A Freight Train With A View

By Steve Crise

Over the course of its existence, tens of thousands of photographs were shot of the Pacific Electric and its cars, stations, employees and right-of-ways. But perhaps the single most iconic photograph ever made of the system was that of Robert T. McVay’s famous shot of PE 1044 on the Newport – Balboa line in October of 1949. In a single frame, Robert managed to capture the dream of rapid transit in Southern California with the beautiful Pacific Ocean as a backdrop that seemingly suggests that the riders of this trolley have truly arrived in paradise, or at least a sandy earthly version of it.


While passenger service was very popular on this line in the early years of the PE, it was still the big, ugly, noisy freight trains that paid the bills for the PE as passenger traffic declined. As witnessed in this undated photograph by Donald Duke taken near the same spot where the 1044 had her portrait made, the crew of this train have a first class seat in the 15 mile ride along the ocean shore.

While the idyllic image of a quaint red trolley quietly rolling down the sun soaked sandy beach is a cherished image from a bygone era, Don’s photograph of Pacific Electric 1021diesel electric locomotive was the real breadwinner for the PE before, and for another decade after passenger service ended in 1940. But as you can imagine, sharing your beaches with freight trains was not everyone’s idea of a good time and by the mid 1950’s the freight trains were a thing of the past as well.

A close look at this photo shows that the trolley pole is not being used by the diesel locomotive to activate the crossings and signals along the line. This could be a clue that perhaps the trolley wire is already out of service and diesel-electric locomotives have now fully taken over the duties on this line scenic line.

Both the passenger and freight needs of the all the beach communities once served by the PE have, for well over a half a century, been provided by autos and trucks to the point of near gridlock. It is interesting to ponder the possibility of some sort of combined rail passenger and freight service to return to this corridor someday, but in what form would it take? It’s a wild thought to consider your future Amazon delivery made by a Pacific Electric RPO or Box Motor to say, Huntington Beach? Stranger things have happened.

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Showing 4 comments
  • George Hays

    I don’t remember the last time I saw a freight train on this line; as I recall it was around 1959 and mostly Long Beach or Seal Beach or Newport Beach. There was apparently another alternate track connection that bypassed the miles along Huntington Beach. Except for the overhead wire and some sidings the line was intact in the 60’s although the stations might not have been open or used. The former 1000 class car club house building was there at about Warner and PCH; used by the PE rod and gun club. Considering how utterly undeveloped the area was even in the 60’s and 70’s it was a wonder the line lasted as long as it did.

  • Russ Czuleger

    As a five year old remember this PE line along the beach. At the time only knew that it was a railroad line. Learned to read the next year. Only train that I ever saw was a parked locomotive about at PCH and warner. The unit had the same Halloween livery but was pointed north. Line removed in 1963.

  • Clifford prather

    An amazing photo of a freight train on the Newport Line. It is hard to imagine a train this long on this line, perhaps there was a building project some where? They did build some power plants near Huntington Beach.

    The Newport Line was cut at the San Gabriel River in 1958 when the marina was built and than the section of track between Seal Beach and Newport Beach was reach by the line between Stanton (junction with the Santa Ana line) and Huntington Beach. The line between Huntington Beach and Newport was abandoned in 1962 and the section to Seal Beach lasted until 1966.

  • Bob Davis

    From time to time I see suggestions to restore rail service along the beach using modern light-rail cars. I have suggested that this service could be called the Tan Line, with some of the cars modified with surfboard racks. Getting back to the diesel locomotive, 1021 was one of two Baldwin VO-660 units that PE leased from SP. My mother got a photo of its mate, 1022, going by our house in Monrovia. By the time the diesels were in service, PE interurban cars 1021 and 1022 had been retired, and locomotive 1021 would have gone by the body of car 1021 which had become part of the clubhouse at Los Patos.

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