Gold Line outings great for nurturing sense of adventure

My family’s train adventures have been a mixed bag. When we moved to Claremont in 2008, I was thrilled to see the fancy Metrolink Depot right down the street, and quickly availed myself to it.

But I was surprised to learn it was going to set me back a chunk of change—about $80—for my three young kids and I to get from here to, well, anywhere.

Metrolink wasn’t a workingman’s concern, it seemed. But I was eager to show my young’uns how our city was making a comeback, so I bit the bullet, swiped my credit card and off we went.

We had a good time poking around the still breathtaking Union Station, exploring Los Angeles’ oldest neighborhood, Olvera Street, and then hopping on the Metro Gold Line (which cost me a few bucks more) for a quick ride into Little Tokyo. It was fun, but it wasn’t $80 fun.

We rode the Metrolink a couple times after that, but it just wasn’t an affordable option. My rail jones remained, but my wallet complained. (A disclaimer: Metrolink recently began lowering fares; it would now set me back $60.50 for the same trip. It’s a start.)

Younger folks may be surprised to learn that from 1901 to 1961, Los Angles had a state-of-the-art rail system that spanned some 1,100 miles of track, with the Pacific Electric “Red Car,” connecting San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange and Los Angeles Counties. It was for a time the largest in the world. As SoCal’s car culture began to take shape in the 1930s, the Red Car system waned. Lines were slowly discontinued. The last one, from LA to Long Beach, was decommissioned in 1961.

Perhaps the most tragic by-product of all of this was that Downtown Los Angeles was subsequently left to rot, resulting in some 70 years of neglect. Thankfully, “DTLA,” as it has been rebranded, has had a real resurgence.

DTLA had been on my family’s radar for some time, but Metrolink’s high prices kept us off the rails for a while. You can imagine my train geek joy when the Gold Line extension to Azusa opened in March 2016. Off we went again, this time after a short drive over the new sparkling, easily accessible Azusa Avenue station, which also offers free parking. My inner cheapskate was delighted when I paid the fare: just $28 for four day passes.

After a short wait, we were aboard the Gold Line, heading west in a clean, smooth and comfy light rail car. We rolled through towns I’d known all my life between Azusa and Pasadena, along the way getting brief glances into businesses, wrecking yards, vacant lots and back yards, even traveling in some spots along the old Red Car’s right-of-way.

Turning south at Pasadena, we whooshed down the Arroyo Seco and then up through Highland Park. My then seven-year-old son was captivated as the LA skyline rose in front of us as we continued on into Lincoln Heights, Chinatown, past Union Station and finally, Little Tokyo.

The kids and I disembarked and strolled among the Japanese shops and restaurants, ate ice cream and soaked up the sunshine. The promise of souvenirs was offered up, if they could somehow go the entire day without a knock-down, drag-out public fight. I know bribery’s illegal, but I’ll do whatever it takes for a fisticuff-free family outing. 

The little angels and I then made our way back to glorious Union Station, a building I could wander around in all day. My kids, though, not so much. After a brief architectural tour, in which they kindly feigned interest, off we went again.

This time we headed downstairs to the subway to catch the Purple Line to 7th St./Metro Center. Getting off there, we hopped aboard the Expo Line, our final westbound train of the day. The Expo is Metro Rail’s other newest addition. It was also christened in 2016, and runs from DTLA to Santa Monica.

At this point,  the journey really got interesting. First off, we traversed several bridges over some of the busiest intersections in Los Angeles. It was kind of wonderful to whisk through these metropolitan hubs, above it all, and observe the bustling, well-known streets from a new perspective.

If a light rail bridge works for some of the most chaotic and congested spots in LA, why wouldn’t it work in sleepy little Claremont? Just sayin’ …

Moving west, the Expo Line took us through a cultural cross section of LA. We got on in downtown, moved south to USC, made our way west through South Los Angeles—near where the fuse was lit for the unrest of 1994—and continued on to the southern portion of mid-city LA.

We sometimes traveled quite close to the homes along the way, catching micro-glimpses of people going about their Saturday business. It was a look into some neighborhoods my kids had never seen, and I was thankful they were sitting quietly, taking it all in, with the sun waning on that gorgeous summer day.

Not surprisingly, as we rolled west toward the Pacific the homes grew larger, the landscaping more lush and exotic. When we disembarked at the Expo Line’s Fourth Street terminus in Santa Monica, we were dropped into one of LA’s hippest, priciest neighborhoods. It was a little jarring, and it occurred to me we’d seen the breadth of LA, from old to young, crumbling to brand new, poor to rich, and from working class to hipster.

I was suddenly overcome with gratitude for our public transportation system. It was finally possible to get somewhere and see something, affordably.

Maybe we’re a real big city after all.

At the end of the day, with the sun dipping below the Pacific’s horizon and a chill in the air, we boarded the Expo Line and headed east. The kids were tired, but there was nary a complaint. They saw all sorts of stuff, a lot if it they’re still talking about today. They got to see how people of all stripes are working in all kinds of jobs and living, playing and creating in all imaginable conditions.

My hope is they have a little more perspective on their own lives. I hope they realize how lucky they are, and acknowledge that we live in a big, wide and diverse city that is, at last, accessible. And yes, they earned those souvenirs.

We’ve since had many day trips riding the rails around LA. We all have our TAP cards, the kids are now savvy train riders, and they’ve even spent birthday celebrations with friends riding around LA, chaperoned by one grateful dad.

Now to get that Gold Line extension to Claremont finished, so we can really have it made.

—Mick Rhodes


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