Redcar Mountain

Yesterday we posted an advisory to those living in Los Angeles that this week is Bike Week, and that you should keep an extra eye out for our two-wheeled friends lest you gain a spandex hood ornament. Bikes and LA traffic are a potent mix for mayhem, but the city wasn’t always a bastion of private transportation, and in fact at one point in time could boast of having the largest light rail system. . . in the world.
The Pacific Electric Red Cars reached every neighborhood of the sprawling metropolis, but time and decay took their toll. By the fifties, the ridged rail right of ways were giving way to the more flexible – and at the time perceived as cleaner and more modern – bus lines. This photo dates from 1956 and is of a mountain of Red Cars awaiting their fate at the National Metal & Steel scrap yard on Terminal Island (once called Rattlesnake Island), at the port of Los Angeles.
The last Pacific Electric route – from Los Angeles to Long Beach – was decommissioned in 1961. Almost 30 years later, a new light rail – the Metro Blue Line – began service between those two cities, and it remains to this day one of the most heavily used rail lines in the Los Angeles system. Sadly however, none of the cars are red.
Image source: [Los Angeles Time Archives]

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  1. tonyola Avatar

    One of my earliest memories involves going to Grandma's house in Dayton, Ohio and seeing the electric trolley buses that would cruise by her front door. They weren't on fixed rails, but they were supplied by overhead powerlines. I remember being fascinated by the silent buses with the twin "antennas" sticking up from the rear. You could see and hear them spark sometimes as they hit junctions and nodes in the wires.
    <img src="; width="400/">

    1. TX_Stig Avatar

      I remember those sort of buses. Of course my memories are from only a few years ago, in Moscow. They still use the electric buses. They spark like you said, and often enough jump off the overhead line.

    2. joshuman Avatar

      We have those all over Seattle. The wires are ugly but kinda like them just the same.

      1. Froggmann_ Avatar

        Seen the same thing in 'frisco. Talking about silent killers, almost got hit by two of them. And yes the grid does look pretty hideous but so is the soot that belches from a hard-worked Detroit Diesel.

    3. From_a_Buick_6 Avatar

      I live in Dayton, and the electric buses are still here. The Miami Valley RTA is one of the better public transportation systems I've seen outside of a major city. The buses (not all are electric) serve the primary suburbs in the county and all the big shopping centers. Unfortunately, stereotypes about who generally rides the buses, and a downtown depot that's become a chronic gang hangout, keep most suburbanites from using them (myself included). And that's a shame.

  2. LTDScott Avatar

    There's at least a couple of those old Red Cars intact out at the train museum near the Perris Airport. I saw one while taking a hot air balloon flight over the area.

    1. Tomsk Avatar

      Indeed. Here's their site:

    2. CptSevere Avatar

      That's nice to hear. I know nothing about the LA Red Cars, but am a native born New Yorker, and love the fact that there are many vintage subway cars preserved, and are used for historic tours of the old stations and lines. I've never been on one of these tours, but I'd love to go.

  3. Gearhead Avatar

    Sad. Thank General Motors for that image, and for some of the the congestion we enjoy in Southern Caifornia as a result.

    1. tonyola Avatar

      I thought it was this guy.
      <img src="; width=300>

      1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

        He's meeeeeelting.

  4. FЯeeMan Avatar

    Those aren't red cars, they're… kinda greyish…

  5. Alff Avatar

    Ironically, LA isn't the place to ride the SLUT.

    1. joshuman Avatar

      Ride it all the way from Westlake to Fred Hutch.

  6. P161911 Avatar

    I think just about every city of any size had a trolley system 100 years ago. I guess most got replaced by buses and some sort of subway/rapid rail.
    I just did a little quick Wikipedia research on Atlanta's (my home town) trolley system. Seems it started losing money in the 1920s, coincidentally the time automobiles became really popular.
    Seems trolley buses, like the one tonyola shows, went out of favor for two reasons, the cost of stringing new lines and they quit making them in 1959, at least for a while.

