The Pacific Electric Railway , also known as the Red Car system, was a mass transit system in Southern California using streetcars, light rail, and buses. At its greatest extent, around 1925, the system interconnected cities in Los Angeles and Orange Counties and also connected to Riverside County and San Bernardino County in the Inland Empire.
The system was divided into three districts:
Originally, there was an Eastern District, but this was incorporated into the Northern District early in the company's existence.
During this time, the Pacific Electric Railway was established by railroad and real estate tycoon Henry Huntington in 1901. Henry's uncle, Collis P. Huntington, was one of the founders of the Southern Pacific Railroad and had bequeathed Henry a huge fortune upon his death. Only a few years after the company's formation, most of Pacific Electric's stock was purchased by the Southern Pacific Railroad, which Henry Huntington had tried and failed to gain control of a decade earlier. In 1911, Southern Pacific bought out Huntington except for the LARy and also purchased several other passenger railways Huntington owned in the Los Angeles area including Pasadena and Pacific, resulting in the "Great Merger" of 1911. At this point the Pacific Electric became the largest operator of interurban electric railway passenger service in the world, with over 1,000 miles of track. The Pacific Electric also ran frequent freight trains under electric power throughout its service area, including one of the few electrically-powered Railway Post Office routes in the country. The PE was also responsible for an innovation in grade crossing safety that was quickly adopted by other railroads, a fully automatic electromechanical grade crossing signal nicknamed the "wigwag."
After the Great Merger, Henry Huntington kept the company which provided local streetcar service in central Los Angeles and nearby communities, the Los Angeles Railway (LARy). These trolleys were known as the "Yellow Cars," and actually carried more passengers than the PE's "Red Cars" since they ran in the most densely populated portion of Los Angeles.
The company generated a good deal of profit from the land developments created by the Pacific Electric Land Company and linked by the railway.
Throughout their existence, the Pacific Electric and its predecessor railroads frequently lost money on passenger operations. There were few years when the company's income statement showed a profit, most notably during World War II, when gasoline was rationed and automobiles were not manufactured. Huntington's involvement with urban rail was intimately tied to his real estate development operations. In the pre-automobile era, electric interurban rail was the only way to connect outlying suburban and exurban parcels to central cities. Real estate development was so lucrative for Huntington and Southern Pacific that they could use the Red Car as a loss leader. However, most of the company's holdings had been developed by 1920. As the company's major income source began to deplete, profitability required that the least-used Red Car lines be converted to cheaper buses as early as 1925.
Although the railway owned extensive private rights-of-way, usually between urban areas, much of the Pacific Electric trackage in urban areas was in streets shared with automobiles and trucks, and virtually all street crossings were at-grade, and increasing automobile traffic led to decreasing Red Car speeds on much of its trackage. At its nadir, the busy Santa Monica Boulevard line, which connected Santa Monica and Hollywood, had an average speed of 13 miles per hour , similar to the average speed today on Los Angeles area freeways.
Traffic congestion was of such great concern by the late 1930s that the influential Automobile Club of Southern California engineered an elaborate plan to create an elevated freeway-type "Motorway System," a key aspect of which was the dismantling of the streetcar lines, to be replaced with buses that could run on both local streets and on the new express roads.
Pacific Electric carried increased passenger loads during World War II, when Los Angeles County's population nearly doubled as war industries concentrated in the region and attracted millions of workers. Aware that most new arrivals planned to stay in the region after the war, local governments agreed that a massive infrastructure improvement program was necessary. At that time the public demanded , and politicians agreed to construct, a web of freeways across the region. This was seen as a better solution than a new mass transit system or an upgrade of the Pacific Electric, and large-scale destruction of neighborhoods for freeway construction began in 1951.
The remaining Pacific Electric passenger service was sold off in 1953 to a company known as Metropolitan Coach Lines, whose intention was to convert all rail service to bus service as quickly as possible. The Hollywood Boulevard line was shut down in 1954, and service to Glendale and Burbank ended in 1955, but the California state government would not allow the other, most popular lines to be discontinued. In 1958, Metropolitan Coach Lines relinquished control of the remaining rail lines to a government agency, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority, known as the MTA, which had been formed in 1951 for the purpose of studying the possibility of establishing a publicly-owned monorail line that would have run from Long Beach to Panorama City via Downtown Los Angeles. In 1954, the agency's powers were expanded to allow it to propose a more extensive regional mass transit system. In 1957, its powers were again expanded, this time to allow it to operate transit lines. Using this authority, the MTA purchased Metropolitan Coach Lines and the remaining streetcar lines of the successor of the Los Angeles Railway, the Los Angeles Transit Lines, and began operating all lines as a single system on March 3, 1958. The system continued to operate under the name MTA until the agency was reorganized and relaunched as the Southern California Rapid Transit District in September 1964. (2.6MB PDF file)
Only a handful of electric train lines remained operating at the time the MTA took over the system and the conventional wisdom held that their days were numbered. The last passenger line of the Pacific Electric, the line from Los Angeles to Long Beach, continued until April 9, 1961. With the closure of the Long Beach line, the final link in the system as well as the PE's first line some sixty years prior, was eliminated. The PE's freight service was continued by the Southern Pacific Railroad and operated under the Pacific Electric name through 1964. The few remaining former Los Angeles Railway streetcar lines were removed in 1963. The majority of the surviving Pacific Electric rolling stock can be seen and ridden at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris.
