October 26: This Date in Los Angeles Transportation History

1992:  Metrolink begins operations.

From left, Southern California Regional Rail Authority Richard Stanger, SCRRA Chair Jacki Bacharach and SCRRA Vice-Chair Larry Walker (Click to enlarge)

The system serves Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Riverside and San Diego Counties, connecting with Metro Rail, San Diego’s Coaster and Sprinter commuter rail service, as well as Amtrak’s intercity rail services as well as numerous bus lines and other transit services.

The member agencies of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (SCRRA) had purchased 175 miles of track, maintenance yards, stations and other properties from Southern Pacific Railroad in 1990 for $450 million.

The rights to use Los Angeles’ Union Station were purchased from Union Pacific Railroad for $17 million in the same year.

Within two years, a sprawling five-county regional rail system was up and running.

For the first two weeks of service, Metro Ambassadors meet passengers at every station on all three routes to guide people toward connecting transportation and distribute schedules and maps.

Each Metrolink train includes space for bicycles, so that cycling commuters can ride to and from stations and their final destinations.

Images from opening day can be found here.

The Southern California Rapid Transit District also played a role in Metrolink’s early success.

Bus operations were coordinated with train schedules to interface not only at Union Station, but at Glendale, Burbank, Van Nuys, Chatsworth and El Monte.

In all, 55 SCRTD bus lines are designated to accept Metrolink tickets and passes beginning November 2nd after one week of free rides on the commuter rail’s three routes.

The first week of commuter rail service sees passenger volumes in excess of 6,000 riders per day far above the original estimates of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority, the five-county agency responsible for Metrolink service.

In 1992, Richard Stanger was Director of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission‘s Commuter Rail Department and later became CEO of the newly-formed Southern California Regional Rail Authority which operates Metrolink.  (The Commission was a pre-merger predecessor along with the Southern California Rapid Transit District to the current Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority).

He credits the successly development and launch of Metrolink to a combination of having the right people at the right time under the right circumstances.

He explains:

“Four local counties had just past new sales tax measures in part to fund a regional rail system in the 1989-1990 time period.  Several State rail-related bond measures funding rail were also passed in 1990.

This was probably the result of an increase in gas prices caused by Saddam Hussein’s surprise take-over of Kuwait.  In 1989 Southern Pacific and Santa Fe offered to sell a number of unused railroad rights-of-way, the first time any railroad anywhere had made such an offer.

The executive directors of the other transportation agencies were eager to join forces with the LACTC because they needed to show progress to their own constituents and they knew only the Commission had the resources to undertake the regional rail project.

While just another rail project for the Commission, to the other agencies, it was their only rail project.

Key staff were assigned from all four agencies and each stayed with the project for many years.  By 1992, however, gas prices were down, a national recession was underway, and public interest in pursuing big projects had waned.

Metrolink, had it not been implemented in the 1990-1992 time period, would not have happened at all.

Another key factor in Metrolink’s rapid deployment was the SCRRA Board, especially Jacki Bacharach, its chair during the crucial first two years.

She had been very involved with the Metro Blue Line light rail project, knew the rail construction process, and had already worked closely with several of Metrolink’s key staff.  She provided the strong leadership that the board members from the other counties needed for assurance at key times.

The other board members were very enthusiastic and engaged, most never having been involved in so big an effort, and the trust that developed between the Board and the staff was sped the effort along.

The decision to use only non-federal dollars was also important in that it avoided a myriad of Federal Railroad Administration oversight requirements and allowed the SCRRA to take advantage of California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) rules.

Among them was a filing of a Notice of Categorical Exemption for the portion of the system wholly within a railroad right-of-way. (This provision was added to CEQA to allow rapid deployment of the California Bullet Train project of the early 1980’s.  It no longer is in CEQA, an unfortunate deletion.)

Stations areas beyond the right-of-way were not covered under the Notice and had to be cleared individually by each city wanting a station.  That meant that one neighborhood opposing one station could not block the entire system.  It also made each city a partner/owner of the station, a valuable political asset.

CEQA also had a 30-day period for anyone opposed to the line to file suit, so after the 30-days were up, the system implementation proceeded full bore.

Another reason the project was done so fast — basically within two years of the passage of the local propositions and state bond measures that funded the effort — was that the same MTA staff guided the project through all phases of the work.

The project did not have to pass from planners to engineers to construction staff to operations staff losing momentum and focus at each transition.

The small staff (growing to about 20 by 1992) had experienced leaders in all four above areas who were given the authority to make their own decisions and to work together to solve common ones.

Of course, being a completely new system covering multiple counties, it could break free from the constraints LACTC-only rail projects face.

Most big projects try to protect their budgets and schedules by building in “fat,” yet invariably budgets and schedules are exceeded.

Metrolink had the philosophy to stick to a low budget and tight schedule.  Metrolink pretty much made its budget and schedule in large part because of its tight schedule; it moved faster than any opponents could organize and it built up a momentum that others found themselves drawn into.

By comparison, in a typical urban rail project each phase seems to take forever, any opponents are given all the time to mobilize and project momentum never builds.

Finally, I think that LACTC’s Executive Director at the time, Neil Peterson, deserves most of the credit by insisting on an aggressive implementation schedule and untiringly supporting the project, for many reasons his legacy at the agency.

He almost single-handedly orchestrated the passage of Proposition C, including in the measure specific language funding commuter rail.

As noted above, he surprised the railroads by aggressively taking up their offer to sell a number of the rights-of-way that Metrolink developed into its operating system.  He also made sure outside distractions were minimized.

For example, a major obstacle that arose early on was the insistence by SoCal Edison that Metrolink electrify all its lines.  This would have doomed the project by adding time and huge costs to the project.  Peterson himself led the battle against SoCal Edison allowing the project staff to keep focusing on project implementation.”

The video below describes the genesis and formation of the Southern California Metrolink commuter rail system, explaining the scope of the operations as well as details on its stations and safety measures.

It also includes historic footage of the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal (Union Station).