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NEXT L.A. | The Next Wave

Setting a New Standard for Light-Rail Cars

August 13, 1996|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a sprawling plant on the eastern edge of Carson, the light-rail passenger cars of Los Angeles' future are being welded, molded and riveted into shape.

The cars--the first such vehicles made in the United States in 50 years, their builders say--will be faster and sleeker than the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's existing light-rail cars. They will be quieter and more automated.

And they will be called L.A. Standard Cars.

Workers at the 115,000-square-foot Siemens Transportation Systems plant rolled out the first completed shell--the main component of the cars--last month.

That shell will be shipped to Sacramento for the installation of internal components and testing, and the fully operational vehicle should arrive back in Los Angeles and go into service in early 1997, said Siemens plant manager John Ketelsen.

An additional 51 cars, each costing $2.4 million, should hit the rails over the next few years and all be operating around the turn of the century.

It takes 4,000 hours to piece together the 1,500 parts that make up a single shell.

Some of the differences between the new cars and the existing light-rail cars--which currently operate on the Blue Line and Green Line--will be clear to the eye. Many won't.

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The first thing passengers are likely to notice is the body shape of the L.A. Standard--a look that is supposed to represent the city as it moves into the 21st century.

They are more aerodynamically shaped than the Blue Line cars, although both have 76 seats and can carry up to 220 riders.

The side windows as well as windshields are larger, providing better views. But under the metaphoric hood is where the real differences lie.

The Green Line trains will be able to travel at more than 65 mph, rather than the current 55 mph, and will be able to stop more quickly.

They will be powered by lighter, higher-performance AC motors, rather than DC motors, that should also be less expensive to maintain.

But what will truly set the L.A. Standard apart, company and MTA officials say, is its high-tech brainpower.

"You'll be able to take a Green Line train and put it on a Blue Line track and tell it to behave like a Blue Line train," said Ketelsen, something that could not easily be done now.

Also, two cars will arrive with the hardware and software to operate without a driver, and every model can be upgraded to be driverless.

"That was Mayor Tom Bradley's dream--to have a totally automated rail line in Los Angeles," said MTA spokeswoman Clara Potes-Fellow.

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In addition to touting the look and efficiency of the new cars, MTA and other officials boast that the L.A. Standard has returned light-rail manufacturing to the United States and has already brought millions of dollars to Los Angeles County.

Light-rail car manufacturing all but died in the United States after World War II, industry officials said, with Europe and Japan garnering most of the business. And the contract for the L.A. Standards was initially given to the Japanese-owned Sumitomo Corp. of America.

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When elected officials criticized that agreement for involving too few American workers, however, MTA officials in 1992 agreed to buy the 15 cars now in operation from Sumitomo, but awarded the bulk of the contract to Siemens on the condition the German-American conglomerate build in Los Angeles.

The company spent more than $8 million to convert a former steel works into the car shell plant, and now employs 53 workers, a number that elected officials and company officials hope will grow.

Siemens is also expecting orders from Salt Lake City, which is trying to build a short line before the Winter Olympics come to town in 2002, as well as from St. Louis.

The order from Salt Lake alone would double the company's Carson work force, said Gunter Ernst of Siemens' mass transit division.

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