Downtown L.A. Needs A Historic Streetcar

The biggest mistake Los Angeles can make in the Bringing Back Broadway initiative is the use of a modern streetcar in lieu of a historic trolley.

In recent months, meetings have been held to talk about where a new streetcar line would go in Downtown L.A., how it would integrate into the current transit system, and what it may look like. Eric Richardson of Blogdowntown has been covering the project, including a recent field trip to Portland, and now, to San Diego to study the success of similar projects in other cities. BDT even ran an in-depth look at the advantages of using a modern streetcar design for Bringing Back Broadway.

While the very notion of a new streetcar line in Downtown Los Angeles should excite all of us, L.A. would be missing a monumental opportunity by installing a modern streetcar line that pays no homage to our fair city’s past.

Instead of following Portland’s example, we should instead by looking toward San Francisco, a city that has excelled at embracing its history, making it one of the top travel destinations in the world.

Take a look around Downtown L.A. You will find buildings of amazing architectural detail. Historic theaters on Broadway. Old banking institutions on Spring. A Main Street that was once dominated by horse and carriage. And tiny glimpses of bygone eras hidden under layers of stucco and paint that are revealed every day. Throughout the Historic Core you can see the painstaking process underway to restore some of the grandest unknown gems in the city. The Brockman Building. The Eastern Columbia. The El Dorado. The Bradbury.

Los Angeles has a history. A very rich, proud history. What better way to honor that than a ride on a historic streetcar through the city’s center?

12 thoughts on “Downtown L.A. Needs A Historic Streetcar”

  1. SF uses some of its antique streetcars (not cable cars) on Market Street…from different eras…of course, they’ve continued to have the streetcars, unlike LA…

  2. —Gabriele360
    they actually have a Pacific Red car from Los Angeles running on that line on Market as well as a Orange and Yellow. If anyone would like to ride a Red car in Los Angeles, the Port of LA has a 1.5 mile line with 3 cars running. I agree with Jason that a Historic Trolley Line should be restored versus a modern street car in Broadway.

  3. The PE car in San Francisco used on the “F” line is actually an ex-Philadelphia PCC painted in Pacific Electric colors.

    There are a number of Philadelphia cars painted in the colors of other systems, including LA Railway, Philadelphia itself, etc.

    —“Ken” Ruben—

  4. ACTUALLY, the Market Street PCC streetcars in Frisco are neither from their antique stock nor from Los Angeles; they were purchased from Boston’s transit authority when they wanted to let go of their old stock and were repainted in the different paint schemes of various cities.

    The PCC streetcar was a more or less standardized streetcar design introduced in the 1930s and was used in a large number of cities, including Los Angeles’ Pacific Electric, which used a double-sided version for its subway tunnel service. The Los Angeles Railway Yellow Cars also used the PCC, with narrow gauge wheels.

  5. Hi Everyone:

    Pasted in below is an article from the New York Times from the Market Street Railway Association’s website.

    As far as I know, most of the PCC cars on the “F” Line are from Philadelphia and the article below confirms this.

    No cars were purchased from Boston at least according to the article below (many years ago, I was stationed outside of Boston and rode the PCC’s in Boston on various lines such as the Arborway Line, etc.

    —“Ken” Ruben—

    (see history article below)

    December 9, 2001
    New Life for Old Trolleys
    WHERE do old streetcars go when their number is up? The lucky ones go to San Francisco. No, not the cable cars. They may be one of the best-known historic rail systems in the world, but they are not this city’s only old trolley line. Welcome to the wildly popular F Line, also known as the Market Street Railway.

    Operating daily along Market Street and the city’s famous waterfront, the Embarcadero — a six-mile route — the F Line uses a collection of 34 elderly streetcars, some of them restored local trolleys, the rest gathered from all over the world. Less than two years old in its present form, the F Line is a runaway hit with both tourists and once-skeptical San Franciscans and commuters.

