could live without 1st and Pacific. However, since it’s at the end of the line, it’s not slowing down all that many riders, so it’s not a huge issue.

Expo Line is pretty much done right too. Stops are about three-quarter mile spaced from Pico to Jefferson/USC, and then more or less mile-spaced all the way to Santa Monica. The exceptions are Expo Park/USC (pointless, only 0.33 miles from Expo/Vermont, shouldn’t have been built) and Farmdale (which splits up the 1.16 miles between Expo/Crenshaw and Expo/La Brea, and wouldn’t have been built except for Damien Goodmon’s shenanigans). Other than that, maybe the Expo/Westwood stop should have been at Expo/Overland to better split up the distance between National/Palms and Expo/Sepulveda.

The Crenshaw/LAX Line is also well planned in this regard. With the addition of Florence/Hindry and Leimert Park, the entire 8.5 mile line will have 9 stations, all on spacing of between 0.7 and 1.3 miles.

The Gold Line to Pasadena goes through older parts of the region and hilly terrain, which doesn’t have the typical LA style half-mile arterial grid of roadways. This resulted in irregular station spacing between about half a mile and two miles, but the locations are logical (you could question the utility of Del Mar and suggest an infill station near Altadena Dr or San Gabriel Blvd). The Foothill Extension to Azusa is mostly two-mile spacing; you could argue for infill stations if the area gets denser. The station spacing for the Gold Line to East LA doesn’t make sense to me; I could do without Pico Aliso (only 0.3 miles from Mariachi Plaza), and Maravilla should have been at Eastern.

The western end of the Green Line, between Aviation and Redondo Beach has spacing a little under a mile, with Mariposa and El Segundo only half a mile apart. This section is reasonable due to the density of development in El Segundo and the development potential in the area. On the section in the median of the 105, there are several locations where the spacing is too large. There should be stations at Western and Bellflower, and a couple stations in the four miles between Lakewood and Long Beach. (Again, more on the Green Line soon.)

In contrast, the station spacing on TriMet is just terrible. For the most part, we can ignore the Red Line and Green Line, which are almost just spurs. Suffice to say that Cascades and Mt Hood Av on the Red Line are too close for the development in the area, and I’ve got to question the spacing of Division, Powell, and Holgate on the Green Line. The real offenders are the Blue Line and Yellow Line.

At the north end, the Yellow Line has two stations 0.70 miles apart, in an area where there is no development to speak of. The stops are then spaced every half mile through North Portland, despite the area being mostly SFR development. But the really crazy section is in downtown Portland, where there are seven stops, all at most a quarter of a mile apart. Stops that close together will inevitably cannibalize each other’s ridership, and the frequent stopping ensures low average operating speeds, which make transit less competitive.

The Blue Line is even worse. Nominally, the average spacing on the Blue Line is about 0.75 mile, but this is deceptive. Take out the four station spacings greater than 1.5 miles, and the average drops to 0.60 mile. Take out an additional four station spacings greater than 1.3 miles, and the average drops to 0.50 miles. That’s 40 stations in 20 miles of track, about the same length as LA’s Blue Line. In other words, Portland’s Blue Line has twice as many stations, for a city that’s not even half as dense.

The station spacing on the Blue Line drops to about a third of a mile in Hillsboro (4 stations), about half a mile in Beaverton (6 stations), about half a mile on the east side (4 stations), and less than half a mile in Gresham (3 stations). Hillsboro and Gresham aren’t terrible, since they are the end of the line, but the short spacing in the middle of the line is bad, because it drives up travel time. None of these places are dense enough to deserve stations so close together, and many of the stations were obviously built in an anticipatory plan.

But even those station spacings aren’t that bad compared to downtown Portland, where the Blue Line has 10 stations in less than 2 miles. Some stations aren’t even 600 feet apart, so close that an NYC subway train would straddle them. They’re equivalent to taking a train from one end of a subway platform to the other. Across the Steel Bridge, it’s the same thing in the Lloyd District, where there are four stations in 0.54 miles. This spacing is awful even by the lowly standards of US bus stop spacing. In effect, it makes transit almost useless for trips going through downtown and the Lloyd District because the time penalty is so high (see, for example, the previously linked Keep Houston Houston piece where the author describes using a bike to bypass the downtown light rail).

TriMet’s schedules suggest that the Blue Line averages about 6 or 7 mph in this area. That was acceptable in 1890, when traveling at 10 mph through an urban environment was revolutionary (and someone said, the dream of the 1890s is alive in Portland). But good god, in 2013, you need to be competitive with driving.

Grade Separation

Another one of the ways you stay competitive on travel time is grade separation, so that traffic doesn’t interfere. In other words, you have to have an aesthetic appreciation for concrete. This means going underground in very dense areas, and judicious use of overpasses and viaducts elsewhere so that your service stays fast and reliable. Where you’re at grade, you want your own ROW or at least an in-street reservation. Mixed-traffic running should be avoided.

LA’s LRT network does an excellent job of this. You get tunnels in downtown LA (including the upcoming Regional Connector), East LA, and a short one in Pasadena. You get grade separations of the major streets, so the Blue Line goes over Slauson, Firestone, and Del Amo, and the Expo Line has a bunch of grade separations so that it doesn’t get stuck in that famous Westside traffic. Crenshaw is going to be grade separated at the major streets. In fact, when people in LA complain, they don’t complain about the visual impacts of overpasses – they complain because you’re not grade separating enough.