  7. Tomsk Avatar

    It's sad to think how we had such a great commuter rail system in place, only to have our shortsighted forefathers throw it away and leave their successors to start from scratch at the cost of billions of dollars.
    Anyway, here's a site with some incredible photos of the Red Cars (and the narrow-gauge Yellow Cars, which ran almost entirely on streets and within L.A. city limits):
    I sure most of my fellow SoCal hoons will find some locations they'll recognize (geographically, anyway). Try typing the name of your hometown into the search box on the front page and see what comes up.

    1. Froggmann_ Avatar

      Yes it is. The old OC spur runs right by my house and within 3 or so miles of my work. To tell you the truth I would rather take that than sit in traffic for upwards of 2 hours just to go 21 miles. Sad part is the line is still mostly there but it will never, ever get used again.

  8. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

    Ha! We can do that, too.
    In the '50s our government implemented an enormous rail modernisation scheme, phasing out steam and introducing new, clean, fast, reliable diesel locomotion instead. There were success stories (class 37 and 47, still in service), there were blind alleys (the entire diesel-hydraulic fleet) and there were legends (The Deltics.)
    By the 80s, a lot of the also-ran classes were done for, too slow, too unreliable, and increasingly expensive to maintain. During that decade, thousands of diesel locomotives in the 1000-2000hp bracket went for scrap, leading to sights like this:
    <img src="; width=450>
    "The Pyramid", an evolving stack of locos at Vic Berry's yard, Leicester, at this point made up of units from classes 25 and 27.

  9. facelvega Avatar

    Whoah, this post is extremely misleading about the politics of public transportation history. Bus lines were not "at the time perceived as cleaner and more modern," they were promoted that way by the secret cabal known as "National City Lines" that bought streetcar systems throughout the US and dismantled them, ostensibly replacing them with bus lines instead but also promoting the use of individual cars instead of public transport full stop. The investors behind National City Lines included Firestone Tires, Standard Oil, Philips Oil, Mack Trucks, and most importantly General Motors. Eventually these companies were all convicted on monopoly charges tied to this scandal in 1949 and failed an appeal in 1951, though this only resulted in $5000 worth of fines and came only after the company had acquired and destroyed infrastructure related to public transportation in about four dozen cities. This is why we have such shamefully crappy public transportation in this country, not because blue-blooded Americans love cars (so do Germans, but they have excellent trains), but because a few big companies and rich executives conspired to screw the rest of us over to make a huge amount of money and used their power in the government to get away with it. Google it, I'm not making up any of this.

    1. From_a_Buick_6 Avatar

      Thank you for making an important point. What GM and its cohorts did to intercity public transportation is just shameful. However, I think the decline of those rail lines, along with the urban areas they served, was unavoidable as the middle class moved en masse to the suburbs starting in the '50s.

      1. facelvega Avatar

        Yes, and some of this was underway to the degree it could be after the depression hit, but the later postwar suburban boom was not exactly a "true" reflection of "what people really want." Since '29, there had developed an acute housing shortage in the US that was not attended to during the war– six million families doubling up with relatives and friends, a half million more in temporary structures like quonset huts, and nobody knows how many more in substandard housing of myriad types. This was answered after the war by several extremely socialist and extremely well-intended congressional acts: at first, billions of dollars of FHA mortgage assurance and the Serviceman's Readjustment Act of 1944 that meant to give all 16 million returning soldiers the chance to own their own house. The banking industry took massive advantage of the new rules to make cheap mortgages easy to get for the first time in history– as long as they were for single-family housing. Single family housing starts in the US in 1944 were 114,000; in 1946, 937,000, and double that by the end of the decade. It was a boom created by lax law writing and a rapacious banking industry that institutionalized suburban development. The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 expanded the geographic reach of this new housing landscape tremendously, fueling the growth.
        Compare this to, say, Germany which also had a huge housing shortage and need to rebuild, but had different legal, mortgage, and land-use structures, and actually much less capital to invest, at least at first: a huge number of tightly-knit hamlets with easy rail service and vast swathes of open farmland in between that the public can legally walk through, cities with excellent public transportation on all levels, highway and road systems at least as good as ours, and an automotive industry that makes money without massive public subsidy and makes very good cars to boot.
        Whoah, sorry to rattle on there. This is the kind of stuff I teach all day.

