What It's Like to Ride a Train in L.A. With the Mayor

Peter Flax
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti on Monday in Santa Monica after riding the new Metro extension.

A reporter joins Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on the first train ride between L.A. and Santa Monica since 1953.

“Marty McFly would be very happy today,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti tells me, with a friendly smirk. We are standing on the platform of the Downtown Santa Monica Station, flanked by a brand new yellow train and a scrum of reporters. “It’s back to the future today. We’re literally rewriting history with this train.”

The last time a train from Los Angeles rolled westward into Santa Monica, Eisenhower was in the White House, Gary Cooper had just won the best actor Oscar (for High Noon) and the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn. But now, Garcetti is leading the media and community VIPs on the first official preview of Metro’s westward extension, which officially connects downtown Santa Monica to Culver City and beyond on May 20.

“This may be the car capital of the world, but now people can ride a train from skyline to shoreline,”  the mayor says before boarding what Metro officials dubbed “The VIP train” in Culver City, mentioning to me that he has spent many weeks thinking about slogans but failed to figure out anything that rhymed with lobster. “Anyway, I’m really proud that this project was finished on time and on budget.”

Los Angeles once was interlaced with train lines — in fact, 90 years ago no fewer than three train lines connected Downtown L.A. and Beverly Hills to the beaches of Santa Monica and Venice. But then came the reign of the automobile, causing rail ridership to decline and complaints about trolley traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard, Venice Boulevard and elsewhere to rise. The last streetcars run by Pacific Electric stopped running to the beach in 1953.

The westward extension includes seven new stations and 6.6 miles of light-rail track passing through Westwood, West L.A. and Santa Monica. Metro CEO Phillip A. Washington tells THR that his organization projects a daily ridership of 18,000 people, adding, “I’m confident we’ll exceed that before too long.”

Metro CEO Phillip A. Washington and a brand new light-rail car.

In the run-up to this launch, PR efforts have touted the food and shopping options that are springing up near these new stations, but on this trial run I don’t see any adjacent development where an upwardly mobile commuter could buy a cold-pressed juice or yoga pants or even a strong cup of coffee (other than a couple spots previously in operation next to Bergamont Station). Still, Washington says that extensive development is underway that will bring more housing, improved shopping and new commercial real estate to the corridor around the new line. “All of that just driven by this train line,” he tells me. “Think about that. In Los Angeles! This is going to be a great investment for the region.”

The stations have an open, austere aesthetic without any visible concessions or much in the way of structural architecture. “We didn’t want the new stations to have any enclosed boxes; we wanted people to be exposed to the sun and feel the ocean breezes,” Garcetti says as a stiff maritime wind cooled the platforms of the Downtown Santa Monica station, located three blocks from the city’s famous pier, as if for effect. Perhaps 100 yards away, a construction crew feverishly works on a parking lot and small bus circle that presumably will be done within 11 days.

The train cars themselves are new, too — the first of 78 light-rail cars Metro ordered from Japanese manufacturing giant Kinkisharyo. These cars are significantly quieter than Metro’s existing train stock (thanks to a more sophisticated air-conditioning system), says Bruce Shelburne, Metro’s executive director of rail operations, and offer a bit more room between seats. “Many of the cars in our system are 26 or 27 years old and eventually these cars will replace all those old cars,” he says, also noting that all of the new Kinkisharyo cars are being assembled and tested in nearby Palmdale.

The mayor tells me about the transformational power of a "12-minute trip from Culver City to Santa Monica" and officials with his office and Metro happily repeat this talking point. I ran a stopwatch on this trip in both directions and it took roughly 18 and a half minutes each way (with normal-seeming stops at each station).

The train crossed intersections with Lincoln Boulevard, Barrington Avenue and 17th Street without slowing — Metro has installed signals that can stop traffic as a train is approaching — but we stopped for red lights at 7th and 5th streets. As the mayor segues to answer another reporter's question in Spanish, a Metro staffer pulls me aside to explain how the timing of traffic lights in Santa Monica will be controlled by a sophisticated system that tries to balance the realities of real-time car traffic with the desire to keep the trains moving as fast as possible.

Mayor Garcetti faced a throng of reporters at the Downtown Santa Monica Metro station.

Before the train leaves the Santa Monica station for the return trip to Culver City, Garcetti is summoned to the cab, where he sits in the engineer's seat and grabs the controls for a photo op. Photographers and camera operators jostle and Metro officials make faces of mock concern as the mayor pushes buttons and moves levers.

Then, with little fanfare, the return trip begins. With no offense to the VIP guests, perhaps the most remarkable thing about this most uneventful train ride comes from a sideways glance out the windows of the light-rail car — we're speeding past cars gridlocked on I-10. Before we pulled out of Culver City, I checked the drive-time to the Downtown Santa Monica station on Waze — it was 26 minutes, a figure that easily would double on a sunny Saturday afternoon. For the first time since 1953, a train was cruising from the ocean in Santa Monica, headed toward Los Angeles.

“Anyone who’s ever been stuck in that weekend crunch on the 10 should be excited about this new service,” says Garcetti. “I can’t wait to ride it again once it’s open to the pubic and see a little sand on these trains.”

May 11, 1pm Headline and article with updated with additional information.