Remembering L.A.’s Other Trolleys: The Yellow Cars

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Los Angeles remembers its Red Cars with an almost mythic reverence. Replicas of the Pacific Electric Railway’s red-liveried trolleys now transport tourists through a Disney theme park, while Angelenos swap wistful stories about the streetcar that would take you to the beach, deep into the Inland Empire, or all the way down to Orange County.

Often overlooked are the true workhorses of the city’s bygone transit network: the Yellow Cars of the Los Angeles Railway.

As opposed to the interurban Pacific Electric, the Los Angeles Railway provided quick, local service in downtown L.A. and nearby communities. For decades, the Yellow Cars’ bells rang as far west as La Brea Avenue and as far north as Eagle Rock, and the trolleys serviced neighborhoods from East Los Angeles to Hawthorne. Though their reach was shorter than that of the fabled Red Cars, the Yellow Cars carried roughly twice as many riders—at its peak in 1924, the Los Angeles Railway served 255.6 million passengers, and the Pacific Electric only 100.9 million.

But by the time Alan Weeks stood on a Highland Park street corner in 1954 and took the above photograph, rubber tires had begun to replace steel wheels as transportation authorities substituted bus routes for one streetcar line after another.

The demise of L.A.’s street railways has inspired countless conspiracy theories, many of which spin suspicious-sounding business arrangements into plausible narratives of sinister plots. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Judge Doom’s Cloverleaf Industries buys L.A.’s streetcars only to shut them down and build freeways in their place. In other, less fictionalized accounts, automobile manufacturers and petroleum producers play the villains. Most historians agree, however, that more prosaic factors are actually to blame: aging rail infrastructure and frequent delays only hastened the downfall of a transit mode that ordinary Angelenos had rejected in favor of the private automobile.

Whatever the reason, on March 31, 1963, the local streetcars—by then painted aqua blue and operated by the publicly owned Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority—rolled off L.A.’s downtown streets and into oblivion.

 

Nathan Masters of the USC Libraries blogs here on behalf of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, cultural institutions, official archives, and private collectors hosted by the USC Libraries and dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden histories of Los Angeles.

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Comments

  1. Kenny

    March 13, 2013 at 12:39 am

    One should also mention that the streetcars operated at a loss for almost their entire history – they were operated as a loss-leader for Henry Huntington and others, who bought up rural land, started rail lines to it, and then sold the land for subdivisions at a huge profit. Once they ran out of new land to develop, there was no way for the rail lines to remain profitable, so it was only a matter of time before they were either taken over by the city or went bankrupt. (If autos hadn’t entered the picture, they might have been able to maintain profits by raising fares.)

    However, they did leave us a landscape criss-crossed by old rail rights-of-way, which Metro has been able to start turning back into rail. If only the city had taken them over before the tracks were ripped out…

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    1. Nathan Masters

      March 13, 2013 at 1:10 am

      Thanks for the comment, Kenny. What you say is certainly true of the Pacific Electric Railway, which rarely turned a profit. But the Los Angeles Railway managed to stay in the black until the 1930s. At its peak in 1922-24, it recorded an annual average of $1.3 million in net income.

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    2. Bob

      March 14, 2013 at 4:27 am

      “One should also mention that the streetcars operated at a loss for almost their entire history”- This sentiment must be repeated thousands of times all across America as some sort of justification for loss of rail transportation and for not pursuing new rail projects. It seems never to be questioned. Yet I have still not seen the profit earned from cars, Interstate Highways/”Freeways”, state highways, and local roads. The percentage of city/county/state budgets going just for road/highway maintenance has been growing dramatically and is strangling so many state and local governments. Or the maintenance is just being put off – then we see epic failures like the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis. Transit needs to be looked at like a service to be provided, not a business to make a profit. The fire department neither makes a profit nor operates at a loss – it’s a service that costs money. Both the fire department and rail transit should be run as efficiently as possible, but shouldn’t be expected to be profitable to be worthwhile.

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  2. Nathan Masters

    March 13, 2013 at 1:10 am

    Thanks for the comment, Kenny. What you say is certainly true of the Pacific Electric Railway, which rarely turned a profit. But the Los Angeles Railway managed to stay in the black until the 1930s. At its peak in 1922-24, it recorded an annual average of $1.3 million in net income.

    Reply

  3. Anne Sjolund

    March 13, 2013 at 5:41 pm

    Interesting to know of the operations loss now, it only cost a dime or a little more to ride. It took me to school daily and my family to downtown L.A. to shop. Why didn’t they charge more? They let the bus companies take over and brought smog. Its too bad the city planners let such a developed rail system become outdated. We could take the red line from anywhere to the beach. Great memories. Now every family has to have multiple cars and those that can’t afford them walk blocks to catch buses and go way out of way to get to jobs because the routes are so limited. Luckily before I retired, I was able to use the Metrolink and I didn’t miss riding the freeways during rush hours.

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  4. Robert90033

    March 14, 2013 at 3:56 am

    The streetcars were two tone green with a white roof, which was the livery of the LAMTA at the time. Never aqua blue!

    Reply