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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 Orangemarker Counties and also connected to Riverside Countymarker and San Bernardino Countymarker in the Inland Empiremarker.

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.

Origins and history

Electric trolleys first traveled in Los Angeles in 1887. The Pasadena and Pacific Railway was an 1895 merger between the Pasadena and Los Angeles Ry and the Los Angeles Pacific Ry (to Santa Monica.) The Pasadena and Pacific boosted Southern California tourism by living up to its motto "from the mountains to the sea."

During this time, by consolidation of many smaller railroads, 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 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, the narrow gauge street car system known locally as Yellow Cars, and SP also purchased several other passenger railways that Huntington owned in the Los Angeles area, including the Pasadena and Pacific. This resulted in what was called the "Great Merger" of 1911. At this time the Pacific Electric became the largest operator of interurban electric railway passenger service in the world with over of track. The system ran to destinations all over Southern California, particularly to the south and east.

Major 1920s PE business was "taking the Red Car" for inland folks, such as in the Pasadena area, to the beaches at Santa Monica, Del Rey, Manhattan/Redondo/Hermosa Beach, Long Beach in Los Angeles County and to Newport Beach and Huntington Beach in Orange County. On weekends, extra service beyond the normal schedules was provided, particularly in the late afternoon when everyone wanted to return at the same time. It was good times for residents of the region and good times for profits for the PE as this was the Roaring Twenties. Comedian Harold Lloyd highlighted the popularity and utility of the system in an extended sequence in his 1924 film, Girl Shy, where, after finding one Red Car too crowded, he commandeers another and drives at breakneck speed through the streets of Culver City and Los Angeles.

The Pacific Electric also ran frequent freight trains under electric power throughout its extensive service area (as far as 55 mile distant San Bernardino and 50 mile distant Redlands near Riverside), including operating electrically-powered Railway Post Office routes, one of the few U.S. interurbans to do so. This provided important revenue. The PE was responsible for an innovation in a grade crossing safety device that was quickly adopted by other railroads which was the fully automatic electromechanical grade crossing signal nicknamed the "wigwag." A few wigwags continued operation as of 2006.

After the Great Merger, Henry Huntington retained the narrow gauge Los Angeles Railway company. LARy provided local streetcar service in central Los Angeles and to nearby communities. 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 portions of Los Angeles, including south to Hawthorne and along Pico Boulevard to near West Los Angeles to terminate at the huge Sears Roebuck store and distribution center (which was the L.A Railway's most popular line, the "P" line). The Yellow Cars' unusual narrow gauge PCC cars, by now painted MTA two-tone green, continued to operate until the end of rail service in 1963 to the Sears complex on Pico Boulevard.

Early suburban development thrived in proximity to the railway which "connected all the dots on the map and was a leading player itself in developing all the real estate that lay in between the dots". This, of course, had been Huntington's intention. Large profits from land development were generated by the Pacific Electric Land Company which was linked to the railway.


Interurban cars

  • Blimp MU (61 - Pullmans)
  • St Louis Car Co MU coach 1907-1950
  • Jewett Car Co. 1000 "Business Car" 1913-1947
Pacific Electric 1001
  • Jewett Car Co. 1000-class MU interurban 1913-1954
  • American Car Co trailer coach 1908-1934
  • American Car Co trailer coach 1908-1934
  • Pullman Car Co officer's car 1912-1958
  • J.G. Brill Portland RPO-baggage 1913-1959
  • 500-class interurban cars
  • American Car Co 800 class interurban
  • Standard Steel Car Co. 1100-class interurban car - Hammond, Indiana
  • Pressed Steel Car Co. 1200-class Berdoo MU interurban 1915
  • Pullman Car Co. 1222-class Long Beach MU interurban 1921
  • Pullman Car Co. 1252-class Portland MU interurban 1912
Pacific Electric 1299 "Business Car"
  • Pullman Car Co. 1299 "Business Car" 1912, converted from Portland trailer 1929

