Trolleys Go Above, Trains Go Below


This week’s hot topic regarding the future of L.A.’s Metro Rail network is the fabled Downtown Connector. The Connector will enable you to travel from Pasadena to Long Beach, without ever making a transfer. You see, someone thought it might be a good idea to have the Gold Line terminate at Union Station, and the Blue Line end at 7th Street Station. Which means if you want to keep riding, you have to get on the Red Line. Brilliant.

Blogdowntown and Angelenic have been covering the Connector meetings, along with renderings and possible routes. What baffles the mind, is that Metro is actually considering above ground options through Downtown. BDT is on the money when it says the only option is underground.

This raises an issue on a much larger scale. We’re extending the Gold Line above ground. We’re building Expo above ground. We’re talking Crenshaw above ground. Why? Because above ground is cheaper.

Cheaper is never better. Cheaper costs you in the long run. It costs you in 50 years when the city, already crippled by an exploding population, is forced to spend millions more to replace all those old light rail trains from the 2000s with subways. It costs you in urban blight. You know how that building from the 70s that looked cool when it was built, but now looks like… well, a building from the 70s? What will L.A. look like with a bunch of above ground trains 50 years from now?

Like Chicago.

Photo from yuzu’s photostream

9 thoughts on “Trolleys Go Above, Trains Go Below”

  1. You’ve failed to give any reason why spending money on underground rail is better than saving that money and building more above ground rail. Why would an exploding population hurt above ground rail more than underground rail?

    I suppose you’ve given urban blight as a reason, but aren’t NYC’s subway stations just as much a victim of urban blight? I still think you should have a better reason than aesthetics.

  2. Blight. Capacity. Speed. Blight. Street safety. Room for vertical growth. Blight. Seamless integration of rail lines.

    Just a few reasons.

    Did I mention blight?

  3. FWIW, people raised the same kind of NIMBY hubub 15 years ago when Denver started building its above-ground light rail system through downtown, and it’s worked out fantastically.

  4. The problem with the alignments above ground for the downtown connector is that they limit the speed, length and frequency of trains. The blocks of 2nd Street that are proposed for the route are not long enough for a three-car train. If you’d place a stop there a long train would extend into the intersection.

    If the connector were to do what it is designed to do, which is to provide a through route for the Blue, Gold, and Expo trains, the best reason to do it at all is to allow for trains a few minutes apart to all ends of the system. Running them on street level through a dense downtown would create a huge conflict with vehicle traffic, and slow the trains down, which I think would compromise the effectiveness of the system. This downtown is very different from Denver. It’s older, with smaller blocs.

    I don’t buy the blight argument. Personally I think it could be designed nicely. The trains on Washington Blvd look fine.

  5. Poor Chicago…now we poke fun at them too? I didn’t think the El was that bad. Certainly better examples of blight around.

    Your transit stations whether above ground, underground, for trains, subways, buses whatever will always have the potential for blight. It comes down to how much money you want to spend on it looking pretty. Union Station up until it be came a transit hub was looking pretty blighted. Whether Metro will have the money for the upkeep to keep it pretty and unblighted remains to be seen. My money is they won’t so the whole above/below is kinda moot.

    Just gimme a transit that works!

  6. If I recall correctly, the City Council — lead by Zev Yaroslovsky — passed a law prohibiting the construction of any underground mass transit after the Red Line was done. This was done at a time when there was a lot of corruption exposed (amazing how that happens without proper oversight) and a big old sinkhole opened up in Hollywood.

    This is all from memory, though, so I could be wrong. Personally, I wouldn’t mind elevated rail in the slightest. It could be designed to fit in with our existing buildings and architecture, and — more importantly — it could make our useless and annoying MTA system useful and relevant to more Angelenos by connecting more lines and serving more neighborhoods.

  7. Um, info for the uninformed: The Blue Line was meant to be a 35-or-so mile line stretching from Long Beach to Pasadena. Before you moved here and when the Gold Line was being built, its working title was “The Pasadena Blue Line.”

    In the early 1990s (waaaay before you moved here), after the Blue Line opened, the pre-MTA transit agency at the time determined that it was too expensive to build another rail line through Downtown, and with the Red Line opening just a couple years after, they decided it was not a priority to build another line through Downtown and instead started the line at Union Station.

    Building non-contiguous sections of rail line is not uncommon; it’s happened in the Washington DC Metro system and other systems worldwide.

    Eventually the agency, now the MTA, decided just to make the “Pasadena Blue Line” a separate line, so the Gold Line it became.

    So no, no one decided that one line would end at one side of Downtown and begin at another.

  8. Thanks for the reasons Jason, now I can offer a proper rebuttal.


    As I mentioned earlier, New York’s subway stations suffer from blight. There’s nothing inherent in above ground rail that makes it more prone to blight than underground rail. Have you seen stations along the Gold Line? They are quite beautiful.


    This is true. The ability to have longer cars increases capacity.


    Not necessarily a factor. The Gold Line goes only 3 mph slower on average than the Red Line (28mph vs. 31mph). Both of them are significantly faster than the New York Subway and London Underground, which average about 20mph.

    “Street Safety”

    Fix Expo is calling. Light runs at street level in many parts of the world without much problem. A big reason is because cities that do it right get their cars under control. Illegal drivers are what make our streets unsafe, not above ground rail. And of course, above ground rail does not have to be at-grade either.

    “Room for vertical growth”

    Don’t really see what this has to do with a train being underground or above ground. Trains in either case require and bring increased density, so vertical growth is possible in both situations.

    “Seamless integration of rail lines”

    Let’s see… Los Angeles has 1.2 underground heavy rails lines and 3 above ground light rail lines with another on the way. Logic tells us that since there is significantly more above ground rail miles, that seamless integration would require more above ground lines, not below ground.

    Another thing you ignore is that fact that 40% of the New York City subway is actually not a subway at all, but above-ground!

    Bottom line is, if you were paying for it all by yourself, would you pay almost five times as much (the Gold Line cost $859 million the Red Line cost $4.5 billion) to have built the Gold Line as an underground subway?

    One of the main things we need to do is regain control of our streets from the automobile. It is the true creator of blight, sprawling growth, loss of life, and low capacity mobility.

  9. The El in Chicago is great. When I lived there I really liked riding the train in the Loop, it’s a great way to see the city and get your bearings.

    And BTW, last time I checked Chicago has a world class mass transit system. L.A. in my opinion, does not. There is a lot L.A. could learn from taking notes in Chicago (though the CTA is not immune to it’s own growth woes).

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