The Great Los Angeles Train Resurgence

I was on a commuter train – in Los Angeles. I kept repeating these words to myself as the Metrolink light rail whisked me through East LA, the city’s underwhelming skyline in the distance. Union Station was the next stop and terminus. From there I’d gawk at the station’s interior, in all its Art Deco beauty, and then hop on the red line to Thai Town.

Yes, that’s right: the subway. The Los Angeles Metro Rail, as it’s called, consists of six lines, all named by color, that snake through the greater Los Angeles area, mostly above ground but, as in the case of the line I took, the red line, underground as well. An Angelino can now travel from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach. And that’s just the Metro Rail. There’s also the Metrolink, which goes even further afield and has been running since 1992.

Until recently, “public transportation” and “Los Angeles” seemed like antonyms, antipoles that were part of two different worlds. There are cities all over the planet with functioning rapid transit systems, subways and monorails and trains; and then there was Los Angeles, which seemed to exist outside the sphere of normal cities, an exception to the rule where cars reigned on the road and the most popular form of self expression was found on one’s vanity plate or personalized license plate.When I was growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, there were no trains or subways or light rail. There were only busses, frequented by crazy people who would boisterously yell “Bye bye!” to every person before getting off and by grumpy geriatrics whose licenses were revoked because they’d plowed their Oldsmobiles into a family of four, mistaking them for speed bumps (which is, essentially, what they became).

But before that, Los Angeles had an extensive public transportation system that covered 1,000 miles of the city. Revenue losses during the Interwar period were the death knell for the system. And, though contested, there’s the Great American Streetcar Scandal, which asserts that a GM-led consortium bought up the system and dismantled it to inspire people to buy more automobiles. If that’s true, it worked. Los Angeles has been an annoying miasma of steel and concrete ever since.

Maybe some day that will completely change. Last week, after transferring at Union Station, I took the subway to the Hollywood/Western stop and ate at Jitlada in Thai Town, a restaurant some critics claim is the best Thai restaurant in the country. I haven’t eaten at every Thai restaurant in America, so it’s hard to say. It was, though, some of the best Thai food I’ve ever eaten (disclosure: I’ve never been to Thailand). After that, I got back on the subway and headed downtown to the Los Angeles Times Travel Show where I watched Andrew McCarthy give an inspiring talk about why we should check our fear at the door when we hit the road and got to chat with friend Jen Leo and fellow Gadling’er and expert hugger, Don George.

At the end of the day, I hopped back on the Metrolink to Montclair where I was staying with my sister. The sun was setting behind me and I looked out the window at cars slowed and, at times, stopped, in traffic. It was the culmination of what would have been a very un-LA day but I’m happy to say is increasingly more and more Los Angeles with each rider.

[Photo of Union Station by David Farley]