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Los Angeles: San Pedro "Waterfront Red Car" Project Nears Showtime This Month (July 2003)

Light Rail Progress • July 2003

NOTE: Our original posting of this story reported the cost of the San Pedro Red Car Line project at $7 million, based on information at that time posted on the Railway Preservation website. We have subsequently been informed that the final "official" cost for the completed project came to approximately $10 million, including the three railcars. The content of our report has been revised accordingly.

The further we move into the 21st century, it seems, the more we seem to go "back to the future". Case in point: the latest heritage electric trolley operation in public transit service, about to be launched by America's second-largest urban area. The opening is tentatively scheduled for 19 July 2003.

LA PE San Pedro trolleyFor at least sixty years, the Los Angeles area was served by a vast network of electric railway lines operated by the Pacific Electric (PE) Railway. Popularly known as the "Big Red Cars", the Pacific Electric's interurban trains and urban streetcars interconnected the Los Angeles area on more than a thousand miles of rail lines.
[Photo: Pacific Railway Journal]

PE's Red Cars were an essential element in LA's mobility system carryinging many thousands of passengers every day, and significantly more attractive than buses on the region's increasingly crowded streets. But, like most of the rest of America's electric rail transit systems, the PE's extensive rapid transit network fell victim to government policies and subsidies promoting private automobiles, and to a deliberate strategy of destruction by highway industry interests. The last remnant of the system was abandoned in 1961.

LA San Pedro Red CarNow, over forty years later, a small piece of the system is being resurrected in San Pedro – a 1.5 mile long electric rail trolley route, known as the Port of Los Angeles Waterfront Red Car Line, linking the World Cruise Center with various attractions along the San Pedro waterfront. "Riders will experience the thrill of a real 1920s-era trolley ride..." promises the project website, emphasizing that two new historic-replica trolleys have been specially constructed for the line, and a third original heritage car is being restored. Opening of the line marks the first time in over forty years that Red Cars have run anywhere in Los Angeles.
[Photo: John Smatlak]

Effective but low-cost route

The trolley line, designed to link the "string of pearls" attractions along the waterfront, is routed on a north-south alignment adjacent to Harbor Blvd. from San Pedro's Cruise Ship Terminal at Swinford St., 1.5 miles south to 22nd and Miner Streets, near the Cabrillo Marina, with intermediate stops at 6th Street and Ports O' Call Village. (See map below.) it uses an existing rail corridor, much of which is actually a former PE right-of-way, and will initially have 4 stations.
[Map: Railway Preservation website]

LA San Pedro Red Car map

LA San Pedro Red Car stationThe stations will feature ADA-compliant high-level platforms. While these are intended to make boarding and alighting easier for everyone and to easily accommodate wheelchairs, they represent a small but necessary departure from the close attention to historical accuracy which is evident throughout the system.
[Photo: John Smatlak]

This particular alignment was selected because the existence of the railway trackage facilitated a relatively low-cost but historically accurate way to install a workable system and begin operations. Since the freight traffic on the line is relatively light, sharing the line with the trolley operation is also practical – running trolleys during the day and hauling freight at night. In another historical touch, the new downtown Red Car station is sited approximately where the PE's San Pedro depot stood, along Harbor Blvd. between 5th and 6th Streets.

Besides constructing the line's four initial stations, the Red Car project has involved track rehabilitation, installation of two new track sidings, upgrading of grade crossing equipment, and installation of the overhead contact system (trolley wire), part of an electric power system using the older 600 VDC. Curiously, the project is being sponsored not by any of the LA area's transit agencies, but by the Port of Los Angeles, implementing a 1995 recommendation of a blue-ribbon task force appointed by the Board of Harbor Commissioners. Restoration work is being carried out by Railway Preservation Resources.

In addition to the fixed facilities, the project has included the production of rolling stock, as noted above. Two new historic-replica electric railcars, carefully patterned after an actual 1909 PE Red Car design, will be the line's basic workhorses. A third car, PE No. 1058, restored in the 1960's from an actual 1907-vintage PE car, will be available for special operations, such as charters. it has been additionally refurbished for the San Pedro Waterfront service.

