Nobody Drives in LA — So Why Are Our Train Stations So Crap?

Nobody Drives in LA

There’ve recently been a couple of articles in the Los Angeles Times about the various state of local mass transit that have got me thinking. Mehmet Baker‘s “Metro is hemorrhaging riders. It needs to stop studying obvious fixes and start acting” appeared on Sunday, was good but many of the complaints voiced were the sort we’ve heard many times before (and will continue hearing many times yet). Namely, buses don’t come often enough (they don’t), all-door boarding should’ve already happened (it should’ve), cloth seats are disgusting (they are), and Angelenos voted to tax ourselves billions of dollars for improvements but ridership continues to fall because Metro is so slow to implement them (also true).

Quiet corner of Union Station
Union Station’s historic ticketing hall

This morning, the Times published Colleen Shalby‘s “At 80, Union Station tries to reinvent itself for a rail future,” which examined the state of our transit network’s crown jewel. One of the suggestions was that long-time station tenant, Traxx, recently closed because a revitalized Downtown is luring money away from the train station — which seems like a bit of a stretch to me. The reporter also lists the cosmetic improvements taking place — including a sidewalk widening and ceiling cleaning — which, while nice, will probably not impel someone to a destination of the station. 

Union Station waiting area
Historic Union Station

It seems to me that Union Station is moving in the right direction — albeit not necessarily for the reasons mentioned in Shalby’s piece. Firstly, I suspect that Traxx not because people willing to pay $20 for a Waldorf salad were lured to the nearby Arts District by the lure of food trucks, saison beers, and games of corn hole — but rather because Traxx no longer enjoyed a monopoly as the only proper restaurant within even the station. Gone are the days when it was either a pocket-gouging meal at Traxx — where the menu seemed to be oriented toward people old enough to remember Union Station’s opening day — or a wallet-friendly but stomach-churning meal from Subway or Wetzel’s Pretzels.

Now there are options, including ones which are healthier, tastier, less stuffy, and more affordable. There’s Imperial Western Beer Company, Green Bowl 2 Go, Bread n’ Rice, Barista Society, Ben & Jerry’s, Trimana, T&Y Bakery, and Café Crêpe. The closure of Traxx isn’t a symptom of decline but a sign of Union Station’s return.

Union Station’s changing fortunes are also a reminder of much of what is wrong with the rest of our train stations. Metro is one of Los Angeles’s biggest property owners (and potentially, landlords) and yet it seems only able to think of itself as a transit company. As a transit company, it focuses on cutting costs by cutting services — which makes it less reliable and the last resort. If they improved services, on the other hand, they would attract more riders. No one but trolls committed to “owning libs” by driving the climate into the ground actually wants to drive in a city — but when the alternative is moving in the wrong direction, that is what people will do.

Consider for all of North America‘s train stations which enjoy more usage than Los Angeles Union Station. There’s New York Penn Station, Toronto Union Station, Grand Central Terminal, Jamaica Station, Chicago Union Station, Ogilvie Transportation Center, Newark Penn Station, World Trade Center Station, Hoboken Terminal, Washington Union Station, and 30th Street Station. All are older than Los Angeles Union Station with the exception of World Trade Center Station, which was rebuilt because of the 11 September attacks. The next newest station, Newark Penn Station, is 84 years old.

Wilshire Vermont LL
Wilshire/Vermont — Over 25,000 weekday boardings, 8 transit line connections… and zero restrooms
Wilshire Vermony UL
Wilshire/Vermont — Three stories tall and not a single food stall… not even a vending machine, for that matter

It’s not their age which makes them so popular — although I’m sure some come just to take pictures of their beautiful architecture. In the US, aesthetic considerations for train stations are generally a thing of the past. Most people come because waiting in them for the next train is still preferable to the freedom afforded by a gridlocked, smoggy freeway commute. This is not the case with most of the train stations operated by Metro and Metrolink — certainly not those built by them.

