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What Did We Give Up With the Big Red Cars?

George W. Hilton
Professor of Economics
University of California, Los Angeles

The Pacific Electric Railway, operator of “The Big Red Cars,” is quite properly looked upon as a major force in the geographical development of the Los Angeles metropolitan area and as a significant entity in the area’s local history. Understandably, the Big Red Cars are also the objects of considerable nostalgia. Many of those who rode them - - and even many of us who did not - - collect photographs and artifacts of the Big Red Cars, write about their history, and contribute to the preservation of a few surviving cars at the trolley museum at Perris, California.

Many people, however, go beyond these feelings to an expressed belief that preservation of the Big Red Cars as an operating enterprise could have served Los Angeles’ transportation demands and given the area some external benefits in the form of relief of traffic congestion and atmospheric pollution in the present day. Those who have expressed this view have frequently subscribed to a villain theory, usually that the Pacific Electric was maliciously and unnecessarily done in by the Southern Pacific Company, which controlled it for most of its history. More recently a public document, the Snell Report, has argued that General Motors maliciously brought about the conversion of the Pacific Electric to bus operation through control by its partly-owned subsidiary, National City Lines. The Southern Pacific indisputably did control the Pacific Electric. National City Lines never did so, and the conversion was affected entirely by other parties.

Nonetheless, we should inquire into this question: whether the Pacific Electric might have been perpetuated and possibly improved. We should find evidence relevant to this consideration from the Pacific Electric’s history, the known geographical characteristics of Southern California, and the experience of electric railways elsewhere.

The Pacific Electric advertised itself for many years as the world’s largest interurban system. Indeed, if it is viewed as an interruption, it had no close second; it amounted to about 10% of the investment in all American interurbans, suburban electric railways, and streetcar lines. It did not provide the basic streetcar service of Los Angeles; rather the streetcar lines of the central city were operated by the Los Angeles Railway, a 3'-6" gauge operation. The Pacific Electric, which was of the standard gauge of 4'-8-1/2", was incompatible with the Los Angeles Railway, though the two companies shared several streets in the central area by use of three-rail tracks. Rather, the Pacific Electric extensively shared trackage with the parent Southern Pacific, which continues to operate much of the former Pacific Electric as a series of switching lines in the Los Angeles area. The Pacific Electric consisted of about 520 miles of line, but over a thousand miles of track, and some 700 route miles, including duplication of routes on the same track. The system was highly centralized on downtown Los Angeles, from which it extended to San Bernardino, Arrowhead Hot Springs, Redlands, and Riverside on the east; to San Fernando, Van Nuys, and Canoga Park on the northwest; to Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena and Glendora to the north; to Santa Monica, Venice, and Redondo Beach on the west; to San Pedro, Long Beach on the south and to Yorba Linda, Fullerton, Santa Ana, and Balboa on the southeast. The system was a comprehensive one which, apart from a gap between Stern and Corona which prevented a direct route to Riverside, served the area comprehensively. The lines in the San Bernardino-Riverside-Redlands area tended to be somewhat self-contained, but otherwise, the lines were almost entirely radial to downtown Los Angeles. The lines from Los Angeles east to San Bernardino and south through Watts to San Pedro, Long Beach and Orange County points were relatively high speed interurban lines with many steam railroad characteristics. The line from Los Angeles to Hollywood was essentially a streetcar line and the company ran numerous streetcar operations elsewhere, especially in the San Bernardino-Riverside area. The line from Los Angeles west to the Pacific had extensive street running which produced relatively low speeds.

Most of the company’s services operated from its Main Street elevated terminal in downtown Los Angeles. In 1925 a tunnel of about a mile was built to bring cars from the western lines into a subway terminal near Pershing Square. Otherwise, the system was almost entirely on the ground, so that it was greatly troubled with grade crossings throughout. Many of its lines escaped from street running only through location on wide medium strips of major boulevards. Many of these have been converted into parkways, unintentionally memorializing former Pacific Electric lines.

