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From Red Car to Purple Line: West LA VA’s Links to Rail

On the left, the Streetcar Depot (or Building 66), present day. On the right, a rendering depicts the future West LA VA Purple/D Line station, located adjacent to the VA Medical Center.
On the left, the Streetcar Depot (or Building 66), present day. On the right, a rendering depicts the future West LA VA Purple/D Line station, located adjacent to the VA Medical Center.

When President William McKinley visited the National Soldier’s Home on its dedication day in 1901, he would arrive by steam train. That line, later used by the Red Car, would be no more by 1933. That would be the last time the West LA VA campus would be accessible by train. This is soon to change.

It’s been said nobody walks in L.A. And once, nobody had to. That’s because Los Angeles was the bona fide king of the rail towns. The Los Angeles public trolley system, the Pacific Electric, known to the transit riding public as the Red and Yellow Cars, allowed Southern Californians to travel from the mountains to the beaches – up to San Fernando, down to Balboa, east to Upland and points in between. This was also before the era of the automobile. At their peak, trolleys in Los Angeles covered more mileage than New York City does even today, by as much as 51%– depending on whom you believe – with either 1,100 or 1,300 miles of track: that’s more track than London, Paris, Seoul, and Beijing combined!

The Purple/D Line extension, scheduled to open in less than five years, will bring a light rail subway transit facility to VA grounds. President Biden spoke on the West LA VA campus on October 13, 2022, to convey the importance of what this subway extension could mean to both VA and the City of Los Angeles. Some of the funding for the subway extension is part of his legacy-making investment in national infrastructure. In his speech, Biden said that the Purple/D Line extension will be a part of the largest set of public works projects since the Interstate Highway System began in the 1950s during the Eisenhower administration.

Railtown Pt 1: The Rise and the Beginning of the Fall

In 1898, 28-year-old entrepreneur Henry Huntington would buy the biggest transportation system in LA, the Los Angeles Railway – known as the Yellow Car. When Huntington’s business and railroad tycoon uncle Collis Huntington died, Henry, who had been working for him, inherited Collis’ interest in the Southern Pacific. Collis was considered one of the Big Four railroad magnates behind the Central Pacific – America’s first transcontinental railroad. After Collis’ death, the Central Pacific Railroad’s board would force the young Huntington out and buy his interest for $15 million – the equivalent of $400 million today. With this, Henry would form the Pacific Railway System, later known as the Red Car, as a way of connecting potential buyers to his sprawling property developments throughout Southern California. Henry would essentially build the world’s largest urban railway system out of his own pocket.

In 1904, the West LA VA campus (at the time known as the Pacific Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers prior to the establishment of the modern-day Department of Veterans Affairs) became a stop on the Los Angeles Pacific Electric Railway “Balloon Route.” This spur of the Westgate line of the Southern Pacific Railroad provided access to the Streetcar Depot (also known as Building 66, the Trolley Station and, later, the News Stand) at the Soldier’s Home. The depot was constructed circa 1904 and designed by architect J. Lee Burton. The Southern Pacific Balloon Route traveled in a rough circle from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica and Venice before returning downtown and was, in part, a tourist route, providing visitors access to the area’s prominent attractions, which included the Soldier’s Home. The Pacific Branch was often used by Angelenos for picnics and as a place for recreation.  

By 1906, 90% of urban trips were by trolley. (The last new trolley tracks were laid by 1910.) At the time, most street traffic consisted of horse-drawn carts. Given that, Huntington’s railway still ran at a considerable loss, but since the profits from his hundreds of housing subdivisions were so great, he could afford to run the railways at a loss. Eventually his properties were so sprawling and widespread, the Red Car couldn’t effectively serve them. The Red Car’s ridership peaked in 1920. By 1925 less popular rail lines were already being converted into bus routes.

Railtown Pt 2: Jitney, the Ur-Uber & Death by Cars

The first Los Angeles rail line opened in 1875, following the demise of the horse-drawn streetcar – AKA horsecars. By 1902, the first Red Car was in operation. For the next nearly 50 years, Los Angeles’ electric railways were the only transit option.

