50th Anniversary Of L.A.’s "Metro Rail"…Say Whaaat?!: Celebrating The 1960 Birth Of Our Modern Rail System

In July, Metro and Los Angeles celebrated 20 years of Metro Rail.

To commemorate the anniversary last month, we took a look back at both the history of service between Los Angeles and Long Beach (1902-1961) as well as the launch of Metro Rail with Blue Line service in 1990 and its ongoing success as Metro’s first rail project.

However, this week marks an important milestone in local transit history: it is actually the 50th anniversary of “Metro” “Rail” in Los Angeles County!

On August 26, 1960, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority released its Rapid Transit Program: A Comparative Analysis Of Rapid Transit System And Routes (137p. PDF). On this date, and in this report, was the very first reference to a “Metro System” for Los Angeles.

The “Major Findings And Recommendations” of the report state:

We recommend to the Authority for main line rapid transit service a system of supported transit vehicles running on rubber tires on concrete tracks. For convenience, we have referred to this equipment as the “Metro” system.

This equipment is found to be the most adaptable to the alignments and conditions developed in our engineering investigations. This system would be the first use of rubber-tired rapid transit vehicles in the United States and would be truly unique in its ability to provide large numbers of transit patrons a fast, comfortable, quiet and convenient ride.

The “Major Findings and Recommendations” go on to explain that:

Cars would comfortably seat 54 people with ample room for standees and could be coupled together to make up trains of two to six cars or more…at operational speeds which would reach 80 miles per hour.

The report looked at three different types of rapid transit equipment: two monorail systems (suspended and supported) and the supported “Metro” system. The “Metro” system was assessed to be the least expensive for the recommended alignments, 35% of which allowed for operation at grade. The report noted the greater flexibility of this system as opposed to monorail.

The “Metro” system could not only operate at grade, but underground and above ground, and with its auxiliary steel wheels, it was capable of running on standard gauge steel rail lines. While Los Angeles’ monorail history is deserving of a much more in-depth review in the future, we wanted to take a deeper look at the report that first laid out plans for “Metro” in Los Angeles.

Where Should The Rapid Transit System Be Built?

Coverdale & Colpitts (Consulting Engineers for traffic studies) recommended four broad transit corridors to the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority.

The report recommended building on rights of way to serve the following four corridors from Los Angeles: eastbound to Covina, southbound to Long Beach, westbound to Santa Monica and northbound to Reseda. A second phase would serve Pasadena, Santa Ana, Inglewood and San Fernando (via Glendale and Burbank).

The initial system would run 74.9 miles, consisting of 51 miles of overhead track, 21.6 miles at-grade along Pacific Electric and other rights-of-way, and 2.3 miles of tunnel under private property. A selling point for this proposal was that the “Metro” would serve passengers during peak hours with average speeds of 35-40 miles per hour as compared to rush hour freeway speeds of 25 miles per hour at that time. This compared even more favorably to the U.S. Mass Transit average speed in 1960 of 18 miles per hour.

Subway construction was noted as costing “from two to three times more than overhead facilities which provide the same service.”

How Much Would The Rapid Transit System Cost?

The initial price of the 74.9 mile four-corridor transit system was pegged at $529.7 million. The second phase would bring the total system size to 150 miles of track, and it was projected that the eight-corridor system would be needed “within twenty years” in order to keep pace with the projected growth of Los Angeles County.

So what happened?

Today’s Metro system (79.1 miles in service, and counting) has also evolved into a network of corridors linked to downtown Los Angeles. It has taken twenty years to build just about the same number of miles as the 1960 proposal, at a cost of approximately $8 billion (not adjusted for inflation between 1990 and present).

Obviously, it would have been much less expensive to have built a comparable system beginning in 1960. However, we would have been stuck with a system consisting primarily of overhead tracks running throughout Los Angeles County, as depicted below in a rendering of monorail tracks and station at Wilshire Blvd. & Fairfax Avenue taken from the 2009 Westside Extension Transit Corridor Study Final Alternatives Analysis Report (554p. PDF).

A regional transit system comprised of elevated tracks may have seemed modern or even futuristic at the time, but it would no doubt be considered aesthetically unpleasing today. Furthermore, the system would likely have been built with dubious earthquake reinforcements and would end up costing much more post-construction to bring it up to current seismic retrofit specifications.

But above all else, no dedicated state or local revenues were available in 1960 to cover capital costs.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy called for a program of federal capital assistance for mass transportation and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 two years later.

Monorail tracks and station as they would appear if built today, Wilshire Blvd. at Fairfax Ave.

Federal funding for new mass transit construction didn’t get underway until around 1968, and even then required a local match. Los Angeles didn’t have any such local funding mechanisms in place until passage of the passage of Proposition A in 1980.

While we celebrate a signifcant 20-year milestone this year, we also mark an important 50th anniversary this week. However, Los Angeles would have to wait another 30 years for Metro Rail to become a reality.

Secondary Passenger Distribution within downtown Central Business District (Click to enlarge)

1960 Long Range Development Plan: Monorail Proposed Routes Map (Click to enlarge)

The entire report is fascinating to read, includes numerous vintage illustrations and maps (several of which have been reproduced here), and helps inform the historical foundation of how we got to where we are today.