The Pacific Electric in its history paralleled the interurban industry as a whole quite closely. The lines were built mainly by predecessor companies between 1895 and 1908. Most but not all were promotions of Henry H. Huntington, who also interested himself in real estate development in Southern California. Huntington, the nephew of C.P. Huntington of the Central Pacific, became president of the Southern Pacific in the 1890's. Huntington sold his interest in the Southern Pacific to Edward R. Harriman in 1901, but remained in control of the interurbans. In 1911 he sold his stock in the interurbans to the Southern Pacific, which brought about the merger of the various properties into the Pacific Electric. After the merger the company’s longest line, the San Bernardino route, was built and several small improvements were made in the physical plant.

The company was not only the largest interurban, but was one of the most highly regarded within the industry. For some 15 years it was generally profitable. About three fourths of its revenue came from passenger service though it handled railroad freight in interchange on most lines except for its streetcar routes.

The company’s volume of traffic rose up to 1923. In this it paralleled the transit industry as a whole. The streetcar reached its peak of patronage in the country generally in that year. Traffic declined only moderately during the 1920's - - less than for the interurbans as a whole - - but then dropped off very rapidly in the Depression. The Pacific Electric lost half its revenue from 1929 to 1933. Nevertheless, the company’s general pattern of service was not changed in important fashion until 1938, when the Southern Pacific began a systematic reduction of passenger routes. Between 1938 and 1941 the company dropped several of its long distance routes: Los Angeles to San Bernardino, Riverside, Pomona, San Gabriel, Yorba Linda, Orange County, Redondo and Newport Beach. Some were temporarily restored during World War II. The reduction or conversion program resumed after World War II, so that by 1950 all passenger service had been abandoned except the lines to Long Beach and San Pedro and to Bellflower, Hollywood, and Burbank. In 1954 the Southern Pacific sold the remaining passenger lines to the Metropolitan Coach Lines, but retained the trackage for Southern Pacific freight operations. The new company converted the Hollywood and Burbank lines to bus but failed to secure permission for conversion of the other lines. The stalemate between the management and public authorities was resolved by the formations in 1957 of a Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority which on April 1, 1958, took over the remaining lines. This authority however completed the conversion, finally ending former Pacific Electric service by abandonment of the Los Angeles-Long Beach line on April 9, 1961. This route which had always been the P.E.’s most heavily traveled line, was the last to survive.

In retrospect, the most remarkable thing about the Pacific Electric’s history is that the passenger service did not expire entirely until 1961. Interurbans of the typical midwestern sort, which served intermediate-sized towns and rural areas, mainly characteristic of Indians and Ohio, were wiped out in the depths of the depression or in the late 1930's. A limited number of lines of this character which survived the war were abandoned in the immediate post-war period or the early 1950's. Lines which connected the centers of major cities, analogous to the Los Angeles-Long Beach main lines, usually did not last that long. The Puget Sound Electric Railway, for example, which connected Seattle with Tacoma was abandoned in 1928. The Buffalo, Lockfort and Rochester Railway which connected the two largest cities of western New York State were abandoned in 1931. Similarly, the interurban between Rochester and Syracuse was abandoned in 1931.

Analogy to the electric railway network out of Chicago is particularly instructive. The city had five radial interurban lines which provided service roughly analogous to the Pacific Electric main lines. These were the Chicago North Shore, and Milwaukee to the north; the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin to the west; the Chicago and Joliet Electric Railway to the southwest; the Chicago and Interurban Traction Company, was abandoned on April 23, 1927. The Chicago and Joliet Electric Railway perished on November 16, 1933 near the worst of the Depression. The Chicago, Aurora and Elgin which served a rapidly growing suburban area, survived until 1957 and the Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee until January 21, 1963. This was of the few interurbans to survive longer than the Long Beach line of the former Pacific Electric. Of the Chicago lines, only one remains in service, the Chicago South Shore and South Bend, the management of which is eager to withdraw from passenger operations. Barring transfer of the operation to a public transit district, it will probably not long survive.