The Red Car project has a fairly modest price tag of just $10 million, which works out to about $6.7 million per mile – certainly, dirt cheap as rail transit projects go. The project is being financed and constructed by the Port of Los Angeles, the independent City agency which manages LA's busy port facility, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

The San Pedro waterfront and Downtown San Pedro have a plethora of superb attractions, including shops, restaurants, the Warner Grand Theater, a Maritime Museum, marinas, beaches and excellent views of the Port of Los Angeles, one of the world's busiest and most accessible port facilities. The Red Car Line will not only connect these attractions together, it's expected to be an attraction in its own right, tapping into the nostalgia for LA's famous Red Cars. It's hoped that the highly visible historic Red Cars will enhance San Pedro's image while encouraging local tourism and commercial investment ... a successful formula in other major cities.

San Pedro Red Car 501 stops at Ports o' Call Station.
[Photo: John Smatlak]


In terms of hours of operation, the tentative schedule has the system running Friday through Monday from 10:00 through 18:00 (10:00 AM until 6:00 PM). This four-day operation is scheduled around the days when the cruise ships call at the Cruise Center, projected to be the line's major source of passengers. Service can be expanded to other days of the week as demand warrants.

The initial fare is tentatively set at $1.00, to be collected aboard the cars. Exact change will be required to purchase a ticket, each of which will be good for unlimited rides during a several-hour period. Tickets will also be offered for sale through the local business community.

Operation and maintenance of the cars will be contracted out to a professional railroad operator. Each car will have a two-person crew, a conductor and operator. in addition to his/her primary duty to ensure passenger safety, the conductor will also serve as a tour guide and greeter, welcoming riders aboard, describing the story of the Red Cars, historically and recently, and highlighting attractions in the San Pedro area.

Transit connections

To connect the Red Car Line to downtown San Pedro and the Cabrillo Marina area, rubber-tired circulator minibus "trolleys" currently serving San Pedro will provide regular service to both downtown and the Cabrillo Marina area from the Downtown and 22nd St. Red Car stations. They will also connect with the Red Cars to provide convenient access to Ports O'Call Village.

The Red Car Line will also be accessible from other, longer-distance major public transit services. Los Angeles County MTA's #445 and 446 express bus lines from downtown LA serve the Harbor/Beacon Park-n-Ride lot, directly across from the World Cruise Center Red Car station. In addition, LA Department of Transportation (DOT) Community Connection bus route #142 (connecting the San Pedro and Long Beach harbor areas) has a stop adjacent to the 6th St. Red Car Station and its terminus is at Ports O' Call Village, immediately adjacent to the Red Car station. Furthermore, Amtrak California bus service from LA Union Station is available to and from the Cruise Center.

Attractive mobility system

Ridership on the San Pedro Red Car Line is expected to be substantial. Over 1,100,000 passengers pass through the World Cruise Center annually, a number expected to rise in the years ahead. The Red Car Line would capture a significant percentage of the waterfront's cruise ship passengers, as well as tourists from the greater Los Angeles metro area. it's anticipated that ridership will grow to complement the commercial development and visitor attractions in San Pedro, allowing visitors to enjoy the many charms of this unique waterside community.

As we've noted elsewhere, heritage electric trolley operations have played key roles in the successful transformation of important activity areas in communities around the country. There are currently at least 17 such operations in other U.S. cities, including San Francisco; New Orleans; Seattle; Memphis; Charlotte; San Jose; Portland; Dallas; and Kenosha, Wisconsin. New lines or expansions and upgrades are also under construction in Little Rock and New York City (Brooklyn).

Already, plans to extend the Red Car Line are on the drawing board, should demand warrant it. The second phase of the Red Car line would extend service to Cabrillo Beach, serving the 22nd St. Landing, Cabrillo Marina, the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, the Cabrillo Beach Bathhouse, and the fishing pier. However, the Port must complete Phase One before initiating development of additional phases.

This report has included material adapted from the Railway Preservation website.

Updated 2003/07/22

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