7th Street-Metro -- leaving the station2-thumb-600x417-30504
7th Street/Metro Center

The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is a relatively young organization, having been established in 1993. Our commuter rail system, Metrolink, is just a year older. In 27 years, the two agencies have between them built 154 train stations. 26 more are under construction or in the works. The numbers are impressive but their quality is not. Zero of those stations have public restrooms and so, when passengers can no longer hold it, they’re reduced to urinating in doorways, stairwells, and elevators — and from the smell of it, a great number of them do. Coming from Santa Monica once, I had to disembark to pee in a doorway and then walk home from there because I wouldn’t have been able to make it to Union Station — one of the only stations with a restroom — and it wasn’t on the way home, anyway.

The few stations which do have public restrooms are those the existence of which pre-dates both Metro and Metrolink. (e.g. Chatsworth, Glendale, and Pomona stations). Most of the time, however, they are locked and to use them one my beg a security guard for mercy to use them. Most will refuse. A Metro official told me that they don’t build restrooms because of the cost of maintaining them. When you don’t build station restrooms, the station becomes a restroom — and one, presumably, which costs nearly as much (or more) to clean and maintain as a sink, toilet, and urinal.

Chatsworth Station - interior 2-thumb-600x447-33391

There are also few stations in which there’s anymore better to do than admire the public art whilst waiting for the next train. They are barebones and mostly un-staffed. A vending machine once ate one of my $20 bills. I pressed a button for assistance and a disembodied voice took down my address and assured me that I would be reimbursed with a check. It never came. There’s no one to offer help, so when a Korean woman unable to speak more than a few words of English was clearly confused that the Blue Line had taken her not to Long Beach but to Santa Monica, it was left to me to explain that for some reason two trains — both blue — share the same line but travel to entirely different regions. If you open a panel the charge your phone, you might be able to summon a Metro employee who will yell at you for your electricity heist. In other words, Metro and Metrolink train stations are about as fun to hang out in as public storage facilities or multi-story parking garages. Meanwhile, mall shoppers happily line up to take a trolley at the Americana, even though it goes nowhere because it already feels like it’s somewhere. The good news is that with the bar so low, they could easily be improved.

Since I’m vegetarian and Traxx’s vegetarian options were limited almost entirely to cocktails, I never ate there. I did drink there a couple of times, however, and once the owner even bought me a few. It doesn’t make me happy to see any business fail, however, and I can’t help but wish that they’d relocated to a different train station rather than closed altogether. Most of the stations don’t even have so much as a vending machine from which to grab a bite, much less an actual restaurant of any kind. Lancaster Station has a convenience store called Snack Shack. Oceanside Transit Center has a Burger King. Orange Station has a Ruby’s Diner. The pickings, in other words, are decidedly slim.

Train Information

Other amenities are limited to a couple of the older pre-Metro and pre-Metrolink stations. Fullerton Station is home to a train museum, where you can learn about the golden age of trains — a time when American train stations offered restaurants and restrooms. Claremont Station is home to a small art museum.

We don’t only have to look to the past for an example of how to improve train stations. We can also look to the future — or at the very least, Asia — which from the shores of the USA looks increasingly futuristic.

Metro Metrolink Amtrak.jpg

A recent survey amongst those international rating agency employees and travel consultants ranked the metro’s of Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul, and Taipei as the best in terms of reliability, efficiency, safety, and cleanliness. Having enjoyed them all (with the exception of Hong Kong — which I’ve not yet visited) I concur that they indeed excel in those areas but several others as well. Given the fact that Metro Los Angeles is home to the largest populations of Koreans and Taiwanese outside of their homelands — and not insubstantial populations of Japanese and Hong Kongers — the gulf between our sorry train stations and those of East Asian cities is no doubt glaringly obvious to many Angelenos.

