Rollsigns from Pacific Electric Railway
Southern California
This linen side
rollsign is from
Pacific Electric
Railway's Western
Division, and was
from GM Old Look
bus #2527. There
is no print date on
the rollsign. It has
11 exposures.
The origins of electric trolleys can be traced back to Los Angeles, who first operated them in 1887. In 1895, The Pasadena and Pacific Railway
was incorporated as a merger between the Pasadena and Los Angeles Railway and the Los Angeles Pacific Railway which ran to Santa Monica.
This merger boosted tourism in Southern California by living up to its motto “from the mountains to the sea”. In 1901, railroad and real estate
tycoon Henry Huntington consolidated many smaller railroads. Henry’s uncle, Collis P. Huntington, was one of the founders of the Southern
Pacific Railroad and had bequeathed Henry a huge fortune upon his death. In 1911, what was dubbed the "Great Merger" of railroad companies
occurred when Southern Pacific bought out Huntington for all his railroad assets except for the Los Angeles Railway, the narrow gauge street
car system known locally as Yellow Cars. Southern Pacific also purchased several other passenger railways that Huntington owned in the Los
Angeles area, including the Pasadena and Pacific. After this merger, Pacific Electric became the largest operator of interurban electric railway
passenger service in the world with destinations all over Southern California, most notably to the south and east, and operated on over
1,000 miles (1,600 km) of track. By the 1920s, “taking the Red Car” was common for inland folks, such as those in the Pasadena area, to the
beaches at Santa Monica, Del Rey, Manhattan/Redondo/ Hermosa Beach, Long Beach in Los Angeles County and to Newport Beach and
Huntington Beach in Orange County. Additional service beyond the normal schedules was provided on weekends, particularly in the late
afternoon when ridership was highest for returning passengers. At its greatest extent, around 1925, the system interconnected cities in
Los Angeles and Orange Counties and also connected to Riverside County and San Bernardino County in the Inland Empire.
The system was divided into three districts:
- Northern District: Pasadena, San Gabriel Valley including Alhambra, El Monte, Glendora, Monrovia,
Pomona, San Bernardino. Originally, there was an Eastern District, but this was incorporated into
the Northern District early in the company’s existence.
- Southern District: Long Beach, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, San Pedro via Dominguez, Santa
Ana, El Segundo, Redondo Beach via Gardena, San Pedro via Torrance.
- Western District: Hollywood, Burbank/Glendale, San Fernando Valley, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica,
Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, Venice, Playa del Rey.
The Pacific Electric also ran frequent electrically powered freight trains under electric power throughout its extensive network. This included
operating Railway Post Office routes, one of the few U.S. interurbans to do so. In the pre-automobile era, electric interurban rail was the only
way to connect outlying suburban and exurban parcels to central cities. They did operate many unprofitable rural passenger lines which were
offset by revenue generating passenger lines in populated corridors as well as freight operations. Pacific Electric was the innovator in a fully
automatic electromechanical grade crossing safety signal nicknamed the “wigwag”, a device that was adopted by other railroad companies.
Real estate development was so lucrative for Huntington and Southern Pacific that interurban operations could operate at a loss. As the
company’s major income source began to deplete, profitability required that the least-used interurban lines be converted to cheaper buses as
early as 1925. Although the railway owned extensive private rights-of-way, usually between urban areas, much of the Pacific Electric trackage
in urban areas such as downtown Los Angeles west of the Los Angeles River was either on-street operation or utilized at grade crossings,
which limited speeds on their trackage and impacted service. By the late 1930s overall traffic congestion had reached such a level that the
Automobile Club of Southern California came up with a plan to create an elevated freeway-type “Motorway System”. A key aspect of this plan
involved dismantling of the streetcar lines and replacing them with buses that could run on both local streets and on the new express roads.
Major cutbacks in Pacific Electric passenger service began before World War II as sections of these new freeways opened. They included the
lines to Whittier and Fullerton in 1938, service to Redondo Beach, Newport Beach, and Riverside in 1940, and service to San Bernardino in
1941. Around World War II, the population of the Los Angeles area doubled and the Pacific Electric flourished transporting workers to war effort
factories. Aware that most new arrivals planned to stay in the region after the war, local municipal governments, Los Angeles County and the
State agreed that a massive infrastructure improvement program was necessary. In 1951, large-scale land acquisition and destruction of
neighborhoods for new freeway construction, and in turn the decline of the Pacific Electric Railway began. The limited operations of the
interurbans made it difficult to navigate city traffic and adhere to schedules. Pacific Electric management had earlier compared costs of
refurbishing the Northern District interurban lines to Pasadena, Monrovia, Glendora, and Baldwin Park versus the alternative of converting to
buses, and found in favor of the latter. The Pasadena and Monrovia/Glendora lines ceased operation in 1951. Passenger service to Santa
Ana ended in 1950 and to Bellflower in 1955 in the Southern District, and in the Western District the last line to Venice and Santa Monica also
stopped in 1950. Service to the San Fernando Valley (Glendale) using newly acquired PCC cars operating through a tunnel into the Subway
Terminal building downtown lasted only to 1955. The Long Beach line service from 6th and Main, with its long stretches of open space running,
continued until 1961. Remaining Pacific Electric passenger service was sold off in 1953 to Metropolitan Coach Lines, whose intention was to
convert all rail service to bus service as quickly as possible. In 1954, the Hollywood Boulevard and Beverly Hills lines were discontinued, and in
1955 service to Glendale and Burbank also ended. Through its Public Utility Commission, the California state government would not allow the
other, most popular lines to be discontinued. In 1958, Metropolitan Coach Lines turned over control of the remaining rail lines to a government
agency, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority. LAMTA was originally formed in 1951 for the purpose of studying the possibility of
establishing a publicly-owned monorail line that would run north from Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles and then west to Panorama City in
the San Fernando Valley. Meanwhile, Henry Huntington's last remaining asset, the Los Angeles Railway "Yellow Cars" provided local streetcar
service in central Los Angeles and to nearby communities. In 1954, the agency was tasked to design a more extensive regional mass-transit
system, and in 1957, its control was expanded to operate the transit lines. Using this authority, the MTA purchased Metropolitan Coach Lines
and the remaining streetcar lines of the successor of the Los Angeles Railway Yellow Cars, the Los Angeles Transit Lines, and began operating
all lines as a single system on March 3, 1958. Just a small number of electric railway lines remained operating at the time the Los Angeles
Metropolitan Transit Authority took over the system, but their days were numbered. The last passenger line of the former Pacific Electric, the
line from Los Angeles to Long Beach, continued until April 9, 1961. LAMTA's narrow gauge Presidents' Conference Committee (PCC) cars, by
now painted two-tone green, continued to operate until the end of local streetcar service in 1963. The system continued to operate under the
name Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority until the agency was reorganized and relaunched as the Southern California Rapid Transit
District in September 1964. The last remaining element Pacific Electric’s freight service was continued by the Southern Pacific Railroad and
operated under the Pacific Electric name through 1964. About 27 years later, the last operating remnant of the Pacific Electric Railway, the
route to Long Beach, was rebuilt and reopened as the Metro Blue Line on July 14, 1990.Starting in January of 2019, the 22 mile long Blue Line
was closed for a multi-million dollar renovation and modernization. When it reopened on November 2, 2019, the line was rebranded the "A Line"
Pacific Electric Railway streetcar #740 is seen beside GM Old Look buses #2513, 2521 & 2509 at Beverly
Hills Station in 1943. This rollsign came from bus #2527, the same series these buses were part of.
(Photo from the Dorothy Peyton Gray Transportation Library and Archive
at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.)