One should not reasonably have expected electric railways in Los Angeles to have lasted as long as their counterparts in Chicago. Chicago is approximately three times as densely populated as Los Angeles, and it has approximately three times the concentration of economic activity in its central business district. It has a large financial community, water barriers on three sides of the central business districts and a harsh climate which is a disincentive to driving.

In Los Angeles almost all the forces were for low population density ad diffusion in the urban patterns from the outset. San Francisco provided the major financial community fr the state. Nothing other than the central offices of oil companies provided a major source of employment in central Los Angeles. The major industries- orange growing, motion pictures, aircraft manufacturing, oil refining, and port activity - were the character wich were not be centrally located in any city. The mild climate caused an exceptionally large percentage of residence to opt for single family dwellings with yards in which the sunshine might be enjoyed. The harsh climate of Chicago contributed to the population’s preference fr three-story walk-up buildings. The mild climate and the diffused pattern of employment in Los Angeles caused early recourse to driving both pleasures driving and driving to and from work. Los Angeles, along with Detroit, was one of the two major automobile-oriented cities as early as 1914 when the jitney episode in American transportation enseminated in Los Angeles. Detroit’s network of suburban electric railway, which had been the largest in the country in the 1890's, was entirely abandoned by October 4, 1932, the earliest of any major city. It is remarkable that Los Angeles’ network lasted approximately as long as Chicago’s, rather than perish as early as Detroit’s. The freight revenues of the lines from Southern Pacific switching operations undoubtedly were a force for preservation of Los Angeles’ network for so long.

To some extent, the Pacific Electric’s own impact on the geographical properties of Los Angeles was a force for its own decline. The metropolitan area grew up not outward along radial routes as Chicago’s did, but rather as a series of separate communities mainly located along Pacific Electric lines which grew together in the course of the area’s development, contrary to the expectations of virtually all observers. This Pattern meant that Pasadena, Santa Monica, Long Beach and many other communities had sizeable central business districts of their own with extensive retailing, employment and amusement functions. Thus, when the characteristic deconcentration of American cities began, Los Angeles’ central business district was a far less important center than its counterparts in all other major cities. The Pacific Electric which was almost exclusively a radial facility to and from that central business district, could only decline in a fashion parallel to electric railway networks elsewhere. As the patronage declined, the Pacific Electric had the usual pattern of disinvestment in facilities.

The question arises whether governmental bodies might have generated substantial external benefits by reversing this response and instead making the system more capital intensive as it declines. In our book, The Electric Interurban Railway in America, my coauthor, Professor John F. Due, essentially recommended this course of action. He suggested that the Pacific Electric’s physical properties were such as to lend themselves to upgrading into a rapid transit line. And this, he suggested, might have created external benefits in reduction of traffic congestion and atmospheric pollution. He was, in my opinion, half correct. The system had extensive private right of way though, as ai have stated, mainly on the surface with an enormous number of grade crossings. It would have been cheaper to upgrade such a system into a rapid transit network with high level platforms and grade separated right of ways than to have attempted the same conversion in most of the interurban in the midwest and elsewhere in the United States. For example, in Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo, and Indianapolis, all major interurban centers, the intercity trains entered the cities following streetcars for long distances. In contrast, the Pacific Electric trains had relatively direct access by the private rights-of-way to either of the two downtown terminals.

In spite of this fact, I believe that Professor Due was incorrect in believing that making the system more capital intensive could have produced any significant external benefits. A similar upgrading of the Humboldt Park line of the Chicago Transit Authority onto a reserves right of way in the medium strip of the Eisenhower Expressway, plus the building of several new rapid transit lines, gives us abundant evidence as to what the improvement or building of such lines accomplishes. In general. Only about 8 to 12 percent of the riders on a rapid transit line are former drivers of automobiles. Typically, more than 80 percent are former passengers on bus lines or pre-existing electric railways, if any. The remainder typically did not make the trip before the rapid transit line was built. This marginal attraction of drivers is so small relative either to the growth of traffic on roads or to the daily variance of vehicle counts on the freeways that it cannot be perceived. Rail transit lines built in Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston with funds of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration had uniformly shown an ability to take off the roads approximately the equivalent of six months’ to a year’s secular growth in vehicle counts on the parallel highway facilities. This cannot typically be observed relative to the daily variance in vehicle counts.

