Dealing with traffic is a daily nightmare for most of the 10.2 million people living in Los Angeles County. With an additional 2.3 million residents projected over the next 40 years, it might seem like a hopeless situation.

Yet, from its very beginnings, Pasadena has been a key city for all types of rail service, and that tradition shines a light in the darkness for commuters. 

Serious efforts are under way to make life easier for everyone, with massive expansions to light rail and subway systems throughout the region. The LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, aka Metro, has created six train lines since 1990, with San Gabriel Valley’s Gold Line alone helping more than 50,000 daily commuters avoid driving the nearly 20 miles from East LA to Azusa.

Another 12.3-mile leg of the Gold Line from Glendora to Montclair starts construction in October, with its expected completion in Fall 2025. While the end result will be welcomed, it’s often forgotten that there used to be plenty of rail options in Pasadena and the surrounding San Gabriel Valley — including a major train station that serviced nationwide travelers via both the long-gone and legendary Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and later Amtrak.

The very first train service for Pasadena was the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley Railroad, which was founded in 1883 to connect Pasadena to downtown LA. It opened in 1885, and traveled down Colorado and Fair Oaks boulevards through what is now Highland Park into downtown, and extended service to San Dimas (then known as Mud Springs) two years later.

Among the other options in those early days was a horse-driven line called the Pasadena Street Railroad, which opened in 1886. Just seven years later, in 1893, the city’s first electric line was opened by City Railway, and by 1895 the electric line ran all the way to downtown LA after the Pasadena & Los Angeles Electric Railway took it over. Soon, Pasadena-based railroad tycoon Henry Huntington bought it and rebranded it as the Pacific Electric Railway (PE),or Red Car.
There were several other commuter-rail lines snaking their way from LA all the way to Altadena, but they were absorbed by the PE in 1912 in an arrangement known as “The Great Merger.” The company’s Red Car Trolleys continued offering nearly 7 million passengers per year a car-free alternative to reach downtown LA until 1951, when it was discontinued during a region-wide move to switch train service to buses amid the fast-growing car culture that came to dominate Southern California.

The glamor of national train service came to Pasadena in 1937, when the Santa Fe Railway sought to compete with the Union Pacific Railroad’s service between LA and Chicago. The Santa Fe created a direct line between the cities, a feat the Union Pacific had not accomplished. And by setting its final West Coast stop in Pasadena, it appealed to the fashionable instincts of celebrities who preferred disembarking in the Crown City rather than in the heart of downtown.

The Santa Fe Railway also sought an advantage by creating the Super Chief, which was widely considered the most stylish and luxurious passenger train in history. For decades, its passage through Pasadena’s own Union Station added excitement to the city, until the continued evolution toward cars and trains for long-distance travel led to a decrease in popularity and a takeover by Amtrak in 1971.

By 1994, national train service ended here, although the historic train depot was eventually turned into the popular La Grande Orange restaurant and its surrounding grounds repurposed as the Gold Line’s Del Mar station. Both the Gold Line’s Monrovia and Azusa Downtown stations also are former Santa Fe Railway depots.
The Gold Line brought light rail back to Pasadena in 2003 and helped spark Metro’s Long Range Transportation Plan, which is developing other rail service including the extension of LA’s Purple Line all the way from downtown to Westwood by 2024. That effort follows 2012’s opening of the Expo Line, which finally gave Angelenos a chance to ride all the way from downtown to Santa Monica and enjoy the ocean without spending a dime on gas.

The Metro Regional Connector Project is the final piece in the Metro rail puzzle for now, aiming to provide a direct connection for Gold Line riders to transfer to the Blue, Expo, Red and Purple Lines while bypassing downtown’s Union Station. Its 1.9-mile alignment will extend from the Gold Line Little Tokyo/Arts District Station to the 7th Street/Metro Station by 2021.

When it’s finished, the extension will provide a one-seat ride for travel across Los Angeles County. San Gabriel Valley commuters will be able to enjoy traveling from Azusa to Long Beach and from East Los Angeles to Santa Monica without a transfer — ensuring happy travelers for many Pasadena birthdays to come.