What Happened to the Red Car?

This December mars the 50th anniversary of the end of all streetcars in L.A., including the Red Car transit system, which ran on 1,100 miles of track. The story that most people believe about the end of the Red Car is that a car company bought it, dismantled it, and forced a dependency on freeways. Well kind of…

Roman Mars and Eric Molinsky of 99% Invisible tell the real story about what happened to L.A.’s Red Car system.

Many accounts of the disappearance of electric railway service in the LA area get the Pacific Electric (Red Car) and the Los Angeles Railway (Yellow Car) systems confused. PE was a subsidiary of Southern Pacific (starting in 1911) and the only PE lines that were bought out by National City Lines (the GM-Standard Oil-Firestone-etc. backed company) were unprofitable local lines in Pasadena and a few other cities. LA Railway stayed as a Henry Huntington property, and after his death, remained in the estate until 1945, when (as I heard from a retired estate manager), they were moving toward divesting “operating properties” and staying with “gilt-edged securities”. NCL made them an “offer they couldn’t refuse”, and while many LA trolley lines were converted to diesel buses, two were converted to electric buses (trackless trolleys) and the new LATL bought 40 state-of-the art PCC streetcars for the P Pico-E. First line.

When Eric Molinsky lived in Los Angeles, he kept hearing this story about a bygone transportation system called the Red Car. The Red Car, he was told, had been this amazing network of streetcars that connected the city–until a car company bought it, dismantled it, and forced a dependency on freeways.

But like most legends, the one that Eric heard about the Red Car is not entirely accurate. It’s true that Los Angeles did have an extensive mass transit system called the Red Car, which at one time ran on 1,100 miles of track–about 25 percent more more track mileage than New York City has today, a century later.

But the Red Car wasn’t the victim of a conspiracy. The Red Car WAS the conspiracy.

And some believe the demise of the railways was because of the tire companies and general motors:

General Motors and others’ involvement in orchestrating the systematic dismantling of streetcar systems around the nation. Nowhere was the GM/Firestone Tire/Standard Oil/Philips Petroleum/Mac Trucks conspiracy more successful than in Los Angeles.

Even if the LA streetcar systems could not become self sustaining, unbiased government could have subsidized the system for the public good, as still occurs in most public transportation systems.

To conclude that the Los Angeles streetcar system was dismantled purely because it could not support itself is less than a half truth. The Red Car may have been built without the intention of making it a profitable entity, and built to increase the value of other assets, but this does not negate the actual conspiracy involved in its demise.

Although it currently is constructing both light rail and heavy rail transit systems, the Los Angeles area had, but then abandoned, an earlier streetcar network that was quite extensive. This telling, from the “This Is the Story” public radio program, describes what happens. It is a bit flip about some of the background history and comments are inserted in a couple of places to note more nuanced references to past events. Illustrations are provided to go along with the story.




Yes, this is LA. In the former Pacific Electric Railway tunnel under the Subway Terminal Building downtown.



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