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The Blue Line’s future: 5 ways Metro plans to fix its oldest rail line

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It’s notoriously prone to breakdowns and delays

Metro is on a $1.2-billion spending spree to makeover the Blue Line, the north-south backbone of LA’s rail network that runs 22 miles from Downtown to Long Beach.

Opened in 1990, the Blue Line has been operating continuously for 27 years. By now, much of the rail line’s infrastructure is simply worn out or obsolete. It’s also prone to delays—about 16 percent of trains arrive behind schedule, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis.

Transit officials say the huge investment will improve the old rail line’s reliability, reduce the travel time between LA and Long Beach, and restore train cars to like-new condition.

Below, we highlight what Metro has in store for the Blue Line, the second most heavily-used rail line in LA’s transit network.

1. Add shiny new train cars

#metroblueline #brokedownagain #jumpoffmidstation #gettingold

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To the tune of $860 million, most of the money Metro is spending the Blue Line will be devoted to refurbishing and replacing its fleet of train cars.

The vast majority of the train cars running on the Blue Line today are more than 20 years old. Like any decade’s old piece of heavily used infrastructure, many of them are worn out and breakdown frequently. Train breakdowns, Metro says, account for about 35 percent of the delay time on the Blue Line. Replacing the aging trains will eliminate most of these delays.

Blue Line riders will be treated to a new fleet of 78 new Kinkisharyo train cars, just like those on the Expo Line. The first new cars were put on the tracks in early May, and Metro aims to retire the oldest of its rail cars by the end of 2018. Fifty-four of the existing cars will also be refurbished, with updates ranging from a coat of new paint, to a complete strip-down.

2. Build a new express train

When the Metro’s regional connector opens in 2021, threading the Blue, Expo, and Gold lines together, the Blue Line will transform into the southern portion of a lengthy north-south route between Long Beach and Azusa. In parallel with another planned rail line, the Eco-Rapid line from Union Station to Artesia, Metro is considering studying a potential limited-stop express train between Downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The route isn’t immediately clear, but a Metro report filed in July indicates that it would likely require use of a Union Pacific-owned rail corridor, immediately south of Downtown LA. This could potentially result in an express train that connects Long Beach directly to Union Station, effectively bypassing Downtown LA’s rail congestion.

3. Ensure fewer delays during emergencies

In June, Metro approved an $81.5-million contract that addresses a lot of the maintenance issues you might expect from a train line that’s more than a quarter century old. The contract, part of a $118.9-million state-of-good-repair spending plan, will overhaul parts of the Blue Line’s signaling and overhead catenary wire system, making them less susceptible to failure.

The contract also outlines track improvements, including the addition of four new “interlockings,” which allow trains to switch from track to the other. Currently, Metro can only offer service once every 30 to 40 minutes during single-track emergency situations (say, a train broke down, and is blocking the tracks). The addition of the four interlockings will reduce single-track headways to 15 to 20 minutes, and add more flexibility when responding.

Also outlined in this contract is an overhaul of the signals at Metro’s main Blue Line maintenance yard. Right now, signals at the rely on manual(!) control.

4. Fix deadly crossings

In the nearly 30 years since Metro opened the Blue Line, the transit agency has learned lots about how to build safe spots for pedestrians to cross train tracks. Many of the Blue Line’s pedestrian crossings lack the signs, gates, and other warning indicators that are common on newer rail lines in Los Angeles. In 2015, Metro determined that the Blue Line’s rate of pedestrian-train collisions was more than three times higher than the Gold and Expo Lines.

More alarming is the statistic that, between 2010 and 2015, 20 people were killed in Blue Line collisions, compared to one on both the Expo and Gold Lines. As Metro’s report says, “Metro staff does not believe that the difference in pedestrian gating technology is coincidental to the various lines’ pedestrian safety records.”

Metro is spending about $30 million to update the pedestrian crossing infrastructure at 27 different Blue Line crossings. This involves adding better signs, swing-gates, and crossing arms and bells to keep people off the tracks when a train is near.

5. Unclog the bottleneck

The biggest bottleneck for both the Blue and Expo Lines is the “wye” junction at the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Flower Street. Aside from being a high traffic intersection for cars, more than 40 trains per hour travel through the junction at peak time. All of this happens through careful signaling. But, as you might expect, it doesn’t take a lot to throw the whole system off schedule, cascading delays across both the Blue and Expo Line.

Though the remedy will likely not come anytime soon, Metro is studying how to rebuild Blue and Expo Line tracks so they are fully separated from car traffic around the Pico Station and the Washington “wye” junction. The alternatives include a potential partial or full undergrounding of the Pico station, as well as different combinations of underground, grade level, or elevated tracks to keep trains flowing with as few interruptions as possible.

This project is a bit farther off, and Metro has not allocated any specific funding for this project at present. But the agency is paying close attention to the delay-prone Flower corridor. For example, Metro has been piloting a crossing arm to keep vehicular traffic off the train tracks at the 18th street on-ramp for the 10 freeway, where cars make a signaled left-hand-turn across the train tracks. Though the left-turn is signaled, Metro operators report that motorists often make illegal turns across the tracks, in front ot the trains. Unsurprisingly, the crossing arm is intended to keep drivers off the tracks when a train is near.