The Secrets of Metro Rail Operations
July 25, 2012 4 Comments
Last night, I went to the meeting of the Transit Coalition at Metro’s Headquarters. It was being billed as a place to “learn the secrets of metro rail,” and while I don’t know how much of this was secret, it was incredibly informative.
Bruce Shelburne, Metro’s Interim Executive Director of Rail Operations spoke and took questions for nearly two hours. Here are some of the best takeaways…
Special Event Service
With the fast-approaching college football season and the new Expo line passing by the Coliseum, Metro is heading into regular special event service for the first time. They’ve run extra trains or longer trains for events here and there, but nothing with 100,000 attendees directly off a light rail line, and nothing with the regularity of USC home football games. Shelburne says this will be a “gamechanger for us at Metro.”
So far, the plan is to have trains running every 6 minutes in both directions on the Expo line for much of the day, hours before and after the games. There will be staff at every Expo station. Other lines will also have increased service and added staff at key stations. Metro is actively working with USC to get information on where fans come from and scheduling/staffing accordingly (this fan will be taking the Red/Purple Line from Union Station to the Expo Line — Fight On!). Service will be refined throughout the season.
One major issue will be the crossing at the Expo Park/USC station. Thousands of fans will be crossing the tracks between Expo Park and USC here and safety is incredibly important. There will also be staff and a plan in place to queue fans who are lining up for trains at the station so that it’s–and we’ll see how this works out–orderly.
Expo Signal Synchronization
The Expo line doesn’t currently have signal priority (it can’t change lights to green), but (would you believe it?) the lights are actually synced and timed to match the train’s speed. Supposedly, if you’re traveling from Culver City to Downtown, you should be hitting green lights all the way in. Unfortunately, this rarely happens, and the problem is not what most of would expect. Pedestrians are the main reason that the train doesn’t hit all its green lights. When someone hit’s a crosswalk button, their light cycle gets some extra time for them to cross. The catch is, the lights down the street don’t also delay… so the train ends up missing all of the green lights after that. Shelburne says the best option is to change the priority on the lights so that pedestrians can’t interrupt a cycle’s timing like that, but rather have to wait until after the train makes it’s light and moves on before they can cross.
[UPDATE: Metro's Blog, The Source, updated readers on the issue, saying...
The bottom line is that the signals need to be better timed to accommodate the train — the issue is not solely related to pedestrian signals, as some have written.
In addition, trains on the Expo and Blue line are running slow through the junction of the two lines at Washington and Flower due to issues there involving the tracks. The tracks are safe and allegations otherwise are unwarranted. But trains do have to go slow for now and that’s impacting Expo train speeds.]
More Expo Graphic Design Changes and Insight
Apparently the reason that Expo’s blue color was so close to that of the Blue Line was not the fault of the designers (Metro is known for having some of the best graphic designers around). The original “aqua” color to be used was determined to not be in compliance with ADA standards because it was actually too close to white. For some visually impaired, the specific shade of aqua gets lost and basically becomes invisible. So we ended up with a “light blue” line and a blue line.
Metro is addressing the problem by adding a bold E to all of the Expo signage. They’ve also adjusted the color on maps a bit to separate it from the Blue line as much as possible. The improvements have been great. The changes have been rolled out at 7th Street/Metro Center and Pico Station will expand to the rest of the line soon.
Next up is improvements to the signage on the trains themselves. To help differentiate between Expo and Blue line trains, Metro has ordered old-fashioned dash signs. They’ve been received and should go into use in the next week or so. Basically, it will be a card that the operator sticks in the front window and should very clearly display, with both color and text, which train this is. The hope is that they’ll be more clear than the old rolling signs which often get stuck or are hard to decipher from a distance. Could be a very effective, old-school, low-tech, low-cost improvement. We’ll find out soon.
