- Historic Sites
The Myth Behind The Streetcar Revival
Light rail was an attractive, economical, and environmentally sound technology— until the auto companies crushed it. That, at any rate, is what a lot of people believe, and now the nation is spending billions to re-create an imaginary past.
May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
In a crucial scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit , the murderous Judge Doom reveals a “plan of epic proportions” for transforming metropolitan Los Angeles. He boasts to private detective Eddie Valiant that his Cloverleaf Industries has bought the Red Car electric railway network so that he can dismantle it.
In a crucial scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit , the murderous Judge Doom reveals a “plan of epic proportions” for transforming metropolitan Los Angeles. He boasts to private detective Eddie Valiant that his Cloverleaf Industries has bought the Red Car electric railway network so that he can dismantle it. In a movie that blends splendid illusion with shrewd social commentary (humans confine cartoon characters to a ghetto while exploiting them for amusement), this dialogue resonates with a familiar belief: A magnificent transportation system was destroyed in a carefully orchestrated plot mounted by powerful automotive interests.
The widely believed-in conspiracy that the movie’s story line is based on never happened. Yet the idea remains so compelling that efforts to expose it as a myth have gained little headway. What’s more, it has had significant consequences, helping animate an electric-railway renaissance across the country—and most vigorously in Los Angeles. In 1990 electric trains began running between Los Angeles and Long Beach, where the technology had vanished almost thirty years earlier. Today they connect with other cities where they’d been gone even longer, and they are ultimately slated to reach both the San Gabriel and the San Fernando Valleys, whence they disappeared close to a half-century ago.
Their supporters say that environmental concerns and plain common sense demand that any great metropolis must have such railways; critics contend that the projects have made scarcely a dent in L.A.’s increasingly dire transportation problem while consuming billions of taxpayer dollars. And, they add, such projects have been sold to the public by the manipulating of idealized images of the old Red Car system.
Idealized images of the past are always with us, of course. We know how often they influence choices in people’s personal lives; it’s far rarer that we are given an opportunity to see clearly how powerfully they can influence public policy and technological choices. As the historian of technology John Staudenmaier observes, “People plan and try to execute rational strategies for promoting or resisting a given technology, but those same people also respond to technology affectively, with awe or fear or anger or enthusiasm. We need to learn to understand our technological behavior as a constant blend of these very different modes of consciousness.”
Snell blamed a bus-and-car conspiracy, but transit managers had known electric railways were far too inflexible.
Technology does not march ahead led solely by reason and logic; it is created and changed by human choices that are hardly always rational. The new California rail lines are in part a tribute to the power of the remembrance of things past.
The inception of the old system is linked with Henry E. Huntington, whose name is locally ubiquitous: Huntington Park, Huntington Beach, Huntington Drive, the Huntington Library. Like his uncle Collis, Henry Huntington was involved with steam railroads, but his special interest lay in the electric railways, urban and interurban, that flowered at the turn of the century. After starting out in this business in San Francisco, he moved to Southern California, where opportunities seemed more expansive and labor less troublesome. There he financed and built an interurban network converging on the fast-growing city of Los Angeles. This was the Pacific Electric, the PE, dubbed the Red Car system to distinguish it from the yellow streetcars of the local transit system, the Los Angeles Railway.
Huntington envisioned speedy, frequent Red Car service as an inducement to sales of homesites in subdivisions he owned all over the region, a purpose the PE fulfilled for him in just a few years. In 1910 he sold out to the Southern Pacific Railroad, which made the PE a subsidiary. Its mileage peaked in 1926 at eleven hundred, and annual ridership likewise topped out in the mid-1920s at 110 million. Then patronage began to slip and the railway system to shrink, even as the population of the metropolitan region continued to grow at a phenomenal rate.
Although its Red Car ledger was most often in the red, the Southern Pacific profited from hauling freight on Pacific Electric tracks; its interest in the PE was, like Huntington’s, plainly economic. Of course it was: What drives technological activity is typically a rational matter of seeking optimal economics—though not always.
Red Car service dwindled away in the 1950s, and following two changes in ownership, the last remaining line, between Los Angeles and Long Beach, ceased operation in 1961. Two years later the end came for city streetcars. After wires came down and tracks were pulled up or buried in asphalt, it seemed that this historic transportation technology was gone forever, replaced by rubber tires on paved roadways.