City and suburban cars

  • St Louis Car Co double-truck Birney 1925-1941
  • Pullman Car Co Submarine 1912-1928
  • J. G. Brill Birney 1918-1941 (69)
  • St Louis Car Co baby five MU coach 1901-1934
  • St Louis Car Co medium five MU coach 1909-1934
  • St Louis Car Co Hollywood car MU 1922-1959 (160)
  • St Louis Car Co Hollywood car 1922 (50) numbered 600-649
  • St Louis Car Co Hollywood car 1923 (50) numbered 650-699
  • J. G. Brill Hollywood car 192x (50) numbered 700-749
  • St Louis Car Co Hollywood car 1924 (10) numbered 750-759
  • Pullman Standard PCC 1939 (30) numbered 5000–5029. Sold to Argentina in 1959
  • St. Louis Car Co. 500 class DE streetcars

Work cars


Pacific Electric 1624 "Juice Jack"

Freight cars

  • LA&R flat-top caboose 1896
  • PE flat-top caboose PE 1939
  • LS&MS caboose 1915
  • LV caboose 1926
  • RF&P caboose 1905
  • SSC box car 1924


  • GM yellow coach


Dual gauge track

Standard gauge Red Car PE and narrow gauge Yellow Car LARy Los Angeles Railway shared some dual gauge / track in downtown Los Angeles on Main Street Main Street (directly in front of the busy 6th and Main terminal) and on 4th Street. Also along Hawthorne Boulevard south of downtown LA toward the cities of Hawthorne, Gardena, and Torrance.

Decline of the Red Cars

Map of the Pacific Electric Railway routes, 1920.
The Pacific Electric Railway operated many unprofitable rural passenger lines which were offset by revenue generating passenger lines in populated corridors as well as freight operations. There were several years when the company's income statement showed a profit, most notably during World War II, when gasoline was rationed and much of the populace depended on mass transit. 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. At peak operation toward the end of World War II, the PE dispatched over 1000 trains daily and was a major employer in Southern California. 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 such as downtown Los Angeles west of the Los Angeles River was in streets shared with automobiles and trucks. 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 Los Angeles to Hollywood and on to Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, had an average speed of

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. Originally, in the 1930s when the freeway system was planned, Los Angeles city planners had intended that there were to have been light rail tracks installed in the center margin of each freeway (these would presumably have carried Pacific Electric red cars), but this plan was never implemented.

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 attracting millions of workers. Aware that most new arrivals planned to stay in the region after the war, local municipal governments, Los Angeles County and the State agreed that a massive infrastructure improvement program was necessary. At that time 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. Large-scale land acquisition and destruction of neighborhoods for new freeway construction began in earnest in 1951. The original four freeways of the area, the Hollywood, Pasadena, Harbor, and San Bernardino were already in use or being completed. Partial completion of the San Bernardino Freeway to Aliso Street in near downtown Los Angeles led to traffic chaos. The nation's last interurban RPO (Railroad Post Office) service was operated by PE on its San Bernardino Line. This RPO service was inaugurated comparatively late, being started on September 2, 1947. It left LA's Union Station interurban yard on the west side of the terminal turning north onto Alameda Street at 12:45 pm and San Bernardino at 4:40 pm, taking three hours for the trip. It did not operate on Sundays or holidays. This last RPO was pulled off May 6, 1950.


