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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

LA's Rail System: Now and Then

Air Date: Week of

John Reiger explores the golden age and demise of the electric rail system that dominated Los Angeles in the early part of the century. Local residents question a popular conspiracy theory regarding the rise of automobiles at the expense of the rail system, and speculate whether the newly opened Red Line will fare any better than its predecessor.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Subway sound)

CURWOOD: The new Los Angeles subway - quiet, sleek, modern. This 4-mile route under downtown LA is part of the first phase of the nearly 200 billion-dollar plan designed to reduce the legendary dependence of Los Angeles residents on their cars. Riding the rails to work is a brand-new experience for many in L.A. But for long-time residents, it's a throwback to a time when L.A. had a vast streetcar system. The largest streetcar system, in fact, in the world. So what happened to the old red and yellow cars? And was their elimination a $200 billion dollar mistake? We sent producer John Rieger to Los Angeles to find out.

RIEGER: In the popular imagination. Los Angeles stands for traffic. (Fade up radio traffic report: "The southbound 710, injury crash . . ." fade under) An endless smoggy suburb, where everyone is driving everywhere and nobody's moving. ( Fade up "singing" traffic report in Spanish: "Aqui esta reporta de trafica . . .") Inching along at rush hour, it's appealing to imagine this as a city of streetcars instead of freeways. And yet Los Angeles once had more miles of electric railroad than any city before or since. It was a new kind of city - the city of the future. And when that future came, it was this. This is the story of how we got here from there. Consider this. A 1907 guidebook to Los Angeles.

(Music up and under)

WOMAN'S VOICE: The story of the rapid but steady growth of Los Angeles reads like a fairy tale, and it cannot be readily understood until one takes into account what part the electric railways have had in the building up of this metropolis. It is now acknowledged that the modern transportation methods by way of electric car line have transformed the entire residential conditions. Distances have been swept away, and it is not only possible, but a daily practice, for people to live in the pure air of the country and yet be within easy reach of their business in town.

(Music up and under)

RIEGER: The electric trolley perfected in the 1880's changed American cities. With transportation, people could leave the crowded and polluted cores of older cities like New York and Chicago for the healthy rural atmosphere of suburban homes. But Los Angeles was a special case. With just 11,000 people in 1880, it would be, from the beginning, a city of suburbs.

WAX: It was part of the image of Los Angeles to create a city that was explicitly different from New York or Chicago, that was a city in a garden, that was low-density.

RIEGER: Martin Wax is a professor of urban planning at UCLA.

WAX: The street railways played a critical role because they enabled people to live in lower-density, outlying areas, and still work at the core, and in that way avoid the densities that had occurred in New York - what we later, in a derogatory way, called sprawl, in the 'Teens and 'Twenties was seen as the way new cities should develop.

RIEGER: Los Angeles sprawled like no city before it. After 1890, it was suddenly the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country. It had a pleasant climate, vigorous civic boosters, and an abundance of empty acreage requiring only a railroad line to turn it into desirable real estate. No wonder, then, that the electric railroads were built by real estate speculators. By 1911 the outlines of the city were in place. Downtown Los Angeles, with its Los Angeles Railway streetcars, would be the business and commercial center for a region of low-density suburban communities, all tied to downtown by the red cars of the Pacific Electric Railway. (Music changes to film score)
But by fifty years later, the streetcars had vanished. An alert and possibly overwrought railroad buff made this 16-millimeter film of the last days of the Pacific Electric. (Whistle sound; "Welcome aboard the Pacific Electric Line to Long Beach. It's now final - this rail service will be discontinued in the next ten days. On April 9th, buses will be substituted.") By 1963 the streetcars were scrapped. The rails were torn up or paved over, the rights-of-way abandoned. Buses were substituted in what persists in the popular imagination as the transit crime of the century.

RICHARDS: When I was about six years old the streetcars stopped going by my house.

RIEGER: Since that day, in his Providence, Rhode Island youth, Wally Richards has been a faithful streetcar partisan. Now he spends his spare time working here, at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Paris, California, final resting place for a few honored veterans of L.A.'s streetcar past.