But even for a tycoon, operating public transit as a private enterprise is problematic. Besides the unprofitability, there were bouts with organized labor ­– including strikes and boycotts – and the expense of maintaining infrastructure, including the roads where trains had rights-of-way. When automobiles became affordably priced for the masses in the 1920s, a period that also coincided with an explosive growth in the local population (doubling in a decade), ridership dropped steadily. During World War I, when the public experienced resource limitations and forced rationing, ridership would spike again briefly. In the post-war era, with even fewer riders returning, streetcars fell into disrepair. Tracks were torn up and freeways were considered the model of modernity. But the problems may have begun long before – at the start of World War I in 1914.

That’s when the Jitneys came to town.

The rise of cars also gave rise to a subculture of free-range entrepreneurs, much like Uber would 150 years later. These entrepreneurs began ridesharing their own vehicles – from passenger cars, converted trucks, and autobuses. And much like Uber and Lyft at their start, these early ride-share “Jitney” options lacked municipal oversight or regulation.

As legend has it, the Jitney phenomenon began in Los Angeles when an intrepid entrepreneur conveyed his first passenger a short distance for a nickel in 1914. Because of the stresses of the recession/depression economy at the time, the Jitney concept spread quickly – and all across the country. Local papers picked up on the story and soon chauffeur licenses were being minted at a rapid rate. It would not take long before Los Angeles railways were losing $600 a day in  fares – at five cents a ride, that’s 12,000 lost fares. California lines were losing $2.5 million a year in revenue – the equivalent of over $84 million today. (Also note, these were losses to a private company, not government subsidized entities like public transit systems today.) As a result, motormen and conductors faced layoffs. Maintenance, as well as the purchase of new railcars, was curtailed. Jitneys charged the same fare as the trolleys – the word “jitney” was slang for a nickel – and Jitney drivers would often poach passengers at streetcar stops.

Nationally, the train industry saw Jitneys as a “menace” and a “malignant growth.” In some cities, train companies attempted to create their own Jitney services; none were profitable. As it turned out, the Jitney problem would be a short-lived phenomenon: mechanically, the cars of 1915 couldn’t handle the weight of extra passengers, and with the frequent starts and stops, the five-cent fare was completely inadequate for the far greater maintenance expenses entrepreneurs incurred. In Los Angeles, the average driver operated for only 60 days. Still, the railways sought protection from their municipalities, and they got it, quickly, with local governments creating onerous rules for drivers seeking a side hustle.  

By the end of 1915, the hiccup of the Jitney was over. In the end, revenues generated by Jitneys exceeded the losses of trolleys. To analysts, it was clear that there was more to the story. By 1920, the era of the trolley had peaked and glimpses of the drawing shadows signaling the end of the rail town were growing ever longer.

Railtown Pt 3: Post-Classic Period

By the 1930s, at a time when New York City was seen as the model of public transit, the Pacific Electric Red Car transitioned into buying bus lines. As trolleys had to share congested urban roadways with cars, train travel got slower. For the busy Santa Monica Boulevard line, trains were clocked at an average speed of 13 mph. (By contrast, the nine-mile extension of the Purple/D Line is projected to take 15 minutes. The entire trip from downtown Los Angeles to the VA Purple/D Line Station terminus should take 28 minutes with an average speed of 24-35 mph, top speed 55-65 mph.)

As a new system of freeways for the region was being planned, they would include right-of-way down the center for trains. By the time they were built, there were no trains. As the number of cars and traffic increased, trains were seen as the problem, not the solution.

By the early 1940s, many train lines were being discontinued. A bus company purchased Yellow Car lines only to stack them in a scrapyard. Train routes were given to buses. By the 1950s, transportation money was earmarked only for freeways. The last of the train lines were bought by private bus companies and decommissioned. This led to private companies monopolizing public transit systems. In some cases, car and tire manufacturers and oil companies were the ones doing the buying. Not just limited to Los Angeles, these same companies were buying transit lines in New York City, Oakland, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Philadelphia. This led to the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy. In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled that there was a conspiracy to collude and create a monopoly.

When the death knell came, no one should have been surprised; because they didn’t require rails, electric feeder cables, or other infrastructure, buses were less expensive to operate and far less costly overall. The last of the trains were in such disrepair they were called “slums on wheels.” Municipalities and the public agreed, streetcars were obsolete, and the trend was national. By 1937, over 50% of cities in the U.S. were using buses only. At last, in 1961, the Red Car was dead.

By 1972, the Streetcar Depot (Building 66) on the West LA VA campus had been relocated and repurposed as a news and refreshment stand. It was identified in 1981 as a key element to the West LA VA Home Branch historic district in the National Register.