    The F Line traces its beginnings to 1983. That year, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce sponsored a Historic Trolley Festival, to coincide with the opening of a new trolley line under Market Street. The city already owned several old cars, including one dating back to 1912. The festival was so popular that it was restaged every summer through 1987. In 1995, the old cars began regular service between the Castro District and the Financial District near the Ferry Terminal. But it wasn’t until the hated Embarcadero Freeway, damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, was torn down that the F line came into its own. With the freeway gone, the old trolleys became an integral part of the redevelopment of the waterfront. The extension from the Financial District to Fisherman’s Wharf opened in March 2000 and was an instant sensation.

    So successful has the line been that its operator, the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni), a city agency, is eager to find more old trolley cars to ease the pressure on the ones they have now and for a new line. In addition to the eight or nine San Francisco cars (the number changes as cars are restored or retired temporarily for refitting), the present fleet includes aged streetcars, or trams as they are known in Europe, from Milan; Oporto, Portugal; Melbourne, Australia; Hiroshima and Osaka, Japan; Blackpool, England; Moscow; Hamburg, Germany (the 1954 ”Red Baron”) and New Orleans (yes, it’s named Desire).

    The color schemes can be quite beautiful, and are wonderfully varied. The New Orleans car is a dark hunter green with burgundy trim. The Milan cars are the easiest to spot — they are all bright orange. The 1934 Blackpool car, an open-air boatcar (it looks just like a big excursion boat), is cream with dark green trim. And the 1912 Russian car, which ran both in Moscow and Orel, is red with white trim. Car 130, which arrived in San Francisco just in time to handle crowds for the 1915 World’s Fair, is blue and yellow.

    Besides Car 130, the oldest cars include No. 578-S, which was built in 1895 from a cable-car design and is thought to be one of the oldest operable streetcars in the world; Car 1, the first streetcar bought by San Francisco when it started what was the first major publicly owned transit system in the country; and the New Orleans car, which dates from 1924.

    Some of the old cars have yet to make their debut. One of them is Car 798, which was built in San Francisco, also in 1924, sold for scrap after World War II, then used as a jewelry store in Columbia, Calif., in the Sierra foothills. With a grant from the Embarcadero Center, the Market Street Railway brought it home in 1984; it was rebuilt in a vocational school and restoration work has now begun.

    The oldest cars usually operate only along the waterfront and only for special events. They are too fragile and too valuable for constant use. The Market Street Railway, a nonprofit organization of streetcar enthusiasts and San Francisco fans, works closely with the Municipal Railway in raising funds to acquire and help restore additional vintage streetcars for the city.

    ”It’s important to buy the cars while they still exist and worry about restoring them later,” says Rick Laubscher, president of Market Street Railway.

    Seventeen of the F line vintage trolleys are 1940’s Art Deco PCC’s, 3 from San Francisco and 14 purchased from Philadelphia. PCC stands for Presidents’ Conference Committee, a group of electric railway officials who commissioned the car in the early 1930’s when most of America’s streetcars were still wooden turn-of-the-century relics.

    The last PCC built, in 1952, is part of the fleet here. No. 1040, it is painted in the old San Francisco trolley colors, green and cream. Another, No. 1010, is painted in the blue and gold scheme adopted for the 1939 World’s Fair at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. PCC’s, which once ran in 33 cities in this country and Canada, are sturdy; Newark retired its last 24 in August after 46 years of continuous service. Negotiations are under way to bring some or all of the old Newark cars to San Francisco.

    ELEVEN of San Francisco’s antique cars are Peter Witt trams (named for the American who designed them), built in Milan in the late 1920’s. Milan gave San Francisco one as a gift in 1984 and the city bought 10 more in 1998.

