Eight months after opening day and four months after a labor strike temporarily shut its trains down, the Gold Line railway connecting downtown Los Angeles to Pasadena is proving to be a reliable form of transportation but is struggling to attract passengers.
January figures, the latest available, show ridership at nearly 15,000 boardings per weekday -- the equivalent of roughly 7,500 people taking round-trip journeys. That's far less than the 38,000 boardings that officials who built the line predicted it would have reached by now.
Although the line attracts solid ridership during portions of rush hour, records show weekly patronage slipped by about 30% from August to September, the first two months it was open.
That has transportation officials searching for solutions. In the meantime, they are trying to save money by shaving service. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority recently began running Gold Line trains with one car instead of two after 8 p.m., a move to save money on power and maintenance because so few people ride the route in the evening.
"Something has to be done to bring back the excitement," said Ed Reyes, a Los Angeles councilman and chair of the state-created construction authority that built the line and which hopes to extend it to Montclair at a cost of more than $1 billion. "This is a serious problem.... We've got to pay attention to it so the Gold Line can reach its potential."
Reyes, like many others, blames the railway's performance on the labor strike that shut down the Gold Line and almost all other MTA service for 35 days in October and November. He believes the strike turned off a public that craved reliability from its mass-transit system.
Ridership on the countywide MTA bus and rail system is down about 5% since the strike. But on the Gold Line, ridership was already falling before the strike.
The 14-mile route opened in late July to great fanfare, largely because light rail to Pasadena had been promised since the early 1980s, and the communities surrounding the Gold Line were charged with anticipation.
An unexpected crush of at least 70,000 people descended on the route on opening day, jamming trains and forcing waits of several hours. At ribbon cuttings, local politicians hailed the Gold Line as a panacea for everything from congestion to blight to dirty air, while promising that the $870 million spent to build the railway was money spent wisely.
In many ways, the Gold Line appears to be living up to its billing.
Most Gold Line stations are well-designed additions to the neighborhoods they sit in. The cars are sleek, clean, air-conditioned and run on time, arriving every 10 minutes at rush hour to each of the 13 stations stretching from Union Station to the eastern edge of Pasadena.
The route also offers views of valleys, mountains, downtown Los Angeles and historic neighborhoods. In Pasadena, South Pasadena and Los Angeles' Lincoln Heights, some of those neighborhoods are adding housing complexes near the railway, the kind of dense development that transit experts believe is crucial to building ridership.
Most important, regular riders tend to love the experience. Interviews with scores of riders over the last few weeks found most giving the Gold Line high marks.
Tom Boyle, an accountant who lives in Pasadena and works in downtown Los Angeles, gave a typical review as he boarded a train last week: "It's clean, it's reliable, it's less stressful, you get to appreciate parts of the city that lots of people don't normally experience.... Riding this, you feel like you are living in a real city."
Some experts say the Gold Line will fail to fulfill its promise as long as certain flaws remain.
"It's got a lot of problems," said Tom Rubin, a transit expert and former high-ranking county transportation official. "This is just not a good line."
Three Pasadena stations are in the middle of the Foothill Freeway and are uncomfortably loud because there's nothing to block the noise coming from cars that speed past just feet from the platform. Instead of going all the way through downtown Los Angeles, bringing workers close to their jobs, the line stops at Union Station. That means most riders heading downtown must get off the train and transfer to the subway or a bus shuttle.
For safety reasons, the Gold Line slows, sometimes to a crawl, on several stretches because transit officials didn't want to spend the money to put the line in trenches or above ground in dense neighborhoods like Highland Park.
As a result, the train takes about 40 minutes to run its route. Combined with the time riders spend getting to and from the railway, taking the Gold Line is far slower than using a car, and in some cases, slower than buses that travel roughly the same route.
"Speed is not the reason you use this line," said MTA Deputy Chief Executive John Catoe, in charge of the railway's operation. "It's about comfort. You can read the paper, relax. It's a really great line that way."
Catoe, who said he would give the railway a "C" grade for ridership so far, is optimistic that the Gold Line will see a steady surge in use, a trend similar to that experienced on the MTA's other rail routes in the years after their openings. The 22-mile Blue Line railway connecting downtown L.A. to Long Beach started with about 20,000 weekday boardings in its first several months, in 1990. Ridership now stands at about 75,000 boardings.
Catoe is planning upgrades to attract more riders, including a revamped advertising campaign and better bus connections to feed more people onto the line. Another key, he said, will be continuing the dense development around the tracks.
"It's still a work in progress," Catoe said. "Getting the ridership we want is not a simple task."