TAIPEI

Taipei Metro

When I first visited Taipei, the Taipei Mass Rapid Transit (臺北捷運) was a revelation. I’d previously used the metros of Chicago, New York City, and Paris. I found them all to be sufficient — certainly sufficient enough to assume that anyone who lived in those cities and still opted to drive a car was criminally insane. Their stations, however, are not generally the sort one would make a destination of even when not waiting for or departing from a train. That was not the case in Taipei, where train stations double as large underground malls which bleed into the bustling night markets above.

Taipei’s Metro only launched in 1996 but already has 117 stations. Of course, Taiwan was also able to complete the 台灣高鐵 Taiwan High Speed Rail quicker than an ornery NIMBY could cry “boondoggle!” Taipei City is, as cities go, fairly small — about a quarter the size of Ls Angeles in area. The Taiwan metro area is only home to about 8,605,000 people. I never experienced an uncomfortably crowded car there even though Taipei has one of the highest mass transit ridership averages of any city in the world.

Everything seemed designed with comfort and accessibility in mind. Not only does every station have restrooms but they are all handicap accessible — as is every aspect of the trailer — with ramps, wide fare gates, and urine-free elevators. The stations are also designed for the comfort of parents pushing strollers and there are breastfeeding rooms and special waiting rooms available for female passengers.

Bicycles are prioritized in Taipei, which also goes a long way. The stations have blocks-long double-decker bicycle racks to encourage people to bicycle to and from stations rather than take a taxi or drive. Bicycles are allowed on the trains, too, as are pets (so long as they’re carried). Station signage is in Chinese and English. Trains are punctual. There is free WifFi and charging stations — but cellphone use is prohibited in the front and rear train cars. It’s free to use on your birthday for both you and a friend. In 2017, Taipei Metro had a customer satisfaction level of 95.9%.

TOKYO

Tokyo Subway

Tokyo’s metro is a bit harder to navigate than Taipei’s, in part because there are several train operators in it and other major Japanese cities. In Tokyo, there’s the Tokyo Metro Co., Ltd. (東京メトロ), with nine lines and 179 stations. There’s also the Toei Subway (都営地下鉄) with its four lines and 106 stations. The former is represented by a stylized “M” on a blue sign, the latter by a stylized, green, ginkgo leaf. Making matters somewhat more complicated are the presence of regional operators, like East Japan Railway Company (東日本旅客鉄道株式会社), the Yamanote Line (山手線) or which is useful for getting around town.

Tokyo Train Station.jpeg
An average shopping corridor in a Japanese train station

The combination of public, semipublic, and private rail operators is further complicated by subway passes which don’t seem to work between agencies. As with Taipei’s metro, Tokyo’s stations are full of restaurants, shops, and services which make them popular destinations in their own right. Factor in your Japanese skills and you may find Tokyo’s metro stations to almost overwhelm one. Luckily, not only do all of the stations have helpful information booths — most are also patrolled by kindly old men whose favorite pastime seems to be helping foreigners navigate their complicated but efficient, clean, and punctual rail system. Women-only cars have been a fixture of Tokyo trains since 2001.

Japanese Train.jpeg
A train in Japan

SEOUL

Seoul Metro.jpg

The Seoul Metropolitan Subway (수도권 전철), which began operation in 1974, has in recent years gained a deserved reputation as perhaps the best in the world. It has incredible coverage, serving a city smaller in area than the San Fernando Valley with 22 lines and 716 stations. Add to that an urban population of 25 million people — and yet it still rarely felt uncomfortably crowded. If a train is too crowded, there will be another in two or so minutes.

Seoul Metro
Inside a not-very-crowded Seoul subway

Naturally, there is WiFi on trains and they’re clean and quiet. Occasionally, a traditional Korean song plays when the train is in a transfer station. Announcements are made in Korean, English, Japanese, and Mandarin. The stations, of course, are full of boutiques, convenience stores, snack stalls, and vending machines. They all, naturally, have restrooms as well.

