Metro’s Great Expo Line Adventure: How Did We Get Here?

An Armchair History (First of Three Parts) - (My friend and neighbor Dr. Ken Alpern recently wrote a CityWatch article about the struggle to make the Metro Expo Line (what I will shorten to Expo Line in this article) a reality, offering an insight that only someone who has been down in the trenches fighting the good fight (and still is/does) can provide.  Ken has asked if I can provide a deeper historical perspective.)  


Although a book could be written on the history of Expo Line, an overview will, hopefully, suffice.  Since history is rarely a series of unrelated events, some tangents are necessary, but I will keep them brief and try to keep the timeline in as chronological order as possible.  

But first we must turn back the hands of time to well before the first shovel of dirt was turned over to build the Metro Expo Line (2006). 

Before Zev Yaroslavsky was first elected (1975). 

Before Susan Miller Dorsey High School was founded (1937). 

Before Overland Avenue Elementary School opened (1931). 

Before the Palms subdivision of Cheviot Hills was created (1923). 

Before Culver City (1917). 

Before the Pacific Electric Railway (1901). 

Before West Los Angeles (Sawtelle) (1896). 

Before Palms (1888).  

Before the University of Southern California (1880). 

Before Southern Pacific came to Los Angeles (1876). 

Back to October 17, 1875 when the steam engine of the Los Angeles Independence Railroad brought its first passengers from downtown Los Angeles to the little town of Santa Monica which had only been founded a few months before on July 15, 1875.  In addition to passengers, the railroad doubled as a freight carrier.  It was Senator John Percival Jones’s plan to build a wharf in Santa Monica to compete with the Southern Pacific, a railroad that had a virtual monopoly on freight in California.  The story of how Southern Pacific reacted to the upstart railroad is fascinating in and of itself, but beyond the scope of this article.  Needless to say, Southern Pacific ultimately purchased the LAI RR July 4, 1877. 

Southern Pacific continued freight and passenger service and even expanded the route to continue north up the coast to the so-called “Long Wharf,” which it built in an attempt to establish a port. Southern Pacific also built a branch line from “Home Junction” (Exposition and Sepulveda today) to travel 2.61 miles to the Pacific Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and Sailors, aka the Soldiers’ Home and now, simply, the VA. 

On July 1, 1908 the Los Angeles Pacific, an electric streetcar company, took over route and the line was officially designated the “Santa Monica Air Line.”  The fare from Los Angeles to Santa Monica was 50 cents.  The line was electrified from Sentous (La Cienega and Jefferson) to Santa Monica. Pacific Electric (which was owned by Southern Pacific) absorbed the Los Angeles Pacific in the Great Merger of 1911 and electrified the remaining section of the Air Line. 

In 1912 Pacific Electric announced it would run the Air Line cars all the way to the beaches.  The new schedule was arranged “largely for the benefit of residents of the University district [USC]. . . . [who] can now take the Santa Monica air line [sic] cars and go straight through to the beach towns ” (LA Times 6/23/1912). As of 1913, hourly service was provided from the Main Street Station in Los Angeles to Santa Monica where the line ended at Broadway & Ocean.  (The line that went down to the coast was a separate line known as the Santa Monica Canyon Line.) 

The Air Line was never the mover of people that other streetcar lines were, such as the nearby Venice Short Line.  In 1915 Pacific Electric announced that the “company will maintain only hourly passenger service [on the Air Line] between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. This is the minimum service provided in the company’s franchise.” PE’s president said that “Pacific Electric, like any other business institution, finds it necessary at times to trim its sails to meet weather conditions.  This is an ordinary measure of business prudence” (LA Times 11/12/1915). 

Passenger service west of Culver Junction (Venice/Robertson) was reduced to one round trip daily except Sunday.  East of Culver Junction service remained on an hourly headway.  As of 1920 cars ran on a ninety-minute headway to Culver Junction with 30-minute headway in rush hours to 11th Avenue.  One through round trip ran daily, leaving Santa Monica at 6:45 AM and Los Angeles at 5:30 PM. 

In 1924 PE tried to abandon the part of the line that ran from “Colorado street, Santa Monica, along the coast to beyond Santa Monica Canyon,” but was denied by the State Railroad Commission.  Although Pacific Electric had presented evidence that the “operating costs of the line were far in excess of its revenue, the commission decide[d] that future development of the district would require rail transportation and the line should not be abandoned” (LA Times 6/13/1924). 

Operations were reduced; cars ran in morning and evening rush hour only. Sunday service most likely ended in 1926. In 1929 a 30 minute service from Main St. Station to 11th Avenue was tried, but soon stopped. 

By the end of 1931 only a single round trip remained from Los Angeles to Santa Monica and it stayed that way until the end, most likely because it was the bare minimum required to maintain the franchise. 

Improving transit in Los Angeles was an issue due to the ever increasing number of automobiles.  In 1925 Los Angeles formulated a rapid transit plan.  There was “strong opposition to elevated rapid transit lines and support of subway construction” (LA Times 12/17/1925). But like just about every mass transit plan it went nowhere.  To be fair, the Great Depression put mass transit on the back burner, as did World War II. 

Pacific Electric tried on and off for years to abandon passenger service on the Air Line.  (Freight service, which was profitable, was never an issue.)  Mother Nature lent a hand when a not too uncommon landslide on the Pacific Coast Highway (then known as Roosevelt Highway) buried part of the tracks in 1931. PE was eventually able to cut back service to Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, abandoning the Santa Monica Canyon Line in late 1933.  A December 24, 1933 Los Angeles Times article noted that a “satisfactory understanding has been reached with the Pacific Electric Railway over its former right of way property along the beach” and that widening of the (now called) Pacific Coast Highway could be completed by the following Summer. 

