Red Cars: All That’s Old Is New Again

redcar001

Redondo Beach in 1904 was an important train stop and shipping port complete with tracks running on the wharfs.
Photo: Redondo Beach Historical Museum Archives

It is the rare Redondoan indeed who, trapped in a seemingly endless “Sigalert” traffic jam on the freeway, has not longed for an alternative to these bumper-to-bumper automotive nightmares. If he or she is a Southern Californian of longstanding, fifty-years-old at a minimum, their thoughts may well turn to the legendary “Red Cars” of the Pacific Electric Railway. These electrified interurbans dominated local transportation for nearly half a century, and many can wax lyrical about the low cost, speed; fifty minutes from Redondo to downtown Los Angeles; and, perhaps most amazingly, the geographic reach of these trains. From the Redondo train station, located where the Redondo Beach Elks Club now stands, one could travel as far east as Redlands, north to the San Fernando Valley or south to Newport Beach and never have to turn a wheel, stomp a break or inhale the exhaust fumes of an idling diesel.

Inevitably, the question that comes to mind for more recent transplants to the region is, “If the system was so great, what happened to it?” Knowledgeable old-timers, or fans of the movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” will immediately know the answer. It was a terrible conspiracy hatched by General Motors and Firestone, which formed a holding company to buy up city rail lines all across the country and then close them, in order to sell more cars and tires. Why, the system had carried over 100 million passengers in 1944; how could it have mostly disappeared by the mid-1950s unless it was killed on purpose?
The trouble is, the stories aren’t true. It wasn’t GM that killed the Red Car; it was the general public. Trains had been in a slow death spiral for a long time prior to the 1950s, aided by a combination of consumer indifference, political shortsightedness and Californians’ love affair with their cars. But, the influence of trains in Southern California has not completely disappeared, and may be experiencing a resurgence that will restore at least a portion of its former glory.

Redondo Beach: Railroad Town
While the vestiges of its railroading past are mostly gone, trains played an important role in Redondo Beach from its inception. In order to bring travelers to their hotel, buyers to their townsite lots and freight to and from their port, the effective founders of Redondo, J.C. Ainsworth and R.R. Thompson, immediately organized and built a railway line connecting Redondo with downtown Los Angeles. By 1890, the Redondo Railway, later the Los Angeles and Redondo, was in full operation. While the town population grew very slowly during the next fifteen years, the port and the railroad did a booming business. Because of the enormous underwater canyon that exists only a few hundred yards off the beach, ocean-going vessels were able to tie up directly to one of Redondo’s three wharves. The railroad tracks actually ran directly onto the piers, and cargo was quickly and easily transferred from ship to railroad car. The shallow waters of San Pedro forced all traffic coming into that port to be transferred to smaller vessels, known as “lighters,” and then taken to the shore. Redondo’s location several hours via water north of San Pedro also meant that loads coming from the Pacific Northwest, such as timber to build the thousands of homes being constructed in Los Angeles, were nearly always unloaded here. As late as 1910, the Los Angeles Times reported that at the port of Redondo, “The amount of revenue collected from dutiable imports is over five times greater than at San Pedro.”
None of this would have been possible without train service. Redondo Beach had its own 19,000 square foot railroad shop to build and refurbish railway cars. The giant Pacific Light and Power Steam plant, the precursor to the current electrical generating facility on the same site, was built in 1906, not to provide power for homes, but to create electricity for the trains. Redondo was a bustling rail and port town.

The Red Cars Arrive
Redondo’s fortunes looked even brighter when Henry Huntington, the great railroad magnate, purchased the railroad and townsite on July 7, 1905. Huntington was well on his way to creating a virtual monopoly of the electric trains in and around Los Angeles, and in 1911, in what is known as the “Great Merger,” all of the electrified railroads in the area, including Redondo’s, were combined into two companies. The Los Angeles Railway Co., the “Yellow Cars,” was controlled by Huntington, and served downtown Los Angeles. The Pacific Electric Railway, the “Red Cars,” was owned by Southern Pacific, and transported traffic between Southern California’s far flung towns.

Huntington poured money into Redondo, rebuilding the enormous saltwater plunge and turning the city into a beach destination to rival Santa Monica, Long Beach and Venice. But the combination of port and resort proved an awkward one, and political events were soon to halve Redondo’s train traffic.

redcaar002

In 1900, this steam locomotive is stopped at the Hotel Redondo and gardens.
Photo: Redondo Beach Historical Museum Archives

Goodbye Port, Goodbye Freight
Southern California had been angling for federal money to build a truly functional deepwater port since the 1880s, and when this government largesse finally came through it was directed toward San Pedro. Redondo’s deepwater canyon, which had allowed the big ships to come close to shore, also made it impractical to build a seawall, necessary protection for a coastline that could be raked by vicious Pacific storms. Ocean traffic quickly disappeared, and by 1926, when the lease for the freight lines came up for renewal, the city decided that its future was no longer as a port. The lease was not renewed and the last of the three wharves was torn down later that year.

