Pacific Electric Railway (1901-1965)

The Pacific Electric Railway, also known as the “Red Car” system, was a mass transit system in Southern California using streetcars, light rail, and buses.

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.
  • 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.

Originally, there was an Eastern District, but this was incorporated into the Northern District early in the company’s existence.

Origins and History

Electric trolleys first traveled in Los Angeles in 1887.

The Pasadena and Pacific Railway was an 1895 merger between the Pasadena and Los Angeles Railway and the Los Angeles Pacific Railway (to Santa Monica.) The Pasadena and Pacific boosted Southern California tourism 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.

Only a few years after the company’s formation, most of Pacific Electric stock was purchased by the Southern Pacific Railroad, which Henry Huntington had tried and failed to gain control of a decade earlier.

In 1911, Southern Pacific bought out Huntington 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.

This resulted in what was called the “Great Merger” of 1911.

By this time, Pacific Electric became the largest operator of interurban electric railway passenger service in the world with over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of track.

The system ran to destinations all over Southern California, particularly to the south and east.

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.

On weekends, extra service beyond the normal schedules was provided, particularly in the late afternoon when everyone wanted to return at the same time.

It was good times for residents of the region and good times for profits for Pacific Electric.

Comedian Harold Lloyd highlighted the popularity and utility of the system in an extended sequence in his 1924 film, Girl Shy, where, after finding one Red Car too crowded, he commandeers another and drives at breakneck speed through the streets of Culver City and Los Angeles.

The Pacific Electric also ran frequent freight trains under electric power throughout its extensive service area (as far as San Bernardino 55 miles away, and Redlands 50 miles away), including operating electrically-powered Railway Post Office routes, one of the few U.S. interurbans to do so.

This provided important revenue. Pacific Electric was responsible for an innovation in a grade crossing safety device that was quickly adopted by other railroads which was the fully automatic electromechanical grade crossing signal nicknamed the “wigwag.”

After the Great Merger, Henry Huntington retained the narrow gauge Los Angeles Railway company.

Los Angeles Railway provided local streetcar service in central Los Angeles and to nearby communities.

The Yellow Cars’ unusual narrow gauge PCC cars, by now painted LAMTA two-tone green, continued to operate until the end of rail service in 1963 to the Sears complex on Pico Boulevard.

Early suburban development thrived in proximity to the railway which “connected all the dots on the map and was a leading player itself in developing all the real estate that lay in between the dots.”

This, of course, had been Huntington’s intention. Large profits from land development were generated by the Pacific Electric Land Company which was linked to the railway.


‍Interurban cars

  • Blimp MU (61 – Pullmans)
    • St. Louis Car No. Blimp MU 1930-1959
    • Pullman Car Co Blimp MU coach 1913-1961
    • Pullman Car Co Blimp MU baggage coach 1913-1959
  • St Louis Car Co MU coach 1907-1950
  • Jewett Car Co. 1000 “Business Car” 1913-1947
  • Jewett Car Co. 1000-class MU interurban 1913-1954
  • American Car Co trailer coach 1908-1934
  • American Car Co trailer coach 1908-1934
  • Pullman Car Co officer’s car 1912-1958
  • J.G. Brill Portland RPO-baggage 1913-1959
  • 500-class interurban cars
  • American Car Co. 800 class interurban
  • Standard Steel Car Co. 1100-class interurban car – Hammond, Indiana
  • Pressed Steel Car Co. 1200-class Berdoo MU interurban 1915
  • Pullman Car Co. 1222-class Long Beach MU interurban 1921
  • Pullman Car Co. 1252-class Portland MU interurban 1912
  • Pullman Car Co. 1299 “Business Car” 1912, converted from Portland trailer 1929

City and suburban cars

  • St Louis Car Co double-truck Birney 1925-1941
  • Pullman Car Co Submarine 1912-1928
  • J. G. Brill Birney 1918-1941 (69)
  • St Louis Car Co baby five MU coach 1901-1934
  • St Louis Car Co medium five MU coach 1909-1934
  • St Louis Car Co Hollywood car MU 1922-1959 (160)
  • St Louis Car Co Hollywood car 1922 (50) numbered 600-649
  • St Louis Car Co Hollywood car 1923 (50) numbered 650-699
  • J. G. Brill Hollywood car 192x (50) numbered 700-749
  • St Louis Car Co Hollywood car 1924 (10) numbered 750-759
  • Pullman Standard PCC 1939 (30) numbered 5000–5029. Sold to Argentina in 1959
  • St. Louis Car Co. 500 class DE streetcars