Meanwhile, the Tenth Street Project, begun in 1922, created Olympic Blvd.  The project culminated in 1936 when Olympic Boulevard and Pacific Coast Highway were joined via the McClure Tunnel, which was built in virtually the same location as the tunnel that Air Line tracks went through only a few years before.  Thirty years later Olympic Blvd. would be cut back to Lincoln Blvd. and the Santa Monica Freeway would join PCH at the McClure tunnel. 

World War II intervened to give the Air Line an important role in providing passenger service and many lines Pacific Electric was going to abandon were given a new lease on life.  By 1946, however, the Air Line as a passenger carrier was once again gasping for breath.  A Los Angeles Times article from 9/8/1946 noted it was the “only one-car-a-day line in the entire Pacific Electric system.  It’s a picturesque Toonerville Trolley which stops anywhere at the wave of a hand and drops passengers right in their backyards.” The “average run tallies around 60 passengers.” 

In 1948 Pacific Electric once again submitted an application to the Board of Public Utilities and Transportation to suspend passenger service on the Santa Monica Air Line – “the oldest interurban line operating from Los Angeles.”  The 11/10/1948 Los Angeles Times article noted that “one round trip a day in made between Los Angeles and Santa Monica with an average of 40 passengers resulting in an annual loss of $6780.” It was also noted that “Nearly a dozen persons protested abandonment of passenger service.”  The article does not say who the persons were or where they lived. 

By now Pacific Electric was replacing or had replaced many of its lines with busses (and had been doing so for many years).  The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial regarding trolleys vs. busses and readers weighed in (LA Times 3/14/1949): 

“Rail rapid transit must be developed to coincide with rapid growth of Los Angeles and surroundings.” 

“How can 200 45-seat busses take the place of the same number of 56-seat trolleys and give better service? The streets are overcrowded with traffic and fumes from cars, busses and trucks now.  Why add to it?” 

“If the PE will please explain how busses can possibly make better time through congested areas with their countless boulevard stops and light signals, against a railroad that cuts through terrain avoiding all these deterrents, it will be most enlightening.” 

“Since the Highland-Monterey Park bus moved onto our street 10 years ago I can’t keep my curtains and windows clean.” 

“Pacific Electric’s transportation problems could be settled if the city of Los Angeles took over the lines…. I don’t think the public would mind supporting a deficit if it was necessary to settle the transportation problem.”


“While the city fathers and others are yelling for rapid transit, talking about elevated and subways, etc., why don’t they put a stop to talk about ripping up the streetcar tracks and substituting ill-smelling busses that take up one-third of the street [and also] build some cross lines so that one doesn’t have to go to downtown and back in order to reach a destination in another part of town.”


“People come here to enjoy California’s world-famous sunshine … talk of a subway is preposterous.”


“The Pacific Electric operates many of its lines over private rights of way…. [and] as the city grew, the rights of way remained inviolate, or nearly so. Now growth is being strangled in some sections because the majority of streets in those sections dead end against an obsolete, little used Pacific Electric right of way….Exposition, the least used, is the worst.  It channels north and south traffic into four arteries between Western Ave. and Culver City.  These are Arlington, Crenshaw, La Brea and Fairfax.  As a consequence, every morning and every evening traffic is all snarled up because there is a choice of only four avenues across the PE right of way.”


Pacific Electric was denied abandoning the line again in 1949.  “Passengers contend they would have to walk long distances to other transportation if the line is dropped” (LA Times 8/9/1949).  Time, however, was running out against the Air Line. There were three other rail lines that went into Santa Monica. The line down San Vicente ended service in June, 1940.  The line from Sepulveda down Santa Monica Blvd. ended in July, 1940 and the venerable Venice Short Line ended rail service in September 1950. 


The end of the Air Line passenger service to Santa Monica finally came September 30, 1953.  An obituary of sorts was written that day by Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Henry who noted that a “lot of us who don’t make a business of bemoaning the ruthless course of progress will stop today for a quiet mixture of laughter and tears over the final run of this Toonerville Trolley which, until today, defied the streamlining process as it meandered through back yards and by-ways one round trip a day between downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica.”  “Inexorable progress has eliminated the Santa Monica Air Line” Bill Henry wrote, “progress” that came in the form of automobiles and busses.


The last passenger run on what was left of the Air Line occurred October 26, 1953 to 11th Avenue. 


Trolley wire was removed and diesel locomotives took over all freight operation. By then Pacific Electric had ceased to exist as a passenger carrying enterprise, its interests having been sold to Metropolitan Coach Lines (MCL), a company that publically announced it was going to get rid of all the remaining rail lines.  It did not succeed and in 1958 the lines passed to the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (LAMTA) which was created in 1951 by the State legislature to study the feasibility of a monorail system in Los Angeles.  In 1957 – without any tangible results regarding the monorail – a bill was passed and signed enabling the LAMTA to own and operate any form of transit it saw fit. 


They succeeded in ending the last of the old Red Car lines April 9, 1961 and on March 31, 1963 the last of the legendary Yellow Cars in downtown Los Angeles stopped running, even though the remaining lines were well used and even profitable.  Busses now constituted the only form of mass transit in Los Angeles.  The busses were derisively nicknamed “guttersnipes” by those who felt abandoning all rail transit was a colossal mistake.


With the passing of one era, a new one was emerging at the same time.


● Note: Expo Line-An Armchair History (Part 2) will be posted on Thursday, Sept 12 at CityWatchLA.com  

(Fred Gurzeler is a native Westsider who has been following the rail transit drama for decades. He is a member of the Southern California Traction Club whose members have forgotten more about rail transit in Los Angeles than Fred ever hopes to know. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mr. Gurzeler.)






Vol 11 Issue 72

Pub: Sept 6, 2013