LONG BEACH — Wearing business suits and anxious smiles, the riders of bus Line 456 arrive early for their daily commute to downtown Los Angeles.
Although their work days may not start until 9 a.m. and their commute takes only an hour, they often gather at six stops along Long Beach Boulevard well before 7 o'clock.
Then they wait and hope, craning their necks for a glimpse of an orange-and-red striped Rapid Transit District bus.
"If I miss the 6:55, I start to get sweaty palms," said Jerry Flanigan, a Bixby Knolls resident and one of 2,500 riders who take the 456 each day. "I think, 'My God, I'm trapped in this black hole between 7 and 8 o'clock.' "
During most of January, Flanigan's anxiety mounted with each passing day as buses scheduled to arrive at 7:06, 7:21 and 7:36 often failed to show at his Bixby Road stop.
"It's funny what this does to you," Flanigan, a U. S. Probation Department supervisor, said last week. "You have to get to work, but you start out each day with this feeling, 'Am I going to get there?' . . . It's like living in a cartoon, you stand there like absolute idiots and nothing comes."
On nine of 20 weekday mornings last month, at least one of the four buses scheduled between 7 and 8 a.m. never came, according to Flanigan and several others, who have formed a kind of fraternity for disgruntled commuters at the Bixby stop.
Delays of 30 to 45 minutes have been frequent, they said. One bleak morning, three buses in a row failed to arrive and a fourth was so crowded no one else could board, they said.
"I got to work after 9, more than an hour late," recalled Lynette Adams, a secretary at a downtown Los Angeles bank. "I always explain that we have a situation with the buses, but my (bosses) don't want to hear that. They want me here on time!"
Cite Month of Problems
The commuters say their month of no-show buses and late arrivals at work--and similar situations last May and October--illustrate the apparent inability of the troubled RTD to provide service on which rush-hour commuters can rely.
They also say that repeated complaints about poor service have been met by polite promises to look into the problem, but no improvement until the last days of the month.
"The result is that many of us, instead of using transit to eliminate smog and freeway congestion, now get in our cars and drive to work. It's a shame," said gas company employee Dick Friend, a veteran 456 commuter.
The problems with Line 456 follow months of sporadic RTD service countywide. Since last July, the regional bus company has experienced a shortage of spare parts, leaving it short of buses when some of the 2,000 vehicles that operate during peak hours break down.
That continuing problem, caused by a malfunctioning new computer used to keep track of spare parts, was supposedly solved in December and RTD officials predicted smooth operations by early January.
But as January ended, RTD officials said they were still playing catch-up, canceling from 20 to 40 bus runs a day compared to 100 at the height of the problem in October. There are now plenty of spare parts, but mechanics have not had time to fix about 300 broken-down vehicles, leaving the RTD with only 100 spares to parcel out among its 12 divisions, they said.
"We'll make significant progress in the next 30 days," RTD maintenance assistant director Michael Leahy predicted last week. And things will get much better in May or June when about 300 new buses begin to arrive, he said.
In the meantime, Leahy said, the RTD has been trying to make sure no single line, such as the 456, has more than its share of problems.
"We're attempting to solve this problem on all lines throughout the system . . . (by) moving buses daily to minimize the impact on any one location," he said. But he acknowledged that the 456 may have had some no-show problems because its later runs are among the last out of the Long Beach yard each morning.
The small Long Beach division--which operates 15 of the RTD's 180 total lines, including express routes originating in Belmont Shore, San Pedro and the Palos Verdes Peninsula--has had up to four canceled runs each day in recent weeks, Leahy said.
The division starts each morning with perhaps four spare buses, which routinely are allocated long before 7 a.m., he said.
But the same thing is happening on late runs of other lines countywide, RTD spokesman Greg Davy said. "Line 456 is not getting any particular short shrift," he said.
The riders of 456 find that hard to believe. Buses on three other RTD lines that use the same Long Beach Boulevard route barrel past them on schedule each day, they say, even when the 456 is late.
Service did improve somewhat last week, after three weeks of protest by telephone and by letter, and was even better this week, commuters said.