RIEGER: Now, these are Los Angeles railway cars?
RICHARDS: These are Los Angeles railway nowadays, yep. The streetcars left the streets of Los Angeles in the latter part of March of '63, and these little old cars that were all worn out and terribly expensive to maintain went to Cairo and lasted for twenty years with practically no maintenance. (Sound of walking ) Down here we have the first of the streamliners to come to Los Angeles. Shirley Temple dedicated it. A lot of these were thrown in the ocean off San Pedro to make reefs for the fish, for the fishermen, y'know?

CAMERON: Right here we're on Spring Street. Spring Street was traditionally the financial district where all the banks and the stockbrokers' offices . . .

RIEGER: You can still catch a glimpse of the Los Angeles of the streetcar era, here in the self- important brick and granite facades of the old downtown, where each building still proclaims the name of some city father of the 'Teens and 'Twenties. But according to David Cameron, president of L. A.' s Electric Railway Historical Association, the offices upstairs are mostly vacant now, and the once-posh storefronts are given over to the new multicultural bazaar of struggling minority businesses and check-cashing services.

RIEGER: This is the downtown that the streetcars built.
CAMERON: Absolutely.
RIEGER: It seems to be whispering in our ears - "sic transit gloria."
CAMERON: That's probably appropriate.

RIEGER: To imagine the old downtown in its glory, you have to picture these streets crowded with streetcars. So crowded, in fact, that at rush hour the packed trains slowed to a crawl. The red cars converged here like the spokes of a wheel, speeding the wealth and commerce of the suburbs downtown. But once the big interurbans reached the city streets, they became tangled in the traffic of pedestrians, streetcars and increasingly, automobiles.

CARR: In the beginning, around 1910, 1915, your running time was pretty good.

RIEGER: Randy Carr, like his father before him, was attorney for the Pacific Electric Railway. He wrote the official company history of the Red Cars' demise - a story bound up with the growth of the automobile.

CARR: The automobile came into being and by 1920 it was expanding and the people all lived along the railroads, so they would build new highways along where the people were, and where you'd have private right-of-way and could build, all of a sudden you're on a street with vehicular traffic and people and kids running across your track. It slowed down your operating time.

(Sound of steam engine)

RIEGER: Competing for ridership and space on the road, the automobile would become the bane of the streetcar. As early as 1915, Los Angeles had eight times more cars per capita than the rest of the country. The city needed transportation to continue its low-density growth. But the speculators who'd built the railroads had left them mired in debt. They couldn't afford to build new lines. They couldn't replace aging equipment. They were accused of restricting service to keep the cars full. They were running in the red, but the utilities commission wouldn't permit a fare increase. The public looked on the railroads as corrupt, and felt no inclination to bail them out. Instead, they turned to the automobile. Martin Wax.

WAX: I think that the automobile was seen as a populist response to the monopoly of private millionaire capitalists who ran the rail lines and who the public thought provided them with inadequate service. Today perhaps we turn that around. We talk about traffic congestion and the pollution that the automobile causes and the highway-automobile-petroleum lobby, but picture the venom that we direct at that industry now being directed in 1920 instead at the street railways.

RIEGER: By the early 1920's Los Angeles had serious transportation problems. Downtown, the mingling cars and trains had fought each other almost to a standstill, threatening the business district's vitality. The streetcars had helped create that vitality by making downtown the center of the region. But now more and more people were driving to get there. So in 1924, downtown and suburban taxpayers together supported a sweeping plan to improve the city streets. But when planners offered a companion plan the following year to modernize the streetcars, the consensus collapsed.

(Door closing, footsteps)

RIEGER: This abandoned subway, less than a mile long, would have been part of a system of subways and elevated rails that would get the trolleys out of downtown traffic and win back riders from their automobiles. In effect, planners wanted to turn the streetcar system into a modern rapid transit system. Instead, this became the last major improvement the system would see. David Cameron.

CAMERON: The subway that actually was built from this site on out was less than a mile long, but it was a fragment of what was to have been a grand system.
RIEGER: Was the subway received with enthusiasm by the public?
CAMERON: Absolutely, there was big crowds and the public officials praised the railway to the skies and we believe that there was a considerable increase in travel. But then when the Depression hit, the whole financial picture changed and things started going downhill.