    Even though they began their careers here in San Francisco, some F line PCC’s have been repainted in the colors PCC’s wore in other cities. In addition to Newark, they include Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Louisville, Kansas City, Mo., Boston and Brooklyn. Older tourists are often astonished when a streetcar almost identical to the ones they knew in their hometowns years ago rounds a corner and, bell clanging, rumbles past. The F line motormen are often asked: ”Why isn’t one painted in my hometown’s colors? We had PCC’s for years.”

    A second historic-streetcar line is already being planned. It would run the length of the Embarcadero to the new Pacific Bell Stadium and the adjoining Caltrain railroad terminal. To be known as the E Line, it would share the southern part of the N Line route with the sleek new light-rail vehicles, or LRV’s, that began replacing the PCC’s on most of the city’s streetcar lines 20 years ago.

    While the F Line is fast becoming one of San Francisco’s most popular tourist attractions, it may turn out to be much more. Day after day, it is reminding visitors of something they may have forgotten: that trolleys are a good way to get around congested cities.

    Hop aboard

    Fares on the F Line are $1; seniors and children pay 35 cents.

    It is possible to charter one of the historic cars for a party or a tour of the city. A minimum charter is four hours; from $325 an hour (less for nonprofit groups). Almost all of the Muni light-rail system is compatible with the vintage car operation, so charters can be used on the city’s most scenic routes. Muni, which runs the charter service, will try to provide the car requested.

    The all-volunteer Market Street Railway information number is (415) 863-1775. The Muni charter number is (415) 934-3917.

    At, the Market Street Railway Web site, you will find service information, rates for charters and a rich collection of photographs and descriptions of the old cars.

    FRANK J. PRIAL is a reporter and wine columnist for The Times.

  6. I concur that the proposed Broadway streetcar needs to be an historic trolley.
    San Francisco began running historic trolleys from all over the world 30 years ago and they’re a major attraction for tourists and locals alike, generating hundreds of millions to the economy every year. But SF kept their rail system and built BART as well, so their downtown stayed alive and vibrant. It never died
    It’s a dirty shame we wantonly trashed our 2 rail systems decades ago. The areas surrounding the Subway Terminal Building and the elevated PE Terminal at 6th & Main went into immediate economic ruin the moment the trains stopped. Going to downtown L.A. just a few years ago made you feel like you were in an eastern-block communist country, where the economy simply stopped after 1961.
    I’m very pleased that downtown L.A. is coming back to life after an almost 50 year hiatus and is considering putting in a rail streetcar line!
    Be it a modern streetcar or an historic trolley, it will be a boon to downtown, giving a sense of permanence and civic pride, stimulating the economy beyond our expectations.
    It’s about time!

  7. Hi Everyone:

    Information sent to me by Gene Poon and Dave Snowden.


    —“Ken” Ruben—

    Newark retired its last 24 in August after 46 years of continuous
    service. Negotiations are under way to bring some or all of the old
    Newark cars to San Francisco.

    This was written in 2001. SOME of the Newark cars DID make it to San Francisco. At first, NJ Transit (owner of the Newark cars, which operated in the NJT Newark City Subway) wanted to LEASE the cars to San Francisco, which would have meant a lot of money being put into each one, only to risk having to hand them back over to New Jersey at the end of the lease. “NO DICE,” said Muni (they didn’t trust George Warrington, good for them), and the final outcome was that Muni purchased most of the Newark cars. They were sent for rebuilding to Brookfield Locomotive in Pennsylvania, and have been back in San Francisco for more than a year getting debugged; it seems the Pennsylvanians did not do a very good job.


    to me

    No Boston PCCs made it to Muni. All Boston cars had doors on the left-hand side. The double-end cars that were bought used from Dallas had a double-door on the front right side and a single rear door on the back right side while Muni had double-doors at all entrances. Some Boston Boeing LRVs did make it to Muni.

    A few of Muni’s original PCCs have been restored and several more are in line to be returned to service. A few of Muni’s double-enders have been restored and have a motorman’s stand at both ends and all doors have been restored.

    The F-line PCCs came from Philly and Newark and 2 cars from Pittsburgh.

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