Work cars


  • 1600 class electric locomotives

Freight cars

  • LA&R flat-top caboose 1896
  • PE flat-top caboose PE 1939
  • LS&MS caboose 1915
  • LV caboose 1926
  • RF&P caboose 1905
  • SSC box car 1924


  • GM yellow coach


See also: List of Pacific Electric Railway lines
West Hollywood Car Barn and Yard

  • Ocean Park Car Barn and Yard
  • Torrance Shops
  • 6th & Main Station (Main Terminal)
  • Hill Street Station
  • Subway Terminal (Hollywood Subway)

Dual Gauge Track

Standard gauge Red Car PE and narrow gauge Yellow Car Los Angeles Railway shared some dual gauge 4 foot, 8 1⁄2 inch (1,435 mm) / 3 foot, 6 inch (1,067 mm) track in downtown Los Angeles on Main Street (directly in front of the busy 6th and Main terminal) and on 4th Street. Also along Hawthorne Boulevard south of downtown LA toward the cities of Hawthorne, Gardena, and Torrance.
Decline of the Red Cars

The Pacific Electric Railway operated many unprofitable rural passenger lines which were offset by revenue generating passenger lines in populated corridors as well as freight operations.

There were several years when the company’s income statement showed a profit, most notably during World War II, when gasoline was rationed and much of the populace depended on mass transit.

Huntington’s involvement with urban rail was intimately tied to his real estate development operations.

In the pre-automobile era, electric interurban rail was the only way to connect outlying suburban and exurban parcels to central cities.

At peak operation toward the end of World War II, the PE dispatched over 1000 trains daily and was a major employer in Southern California.

Real estate development was so lucrative for Huntington and Southern Pacific that they could use the Red Car as a loss leader.

However, most of the company’s holdings had been developed by 1920. As the company’s major income source began to deplete, profitability required that the least-used Red Car 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 in streets shared with automobiles and trucks.

Virtually all street crossings were at-grade, and increasing automobile traffic led to decreasing Red Car speeds on much of its trackage.

At its nadir, the busy Santa Monica Boulevard line, which connected Los Angeles to Hollywood and on to Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, had an average speed of 13 miles per hour (20.9 km/h)

Traffic congestion was of such great concern by the late 1930s that the influential Automobile Club of Southern California engineered an elaborate plan to create an elevated freeway-type “Motorway System,” a key aspect of which was the dismantling of the streetcar lines, to be replaced with buses that could run on both local streets and on the new express roads.

Originally, in the 1930s when the freeway system was planned, Los Angeles city planners had intended that there were to have been light rail tracks installed in the center margin of each freeway (these would presumably have carried Pacific Electric red cars), but this plan was never implemented.

Pacific Electric carried increased passenger loads during World War II, when Los Angeles County’s population nearly doubled as war industries concentrated in the region attracting millions of workers. 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.

At that time politicians agreed to construct a web of freeways across the region.

This was seen as a better solution than a new mass transit system or an upgrade of the Pacific Electric.

Large-scale land acquisition and destruction of neighborhoods for new freeway construction began in earnest in 1951.

The original four freeways of the area — the Hollywood, Pasadena, Harbor, and San Bernardino — were already in use or being completed.

Partial completion of the San Bernardino Freeway to Aliso Street near downtown Los Angeles led to traffic chaos.

The nation’s last interurban RPO (Railroad Post Office) service was operated by Pacific Electric on its San Bernardino Line.

This RPO service was inaugurated comparatively late, being started on September 2, 1947.

It left Los Angeles Union Station interurban yard on the west side of the terminal turning north onto Alameda Street at 12:45 pm and San Bernardino at 4:40 pm, taking three hours for the trip.

It did not operate on Sundays or holidays. This last RPO was pulled off May 6, 1950.