RIEGER: Stuck in traffic and losing riders, the Pacific Electric lost money - lots of money. They began abandoning losing lines, converting some to buses. With the flexibility of the automobile, the life of the region was spreading out, away from the old downtown served by the streetcars into regional centers. The fixed and inflexible rails no longer went where the people were. But a bus could go wherever there was a street, and there were more and more streets - including, in 1937, a plan on the drawing board for a freeway system. Which brings us to the transit crime of the century.

(Soundtrack: First voice: "In that vision, I see a place where people get on and off the freeway, on and off, off and on, all day and all night . . .")

RIEGER: It's the piece of streetcar history we all know, even canonized by Hollywood in this film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? - the conspiracy to dismantle the greatest electric railroad in the world, replace it with buses from General Motors and enslave Los Angeles to the freeways.

(Soundtrack: First voice: "My God, it'll be beautiful. Second voice : "Come on, nobody's going to drive this lousy freeway when they can take a red car for a nickel. First voice: "Oh, they'll drive. They'll have to. You see, I've bought the Red Car so I could dismantle it.")

RIEGER: But that's not what happened. Randy Carr handled route abandonment hearings for the Pacific Electric Railway.

CARR: I tried a lot of these hearings. The witness shout, Ah, we oughta have the streetcar system, we can't do without it. Well, I said, who's gonna ride it? Well, I'll ride it. I said, take your girl out Saturday night on it? Hell no! Well, I said, where we gonna get our revenue? And then we'd have this thrown at us, a bunch of groupers, they started to say, oh, well, you made a deal with General Motors to buy buses and you were financing General Motors and for that reason you abandoned your rails. It's a lot of bullshit.

RIEGER: What did happen was this. In 1944 the Los Angeles Railway was sold to National City Lines, a transportation holding company whose minority stockholders included General Motors, Firestone, Standard Oil, and others. It gave the railroad fresh capital to undertake its longstanding plan to convert to buses. But National City Lines had contracts with those shareholder companies to buy buses and other equipment without competitive bid. And eventually, National City Lines was convicted of illegal restraint of trade. But the streetcars were unpopular and obsolete. Wally Richards.

RICHARDS: I see no evil in getting rid of the street cars. It was absolutely stupid, but no one wanted to pay. Everybody that had an automobile wanted the cars gone. Everybody. I used to talk 'em up because I believed in 'em, and people say, get 'em off the street, get 'em outta here, junk 'em, get buses, do anything, just get rid of 'em. This was 90, at least 90 percent of the popular opinion at the time.

(Sound of subway horn)

RIEGER: So how can it be that we find ourselves today riding through downtown Los Angeles on a new subway system? Why was it that in 1973, just ten years after the last streetcar, Tom Bradley promised L.A. in his first campaign for mayor, to bring back the rails?

(Subway warning bell)

FALIK: The public realizes we need to do something about the congestion and the pollution of the motorcar.

RIEGER: Abe Falik is a retired Los Angeles city planner and chairman of the Coalition for Rapid Transit.

FALIK: We're putting $186 billion dollars - 'B' with a billion - into the metro rail system over the next thirty years. About 60 percent comes from sales taxes, and those sales taxes were voted in by the people.

(Subway sound, fade into music under)

RIEGER: Today Los Angeles is a city of crowded freeways, choking smog and suburban sprawl, from which most traces of the 'city in a garden' have long since vanished. That $186 billion dollars will build an extensive new network of subways, trolleys and commuter trains. But are Los Angelenos really ready to give up their cars, or did they vote for the new rail systems so somebody else would ride? Randy Carr.

CARR: How're you gonna force them to use public transportation? It's not sound.
RIEGER: But don't you think people have come full circle? They're getting disillusioned with their automobiles, they're tired of this air pollution.
CARR: Well, are they? My mother lived to be a hundred years old, and she crabbed about this damned smog every day she lived. You see what I mean?

RIEGER: Wally Richards.

RICHARDS: The San Bernardino Line runs right down the middle of the San Bernardino Freeway, and there they are, stopped bumper-to-bumper, and this train goes shootin' by at 79 miles an hour, that's what it's allowed. It isn't going to be long before they realize that that's the way to go.

RIEGER: For Living on Earth, this is John Rieger in Los Angeles.



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