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Did Auto, Oil Conspiracy Put the Brakes on Trolleys?

March 23, 2003|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

Pacific Electric tried to win back riders and increase trolley speeds, at the same time retiring more and more electric cars from city streets and beginning work on a subway.

In 1925, a $5-million underground route of slightly more than a mile opened to riders. It was called the Hollywood Subway and the Belmont Tunnel. When the trolleys rolled into town, they would dip underground at Crown and Bunker hills, saving 15 minutes over their formerly circuitous path through downtown. The subway began at the Subway Terminal Building at 4th and Hill streets before surfacing at Glendale and Beverly boulevards.

During the Depression, the electric cars were augmented with more bus service. Then World War II's shortages of gasoline and rubber crippled bus service. By the end of the war, the trolley lines were decrepit, obsolete and deep in the red. Some Angelenos purchased the trolleys from scrap dealers, moved them to vacant lots and began living in them during the city's housing shortage. (The landmark Pacific Dining Car restaurant, however, was built only to resemble a Red Car.)

In 1945, Huntington's estate sold the Yellow Car system to American City Lines, a subsidiary of National City Lines, a Chicago-based company whose investors included General Motors and other big oil and rubber interests.

Here is where the conspiracy theorists have a point.

National City Lines soon controlled 46 transit networks in the Midwest and West, including Los Angeles. The company began scrapping these electric systems and replacing them with diesel buses that -- surprise -- used fuel and rubber.

Clearly, L.A.'s electric-car days were numbered.

By 1946, the Justice Department had caught on. It filed an antitrust suit against National City Lines for conspiracy to monopolize the transit industry. But before the suit came to trial in Chicago, the consortium of big companies bailed out, selling their holdings in National City Lines. That essentially left it as an empty corporation.

In 1949, the case finally came to trial. The verdict was mixed, with acquittals and convictions. Although they no longer owned National City Lines, the companies in the consortium were fined wrist-slapping amounts of $5,000 each, while individual company officials were fined $1 each, for a total of $37,007. By then, the far-flung suburbs were crisscrossed by cars, highways and a few freeways, and the so-called conspiracy plot simply applied the coup de grace to a dying system.

In 1953, Pacific Electric sold its remaining Red Cars to a private bus line, which was bought out five years later by the state-owned Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority for $33.3 million. The LAMTA scrapped the last Red Car in 1961, which was followed to the transit graveyard by the Yellow Car in 1963.

Even a Los Angeles transportation official declared, "The rail passenger operations of Pacific Electric became obsolete, and economically there was no justification for their perpetuation. As a result, like the horse and buggy, they dropped from the scene."

To commemorate the death of the Red and Yellow cars, the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, near Riverside, holds its annual "Rail Fest" on April 26 and 27. It features a Yellow Car resembling the one that squashed a Model T in a Laurel and Hardy film.

There's also a Red Car of the sort in which Gene Kelly danced in "Singin' in the Rain," just before he leaped into an automobile being driven by Debbie Reynolds -- a symbolic, transitional moment in the history of the Red and Yellow cars.

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