Letters Replacing Colors
There’s no timeline for this yet, but letters will eventually be replacing colored names for all lines. Nobody knows how… obviously Expo is already starting to use E, but it may not stay that way. You could start using the first letter of the color for each line, but then you get two G’s for Green and Gold. More than likely it’ll just start going down the alphabet with A, B, C, D, etc…
For Shelburne, this change can’t come soon enough. “I’d do it tomorrow,” he says. But it will happen eventually. My question is what happens to the map? Do we still use the colors on the map? Do colors represent a type of service, are they random, do they stay the same as they are now? I figure we’ll leave the colors as they are now, plus assign a letter to each line. Future lines will receive a new color and a letter, and they’ll regularly be called by the letter name but the color will help signify it on maps and signage.
Final Thougths on Expo
Shelburne thinks, and most observers agree, that once the Expo line is completely done, it’s peak service times may not be during rush hour. There’s a good chance this will be a “weekend line.” Of course it’ll be packed during rush hour… but just imagine the traffic it could be taking to and from Santa Monica on the weekends, especially during the summer. Heck, I’ll go to Santa Monica — somewhere I currently avoid — once the line is open, and judging by the crowds that sit on the 10 every weekend in the summer, they’ll find this a great alternative too.
At the end of the day (or decade), the Expo Line will be short lived. It’s name and color will go away when the Regional Connector opens. More than likely, it will become part of the Gold Line and be rebranded as such.
Regional Connector Routing
The plan is to have the Gold Line go from East LA to Santa Monica and the Blue Line go from Long Beach to Pasadena. I asked if this was done because the East-West and North-South lines are less confusing on a map or based on ridership, and Shelburne stressed this was a conscious decision based on LA commuter patterns and bus ridership. Traditionally LA has had a North-South and East-West commuting pattern.
I worry about the Union Station connection, though. If it were me (and based on no scientific study at all…) I would connect the current Expo Line to Union Station. It’s probably just because of the communities of people I know… but I’m aware of many more people in the Culver City area and at USC who already do or would take Metrolink to Union Station (from the Inland Empire) if there was an easier connection. I also know plenty of people who commute from Pasadena to USC. The Regional Connector won’t help this at all and I think it could be good to connect the Pasadena and Santa Monica branches together so the current Expo Line gets a direct connection to Union Station. Again, I’m only guessing, but I think there are less people along the Blue and Gold Line Eastside who connect from Metrolink. These commuters are most likely coming into Downtown. I could be wrong here, and maybe doing this would actually mean more transfers for more people who are trying to get across the region horizontally or vertically.
Purple Line Subway Extension
One of the most important projects is the Purple Line Extension. Once it’s open, ridership in LA will undoubtedly jump like crazy. The current plan is to run 4-minute headways on both the Purple and Red lines once this is done. That means that within Downtown, there will be trains every 2 minutes in each direction (this will be incredible!!!).
The problem with this? Union Station was not built as a turnback station and doesn’t work well in that way. Trains have to slow down, cross the tracks, and end up getting bunched up and have to wait for trains to leave before proceeding. I ride into Union Station every day and there’s definitely wasted time approaching the end of the line. It won’t be able to handle the frequency once the Purple Line extension opens.
So, the plan is to extend the line into the rail yard, which sits on the back side of the Arts District. We’ll renovate the yard, add a third track so trains can extend past Union Station and do their turnback there with much more ease and efficiency.
The best case scenario means there will also be an additional station here at the end of the line. At Union Station, trains will stop for 30 seconds and continue on just like they do at every other station. The Arts District would then be the end of the line, where staff can clear the trains, prepare them for a return trip in the other direction, and queue them on a third track. This also connects the Arts District very easily to the entire Metro system, as they’ll get a ground-level platform right across from SCI-ARC near the new One Santa Fe Development.
Metro’s Biggest Problem
Shelburne said Metro’s biggest problem, “bar none, is communication with the passenger.” When things go wrong, they need to improve communication. Even when everything’s running smoothly, they need to communicate better. This has been improving with better signage in stations, better announcements, new screens, service announcement tweets, etc… but there will always be more to do in the customer service area (for Metro or any agency). They are, in my opinion, continually getting better.