For example, the Quincy Line of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is believed to have taken about 900 to 1000 vehicles per day off the Southeast Expressway in Boston. The Southeast Expressway, However, carries between 80 ,000 and 120,000 vehicles per day. Chicago and Boston are relatively densely populated cities with water barriers constricting their central business districts. Cleveland is intermediate. In 1968, the Bureau of Public Roads estimated that the rail rapid transit lines being projected for Seattle, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta would, if built, take off the roads the equivalent of one year’s to two year’s secular growth of vehicle counts on the roads, but that the rapid transit system proposed for Los Angeles would, if built, be only approximately half that effective, owing to the city’s lower population density and lower concentration of economic activity in the centra business district. The subsequent experience in Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston indicates that at even this statement of the Bureau of Public Roads is overly optimistic. However, it is probably accurate that a rail system for Los Angeles would yield only about half the external benefits of a rail system elsewhere. Those benefits, we now recognize on the basis of the experience of the Bay Area Rapid Transit are very small indeed. The Bay Area Rapid Transit, which has the advantage of paralleling a highway crossing of a water barrier with a toll which is a disincentive to driving, has apparently been able to reduce daily vehicle counts on the San Francisco Bay Bridge by about 2 percent, or 4 percent in the peak rush hour. There is no reason to believe that a rail system in Los Angeles, which is without water barriers or toll charges, would be able to do that well.

This conclusion is consistent with what we know of the habits of drivers and commuters in metropolitan areas. Both urban and public transportation and the services of automobiles have relatively low price elasticities of demand. The automobile has a strongly positive income elasticity of demand, which is to say that as people’s incomes increase, they want more of the services of automobiles. Indeed, they want additional services of automobiles more than proportionally to their increases in income. In contrast, the income elasticity of demand for transit is positive only in relatively low income brackets, below $4,000 per year. In higher income brackets, income elasticity is negative; as people’s incomes increase they turn away from transits to the automobile. The cross elasticity of demand between the two, which is to say the responsiveness of consumers of one service to a change in the price of the price of the other, is so low as closely as closely as to approach zero. Typically it cannot be picked up by ordinary econometric techniques.

Given this set of elasticities it is highly unlikely that marginal changes in the quality of the service as by upgrading the Pacific Electric to the capital intensiveness of the Bay Area rapid Transit would have changed the behavior of any large number of drivers. There would be nothing about such a conversion which would make driving more costly. Accordingly, most drivers would behave as they do at present even if this change had been made. There is a further problem that drivers manifest some positive elasticity of demand for roads on the basis of the quality of service of the roads. If a rail system diverted some drivers from roads, some smaller number of other persons would begin driving. Accordingly, the best that could be hoped for from the building or upgrading or rail systems is to shorten the duration of the morning and afternoon peaks. This is, unfortunately, not a goal of public policy which should be sought. Rather, public policy should seek to distribute the drivers over time more widely so as to string out the peaks and thus to be able to provide te service with smaller amount of capital in freeways or other facilities.

Consequently, I think we may conclude with some confidence that nothing could have ben done to the Pacific electric so as to generate the sort of external benefits in reduction congestion and reduction in atmospheric pollution which are typically sought of rail systems. The Chicago, North Shore and Milwaukee and the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin both entered Chicago over the elevated lines of the Chicago Transit Authority, which are of rapid transit character. This was able to save neither of the two properties. Similarly, the Chicago South Shore and South Bend in 1926 achieved an excellent entry into Chicago over the Illinois Central Railroad electrified suburban line. It still uses this entry but, as I said previously, it is questionable whether the line can survive. In no case did the upgrading of the physical plant exempt the carrier from the universal pattern of decline in patronage of this form of transportation.

