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What Paris and other cities can teach Los Angeles about transit


An LA Metro Red Line train stops at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. (2020 file photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Paris is about to give Los Angeles a lesson on how to efficiently transport visitors to its Olympic Games. Unfortunately, California’s slow-moving, union-dominated public sector is unlikely to learn anything from the City of Light.

Passengers arriving at Paris’ Orly Airport this summer will be able to take a new automated subway line to the city center and some of the Olympic venues. The driverless trains on Metro Line 14 are expected to arrive at stations every 105 seconds. Two other Paris Metro Lines (1 and 4) are also automated, having been upgraded in recent years.

By contrast, the LAX Automated People Mover (now scheduled for late 2025) will be driverless, but passengers will then connect to LA Metro’s K Line which requires train operators and currently operates once every ten minutes. To reach the Coliseum and downtown LA, passengers will have to switch to the E Line.

Paris is far from the only city to benefit from the cost savings and increased frequency that come with driverless train service. Singapore has two driverless metro lines and Vancouver’s SkyTrain has been fully automated since it began operation in 1985. Montreal now has a driverless train system serving five stations with another 21 expected to come online later this decade. In the United States, Honolulu has the first and only automated system that is not airport-based, but New York City’s Airtrain JFK serves two off-airport stations and encompasses over eight miles of track.

At a time when driverless cars are becoming more common, the technology needed for driverless trains seems almost trivial, since they traverse a fixed route, rarely need to back up, and often operate on dedicated, grade-separated tracks. Yet LA Metro and California transit agencies more generally do not seem interested. That is a shame because employing train operators is not cheap.

Starting in July, full-time LA Metro trains operators will earn between $25.69 and $37.93 per hour, according to their union’s latest Memorandum of Understanding. And, for much of the day, they’re not operating trains given the meal and rest breaks mandated by the state, and recovery time they receive after each run. Operators also receive pension and health benefits worth about $30,000 per year and are eligible to work overtime during which they are paid time and a half. As a result, it would be cost prohibitive for LA Metro to try matching Paris’ frequency, especially since that would involve running many trains with very few passengers.

When I asked California transit experts about driverless trains, they’ve responded that it’s a good idea but that transit unions would never accept it. Perhaps that assumption should be tested.

Building new driverless lines does not eliminate jobs, and conversions take so long (even in places that construct rail infrastructure efficiently) that agencies could shrink operator headcounts via attrition rather than layoffs.



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