At the same time, LA isn’t afraid to go at-grade to save money where conditions don’t warrant grade separation. So the Blue Line crosses many streets at-grade, and the Expo Line crosses Vermont, Normandie, Western, and Crenshaw – all major arterials – at-grade as well. But even when LA is running the line at-grade, it usually has its own ROW. In the few places where lines run in the street, there’s always a physical demarcation, like a curb, to keep cars out of the train’s space.

Portland does have some places where the lines are completely grade separated, where following freeways. The Blue Line, Red Line, and Green Line all have long sections that follow freeways and are grade separated. But in the town centers and downtown Portland, it’s all at grade. In many places, nothing separates the rail ROW from traffic other than striping or pavement textures, which allows cars to enter the train’s space and cause delays. This, combined with the close station spacing, increases travel time and decreases reliability.


In downtown Portland, there are also many places where the rail lines cross each other at grade. The Yellow/Green Lines cross the Blue/Red Lines at Pioneer Square, and all four lines merge to cross the Steel Bridge. The streetcar crosses both the Blue/Red Lines and the Yellow/Green Lines at other locations downtown, and crosses itself at-grade in several locations. In addition to affecting travel time and reliability, these decisions will constrain the ability to increase service in the future. Then again, with 15 minute headways on MAX and the streetcar, it’s not like demand is that high now.

Route Geometry

At the finest level of detail, you can hurt your transit line by making individual curves too sharp. These may only cost you seconds at any specific location, but over the whole line they can add up to minutes. (Amtrak, substandard rolling stock aside, spends millions to eliminate speed restrictions on the Northeast Corridor that only cost seconds.)

Yet again, LA does this right. On the Expo Line, you get a 35 mph underpass at Flower and Exposition that would otherwise be a very low-speed curve requiring a three-phase traffic light. The Blue Line has sharp curves at Washington and Grand, but other than that, it’s straight. The Green Line is a dream alignment. Crenshaw/LAX will have an underpass where it turns from the Harbor Subdivision onto Crenshaw Blvd, avoiding a very low-speed curve. The worst line is the Gold Line, and even most of it is pretty good. It has the aforementioned sharp curves near Union Station (again, up to you to decide if it’s worth it), and it’s got a nasty curve at Little Tokyo, but that will be less of an issue when Regional Connector is done. The curves at Indiana are bad, but they’re right at a station, which reduces their impact.

The decision to go at-grade in downtown Portland, along with the at-grade rail-rail crossings, has resulted in many sharp curves and special track work. In fact, Portland is probably a track engineer’s dream – where else would you get to work on so many special turnouts and skewed diamonds? But these alignments result in the need for trains to “hang a left” (or right) at intersections that were designed for cars, or at best, streetcars. This results in low-speed operations that cost your passengers time.

Further out from downtown Portland, there’s some other questionable geometry. For example, here’s the Red Line diverging from the Blue Line.


That curve has to be close to the absolute minimum the vehicle can negotiate. It’s 5-10 mph track the whole way, and it’s single track at that. Here’s the Blue/Red Lines at the junction of the 26 and the 217.


In my humble opinion, that type of geometry is just a giant eff you to riders. It basically says that we don’t care about your time enough to spend a little more money and give you a much better service. In the former case, it’s a stark contrast to the freeway, which gets high-speed semi-direct ramps in all directions. (At least at the 26 and the 217, drivers are getting crappy geometry too.)

You’re Doing It Wrong

If you keep all of these considerations in mind, it’s not hard to see why a system like VTA is struggling. The Blue Line is three-quarters of an ellipse, which means that for many of the trips that it could theoretically serve, you’d be much better off taking a more direct bus route. The tortured route of the Green Line to Mountain View, both overall and in local geometry, is never going to be competitive with driving or even with a direct transit service.

The station spacing, averaging about two-thirds of a mile over the network, is too close for the type of development found in Santa Clara County. The Green Line to Mountain View has closely spaced stops, which combined with sharp curves, ensures that this route is always going to offer low average speeds. In downtown San Jose, the stops spacing is like downtown Portland, and the Green Line has another section of terrible geometry between St James and Diridon. Honestly, I would love to know what possessed light rail planners nationwide and made them think that downtowns needed surface running LRT with streetcar-tight geometry and stop spacing only marginally bigger than local bus service. In an ironic twist, we probably have LADOT’s concern for auto traffic to thank for the fact that downtown LA escaped the same fate.

You could say that VTA would have been a much better comparison to LA-style LRT than Portland, but I wanted to use a system that’s widely known and respected. Pretty much everybody concedes that things have not gone as planned on VTA, so no one is going to show up and model their system after VTA. But Portland is a reasonably successful system that demonstrates the network that results from making different decisions on system characteristics.

Apologies to Portland

Again, I apologize if it seems like I’m trying to beat up on Portland. They’re coming at things from a different place than LA. Portland is building the rail network they want, and trying to coerce land use patterns to follow the rail. In North America, only Vancouver is probably doing a better job with that approach. LA is building a rail network in an existing dense city, with existing land use patterns that have proven to be more apt for rail transit than many expected.

In this regard, perhaps the real point here is that you can have a successful system without following the Portland model. Obviously, given this blog’s relentless promotion of LA-style density, I’m going to prefer the LA model. I’ll leave it to others with better knowledge of Portland to say how well their model is working for their goals. But if you’re looking to build or expand an LRT system, you should consider the LA model as well, and decide if it’s a better match for your goals.