It’s hard to find any downsides to Seoul’s Metro. I suppose I could complain that I would’ve liked to have walked more in Seoul but there were just too many stations served too frequently by too convenient trains. Another might be the weird sense of social isolation one might feel surrounded by a car full of people wearing surgical masks and staring unblinkingly into their phone screens. Occasionally, as in every night, drunk Koreans will become a little more outgoing — making their friends giggle by sitting in a seat reserved for the pregnant or elderly (when they are neither — so long as neither is present, of course). When there are elders, they might demonstrate their impatience with you with a shove. Finally, I could do without warmed seats or intrusive station televisions showing news, sports, and weather.


There are a lot of things Metro and Metrolink could do to improve service. Most of them are oft-repeated amongst transit users and frequently-acknowledged by transit agencies — if implemented with excruciating slowness. We should also probably upzone the entire city — ending the economic segregation that favors single-family housing in a city of apartment renters. Of course, it goes without saying that parking minimums have got to go. Hopefully, Metro’s NextGen Bus Study will result in a reconfiguration of bus lines so that buses feed train stations so that people aren’t faced with the choice between walking 45 minutes to a train station and a 45-minute bus journey with a transfer to the same destination.

In the meantime, my ideas for easily improving Metro and Metrolink stations…

Start making station announcements in Chinese (the language of most tourists), Spanish, Filipino, and Korean — the most spoken languages after English. Heck, make them in Armenian, Vietnamese, Farsi, Japanese, and Russian too, since we’re waiting as long as we are. Add a little jingle when a train station is passing through an ethnic enclave like Cambodia Town, Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Armenia, Little Tokyo, or Thai Town. It would dd fun, color, and usefulness to the transit experience and cost practically nothing.

Willowbrook - Willowbrook Station-thumb-600x448-57576
Willowbrook/Rosa Parks Station

Start leasing station space to vendors of electronics, flowers, jewelry, street food in busy stations like 7th Street/Metro Center, Harbor Freeway, Pico, Willowbrook/Rosa Parks, Wilshire/Vermont, and Wilshire/Western. Let the people who wander up and down trains hawking earbuds, incense, and candy sell in the stations instead. Maybe even host farmers markets in the stations now and then. Assuming the sky doesn’t fall — and it won’t — expand vending to termini like APU/Citrus College, Atlantic, Downtown Santa Monica, North Hollywood, Norwalk, Redondo Beach, and Wilshire/Western. Those vendors will pay rent. That rent can go towards service improvements and more station amenities. 

Entrance to El Monte Station

Take the stations with vast amounts of parking (more than 400 spaces, some over 1,200) like Crenshaw, Del Mar, El Monte, Harbor Gateway Transit Center, Lakewood BoulevardLa Cienega/Jefferson, Long Beach Boulevard, Norwalk, North Hollywood, Redondo Beach, Reseda, Sepulveda, Van Nuys, Willow Street, and Sierra Madre Villa stations and let a few, maybe ten, food trucks park near the station once a week or so. Assuming the sky doesn’t fall, have night markets in the parking lots. This, too, will generate income for Metro.

The rent generated from vendors, both with stations and on their parking lots could then be used to pay the paltry amount to clean and maintain bathrooms. And then, in the year 2525, if humans are still alive, maybe all of our train stations will have shops, drinking fountains, restaurants, and restrooms.



Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.
Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from Saatchi Art and 1650 Gallery. Other merchandise is available on Tee Public.
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18 thoughts on “Nobody Drives in LA — So Why Are Our Train Stations So Crap?

  1. Some years ago, a transit advocate did a survey and found that among employees of LA Metro, only about 5% rode the trains and buses. Even allowing for the bus and train operators who have to be at their divisions at 0-dark-30 to open service for the day, it’s a rather poor showing in the “using your sponsor’s product” department. And we shouldn’t forget that employees get an annual pass as a “fringe benefit”–so much for the “Increase ridership by offering free public transit” advocates. We might get more improvements to stations if the Metro management people used them every day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m actually somewhat surprised — although I don’t know why. 5% is just so low. Personally, I think all local government should be required to use mass transit, walk, or ride a bicycle. They need to be among the people. I also think that they should all take a field trip to Taipei, Tokyo, Seoul, and Hong Kong to see what train stations could and should look like!

