Pacific Electric’s Santa Monica Air Line: From Toonerville Trolley to Metro Rail
By Ralph Cantos
Pacific Electric car no. 994 rounds the curve at Overland Avenue in the spring of 1950. This is the westbound afternoon / evening trip. Hollywood cars provided service for the last three years of the line’s existence.
PE’s Santa Monica Air Line was something of an “institution.” The line was built in 1875 by the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad. Just 2 years after the line opened, the LA & I RR decided to sell the line to the Southern Pacific Railroad. The SP, hoping to build up a lucrative freight business, built at its own expense the world famous “LONG WHARF” in hopes of beating out Long Beach and San Pedro as a major shipping port. When that did not work out, the SP leased the line and Wharf to the Los Angeles Pacific Railroad around 1908. A few years later, all LA&P holdings and infrastructure were taken over by the “New PE” in the Great Merger of 1911.
The Santa Monica Air Line was essentially built as a freight line. Passenger service along the line tended to be an annoyance to the PE. Passenger schedules along the line reflected the PE’s annoyance with the line. The best service (what there was) was provided between Downtown LA and Culver Junction. West of Culver Junction, the service was “sparse” at best. After several unsuccessful attempts to abandon passenger service altogether, a “compromise” was reached with the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) around 1932-33: a grand total of ONE in-and-outbound passenger trip was provided for the “convenience” of about 50 die-hard regular passengers who cherished the rail service.
Meanwhile, the world-famous Venice Short Line that provided much more frequent service to essentially the same destinations, was abandoned on September 17, 1950, leaving the Air Line as the lone passenger service on the Westside of LA, Santa Monica, and Venice.
This wonderful passenger service was cut back to 11th Avenue on October 27, 1953, leaving those faithful Air Line passengers high and dry.
This was done in preparation for the sale to Metropolitan Coach Lines of all remaining PE passenger service, both rail and bus. When MCL took over PE’s passenger service, the Air Line was not included in the sale. And so for about 30 days in October of 1953, the Air Line would become the LAST passenger service on the PE.
Today, rail service along the Air Line has been reborn as the LACMTA’s EXPO Line. Two- and three-car air-conditioned trains run along the line at 12 minute intervals with standing-room-only passenger loads, a far cry from the 50 faithful passengers that kept the line going for so many years, riding aboard 800s, 950s, 1000s and finally, Hollywood cars to the bitter end in 1953.
Ralph Cantos Collection