Red Cars Were Great, Or Were They?
While the freight trains were gone, Redondo was still served via two electric links, one from the east, passing through Gardena from downtown Los Angeles, and one from the north, connecting all of the beach cities between Santa Monica and Redondo Beach. Traffic boomed through the mid-1920s, hitting a peak in 1924, but then began a rapid decline, a victim of its own giant reach and anti-consumer practices typical of a monopoly.
Unlike successful rail lines in the big cities in the Midwest and Northeast, which had a “hub-and-spoke” rail system that connected the peripheries to a central downtown, the Red Cars had to crisscross the entire region in order to meet passenger needs. Forced to run hundreds of trains over its 1100 miles of track, the company struggled to operate efficiently. On the lines that were busy, they attempted to maximize profits by cramming as many people into as few cars as possible. The citizens of Los Angeles, unhappy with these long lines and crowded conditions, voted in 1926 to widen a number of the city’s major roads to make automobile traffic faster and easier. Henry Ford’s cheap and reliable Model T had brought cars to the masses and the city was willing to accommodate this new, wildly popular transportation system.

The onset of the Great Depression added to these problems. Ridership plummeted, losses mounted and the company started to delay maintenance and abandon unprofitable sections of track. As the trains became less comfortable, and traveled to fewer locations, it continued to hemorrhage passengers, in the cycle characteristic of all dying industries. Increased car traffic also meant train speeds were forced to slow. A pamphlet put out by the Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce during this era coldly illustrates the unequal competition between rail and car. Although it boasted that “The heart of Los Angeles is reached in 40 minutes from Redondo Beach by rail,” it also noted that “Los Angeles is reached in less than 30 minutes by motor.” In 1940, Redondo’s two links disappeared.

Conspiracy?
Those who would deny this bleak picture note that the Red Cars were never more popular than during WWII. And, General Motors was sued by the federal government for buying up city railways and substituting bus routes. But, the truth is somewhat less romantic than the tale told by conspiracy theorists. The brief resurgence of Red Car ridership during the war was not due to cost or convenience, but because of the nationwide system of gas rationing that forced drivers out of their cars for lack of fuel. Once gas became plentiful again, people went right back to their old ways. Passenger traffic soon returned to previous lows and by 1947 the Pacific Electric was losing $3 million per year on its passenger operations.

As for the suit against General Motors, the government lost the portion of the case dealing with the issue of rail closings, and, more importantly, neither GM nor the companies it controlled ever owned the Red Cars. Big business may be guilty of many things, but killing the Pacific Electric Railway isn’t one of them.

Last Chance to Save the Red Cars
There was one final push to save the system, when the the Rapid Transit Action Group (RTAG), was formed in 1945. The state legislature had just passed a gasoline tax to begin construction of California’s massive freeway system. The RTAG wanted to earmark a portion of those funds for the building of rail lines down the center of these new freeways. Pacific Electric would retain the few profitable parts of its system and tie them together with these new lines. Since the freeway system would have no grade crossings, it would be substantially faster than the old system. Plus, by combining land acquisition and construction for both the roadway and the railway, the new lines would cost only a fraction of what a dedicated rail line would run. The idea died on the floor of the legislature and Pacific Electric began rapidly converting to buses. Even a takeover by the Metropolitan Transit Association in 1958 could not stop the eventual end. The last Red Car ran from Los Angeles to Long Beach on April 8, 1961.

pedroredcar

A Red Car replica makes its way through the San Pedro marina area.
Photo: John Smatlak

The Red Cars Return
Yet, as recent events can attest, this was not the end of passenger rail travel in Southern California. With the dedication in July of the Gold Line route, much of which runs over the original Pacific Electric right-of-way, one can again travel from the Green Line terminus in Redondo to downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena, Long Beach and the San Fernando Valley via rail. The new cars even contain a red stripe, in a nod to their illustrious ancestors.
For an authentic electric train experience, however, nothing can surpass a trip on board the Red Cars themselves. Thanks to the Port of Los Angeles, two of the original cars have been refurbished and returned to service. They run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, from the port’s cruise ship terminals to the San Pedro Marina, with stops in downtown San Pedro and Ports O’Call Village.

Redondo Beach is no longer the rail town of her youth, but the future of train travel in Southern California looks bright…again.

 

Print