Back to the Future: The Return of Trains

A feasibility study was ordered for a 45-mile-long monorail system in Los Angeles. The proposed system would also include a two-mile-long tunnel below downtown. The order came in 1951, seven years before the city would take over the remnants of the Pacific Electric Railway, and 10 years before the last of the trains had stopped running altogether. The monorail never went beyond the study stage.

With scaled-down ambitions, the Southern California Rapid Transit District, later RTD, was formed in 1964. It began by purchasing 11 failing bus lines and proposing building a 62-mile rail transit system across the county. A half-cent gas tax was brought to voters to finance improvements to the city’s transit. It was voted down. Nine years later, there was a major international gas crisis and Los Angeles’ first Black mayor was elected. Tom Bradley campaigned on bringing a new rapid transit system to Los Angeles and promised to start breaking ground within a year of taking office. Many starts and stops followed, a tunnel was being dug from Union Station, but the hopes for a new train line in Los Angeles didn’t break ground until 1985. It would be the Blue Line – now the A Line – running from Long Beach to downtown. It opened to the public in 1990.

The Blue/A Line light rail ran on what was mostly abandoned Pacific Electric rights-of-way. This street-level section of the railway came at a cost of $877 million – $1.82 billion in 2021 dollars. (In 2014, a six-year $1.37 billion [adjusted for inflation] overhaul of the Blue Line was begun.) Thirty-two years after the first Metro Line opening, Los Angeles currently has 97.6 miles of track including four light rail lines and two subway lines and more on the way.

Purple/D Line Extension: Where It Began, Where It Is Now

In 2008, ballot Measure R was passed by L.A. County voters to allocate funding for an expansion of Metro lines. Metro then embarked on a lengthy environmental review process of the Purple Line extension issuing studies in 2012, 2017, and a final Technical Memorandum in 2019. VA concurrently incorporated the Purple/D Line extension into plans to redevelop the West LA VA campus. Following the passage of the West Los Angeles Leasing Act of 2016 (sec. 2.3.1.a), Metro and VA agreed to an easement outlining construction and operation of a subway station.

Eight years after Measure R, Measure M was passed by voters for using sales tax to accelerate development. The easement agreement between VA and Metro was finalized on May 28, 2021. The easement agreement governs the construction, maintenance, repair, and operation of a subway station and related facilities on the West LA VA property.  Also, in accordance with the easement agreement, Metro will fund and construct new parking as mitigation for spaces displaced by new construction. This includes an 809-stall parking structure, traffic mitigations, valet parking, and a shuttle bus to connect patients and staff from parking lots to VA buildings. VA has worked to protect Veterans from any adverse impact of the construction on VA operations and seeks to provide additional services for the specific benefit of Veterans. (For more information, go to the FOIA Reading Room and Master Plan website library.)

D Line Station at West LA VA Campus

VA’s Metro station is scheduled to open in 2027. The Purple/D Line extension will have the West LA VA campus as the subway line terminus and will include new stations at UCLA/Westwood, Century City, Museum Row on mid-Wilshire, and other stations to the east. The Purple/D Line extension construction costs have been budgeted to be $800 million a mile. The construction contractor’s website for the project states the Purple/D Line extension’s costs will be $9.3 billion for 9.3 miles of track. (Construction includes tunneling and reinforcing passages that cross a seismic fault.) For Veterans, VA staff, and other riders of public transit, this train will mean travel from downtown Los Angeles to the West LA VA campus should take less than 30 minutes.

The opening of the Purple/D Line extension will also be paired with a coordination of connecting bus routes. Buses and shuttle service will allow Veterans access to the surrounding business districts, across town, and subway access to points beyond. Metro refers to these hubs as first/last mile connections and West LA VA grounds will have three of these hubs. From the train’s origin downtown, it will make stops at a variety of points of interest including the Main Branch of the Los Angeles Library, City Hall, the Music Center and Broad Museum, MacArthur Park, Museum Row Arts District and the Wilshire Corridor, The Wiltern Theater, Century City, UCLA, and the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System and grounds.

Overall, the Purple/D Line extension will also offer the West LA VA campus enhanced access and opportunity to a deeper pool of staff and resources. It will allow Veterans, on and off campus, better connections to VA services – healthcare, behavioral health, housing, case management, job training, and more. This transit option honors the legacy of the old Streetcar Depot at the Pacific Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and history of public transportation in Los Angeles.

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