PE’s Santa Monica Air Line: From obscurity to rising star

By Ralph Cantos

For the last 20 years of the Pacific Electric Santa Monica Air Line’s existence, about 50 or so loyal regular commuters enjoyed a variety of equipment. The 1930s saw the mighty 800-class of heavy interurbans providing most of the “service” on the line, that being one morning inbound and one afternoon/evening westbound trip. The 1940s saw a mix of 950s and 1000s holding down the runs. For the last three years, a single Hollywood car provided the service to the dwindling passenger loads.

In this side-by-side photograph, just about 63 years separate the views taken at almost the exact same location in Cheviot Hills. On the left, Hollywood car no. 5112 is seen making the afternoon westbound trip in the last weeks of September 1953. Some 63 years later, an LACMTA test train passes the same location, known today as the Cheviot Hill Trench, in the weeks before the line’s opening in May 2016.

The success of the LACMTA’s EXPO RAIL LINE has been spectacular. The new line follows the original alignment for much of the way, starting at Exposition Park. The new line leaves the original route at 17th Street in Santa Monica and runs down Colorado Avenue parallel to the original right-of-way just 100 feet north of the original line. Numerous dangerous grade crossings have been replaced by spectacular aerial “fly overs.” The terminal at 4th & Colorado is built over the original right of way.

Passenger loadings have surpassed expectations by a large margin. Currently two- and three-car trains provide 12 minute service for much of the day, seven days a week. The EXPO line is a winner by all accounts.

After the Air Line was abandoned in October 1953, the 5112 was transferred to the Southern District’s Watts Line. From that last run in 1953 to the last run on the Watts Line in November 1959, the 5112 (now renumbered 1801) would provide gallant service along the famous 4 tracks under the most deplorable maintenance conditions imaginable. Finally in 1960, the 5112 was rescued from the scrappers torch and now resides at OERM.

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Showing 8 comments
  • David Sobo
    Reply

    Why were the last runs of the air line called “franchise cars”?

    • George Hays
      Reply

      Contrary to the movie scenarios – of some Dishonest John sabotaging the train so he could get the franchise – transit lines almost always were required to have minimal service they didn’t want until the governing bodies gave them permission to abandon or make substitutions. I even recall the Ohio Railway Museum had to truck a Birney car on the other side of their right of way and it was isolated until they put in a new bridge over a highway. But that Birney car still technically gave the museum line rail service to satisfy some legal requirements.

    • syBB
      Reply

      The original purpose of the “AirLine” route was to have a freight line to the proposed seaport at Santa Monica (Long Wharf).

      The city of Los Angeles wanted to encourage development along the west side. Whomever got the exclusive freight “franchise” to had to agree to provide passenger service along the proposed line. Over the years there was not enough development to support passenger service, but the freight service was quite profitable for Pacific Electric. In order to keep the freight business, PE had to provide the passenger service (franchise car).

  • Greg Mosholder
    Reply

    Is it possible to run an old trolley such as a Hollywood car on an MTA line? ie, does the voltage, catenary and track gauge allow this to be done?

    • George Hays
      Reply

      Some of the first generation “new age trolleys” like the San Francisco Boeing and the San Diego Duwag cars are now running in museums and some places like Portland Oregon have heritage trams on the same track as the modern LRV’s. But the old days of running most anything anywhere if the wheels and gauge fit seems to be over if for no other reason the liability. It is a good question though ….

  • Bob Davis
    Reply

    The question of running vintage equipment on LA Metro lines first arose with the opening of the Blue Line. Someone asked whether on of the PE “Blimps” at Orange Empire could be brought into LA for an excursion and the answer was “No–Metro platforms make the loading gauge too narrow for what are essentially main line RR cars. Hollywood cars might squeeze by, but their floors are too low. And nowadays, most of the light rail lines are too busy to allow “fun runs”. If someone had several cubic yards of money AND enough political clout, restoring a North Shore interurban (these were designed to run on high-platform Chicago “L” lines) adding PE details like roof destination signs, and getting operating clearance would be a dream come true. I would expect that the Devil would go ice-skating before this happens.

  • Greg Mosholder
    Reply

    Thanks for the info. I did not realize that the MTA cars have higher loading platforms where the old trolleys were street level loading via steps. You are also right in that there is way too much legality stuff to enable a lot of things to be done nowdays.

  • Robert Anderson
    Reply

    Like standard RR cars, the blimps and many other PE cars had trap doors over the steps, for loading at high level platforms.

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