The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's newest train, the Expo Line to Santa Monica, gets a lot of love. Its ridership has exploded since it opened last year, as officials wax poetic about the beach-bound train.
But it’s been a different story for Metro’s oldest rail, the 27-year-old Blue Line connecting Long Beach and downtown Los Angeles.
The 22-mile line has been losing riders in recent years and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia wants to figure out why. The charismatic young mayor joined the Metro board earlier this year with a mission to bring renewed attention to his city’s signature line.
Garcia took a ride on a Blue Line train last week, greeting riders and conducting an informal survey of what people think of the light rail line. He's pledged to visit every station on the 22-stop stretch of rail and he's hit about half so far.
On a train bound for L.A. out of downtown Long Beach, Garcia approached passengers, many of whom were taken aback to learn he was the Long Beach mayor, and talked up the Blue Line's recent improvements.
"So you’re in actually one of our new trains. Have you noticed the train?" Garcia asked rider Rosa Guadalupe, pointing out the new light rail vehicle, one of about 20 that have been added to the line in recent months.
"Yes, we’re really happy about [it]. We’re like, 'Look at the shiny trains!'" she gushed.
The new cars are part of a $1.2 billion effort to spiff up the Blue Line. New pedestrian safety features and track upgrades are also part of the package. The improvements can’t come soon enough, Garcia said.
"This line goes through a lot of working-class communities and they deserve to have a positive, safe experience," he said, citing areas of Long Beach, Compton and South L.A. which the train serves.
Ridership on the Blue Line has been declining since 2012, when it hit a high of about 90,000 daily weekday riders. As of June, it had dropped 17 percent compared to the previous year.
Rider Brenda Martinez offers a possible reason: "I don’t think it’s safe for the most part."
The Blue Line has the second highest crime rate among Metro lines. Only the Green Line ranks higher. And while crime has dropped for the whole system in the first half of this year, it went up on certain lines, including the Blue Line that saw an increase of almost 9 percent. A 2014 audit found that despite the higher number of crimes, the Blue Line wasn't getting any more attention from law enforcement.
Garcia hopes a new policing arrangement will change that. As of July, law enforcement on Metro switched from only the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to a combination of Los Angeles Police Department, sheriff and Long Beach Police Department covering each of their jurisdictions. That's meant more officers patrolling Blue Line stations and trains.
Rider Martinez points to another problem with the Blue Line as she heads to a doctor's appointment. "It’s not reliable. So then I’m waiting and I can’t make it on time," she complains.
The Blue Line has the worst on-time performance of Metro’s rail lines. Old trains sometimes break down, jamming the tracks for 40 minutes or more. The Expo Line has also slowed the Blue Line trains because the two lines share tracks in downtown L.A., where trains must stop frequently to let car traffic through.
"The hope is that when a lot of the infrastructure gets replaced, that should dramatically help a lot of the breakdown issues that we’re having," the mayor said.
The city of Long Beach is working to synchronize its traffic signals so trains don't get stuck at red lights. Beyond upgrading the train cars and tracks, Metro is also adding several "interlockings," which allow trains to switch tracks to move around broken vehicles. The agency is also studying ways to separate the Blue and Expo Lines from each other and from downtown car traffic.
But such changes are likely to be costly and not possible until far into the future. In the meantime, Garcia said he’ll continue to keep a close eye on the progress. It won't be a stretch.
"So I actually live right here," Garcia said, gesturing up an intersection. "I see the Blue Line every time I walk out my door."