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  2. A most interesting article. While I do not normally use the ‘C’ word, it seems there is a conspiracy in some parts of the western hemisphere to deny mobility to the masses. Perhaps it works like this. First, we have railways (and in L.A., the trollies), then you run them down and build freeways and motorways, which you, in turn, allow to crumble, as traffic reaches unsustainable levels. Does this leave the average Joe to walk, while his ‘betters’ fly overhead in luxury helicopters? The architecture of the old railway stations suggests that much pride was invested in them, but no pride will ever, it seems, bring a proper high-speed rail system to either, say, the U.K or the U.S. Why does high-speed mean 300 mph in China, but only 150 mph (for a few miles) in the U.S. and UK.? The U.K. has yet to lay one foot of rail for a purpose-built high-speed railway, but it appears that the U.S. has a rather short length of HSR, considering the country is almost 3,000 miles coast to coast. Unfortunately, the term government investment is apparently a dirty word in both the U.S. and the U.K.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that there’s some truth to your perception. There are people who are ideologically opposed to the concept of public good and largely because of them we tend to think of “public” as inferior to “private.” Think of public restrooms, public transit, public schools, public parks, &c compared to their private counterparts. I, obviously, disagree with that world view but I also think that our mass transit systems could eventually thrive without relying on public funding if mass transit operators would open themselves up to the idea of making money as landlords and then using that money to fund their transit. Pretty quickly, it would become obvious, that mass transit is preferable to the private car — at least in cities. I also lived in the boonies for years, where there was no mass transit, 40 below temperatures, and icy gravel roads. A car was a nice thing then and there.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. completely agree with you; and not only should our politicians and decision makers study Asian cities, but also almost all European cities, and Australian cities. I think holding Asian cities up as the only way to be creates a fear that one is advocating also their levels of density. Which scares the bejezus out of Americans.

    For a place that is so behind in terms of delivering quality transit, one would hope that our official would travel (physically, or electronically) around the world like mad in order to study best practices wherever they can find them. But this seems not to be the case. We seem to be inventing everything from scratch, as if it had never existed before.

    I think the lack of transit in general has to do with the denial of common goods in the US post suburbia. We don’t give people open space but force them to pay for private open space, we don’t give them transportation but force them to buy a car, etc. We even deny people equal education, healthcare etc…

    I know of two philosophical underpinnings that explain our situation, at least to me:

    one is the slogan of postwar suburban development “Give a man a house he can walk around, and he won’t become a communist”. Extrapolate that thinking to public transportation….

    second is this essay: http://unevenearth.org/2018/08/the-social-ideology-of-the-motorcar/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I sometimes forget that people are freaked out about density… especially people who live in cities!

      I haven’t been on many metro systems in Europe and have never been to Australia. In Europe I’ve used the Paris Metro, the London Underground (and overground), and the Glasgow Subway. While I found them all good as transit systems, I never visited any of their stations just to get lunch — which I did several times in Tokyo.

      I bookmarked the essay, which I look forward to reading after I see what it is my cat is grumbling about.

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      1. It is, and although he is indeed an orange tabby, he’s no longer really a kitty — he just acts like one. He’s not old by any measure — he just turned five in April — but he is is pretty large cat now (about 17 lbs). He’s very fluffy and although not probably pure-bred, he certainly has a lot of characteristics of a Siberian Cat and is often assumed to be Maine Coon or Norwegian Forest Cat. He loves and demands a lot of attention.

