Some of the most common rider complaints and transit-related social media rants are spurred by the long wait times for LA Metro subways and light-rail trains.
Officials say that will be changing starting Sunday, Sept. 10, when Metro increases frequencies on the B (Red) and D (Purple) subway lines that run in central LA, Hollywood and the eastern San Fernando Valley.
Instead of every 15 minutes, trains will run every 12 minutes on weekdays from 5 a.m. through 7 p.m. and weekends from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., according to Joseph Forgiarini, Metro senior executive officer for service development.
Where the two subway lines are combined, between LA’s Union Station and the Wilshire/Vermont Station, riders will see a train every six minutes, an improvement from every eight minutes, he added.
Wait times for all four Metro light-rail lines, which connect out to Azusa, Pasadena, East Los Angeles, Compton, South LA, Inglewood, Long Beach, Norwalk and Redondo Beach, are tentatively planned to be reduced in December. Trains that run every 10 minutes at peak times will drop to every eight minutes, and from 15 minutes to 10 minutes during off-peak hours, said Forgiarini.
Train watchers say what is in actuality only a few minutes quicker per line will make a huge difference in rider satisfaction. Because when attempting a transfer and the rider sees on the digital sign the next train is 15 minutes or even 20 minutes away, trips get longer and doubts about taking public transit enter the psyche.
“I think it is a huge quality of life benefit. It will save lots of time for tens of thousands of Metro riders,” said Joe Linton, editor of StreetsblogLA, speaking about running more trains on the B and D subways. Linton, who lives in Koreatown, rides Metro rail two or three times a week.
Safety issues are a major concern, according to Metro rider surveys and town halls. Waiting less time on a station platform for the train to arrive can reduce anxiety, often caused by mentally unstable and unhoused individuals or drug users hanging out on platforms, often asking passengers for hand-outs. “It makes it less worrisome because you are not sitting there waiting for your train,” Linton said.
Bart Reed, executive director of The Transit Coalition, a transit watchdog group based in the San Fernando Valley, agreed with Linton.
“More trains means more people will feel comfortable riding the trains because there’s less waiting. That will certainly encourage ridership,” Reed said.
But other factors could derail the ambitious program, he said.
First, as train ridership opens up, so does work places and entertainment venues connected to Metro rail. That could change if the county sees more significant rises in COVID-19 cases. Upticks in cases and hospitalizations have been reported in August by LA County Department of Public Health. Also, Reed said the agency’s deployment of Metro Ambassadors and more security officers have reduced crime, but setbacks in safety improvements could slow ridership growth.
The agency experienced a 15% increase in ridership in July, as compared to July 2022, marking the eighth straight month of year-over-year growth, Metro reported.
The goal is for Metro to return ridership and service to pre-pandemic levels. That has been an uphill battle mostly due to a drop in ridership and staffing attrition during the first two years of the pandemic, Forgiarini explained. The agency hired more than 1,000 bus operators over the past year and restored bus service to pre-pandemic levels by December 2022.
“Now that the bus network is under control, we have recruited rail operators,” he said. Forgiarini said Metro has hired enough rail operators to add more frequent service on the B and D lines. Those frequencies were downgraded in 2022 to every 15 minutes due to a shortage of rail operators, he said.
But Metro still needs to hire and train more rail operators in order to guarantee an increase in train frequencies for the four light-rail lines, the A, C, E and K, he said. The addition of more light-rail trains, resulting in shorter wait times for passengers, may be phased in line by line starting sometime in December, he said.
The money has been allocated in the 2023-2024 budget. “The money is not the challenge. It is the operating numbers,” he said. “We are waiting to confirm we have sufficient operators to do that.”
The budget includes a 12% rail service increase. This could pay for this service increase, as well as service on the recently opened K Line and Regional Connector.
For light-rail users, such as those taking the A Line from Azusa, with stops in Pasadena, downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach, waiting 10 minutes at most for a train would be a sea change. At times and on certain lines, trains running at night arrive every 20 minutes.
“That would be the first time we’ve ever done that for light rail,” Forgiarini said. “We’ve never done 10-minute off-peak before.”
Metro hopes to build on a steady rise in bus and rail ridership occurring this year. It continues to open new rail lines or expand existing ones, with each project costing billions of dollars. The K Line to Inglewood and the Regional Connector in downtown LA both opened this year.
Total ridership (bus + rail) jumped in the second quarter of this year. Average weekday ridership reached 881,920, with bus at 692,768 and rail at 189,152. Rail numbers increased from 174,488 at the end of 2022.
As reflected in the July 2023 15% increase, average weekday ridership totaled 847,773, with bus at 654,281 and rail climbing to 193,452. Metro’s total ridership is at 76% of the 2019 pre-pandemic numbers. Average weekend ridership is higher — at nearly 90% — while at 72% for average weekdays. Average Sunday ridership on the B Line and D Line came in at 99 percent in July 2023 as compared to July 2019.
Reed predicts continued increases in bus and rail ridership from August and September, which would include student riders, many of whom ride free under the GoPass program, transit passes placed in the hands of thousands of K-12 and community college students.
Will quicker service cause more people to leave their cars in the garage and ride Metro’s rail system? That remains to be seen.
“Any increase in Metro service should be celebrated,” Linton said. “It is huge.”