    2. P161911 Avatar

      Atlanta isn't listed as ever being part of National City Lines. Our local politicians managed to screw up our public transit all by themselves! Apparently they quit using the electric trolly buses when there was no longer a North American supplier, the lack of demand might have had something to do with National City Lines. Atlanta's rapid rail system planning was/is a very political process, so you have things like a rapid rail system that bypasses the baseball stadium so local parking lot owners could continue to make money. Atlanta probably has one of the WORST rapid rial/subway systems of any major city. There are really only a few stops downtown and the airport that you would want to get off at. The rest aren't close to anything but high crime neighborhoods. You don't want to take it to the airport if there is ANY chance your flight will get in real late. The trains stop running at 1am or so.

      1. facelvega Avatar

        Well, kind of. Say you were a trolley company that suddenly lost 30 of your 35 client cities because GM is trying to shut you down: you go out of business and then the other five cities are screwed too. But you're right that the politics are huge, and the land use policy (that I just rattled on about in a post above this) matters more than the public transport policy by itself. There is one element of all this that might still work in the other direction, though: many rail corridors and rights-of-way in the US are permanently on the books, so even where lines have shut down, it would be legally very easy to put them back in if the cities suddenly had a use for them. Many planning theory people think this is inevitable in the richest cities, where the rich young yuppies like to take the train to work and save their cars for getting out of town on the weekends. I guess I'm technically one of that class myself. It's really only a big-city issue, though– nobody I know has any really feasible solutions for small and medium-sized urban areas.

        1. CptSevere Avatar

          Salt Lake City took advantage of their right of way, using an old rail corridor for the fairly new TRAX system, that was instituted beginning in the early nineties, to great public whining and bitching. Oh, everybody hated it, it was Socialism perpetrated upon the masses by the evil Utah Transit Authority, the plebian bus guys, because the Olympics were coming (or, at the time, we thought they might be). It was a pain in the ass during construction, but when it opened right around Y2K (remember that?), ridership figures immediately shot up to what they had projected ten years from opening. During the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics of 2002, the TRAX line exceeded all expectations (with borrowed trains from I think Dallas), transporting just mobs of people all over the Salt Lake Valley to the various venues. Utahns have embraced the line, and suburban cities like West Valley started demanding their own spurs, almost immediately. Yeah, TRAX, at least downtown, runs along the old Salt Lake Trolley lines abandoned years ago, and is a great success. Fun Fact: The old Salt Lake Trolley line car barns and maintenance shops are now Trolley Square, a nice mall contained in the old vintage brick buildings. I used to live a half block away from there. A great example of historic preservation.

  10. Van Sarockin Avatar
    Van Sarockin

    What Facel Vega said. LA once had one of the largest and finest streetcar systems in the country, universally admired and used by all. What National City Lines did in LA and many other cities is a crime – they were eventually found guilty and fined an entire dollar.
    Legend has it that at one point it was possible to ride from Portland, Maine to somewhere south of Philly by riding streetcars, and theoretically getting a free transfer from line to line.

  11. Tim Odell Avatar
    Tim Odell

    As a (recently) former LA resident, I, too bemoan the lack of long-standing rail infrastructure but do commend the growing light rail lines. They need to sort out their transfer issues and get the Green line to actually go all the way to LAX, but eventually it'll make sense.
    The ruins of the old system are still around. There was a set of tracks still embedded in the pavement by my old house, and the subway stations under downtown are a sight to behold.