In 1949, nine corporations, including General Motors, Standard Oil of California, Firestone Tire and others, plus seven individuals, constituting officers and directors of certain of the corporate defendants, were acquitted in the Federal District Court of Northern Illinois of conspiring to monopolize the ownership of transportation companies with the intent of monopolizing transportation services. At the same time, they were convicted in a second count of conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses and related products to local transit companies controlled by the defendants. The court considered the violations to be relatively minor, as the corporate defendants were only fined $5,000, and the individual company directors that had been charged only had to pay a symbolic fine of one dollar each. The verdicts were upheld on appeal.
When National City had completed its conversion and provided buses to replace the electric trolleys, it turned the bus service over to the newly-created public Metropolitan Transportation Authority to operate the system at a loss. That the streetcar lines operated so long without any subsidy other than grants of right-of-way is evidence of their relative economic viability.
Other factors that may have contributed to the decline of electric traction in the United States include rising real estate values, federal regulations that power utilities could not own trolley systems, development spreading away from public transit nodes due to the proliferation of affordable automobiles, and the inability of private traction lines to modernize their aging equipment and rolling stock due to low revenues. Pacific Electric was operating buses as early as the 1920s, and removed some streetcar lines as early as the early 1930s.
The plot of the 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit is loosely modeled on the conspiracy to dismantle the streetcar lines in Los Angeles.
Beginning in the 1970s, a variety of factors, including environmental concerns, an increasing population and the price of gasoline led to calls for mass transit other than buses. In 1976 the State of California formed the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission to coordinate the SCRTD's efforts with those of various municipal transit systems in the area and to take over planning of countywide transportation systems. The SCRTD continued planning of the Metrorail Subway (the Red Line), while the LACTC developed plans for the light rail system. After decades, the wheels of government began to move forward, and construction began on the Los Angeles County Metro Rail system in 1985. In 1988, the two agencies formed a third entity under which all rail construction would be consolidated. In 1993, the SCRTD and the LACTC were finally merged into the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
In 1990, electric rail passenger train service once again returned to Los Angeles with the opening of the Blue Line. This line runs from downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach, using much of the same right of way as the original Pacific Electric line that was discontinued in 1961. Since then, the LACMTA has opened more lines. The subway Red Line opened in three parts, connecting North Hollywood to Union Station in central Los Angeles. In 1995, the Green Line opened, running in the median of Interstate 105. The latest light rail line is the mostly at-grade Gold Line, connecting Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles along former Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (ATSF) trackage, including a historic 1895 railroad bridge across the Arroyo Seco.
On July 19, 2003, a 1.5 mile streetcar line connecting the cruise ship terminal with other attractions along the San Pedro waterfront began operation. This currently functions as a tourist attraction. Two newly constructed Red Car replicas provide service along the line. In addition, a restored 1907-vintage Pacific Electric car is available for special operations. This was financed and constructed by the Port of Los Angeles as part of its waterfront revival effort. There are plans to extend this line approximately two more miles to the Cabrillo Aquarium. Trackage is in place, but funding for additional improvements has not been identified at this time. Some transit advocates have proposed linking this line to the Blue Line in Long Beach, but this would be a much more intensive and expensive project.
More rail lines are in the planning and building stages. In 2009, the Gold Line Eastside Extension will connect East Los Angeles to Downtown. If construction funds are identified, the "Foothill Extension" of the Gold Line will extend the service to Montclair, or possibly all the way to LA/Ontario International Airport by 2015.
There are several proposals for connecting the congested West Los Angeles area with rail service. The LACMTA will construct the Expo Line, a light-rail line. A color has not yet been assigned to this line. The LACMTA has announced that money is available for construction, which has begun, with surveying activities beginning in May 2006, and construction commencing in October 2006. Service is scheduled to begin as far as Culver City in 2010 and continue to Santa Monica by 2014-2015.
Other groups are lobbying to extend the renamed Purple Line to the west on Wilshire Boulevard, the city's most densely populated corridor, as was originally planned in mass transit plans designed as early as the late 1960s. In 2005, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made as one of his most publicized campaign promises a pledge to set the wheels in motion for eventual construction of the "Subway to the Sea" as he called it.
It is unlikely that the Metro Rail system (without including the hundreds of miles of Metrolink commuter line track, some of which duplicate former Pacific Electric lines) will ever have as much track as the Pacific Electric, with increasing construction costs and the complexity of environmental regulations. Mass transit advocates have heralded as necessary and successful whatever rail trackage has been rebuilt. If all current proposals are built, by 2015 Los Angeles will have the third highest amount of mass transit track mileage in the United States, after New York City and Chicago.