With two fully underground subway lines and four light rail lines, the Los Angeles Metro Rail system isn't exactly a world-class rail system. The system's predecessor, the Pacific Electric light rail/subway system and the Los Angeles Railway streetcar system, were all replaced by buses by the end of World War II, with the last streetcar operating until 1963. The Pacific Electric subway, in particular, remained in operation until the 1950s, leaving the city without a mass-transit rail system until 1993. Los Angeles is probably the only city in the world, other than those destroyed by war or natural disaster, whose transit plan is "get back what we used to have".
With rising gas prices and increasing traffic, residents of Los Angeles increasingly clamored for a new rail system. Consideration for a rail system started in the 1970s, with work on the first lines started in the 1980s. The Blue Line light rail line was opened in 1990, and the Red Line and Purple Line subways soon followed in 1993.
Over the years new light rail lines were added to the system, connecting places all over the Los Angeles basin with Downtown, allowing quick access between areas of the city. However, several important facilities, most notably Los Angeles International Airport and the San Fernando Valley, are not connected directly to light rail (though the southeastern Valley does have a single Red Line subway station), so riders have to use slower bus transportation to reach these destinations. Most of the light rail lines suffer from overcapacity issues, especially the Blue Line. Because much of the light rail is level with the street, train collisions with cars and pedestrians are fairly common, despite railroad crossing gates and prominent warnings on the trains themselves. This may be due to drivers unfamiliar with light rail lines as much more extensive systems in Toronto or Europe (which were built in the 19th century and never dismantled) have much less conflict between drivers and trains, stopping for alighting passengers or to let a train pass having become second nature for local drivers. Indeed, the Blue Line is, according to Wikipedia, "easily the deadliest and most collision-prone rail line in the country".
The Los Angeles Metro Rail System is rather obscure among non-residents, mostly due to the city's reputation as a city of cars. However, it remains the 9th busiest municipal rail system in the United States, and the light rail portion is the second busiest light rail system in the nation. It is also the longest or second longest light rail system by route miles (either behind or ahead of Dallas, depending on the source) It has also seen continued expansion and increases in ridership and political popularity since the turn of the millennium with Measure M, a sales tax measure to fund more Metro Rail construction passing with almost 70% of the vote in 2016.
In late 2018, Metro decided to phase out color names in favor of letters to allow more space for expansion. New signage will be rolled out starting in 2020, and most existing lines will keep the colors associated with them.
The six current lines of the Metro Rail system, organized by opening date, are:
A Line (Blue): The first line in the Metro Rail system, with the first station opened in 1990 and the last in 1991. Runs from the Pacific station in Long Beach to the 7th Street/Metro Center Station in Downtown Los Angeles.
B Line (Red): The second line in the system and the first subway, with the first station opened in 1993 and the last in 2000. Runs from Union Station to North Hollywood. The Red Line is the busiest line in the Metro Rail system. All station platforms have some sort of unique artwork, but for the most part, they are sparse and are the stereotypical subway station. Subway entrances are located on large plazas rather than stereotypical narrow sidewalk entrances, and while most entrances are just a set of escalators and elevators, a few sport unique architecture, usually as shade for the escalators. The Red Line shares the same track as the Purple Line between Union Station and the Wilshire/Vermont station.
C Line (Green): A suburb to suburb line, opened on August 12, 1995. Runs from Redondo Beach to Norwalk. The line is the Metro's least ridden rail line. It was planned at a time when millions of people commuted from cities in the southeast of Los Angeles County to aerospace and defense jobs in places like El Segundo and the Los Angeles Air Force Base, but the end of the Cold War caused all the jobs to disappear, and along with them most of the Green Line's customers. It is fully grade separated, as it runs in the median of the 105 freeway (which includes a transfer station to the A Line at Imperial / Wilmington) and as an elevated down to the South Bay Area. It is the line currently closest to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), but doesn't actually go to it, and a connecting bus is needed, though this will change with the opening of the Crenshaw Line (see below). There are currently plans to extend the line from its terminus in Redondo Beach down to the city of Torrance.
D Line (Purple): The second subway line, with the first station opened in 1993 and the last in 1996. Originally ran as a branch of the Red Line, but was given its own separate designation in 2006. There is a planned extension to the Westside (western Los Angeles); this extension was to be built in the 1980s but for Executive Meddling. Currently runs from Union Station to the Wilshire/Western station. The Purple Line will be extended from Wishire/Western all the way to Westwood by 2027. The goal is to eventually extend it to Santa Monica as a "subway to the sea", but this part is currently in the planning stages with no funding beyond the extension to Westwood.
