Highs and Lows of L.A. Rail

At the entrance to the MTA’s library is an old transit map showing rail lines blanketing the region and running down dozens of city streets. Like drive-in movies, that kind of thing is gone forever. Since World War II, transit officials have tried, with varying degrees of success, to revive rail transit in Los Angeles. Here are some of the starts and stops along the way.


Early 1900's The Red Era The legendary Red Cars and (less known) Yellow Cars used to go everywhere. By 1914, 5 cents got you to San Bernardino, Balboa Island, Santa Ana and San Fernando. Other lines went to Hollywood and Santa Monica. At their peak in the 1920s, the trains carried more than 100 million passengers a year on more than 1,000 miles of track. But they were rarely profitable and survived on the kindness of their owners’ land development operations. They died after they were bought up by some dummy companies tied to the automotive industry.

1954 Scenic River Route The original MTA was formed after World War II to put a monorail along the Los Angeles River. The river idea was soon abandoned, but the MTA couldn’t let go of monorails. “It was part of the whole sci-fi, Ray Bradbury city-of-the-future thing,” said MTA librarian Matthew Barrett. “They were obsessed with monorail. They had a one-track mind.”


1960-1961 Fantasyland By 1960, MTA was still high on monorail, especially on routes running to the ocean on Wilshire and going north to the Valley from Long Beach. As with the other space-age transit ideas, this plan went nowhere. Hey, Zev, imagine one running along the 405 — it could draw as many riders as Seattle's short line. For now, the only monorail in Southern California runs from Tomorrowland to the Disneyland Hotel.

All Aboard: Incoming Pulling back for the moment on grandiose plans, transit officials hawked a more modest 22-mile “Backbone Route” from El Monte to the new Century City. The subway portion of the route, running under Wilshire, was designated as a nuclear fallout shelter, presumably to catch some of the Kennedy-era homeland security pork being thrown around.

1968 Togetherness? No Thanks. After the 1965 Watts Riots, the RTD tried to sell a comprehensive plan for trains on five corridors with numerous feeder bus lines. The Wilshire subway would take 20 minutes to go from downtown to Westwood. Even a squad of cutie “Transit Maids” couldn’t convince voters to approve a sales-tax hike to pay for the system. Besides the cost, many Hancock Park and Westside residents favored L.A.’s segregationist ways and didn’t want to make it easy for “those people” to come west.


1974 Nice Idea L.A. adopted a general plan built around “The Concept,” in which concentrated urban “centers” are connected by rapid-rail transit lines. The centers grew but the transit never came.

1976 Sex Appeal The County Board of Supervisors took their shot at selling a transit system, pitching a massive 280-mile “Sunset Coast Line” of subway, light rail and monorail. Promotional literature promised that the system would “break up any love affair” between drivers and their cars, and “create a whole new romance for commuters.” Riding the trains would be the commuter equivalent of good sex with strangers. “They’ll like themselves in the morning,” the pamphlets cooed. Voters rejected the full-cent sales-tax increase for the plan.


1980 Derailed by NIMBYS With the support of former Supervisor Kenneth Hahn and former Mayor Tom Bradley, voters passed Proposition A, which set a half-cent sales tax to help pay for a modest rail transit system.

Political and funding pressures reduced the Prop. A plan to a twisted “Starter Line” going to Fairfax and then turning right through Hollywood to the Valley. The subway plan triggered a lot of NIMBY resistance in the Hancock Park area. One neighborhood group called the proposed Wilshire/Crenshaw station “an unwarranted assault on our neighborhood.”


2000 Too Good to be True The guerrilla group Heavy Trash (the same people that recently built viewing platforms to peer into gated communities) erected eight signs announcing the construction of the Aqua Line, a 15-mile subway “connecting downtown to the Westside.” The prospect of the subway line, starting at Western, brought grateful calls to the MTA from traffic-choked Westsiders.

To read "The Subway Mayor" by Eric Berkowitz in this issue of the LA Weekly, click here.

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