Book Review: Los Angeles Railway Yellow Cars

Reviews LogoBy Otto M. Vondrak
Originally published December 13, 2007.

Growing up in New York, my knowledge of California traction systems is limited. San Francisco has cable cars, right? And Los Angeles was seemingly dominated by the Pacific Electric “Red Car” system (made famous to me by the 1988 movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). It was Henry Huntington, nephew of Southern Pacific’s Collis Huntington, who consolidated many electric properties in the Los Angeles area to form the original Pacific Electric in 1901. What I didn’t know was that Huntington also owned the Los Angeles Railway (LARY), also known as the “Yellow Car,” and controlled the early development of both lines.
Los Angeles Railway Yellow Cars is an exciting new book from Arcadia Publishing, as part of its “Images of Rail” series. Authored by Jim Walker, a well-known transit historian and former owner of Interurban Press, he is now an archivist for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Many of the images contained in the book are from the Dorothy Peyton Gray Transportation Library, or from the personal collections of Walker or Craig Rasmussen. The images contained in the book offer the reader a broad overview of LARY operations over the years, far from your standard “3/4 wedgie.” Each chapter opens with a brief introduction text, and each photo caption is concise and offers enough information for the transit buff and historian alike, without getting bogged down in minute detail.

The book opens with a look at the beginning of rail transit in Los Angeles in 1874 with the opening of the Spring & West Sixth Railroad, a horse car line. Cable cars followed in 1886, yet did not have the same endurance as they would in San Francisco. The first electric railway opened in 1887, and ran on standard gauge track (4’-8.5”) while most other streetcar lines ran on narrow gauge track (in this case, 3’-6”). The first successful line was the Los Angeles & Belt Line Railroad, which soon became part of Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway (LACE). With the addition of their main competitor Los Angeles Traction Co., the stage was now set.

When it became clear that Henry Huntington would not be the successor to the presidency of the SP, he turned his attention to the electric railway. In 1901, he consolidated his many holdings in to the Pacific Electric, while the streetcar operations remained with LARY. As Henry Huntington’s interests shifted away from railroads in general, he sold the Pacific Electric to the SP in 1910. Huntington kept control of the LARY, however, and continued to be involved in its affairs until his death in 1927. Los Angeles was embarking on a period of great growth and expansion, and the Yellow Car stood ready to serve. After Huntington’s death, his estate continued to operate the line, using the fine management team he had put in place. However, by the close of the 1920s, ridership was in decline as automobiles became more common. LARY took delivery of its first streamlined PCC’s in 1937 and rebuilt as much of its equipment as it could. The rail line that helped make a larger city possible was now slowly being whittled away by car and bus traffic.

By the end of World War II, the Huntington estate sold its majority interest to Chicago-based National City Lines. LARY became the Los Angeles Transit Lines, and bigger changes were in store. Many lines were converted to bus operation through the late forties and fifties. Never mind that NCL was partially owned by bus, tire, and gasoline suppliers. Though Federal anti-trust action was taken against NCL, the damage was already done. Los Angeles was officially in love with the automobile.

In 1958, the Yellow Car was sold to a new public entity, Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (not to be confused with today’s MTA). LAMTA tried to get the public interested in funding rail-based transit, but these efforts were half-hearted. Angelinos wanted their freeways, and LAMTA management was decidedly pro-bus. In the late fifties, there was a shying away from transit, as it signified not being able to afford a car. LAMTA planned to convert the last five remaining streetcar lines to bus operation. The last streetcars ran in March 1963, and it would be at least twenty years before ground was broken on new light rail transit in Los Angeles.

Author Jim Walker lends his expertise (and in many places, his personal collection) to produce an affordable, accessible history of Los Angeles Railway. All types of equipment are explained, from earlier heavyweight cars to the lightweight PCC’s to the obscure work cars. The photos are sharp and clear, many showing street scenes that would look foreign to Angelinos of the 21st century. Walker’s Los Angeles Railway Yellow Cars is an excellent introduction and overview to this very interesting part of traction history. This book is well suited for traction buffs, rail historians, and anyone with an interest in historic Los Angeles. It has already become a part of my personal reference library.

Los Angeles Railway Yellow Cars
By Jim Walker, published October 2007
6x9; paperback; 128 pages; $19.99, plus S&H
ISBN-13: 978-0738547916

Arcadia Publishing
224 State Street
Portsmouth, NH 03801
(888) 313-2665