E Line (Expo): The newest line in the system. All but two stations opened in April 2012, with the two left opened in June 2012. Runs mostly along Exposition Blvd. from the 7th Street/Metro Center Station to downtown Santa Monica a few blocks from the ocean at Santa Monica Pier, almost being the long-promised "subway to the sea".
L Line (Gold): The slowest line in the system. First station opened in 2003 and the last in 2009. Runs from Citrus College in Azusa to Atlantic Station in East Los Angeles via Pasadena and Union Station in Downtown LA. Expected to cease to exist in its current form in the near future (which is why is was given a strangely discontinuous letter in the renaming). See the Regional Connector below.
Planned new lines are:
Crenshaw/LAX Line: Connects Downtown Los Angeles with the Los Angeles International Airport via a transfer at the Crenshaw/Expo station of the E Line. Its south end will tie to the C Line, though exact service patterns for both lines haven't been finalized. It will include a station even closer to LAX (hence the "LAX" in the name) where it would allow transfers to a planned airport people mover.
Regional Connector: A new light rail subway tunnel in Downtown LA. Completion of the Regional Connector will result in a major restructuring of the A, E and and L Lines to take advantage of the new connection. Basically, the southern part of the L Line will be joined with the E Line (Which will adopt the L Line's current gold color), and the portion of the L Line north of Union Station will become part of the A Line (and get its blue color). This will see the end of the L Line as a separate line, and will finally fulfill the original plan for the Pasadena portion to run to Long Beach as was originally envisioned. The A Line will, in the process, become the world's longest light rail line at 49 miles (79 km) long, surpassing the 42 mile long (68 km) Coast Tram in Belgium.
Additionally, two bus routes are marked on maps alongside the rail system and use its letter-and-color naming scheme:
G Line (Orange): A bus route opened in 2005 that runs entirely in an exclusive roadway from the North Hollywood B Line station across the south end of the San Fernando Valley before turning northward to Chatsworth (which was a later extension). It was originally envisioned as a light rail line until NIMBYism forced it to be a bus. It, like the A and E lines, was built on the former right-of-way of one of the old Pacific Electric Red Car lines. It has surprised even the planners with its high ridership, to the point where Metro has needed to use longer buses. Full conversion to light rail (which the bridges were built to handle), however, is unlikely, as the disruption to the existing service would be unacceptable. In many ways it's a victim of its own success.
J Line (Silver): A route launched in 2009 linking together two existing bus lanes that are attached to freeways. The El Monte Busway (opened 1973) runs from Union Station in Downtown LA alongside the San Bernardino Freeway to its namesake city, while the Harbor Transitway (opened 1996) runs in the median of the Harbor Freeway between the campus of the University of Southern California and the Harbor Gateway Transit Center. The two are linked by a street running section in Downtown, which is less than ideal. Also some, but not all, trips continue last the Harbor Gateway to San Pedro, which also includes street running. Let's just say that this line does not succeed the way the G Line does, and leave it at that.
The Los Angeles Metro uses a reusable near-field communication-enabled smart card called the TAP (Transit Access Pass) Card. Payment or passes are loaded at stations, and access to station platforms is unlocked by tapping the card against a target. TAP Cards also work on various bus systems, including systems not related to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the parent organization of the Metro Rail system. TAP Cards are mandatory for riding the system; other forms of payment are accepted only on buses and ticket machines. The cards have been much maligned for being unreliable and hard to use, though with correct usage, the TAP Card is superior to cash and tokens.
Normal fare is a flat rate of $1.75 for all Metro Rail, Metro Liner, and Metro Bus lines, except for the Silver Line busway (which costs $2.50 because it is elevated from the road). Whether the rider rides between just two stations or rides from one end of the line to another, the fare is always $1.75. If a transfer is made within 2 hours, it is free. Transfers from Los Angeles County-bound Metrolink trains are also free - tickets for these trains contain NFC chips. Day Passes, which allow unlimited rides for a day, can be bought for $7 at a ticket machine or $8 with a new TAP Card on a Metro Bus. Weekly passes can be purchased for $25, and monthly passes for $100.