The Pacific Electric Railway and Los Angeles’ Red Cars
Los Angeles is a city that has been totally shaped by the development of the automobile. More than almost any other city, LA has been tied to the car in a way that caused all other possible forms of transit to wither and essentially die on the vine. In the last couple of decades LA has been trying to wean itself from the car with big investments in light rail and a more expansive network of buses but there was a time when LA had an incredibly useful and efficient system of electric railways that made getting around town a relatively simple affair. This rail system, the privately owned Pacific Electric, was better known by the colloquialism Red Car.
The Red Car system has its beginnings in the late 1800s, well before LA became the bustling metropolis that we think of it as being. In 1897 the Pasadena & Pacific Railway was created by a merger between the Pasadena and Los Angeles Railway and the Los Angeles Pacific Railway. This new, larger system would allow passengers to ride from Pasadena all the way to Santa Monica. Naturally, this helped tourism significantly and thus were the seeds of the Pacific Electric railway sown.
The Pacific Electric proper was founded by two men: a railroad executive named Henry Huntington and a banker called Isaias W. Hellman. Huntington was a vice president of the Southern Pacific railroad where he managed San Francisco’s burgeoning but unstandardized network of small street railroads. Huntington saw a benefit in bringing together all of these various electric trolley lines and made it his mission to do just that. It was during this time that Hellman, then the president of San Francisco’s largest bank and one of the largest bondholders in Huntington’s electric trolley lines, began his close working relationship with Huntington.
Hellman had some prior experience in financing some of the electric rail lines in Los Angeles, still considered at that time to be something of a backwater, and felt like the time was ripe for he and Mr. Huntington to start buying up the small separate rail lines in and around downtown Los Angeles. It was around this time that Huntington’s uncle, Collis Huntington, president of the Southern Pacific Railway, died. Henry Huntington found himself in the middle of a pitched battle with the board for control of the Southern Pacific, a battle which he eventually lost to the head of a rival rail consortium. It was at this time that he decided to focus almost exclusively on building his rail network in Los Angeles.
Fast forward several decades and after numerous battles with the steam railway companies over franchise rights and fare prices, and the Pacific Electric Railway of California was the premier means of public transit in the greater Los Angeles region. They had lines going from downtown LA to, well, everywhere. They went to San Pedro and Pasadena, out to Riverside and into the San Fernando valley. They went down to Orange County and San Bernardino. The system was incredibly elaborate and with prices set fairly low, it provided a great deal of mobility for the residents of a fast growing city.
The Pacific Electric Railway was a narrow gauge rail system and shared track with the Los Angeles Railway which ran through parts of downtown and South towards the South Bay area serving cities like Torrance, Hawthorne and Gardena. The Pacific Electric system used a variety of different trolleys from several manufacturers though all cars were painted a distinctive red color, making them an instantly recognizable facet of life in LA. Many of the cars ranged in style from classic looking boxy designs to sweeping modernist shapes and many other designs that slot stylistically somewhere in between the two.
The PE boomed from the 1920s through the 1930s and early 1940s and then began a long slow decline as cars got bigger, more comfortable, more reliable, and cheaper. The last PE cars ran in the mid 1950s, right around the time freeways were being constructed with the promise that they’d be faster and more convenient, and for a time they were. Anyone who has spent time on a Southern California freeway lately has become intimately familiar with the fact that the freeway system isn’t able to keep up.
Now, for the first time in over fifty years, there is a rail line running from Downtown LA to Santa Monica with more lines promised over the coming years. The combination above ground and subway systems are still woefully underutilized by a public that prefers the sterile, air-conditioned environments inside their car. Don’t get us wrong, we love cars. We love them for the experience of driving and as a form of personal expression. We love them for their convenience and comfort. But having spent many a scorching summer afternoon essentially parked in the middle lane of a freeway, we’re ready to embrace this new rail system as a means of basic transit and save our wonderful cars for the weekend.