LA unveils its three inches an hour rail system

AFTER 13 years of corruption scandals, budget overruns and a plethora of construction disasters, Los Angeles at last unveiled the proudest, most expensive part of its much-touted underground rail system this weekend - all four and a half miles of it.

In a city where the car is king and public transport has been famously neglected, curious residents turned up in their tens of thousands to ride the short journey from central Los Angeles to the heart of old Hollywood and see what has been made out of billions of dollars of their tax money.

Superficially, at least, it was highly impressive. The new terminus, at the junction of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, was decked out in pastiche Art Deco palm-tree columns in imitation of the famous Egyptian Theater a few blocks away. The ceiling was hung with hundreds of empty film reels, and two 1930s-era mounted film cameras greeted passengers streaming in and out of sleek, silent carriages.

But after all the promises that greeted the launching of the subway project in 1986, the new line seemed paltry at best. The progress of the project equates to three inches an hour. It was also not clear how many people would use it.

The extension now provides Angelenos with 11.1 miles of track on the "Red Line". Next year, a further six miles are due to be added, taking the line past such tourist attractions as Mann's Chinese Theater and Universal Studios to its final destination on the southern rim of the San Fernando Valley.

That, however, will be it - the Metro Rail project has proved so slow, so scandal-ridden and so costly that the city recently voted to scrap all future work. At about $300m (pounds 187.5m) a mile, the Los Angeles underground has become the most expensive public transport system in the world. It attracts only 40,000 users a day, compared with nearly 3 million on New York's 277-mile system.

Los Angeles became a global symbol of hostility to public transport when automotive interests prevailed in the 1940s and hundreds of miles of tram and light rail track were torn up to free funds for the city's famous freeway system. Tom Bradley, LA's progressive mayor, dreamt of reversing that trend when he launched the Metro Rail project in the wake of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

But the agency created to oversee the project, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, soon became mired in corruption scandals as hundreds of millions of dollars in local and federal money poured in.

Construction standards were so shoddy that parts of Hollywood began sinking at a rate of 10 inches a year. In 1995, an 80ft sinkhole opened up on Hollywood Boulevard, closing three blocks for more than a year and effectively sealing the Metro Rail's long-term fate.