Gold Line, Expo Line extensions may sit idle waiting on rail cars to carry passengers – San Gabriel Valley Tribune

The following article appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune on November 3, 2014.

Gold Line, Expo Line extensions may sit idle waiting on rail cars to carry passengers – San Gabriel Valley Tribune

By Steve Scauzillo

November 3, 2014

The simultaneous completion of two light-rail lines next year is raising concerns that the projects may not receive enough cars to carry passengers and the shortage could delay line openings for up to a year and a half, interviews and public records show.

With completion of the Expo Line Phase 2 line from Culver City to Santa Monica expected by summer, and the Gold Line Foothill Extension from Pasadena to Azusa on Sept. 23, the race is on to supply the necessary train cars to carry passengers at full capacity.

Adding to the anxiety of both construction managers is the fact that the contract awarded by Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) board to Kinkisharyo International, a Japanese company that’s assembling the light-rail vehicles in Palmdale, occurred in late August 2012, three years after the board reached a tentative agreement with AnsaldoBreda to build the cars but later failed to execute the contract.

One of the biggest fears comes from the Metro Gold Line Foothill Extension Construction Authority, a separate entity building an 11.5-mile extension from east Pasadena to the Azusa/Glendora border. Once complete, the Authority will turn the line over to Metro for operation. Today, the Gold Line carries more than 44,000 daily passengers from East Los Angeles to L.A.’s Union Station to the terminus at Sierra Madre Villa in east Pasadena.

Chief Executive Officer Habib Balian worries that the lack of train cars for the foothill extension will force Metro to reduce frequencies — the intervals between train arrivals at the extension’s six stations.

The extension is scheduled to receive 15 cars and run trains about 10 minutes apart. “But instead of them coming every 10 minutes, they could come every 30 minutes. That would be a big turnoff to the building up of ridership. It would take you a long time to regain their trust. That is our fear,” Balian said.

One manager close to both agencies said most train watchers call lengthy inaugural headways “the kiss of death” tantamount to a restaurant grand opening with an inadequate number of servers.

During the past few weeks, Metro officials have tried to reassure managers of the Gold Line Foothill and Expo Line extensions that enough train cars will be available. The only question is when.

The Expo Line, a 6.6-mile extension with seven new stations and an anticipated daily ridership of 64,000 by 2030, is nearly complete, said Expo officials. In July or August, it will be turned over to Metro for about four months of testing, followed by actual revenue-producing ridership, said Samantha Bricker, Expo Phase 2’s chief operating officer.

“We are assured they (Metro) will have vehicles in time for revenue operation,” Bricker said. Metro officials met with CEO Rick Thorpe two weeks ago to assure him the train cars would arrive on time, she said.

Still, the wiggle room in Metro’s testing and operations schedule in the unprecedented light-rail buildup occurring on opposite sides of the county left traces of concern in her voice.

“Everyone would hate to have a system built on time and not be able to operate it,” she said. “But it is not in our control and not in Foothill’s control. We are dependent on Metro to deliver these vehicles.”

While construction of Expo and Foothill extensions would be completed by July/August and late September, respectively, Metro said in a statement the two lines will be completed by summer 2016 — about a year later.

A Foothill official who asked not to be named said they had never heard that date mentioned.

Metro CEO Art Leahy said in a prepared statement dated Oct. 17: “All 78 vehicles in the base order are scheduled to be in service by January 2017.”

When asked to clarify, Metro Spokesman Paul Gonzales said the 78 vehicles from Kinkisharyo’s shop in Palmdale would be delivered to Metro by January 2017.

Since that represents a 16-month gap between the completion of Gold Line Foothill construction and receivership of the rail cars, and an 18-month gap between completion of the Expo Phase 2 and receiving the cars, managers are wondering if the two lines would not carry passengers during the gaps.

“When passengers will ride? I can’t tell you,” Gonzales said. “There is a lot that can happen between now and then.”

Bricker said after a normal testing period, the new Expo Line to Santa Monica should begin running in January 2016 or earlier. Balian said Metro would be done testing the foothill line in four to six months and therefore it would be ready to carry passengers in March 2016. Metro did not confirm these dates.

In a May 22, 2013 memo from Balian to the Foothill Authority’s board, Metro forecasted it would not fulfill the required number of rail cars to operate both the Foothill and Expo extensions once the lines were built and tested.

The memo said Metro was trying to secure 30-year-old rail cars from St. Louis “as a way to address the shortage of vehicles.”

Metro also told the Foothill board it would take 33 months from the issuance of the contract for the company to begin delivering cars. That would start the clock in May 2015. At four cars per month, the full 78-car order would not be received until January 2017.

But since Expo needs 42 cars and Foothill 15, the two are banking on getting the first 57 cars of the base order sooner, rather than later.

“We are trying to get this so we have the cars we need at the time we need them,” Gonzales said. “That is why Kinkisharyo is committed to having this done on time.”

Kinkisharyo, in a show of good faith, delivered a test rail car to Metro on Oct. 17.

Several train cars are scheduled to be delivered to the new operations yard in Monrovia by the end of December, when they will be tested on the Foothill line. However, Balian said he’s unsure if that deadline will be met.

John Fasana, a member of both Metro and Foothill boards, said the schedule for train car deliveries is “definitely a concern” and “tighter than we’d like.” He agreed that longer headways would taint the hard work of the construction crews working feverishly these past years to complete the extensions on time.

Bricker said to open a line with inadequate service is an insult to the thousands of residents on L.A’s west side who’ve suffered through lane closures and traffic delays so the line could be built.

“Yes, there is a lot of anticipation on both corridors,” Bricker said. “Ours will be a great alternative (to driving). So we would like to get it open.”

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