Consequently, I conclude that scholars are correct to study the Pacific Electric as important in the development of Southern California, and that local enthusiasts are extremely laudable in their preservation of representative examples of the company’s cars in the Perris trolley museum. On the other hand, it is no cause for regret that the Pacific electric is no longer in operation. Efforts to upgrade it have been a waste of capital and its operation could had been carried on only under substantial subsidy. Both of these would have amounted to a pure waste for, because of the considerations which I have started, the operation could have yielded no substantial external benefits.


John B. Rae
Harvey Mudd College

Just before I received Professor Hilton's paper, I noticed a statement in the Los Angeles Times regarding the Sunset Coast Line: "He (Mr. Ward) has described it as an attempt to revive the Pacific Electric's big Red Car system using today's commuter technology." April 8, 1976).

My immediate reaction was that this was putting new wine into old bottles, or perhaps old wine into new bottles; at any rate the most likely result of combining old and new was to get the worst features of both. Perhaps it would be the best, but that was highly improbable.

I came to Southern California a little more than a year ago before the last Pacific Electric service was discontinued, so I never knew the system, but I kept hearing from older residents about how they had loved those Big Red Cars. Having always been fascinated by anything that ran on rails, I sympathized. I thought it shortsighted that the P. E. track on the San Bernardino Freeway median between Los Angeles and El Monte, then used only for local freight, it should not have been converted into a rapid transit line when the Freeway was built. And it might have been wise if some provision had been made to reserve the P. E. rights-of-way for possible future transit use - - perhaps as busways,.

However, after a few years of reading theses and papers dealing with the Pacific Electric, I became acquainted with its balance sheets. These made it clear that however much Southern California may have loved the Big Red Cars, from 1930 on they did not express this affection by paying to ride on them, at least not in sufficient numbers to keep the system solvent. Professor Hilton has confirmed this revised point of view. He makes it abundantly clear that the Pacific Electric died of an ailment best described as incurable obsolescence.

He has offered useful comparisons with other interurbans. The Chicago lines had the advantage of serving a more densely populated area and entering the city over transit and railroad tracks, but still failed. They had a handicap too that the Pacific Electric did not, in competing rail commuter lines, such as the Chicago and Northwestern's North Shore suburban service, which practically paralleled the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee and still operates. Cleveland’s first rapid transit system, the Shaker Heights line, gained access to the city center over the Nickel Plate Railroad right-of-way, with the result that the present Cleveland Transit Authority's Shaker Heights and Windermere routes, serving the eastern side of the city, have not station between Public Square and 55th Street. This gap includes the Central Business District. At one time an expensive subway loop was planned to serve the CBD, but it has not yet been built.

The record seems convincing. Attempting to bring back the Big Red Cars as a comprehensive solution for mass transportation in Greater Los Angeles would be a costly mistake. I any case, let's not mix technologies. If there are specific routes where rail transit is viable choice, then restore essentially the simple Red Car technology. Adding refinements increases cost without corresponding benefits. For example, line-haul above 45 m.p.h. require expensive and complex equipment, increasing the risk of breakdown, and are attainable only by putting stations so far apart as to reduce gravely the usefulness of the system. Accessibility is far more important than speed. Toronto has an excellent public transportation systems, including a modern subway, but it is underused. A survey in 1973 suggested adding sedan chairs to the system since it appeared that patrons would not walk as much as half a mile to reach a station, or even a bus stop. (Los Angeles Times, June 8, 1973.)

If we really want to apply modern commuter technology, let's apply it in modern ways: flexible routing and scheduling of buses, monitoring freeway traffic in terms of car occupancy and time of usage-even determining where some form of fixed guideway may actually be applicable.

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