Pacific Electric 5021 Under Gray Skies: A Dark Omen of Things to Come

By Ralph Cantos

In this October 1949 photo, Pacific Electric PCC no. 5021 rolls to a stop on Brand Boulevard at Broadway. This was urban rail transit at its finest. The Glendale-Burbank Line was perfection in every respect. The infrastructure was completely rebuilt just 10 years earlier, and the revolutionary double-end MU PCCs were nearing their 10th birthday.

And yet the dark gray skies above the perfect catenary signaled the fact that the Pacific Electric Railway as an interurban rail system would soon begin to disappear. As News Year’s Day 1950 dawned, the PE still operated about 450 rail cars over 15 major lines. Three-car Rose Parade Specials would again take thousands of passengers to the Rose Parade in Pasadena as they had done for decades. The popular Venice Short Line would provide worry-free, dependable transportation to the beach at Santa Monica and Venice aboard the breezy, venerable 950s and 10s. But all this wonderful, trusty rail transportation was at death’s door.

On September 17, 1950, the world-famous Venice Short Line was converted to motor bus operation and from that day forth, the rail abandonments came fast and frequent. Cities along many of PE’s routes and the Highway Department could not destroy the remains of the PE fast enough, as the lines were abandoned. Just 10 years after the last run of the VSL, New Years Day 1960 saw just one line remaining, the Long Beach Line utilizing about 35 battered and neglected rail cars dating back almost 50 years. With the PE rails and rights-of-way gone, city planners could now move forward in building a futuristic freeway system that would make automobile travel across Los Angeles a happy and joyous experience. (How joyous was your trip on the I-10 or 405 yesterday?)

And today, the ghost of the PE past has come back to haunt the very cities that were so quick to see the last PE trains gone. So now, the cities that were so quick to put an end to urban rail service, must come up with unmanageable hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild something that was allowed to be destroyed as City officials looked the other way. A very painful lesson has been learned…the hard way.

Ralph Cantos Collection

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Showing 4 comments
  • TERRY W Hamilton

    One of the biggest expenses in building modern light rail are the maintenance facilities. Each and everyone of them has to be built to the latest energy, water conservation and green standards. This adds millions upon millions to the price tag for each line. A far cry from how the Long Beach line was built at the turn of the 1900’s. Henry Huntington had cities and communities PAYING him to have that line run thru, and make stops at, their locations.

  • Bob Davis

    Various plans were made for upgrading and rerouting PE lines starting in the mid-1920’s and into the 1940’s, One plan would have extended the elevated terminal tracks east of 6th & Main to the LA River, crossed the river on a new bridge, and tied into the Northern District near Macy St. Yard. This would have bypassed the street running in downtown LA and made the takeover of the Aliso St. gateway for the US 101 Freeway a non-issue. But when it came time to raise money for such improvements, everyone was “looking out the window” and sitting on their hands. SP had been shedding local passenger service for years, and no government entity wanted to do anything to help a “private” company. Add to this the fact that even as late as 1970 a person could buy a usable car for $100 or so, and fill the tank for less than $5.00, and the PE was doomed (and Judge Doom was a fictional character).

  • Scott Pitzer

    Today’s quick version of these stories will often say “so the PE rails and right-of-ways were no more”… but we saw plenty of SP freight operations for quite a few years, after PE passenger abandonments. (On many of the lines– I realize, not on all.)

  • Al Donnelly

    Quite correct Scott. The fact is, the steam railroads originally provided all local outlying passenger services and tried experiments like McKeen cars to stem growing losses. PE came as a competitor but proved a Godsend as it allowed them to abandon services and commit to freight which made money (including hauling the automobiles that would soon cause the Electric lines to falter). Given that PE was a freight feeder and interchanger for the three major railroads (and owned outright by SP), it was a money-maker for them to see the catenary removed so more practical diesel-electric mobile power plants could bring in revenues while running, and simply shut down when out of service.
    As to passenger traffic, sure something needed to deal with this (can anyone say Monorail). But I have yet to see anything in the hands of a government authority that can pay its’ way without some kind of monetary transfer based on “Chocolate Donut Taxes”. That is, if you can get someone to declare a supposed problem item used by 49% or less of the public, then you can get the other 51%+ to impose a tax on them. Suddenly, Twinkies are deadly but we’ll just impose a tax and live off the fees. And that’s how they’ll pay for overbloated transit systems instead of thinking the matter through. [And the true problem underlying it all is the real-estate pyramid game.]

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