Last January, after a month of no-show buses and late arrivals at work, riders of express Line 456 angrily complained that the troubled Rapid Transit District did not provide reliable service from Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles. The RTD promised substantial improvement by mid-1988, when 450 new buses were scheduled to arrive. A second look at Line 456 last week found that last year's problems had been replaced by a new set.
Their workdays behind them, Kevin Pobst and Toni Bell squeezed through a crowd of downtown Los Angeles office workers to board a bus for home in Long Beach, more than an hour away.
Both found seats as the bus, at only its second stop, quickly filled. Fifteen people were standing, clutching overhead rails for balance, by the time the driver decided it was full.
"It's always like this, or worse," said Pobst, a ticket agent for a railroad company and one of 2,500 riders who take express Line 456 each day.
"We're really at the mercy of the RTD," said Bell, a secretary for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
Seniors Get Big Discount
Dan Olson, a 66-year-old bank clerk, was one of those left standing. "I stood all the way in this morning, too," Olson said. "The only reason I ride it is because I'm a senior citizen, and I get it for $10 a month. If I was paying any more, I'd be complaining."
Near Olson, a blind man stood quietly through 50 minutes of jolting stops and lurching starts before getting off in North Long Beach.
Still, for these riders, who pay $78 for a monthly pass, the trip home on Line 456 was the best of times. Post-holiday traffic was relatively light. There was room to breathe inside the bus. And it was on time.
Punctuality was hardly the watchword of Line 456 last January. Service was so ragged, especially in the morning, that the regional Rapid Transit District was flooded with complaints. Sometimes two or three buses in a row would fail to show up at the line's six stops along Long Beach Boulevard, leaving commuters stranded for up to 45 minutes in that "black hole between 7 and 8 o'clock," as one rider described the morning rush hour.
The RTD says that last January's bus shortage, which caused cancellation of up to four runs a day on Line 456 and 20 to 40 runs systemwide, no longer exists. A shortage of spare parts that sidelined the buses through 1987 and early 1988, has been corrected, they say. And most commuters agree that no-show buses are not a big problem anymore.
"It does seem that the buses run pretty much on time in the morning now, and that's a significant plus," said U.S. probation supervisor Jerry Flanigan, a veteran commuter from Bixby Knolls.
But riders say Line 456 still seems to have more than its share of problems--and angry customers. Buses have broken down or run out of gas at least six times since Christmas, passengers say. Overcrowding persists. And the competency and courtesy of some bus drivers has been questioned.
One Driver Got Lost
For example, on Jan. 10, a flustered driver allowed too many people to board his bus, then left the bus for 10 minutes to go to a telephone and call for help. He refused to allow angry, overheated passengers in the back of the bus to get off. Two bailed out through emergency windows, riders said.
Another driver recently was lost for 45 minutes while trying to take a shortcut, passengers said. He eventually stopped at an East Los Angeles hamburger stand and asked for directions to the Long Beach Freeway, they said.
Although large signs warn passengers that they can be fined $250 for loud radios, a young 456 driver cranked up rock music on his own radio for a week until complaints to his boss apparently got him to follow RTD rules, passengers said.
"He'd put on his loud, obnoxious, blaring music and if he didn't like somebody's driving he'd use profanity at them," Bell said. "After a long day at work, I don't want to hear that."
In general, commuters say their complaints about Line 456 illustrate the continuing problems the RTD has in providing reliable rush-hour service.
RTD officials say, and riders confirm, that with an infusion of new buses, service improved for much of 1988. But it has deteriorated since October, when 90 new coaches specially designed for the comfort of long-haul commuters were pulled out of service with cracked axles, RTD spokesman Greg Davy said.
Twelve of those buses, Line 456's entire fleet, were replaced by 10-year-old, graffiti-marred buses transferred from the inner city, RTD officials confirmed.
The replacement buses are shabby, Long Beach commuters say, and tend to break down.
"On one bus, the windshield is separated from the frame by about an inch," Pobst said. "You can see daylight and feel the air blowing through, so we're expecting the windshield to come out at any time."
Such discoveries should be reported, said the RTD's Davy. "We would ask for the riders' patience while we fix these safety problems."
Stranded on Freeway