In Beechview’s blossoming Latino community, the T is an invaluable asset. Its steel tracks trace Broadway Avenue, weaving between Latin American restaurants, community groups and grocers.

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Beechview Points of Pride
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Extending from the stadiums of the North Shore to the shopping centers of South Hills Village, the segment of Pittsburgh’s light rail system called the Red Line connects the southern hilltop neighborhood to Downtown and the suburbs.

For people without access to a car or the papers necessary for a driver’s license, the Red Line provides vital and affordable transportation to work, school and play.

It’s a central reason why many immigrants choose to settle in sloping Beechview, the city’s only neighborhood with rail-based transit embedded in its central artery.

Two Red Line cars pass each other on Broadway in Beechview.
The Red Line rides through Broadway Avenue in Beechview.

Nearly 40% of the riders who rely on the Red Line are Spanish speakers, according to a 2022 survey conducted by Casa San José, a community organization in Beechview.

The integral role that the T plays for Latino residents also means that the community is vulnerable when it goes out of service or proves unreliable. And while the T may become more Spanish-speaker-friendly next year, its schedule may also be reduced.

Shelbin Santos cooks Peruvian cuisine at Chicken Latino, her restaurant on Broadway Avenue in Beechview. “Peruvian food is not just spicy,” she said. “It’s good spice and flavor.” Her workforce depends on the T to commute.

All but one of the employees at Chicken Latino take the T to work.

“Most Hispanic families here don’t have a car,” said Shelbin Santos, owner of the Peruvian restaurant on Broadway Avenue. “A lot of people don’t have the luxury of papers and documentation.”

“The T line connects you to everything.”

When it comes to business, the Red Line brings in customers — and cash.

When there are games or concerts Downtown, “The trains are full,” explained Santos. “And you know they’re stopping here for food first.”

Riders take the Red Line south toward Beechview after the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Green Bay Packers on Sunday Nov. 12. Business owners along Broadway Avenue report significant business dips when the T is out of service.

The Red Line connects Beechview and its residents to downtown Pittsburgh.

But when the Red Line is out of service, many of Santos’ employees are forced to walk to work. Sometimes they arrive late.

Apolonio Gomez takes the Red Line to work at a second job in Dormont after finishing his shifts at Chicken Latino. But when the T is out of service for repairs or outages, he said, he has to walk for more than 40 minutes.

The Red Line can be especially unreliable at night, said Gomez, when he is on his way home from work. “It needs better service.”

Apolonio Gomez (right) prepares yuca in the kitchen at Chicken Latino alongside another employee named Caterina. He takes the Red Line to work between two jobs, one each in Dormont and Beechview, where he’s lived since moving to Pittsburgh 10 months ago from his original home in small-town Mexico, which he left more than two years ago.

And when the T is down, business goes down.

In early 2022, when a bridge supporting the train line required repairs, the Red Line was out of service for more than three and a half months, replaced with a shuttle for portions of its route.

Santos estimated that her restaurant lost $36,000 during that period. “It was a nightmare when the T was closed,” she recounted.

A few blocks down Broadway another restaurant, Comedor Betty, placed their losses at $10,000. Across Broadway, restaurant Alquisiras Paleteria estimated they missed out on $20,000 in expected revenue, closing early on some days due to a shrinking clientele before the Red Line resumed service in May, according to a survey conducted by Casa San José.

The Red Line rides through Broadway Avenue in Beechview toward the South Hills.

“Our entire transit system — not just the Red Line — has been experiencing reliability issues since the COVID pandemic,” wrote James Ritchie, chief communications officer for PRT, in an email to Rtvsrece, pointing to challenges with hiring and training enough employees. “This has compromised our ability to fulfill the published schedules at times.”

According to Ritchie, the Red Line offers a “​​high level of service” and runs every 15 minutes during peak hours and every “20(ish) minutes” during off-peak hours. “Which is better than most of our routes,” he wrote. It does not run between 1:30 a.m. and 4 a.m.

In February, the Red Line will roll down Broadway less frequently. PRT is planning to reduce the schedule because they don’t have enough operators. “We certainly don’t want to be doing this,” said Phillip St Pierre, head of scheduling for PRT. “But we need to have people to work.”