Major cutbacks in Pacific Electric passenger service began before World War II, and included the lines to Whittier and Fullerton (1938), Redondo Beach, Newport Beach, and Riverside (1940) and San Bernardino (1941). The Pasadena and Monrovia/Glendora lines quit in 1951.

This was due to the new Los Angeles area freeways being constructed and opened in sections.

When the San Bernardino Freeway opened in 1941, it was not yet connected to the Hollywood freeway.

The “Four Way” overpass was being constructed, and westbound car traffic from the San Bernardino freeway poured onto downtown streets in the area of present day Union Station.

Pacific Electric’s multiple car trains coming and going from Pasadena, Sierra Madre, Monrovia and Glendora used those same streets the final few miles to the 6th and Main Pacific Electric terminal and were totally bogged down within this jammed traffic.

Schedules could not be met, plus former patrons were now driving. Various city, county and state agencies agreed with the Pacific Electric that abandoning service was the best solution, and Pacific Electric happily complied.

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.

Now it could be done. In the Southern District, passenger service to Santa Ana ended in 1950, to Bellflower in 1955, 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.

Long Beach line service from 6th and Main continued until 1961. It still had long stretches of open country running. This rebuilt former Pacific Electric route is now the Metro Blue Line route.

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.

The Hollywood Boulevard and Beverly Hills lines were shut down in 1954. Service to Glendale and Burbank ended in 1955, but the California state government, through its Public Utility Commission, would not allow the other, most popular lines to be discontinued.

In 1958, Metropolitan Coach Lines relinquished control of the remaining rail lines to a government agency, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority, known as the LAMTA.

It had been 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.

In 1954, the agency’s powers were expanded to allow it to propose a more extensive regional mass-transit system.

In 1957, its powers were again expanded, this time to allow it to operate 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.

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.

Only a handful of electric train lines remained operating at the time the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority took over the system, and conventional wisdom held that 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.

With the closure of the Long Beach line, the final link in the system was eliminated.

Pacific Electric’s freight service was continued by the Southern Pacific Railroad and operated under the Pacific Electric name through 1964.

The few remaining narrow-gauge former Los Angeles Railway Yellow Car streetcar lines were removed in 1963.

The majority of the surviving Pacific Electric rolling stock can be seen and ridden at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris.

An attraction planned for Disney’s California Adventure in Anaheim is to feature replicas of the Red Cars and provide transit through parts of the park.

The “General Motors Conspiracy”

The end of the Red Cars is related to the replacement of streetcar lines with bus lines in some sixty American cities, including Minneapolis-St. Paul, Baltimore, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and Oakland.

American City Lines was one of many consortia formed and owned by General Motors, Standard Oil of California, and Firestone Tire that systematically dismantled private streetcar lines, often after buying them as in the case of the Los Angeles Railway, across the country (including the Pacific Electric’s “Big Red” trolley line) and replaced electric trolley service, sometimes partially, with buses.

The move came to be known as the Great American Streetcar Scandal.

In 1949, nine corporations, including General Motors, Standard Oil of California, Firestone Tire and others, plus seven individuals, constituting officers and directors of certain of the corporate defendants, were acquitted in the Federal District Court of Northern Illinois of conspiring to monopolize the ownership of transportation companies with the intent of monopolizing transportation services.

At the same time, they were convicted in a second count of conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses and related products to local transit companies controlled by the defendants.

The court considered the violations to be relatively minor, as the corporate defendants were only fined $5,000.

The individual company directors that had been charged only had to pay a symbolic fine of one dollar each. The verdicts were upheld on appeal.

Other factors that may have contributed to the decline of electric traction in the United States include rising real estate values, federal regulations that power utilities could not own trolley systems, development spreading away from public-transit nodes due to the proliferation of affordable automobiles (“urban sprawl”), and the inability of private traction lines to modernize their aging equipment and rolling stock due to low revenues.

Pacific Electric was operating buses as early as the 1920s and had removed some streetcar lines as early as the early 1930s.

The plot of the 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit is loosely modeled on the alleged conspiracy to dismantle the streetcar lines in Los Angeles.