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      2. I got so interested in the cat that I forgot to comment on “density”–I suspect that to many Americans, “density” conjures up visions of those old photos by Jacob Riis and others showing the teeming tenements of old New York.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. “the slogan of postwar suburban development “Give a man a house he can walk around, and he won’t become a communist”.This quote brings to mind something I heard back about 40 or 50 years ago, the idea that if the workingman had a house and car that needed maintenance, and a TV set to watch, he wouldn’t have time to listen to radical agitators.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As the city continues to gentrify public transportation ridership will continue to fall. The rich do not use the train. If you look at who is on the Expo and Red lines during morning hours it’s the mostly the folks that work at Starbucks and Ralph’s and and students. The train stops are uncomfortable and not usable during bad weather because they were designed to be that way. As I see it now, these train lines are essentially very expensive real estate boosters….used to gentrify formally working class communities and repurpose them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The real estate booster aspect is part of it. I’m reminded of Henry Huntington, whose vast Pacific Electric Railway nearly always operated at a loss but continued to operate for many years because it was primarily designed to make Huntington’s real estate developments attractive.

      It seems to me, too, though, that the gentrification of neighborhoods along railways would decrease if they built more of them simultaneously. In other words, there’d be less incentive to focus development near the trains if the trains were everywhere and therefore no more of a community luxury than a fire hydrant, sidewalk, or covered manhole.

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  6. The bureaucratic culture responsible for design/build of the Metro rail system is simply not fond of people.

    Metro rail is an engineering/ construction contractor which loves to excavate, tunnel. weld steel and pour concrete. They are comfortable socializing with general contractors and sub-contractors and construction unions.

    They are annoyed by average people who they find too messy, noisy, smelly, rude and ungrateful.
    They get very excited about building subways. Yet they have scant interest in operating subway systems.

    The Red Line was designed with tacit recognition that people are a nuisance.
    Metro rail prefers to operate their subway without riders.
    Who needs the aggravation of ridership just to get some fare revenue when your budget is deep in dedicated sales tax revenue plus govt. grants and loans?

    They would be able to minimize variable maintenance and operating costs by discouraging ridership, thus allowing them to focus on their preferred customer – renting the subway for studio location filming.

    No bathrooms, no amenities, no services.
    Shut the system down at midnight so you don’t have to deal with overtime shifts.
    No eating or drinking in the stations or on trains.
    Sucking on a cough drop gets a $250 citation.

    Passengers experiencing hypo-glycemic seizures on the platform or fainting from extreme dehydration while in the rail car will make the message clear – we don’t want people down here.

    Simply stated, conditions imposed on riders of Metro rail would violate the minimum standards required for treatment of prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This comment on Metro being more interested in building than in carrying passengers brings to mind the mindset of many of my fellow railway enthusiasts, who tend to be more interested in “nuts and bolts” and paint jobs than in “flesh and blood”. Back when the Blue Line opened over 25 years ago, two trolley car fans who had probably ridden the last Yellow Cars on 31 March 1963 decided to try the reincarnation of the Long Beach Red Car. They got on at the downtown LA terminal, and went as far as the Vernon Ave. station before they before they bailed out and took the next northbound train back to the terninal (I’ve forgotten whether this was after the 7th & Flower station opened, or during the days when trains originated at Pico Blvd.). The one reporting this trip didn’t go into detail, but my guess was that the car was getting too crowded and they were feeling too “pale”.

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    1. The fetishization of make, model, livery, and all that stuff is common to a lot of railfans in my experience. I’ve had people from the UK right to me to ask about rolling stock. I know some railfans care about both the “nuts and bolts” as well as using the trains to actually get around but I think they’re probably a small minority. It reminds me of when I went to a model train club and I wondered if any of these folks had ever ridden mass transit to their clubhouse or if all of them exclusively drove. I assume the latter.

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      1. Many years ago I found that a large percentage of the railway preservation sites in the US are difficult, if not impossible, to reach by public transit. Because operating railway museums require a large expanse of land, they are usually “out in the boonies” where the price of land is (or was) low enough for impecunious railfans to set up their car barns and railway tracks. I have quite a few stories about visiting railway and trolley museums all over the US, and the challenges of getting to them.

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