Major cutbacks in Pacific Electric passenger service began before World War II, and included the lines to Whittier and Fullerton (1938), Redondo Beach, Newport Beach, and Riverside (1940) and San Bernardino (1941). The Pasadena and Monrovia/Glendora lines quit in 1951. This was due to the new LA freeways being constructed and opened in sections. When the San Bernardino Freeway opened in 1941 but was not yet connected to the Hollywood freeway while the "Four Way" overpass was being constructed, westbound car traffic from the SB freeway poured onto downtown streets in the area of present day Union Station. Pacific Electric's multiple car trains coming and going from Pasadena, Sierra Madre, and Monrovia/Glendora used those same streets the final few miles to the 6th and Main PE terminal and were totally bogged down within this jammed traffic. Schedules could not be met, plus former patrons were now driving. The various public agencies City, County, and State agreed with the PE that abandoning service was the thing to do, and the PE happily complied. PE management had earlier compared costs of refurbishing the Northern District interurban lines to Pasadena, Monrovia/Glendora, and Baldwin Park versus the alternative of converting to buses, and found in favor of the latter. Now they could do it. In the Southern District, passenger service to Santa Ana closed in 1950, to Bellflower in 1955, and in the Western District the last line to Venice and Santa Monica also quit in 1950. Service to the San Fernando Valley (Glendale) using newly acquired PCC cars operating through a tunnel into the Subway Terminal building downtown lasted only to 1955. Long Beach line service from 6th and Main continued until 1961. It still had long stretches of open country running. This rebuilt former PE route is now the city's light rail Blue Line.

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 and Beverly Hills lines were shut down in 1954. Service to Glendale and Burbank ended in 1955, but the California state government through its Public Utility Commission 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 (unrelated to the current MTA created by the merging of two agencies in 1993), which had been formed in 1951 for the purpose of studying the possibility of establishing a publicly-owned monorail line that would run north from Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles and then west to Panarama City in the San Fernando Valley. 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 Yellow Cars 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 conventional wisdom held that their days were numbered. The last passenger line of the former 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. PE's freight service was continued by the Southern Pacific Railroad and operated under the Pacific Electric name through 1964. The few remaining narrow gauge former Los Angeles Railway Yellow Car 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 Museummarker in Perrismarker. An attraction planned for Disney's California Adventuremarker in Anaheimmarker is to feature replicas of the Red Cars and provide transit through parts of the park.

Pacific Electric Replica 501 in San Pedro

The "General Motors conspiracy"

The end of the Red Cars is related to the replacement of streetcar lines with bus lines in some sixty American cities, including Minneapolis-Saint Paulmarker, Baltimore, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and Oakland. American City Lines was one of many consortia formed and owned by General Motors, Standard Oil of California, and Firestone Tire that systematically dismantled private streetcar lines, often after buying them as in the case of the Los Angeles Railway, across the country (including the Pacific Electric's "Big Red" trolley line) and replaced electric trolley service, sometimes partially, with buses. The move came to be known as the Great American Streetcar Scandal.

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.

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 (commonly called "urban sprawl"), 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.

Electric rail revival

Throughout the Pacific Electric's history, a variety of improvements in service or new systems were proposed, including subway trains and monorails. Political and business will transformed the Los Angeles area to one based primarily on automotive transit, paved with hundreds of miles of superhighways. Few lamented the decline and disappearance of rail-based mass transit 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 Hollywoodmarker to Union Stationmarker 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 Pasadenamarker to downtown Los Angelesmarker 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 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 Angelesmarker 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 Beachmarker, 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 Angelesmarker to Downtown. If construction funds are identified, the "Foothill Extension" of the Gold Line will extend the service to Montclairmarker, or possibly all the way to LA/Ontario International Airportmarker 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 Citymarker in 2010 and continue to Santa Monicamarker 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. Also under consideration is a new passenger rail line on the abandoned Harbor Subdivision railway corridor, connecting Carson to downtown Los Angeles via Torrance and the LA west side. Connections to the Harbor Subdivision from the San Pedro cruise terminal and the Long Beach Transit Mall are also under evaluation.

See also


  1. Pacific Electric Subway. Westworld. 2000
  3. "Motorways Plan Revealed: System of Roads Designed to Cure Traffic Ills," Los Angeles Times, June 15, 1938
  4. Hall, Peter Cities in Civilization: Culture, Technology, and Urban Order, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998; New York, Pantheon Books, 1998 See section on Los Angeles
  5. See appeals court ruling:


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