The change, which St. Pierre said is unlikely to affect rush-hour commuters and will mostly take place during off-peak hours, could add five minutes to wait times. But it will also make the T more reliable, St. Pierre said: “So it will show up when we say it will.”

Ricardo Villarreal walks towards a waiting T car on the Red Line.

For Beechview’s Spanish-speaking riders, though, concerns of reliability are compounded by concerns about language accessibility.

When Ricardo Villarreal moved to Pittsburgh from Panama three years ago, he used the T to go everywhere — and he still does.

He and his partner, Lorena Peña, ride the T to work five days a week, commuting from their home near South Hills Junction to work at a pizza restaurant in Mt. Lebanon.

“Every day you go into a Red Line trolley, you're going to find four out of ten Latinos,” said Villarreal as he and Peña rode south for dinner in Dormont. He serves on the board of Pittsburghers for Public Transit [PPT], a group advocating for transit accessibility.

“We are advocating for Latinos because we are Latinos, but the train is used by all kinds of people,” said Peña, also a member of PPT. She said that if the T was more reliable, more people would use it.

Ricardo Villarreal and Lorena Peña ride the Red Line through Beechview.

But for people in the community who don’t speak English, the transit system can be difficult to navigate.

“It’s very complicated for people to understand if you don’t speak the language,” said Villarreal.

For recent immigrants in particular, buying a ticket or loading a ConnectCard and finding the right train can be a difficult process to navigate without Spanish-language instruction at the stop, said Peña, who added that language barriers become exacerbated when trains are late or services suspended.

Along with Casa San José, Villarreal and Peña are advocating for greater language access for Spanish-speaking T riders.

They’ve asked PRT to add Spanish-language loudspeaker announcements and signs at stops along the Red Line, and they’re hoping to create an ambassador program that would place bilingual guides at T stops to help Spanish speakers to find their way.

Riders take the Red Line north from Beechview toward downtown Pittsburgh.

They may soon get their wish.

In December, PRT will begin rolling out Spanish-language signage and audio announcements at rail stations along the Red Line, Downtown and at some stops along the Blue Line that serve Brookline, according to Ritchie, who expects Spanish-language messaging will expand to the interiors of T cars, the PRT website and social media in 2024.

PRT also recently launched a Spanish-language option on its customer service line with an option to tap a live interpreter into the call.

But the “big missing component,” according to Ritchie, is getting information about service disruptions to riders, which he acknowledged impacts Spanish speakers who rely on the Red Line.

To that end, PRT is developing a system through which riders can sign up for alerts for when services are down on the transit lines they use, which can be delivered by text — in Spanish or other languages — in hopes of serving people who don’t have internet access or a smartphone. That service does not yet have a launch date.

Riders are reflected in the windows of the Red Line as it crosses the Monongahela River toward downtown Pittsburgh.

The people most affected by language access and reliability are low-income immigrants, said Laura Perkins, who works with Latino residents through Casa San José. Many, she said, are “folks that are fleeing poverty and violence that came across the border in a legal way that just don't have the money to access legal status.”

“When the quality of service goes down, who does it affect the most?” said Perkins. “It has a direct correlation with privilege.”

Perkins often records videos in Spanish to let people in the community know when the Red Line is out of service, or to explain the process of loading a ConnectCard. She’s even offered to record announcements for PRT herself that could be played at T stops along the Red Line in Spanish.

The T, Perkins said, “is the only way to get around if you don't have a car and you can't afford Uber, which is most people.”

“It’s completely essential. … It is the lifeline of Beechview.”

Photographs by Quinn Glabicki.

Quinn Glabicki is the environment and climate reporter at Rtvsrece and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at quinn@rtvsrece.com and on instagram and X @quinnglabicki. 

This story was fact-checked by Ladimir Garcia.

Translation by Zulma Michaca, a bilingual professional living in Riverside County, Calif., with family ties in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at z.michaca123@gmail.com.

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Quinn Glabicki is a writer and photographer covering climate and environment for Rtvsrece. He is also a Report for America corps member. Quinn uses visual and written mediums to tell stories about...