Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal

General discussion about fallen trolley and interurban lines in North America, past and present.

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Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal

Postby themallard » Fri Apr 14, 2006 10:09 pm

By Al Mankoff

When I was a boy, we used to play "Kick the Can. We'd chalk a baseball diamond in the street and kick a tin can from base to base until somebody caught it. That game reminds me of what E. Jay Quinby did. He was a naval commander during World War II who was still stationed in Key West, Florida, in January 1946 when he "kicked"a 37-page manifesto to home plate in Washington, D.C.

En route, his manifesto detailing a deliberate conspiracy to eliminate electric-powered mass transit in the name of gasoline-powered profits, was kicked to the "bases"of hundreds of mayors, city managers, transit operators, transit engineers, congressmen and newspapers all over America.

"This is an urgent warning to each and every one," Quinby cautioned in the opening paragraph of his document, "that there is a careful, deliberately planned campaign to swindle you out of your most important and valuable public utilities–your electric utilities (street car systems)! Who will rebuild them for you?"...

NJTPA inTransition Magazine


Selected articles from back issues
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Postby RussNelson » Fri Apr 14, 2006 11:15 pm

The bad idea that wouldn't die.

If it was a conspiracy in the 40's, was it the same conspiracy in the 30's and 20's as streetcars declined?
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Postby BaltOhio » Sat Apr 15, 2006 9:48 am

Also, was it a conspiracy when virtually every U. S. transit operator converted to bus, regardless of ownership or control -- be it NCL, municipally owned, or independently owned? A good bit more was at work there.
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Postby Alloy » Sat Apr 15, 2006 2:38 pm

RussNelson wrote:The bad idea that wouldn't die.

If it was a conspiracy in the 40's, was it the same conspiracy in the 30's and 20's as streetcars declined?


It seems to me that when people found it more convenient to drive to work in the 20s, say, they didn't find traffic to be unmanageable. They didn't pay a penalty for abandoning mass transit. Now we do pay a penalty for driving, and there's no cost-effective way to see if we would use alternatives. You can't build a "temporary" light rail line into the neighborhood to see if people will use it.
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Postby Ken W2KB » Sat Apr 15, 2006 8:31 pm

Alloy wrote:
RussNelson wrote:The bad idea that wouldn't die.

If it was a conspiracy in the 40's, was it the same conspiracy in the 30's and 20's as streetcars declined?


It seems to me that when people found it more convenient to drive to work in the 20s, say, they didn't find traffic to be unmanageable. They didn't pay a penalty for abandoning mass transit. Now we do pay a penalty for driving, and there's no cost-effective way to see if we would use alternatives. You can't build a "temporary" light rail line into the neighborhood to see if people will use it.


When people began driving, the trolley lines were found to be an impediment to driving. Tracks were usually located in the center so autos had to stop for passengers, unlike buses that pull to the curb. So as the number of drivers increased so did the complaints and demand to get rid of the trolleys. Thats why most lightrail designs today are configured to avoid the need for passengers to cross traffic. The old systems would have required a massive rebuilding, and the less expensive and route flexible buses were seen as a definite improvement.
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Postby Alloy » Mon Apr 17, 2006 5:42 pm

Thanks, Ken, for that info. I had not heard or read about traffic impediment as being part of the reason for the replacement of trolleys.

Here in Oakland, we had an electric rail system which was bought by National City Lines, (not Pacific), and all trains were gone after April 20. 1958. Decline in ridership had been going on for decades before that.

The Key System was efficient, in that it ran right into the neighborhoods.
Our current rail transit, BART, only runs in specific corridors, and people have to drive or take buses to get to it. It's questionable whether people would accept more localized rail now--the ROW went right through back yards on very upscale streets.
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Postby pennsy » Tue Apr 18, 2006 11:56 am

Hi All,

Interesting points. Here in Southern California, the Light Rail Vehicles, LRV's, use high level platforms to take on and discharge passengers. Much safer and there is no danger for the passengers. In San Diego, they do have low level stations, and the passengers do have to board at street level, however, the areas for boarding and disembarking and protected areas and the traffic is obliged to go around it. The station areas are also protected by pedestrian crossing markings on the street. In short, the passengers and pedestrians MUST be given the right of way. If someone decides not to do that, the ticket, citation, will make him well aware of his error. Additionally, the LRV's are all handicapped friendly. Wheelchairs have no problems getting on and off the LRV's. That is also a state law.
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Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal.

Postby Ralph D Kautz » Sat Apr 22, 2006 6:49 pm

It all started in 1922 with an Idea by a man whose name was Alferd P. Sloan Jr.He was a General Motors Exceutive who concived a plot to distroy his compitation and sell GM Cars and Yellow Coach Buses (a company just bought by GM that Year.)Both Division were in trouble as most people at the time lived in neighborhoods in cities and towns,and used public transportation.The few people who wanted cars had them and people prefered the cleah trolleys and interurbans to the primitive smoking auto buses of the time.To sell more you have to get rid of your compition,and he did at first in fair one to one and when that didnt work anyway he could.Along the way he picked up allies,coperations which would benifit from the sale of more internal combustion engines,ie Goodyear,Firestone,Delco,Kelly,Standard Oil(John D Rockafella)Battery Mkers ECT>Together in the 1930's they convinced(bribed) congress to pass an act to forbid Electric Utilties from owning Transporation Lines. Anyone who is interested in as Paul Harvey Says "The Rest of the Story" Please read The Streetcar Conspiracy By Bradford Snell and The Conspiracy Revisted Rebutted by Louis Guilbault.Quite Eye Opening.Hope this Helps.
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Postby RussNelson » Sat Apr 22, 2006 9:27 pm

I think everybody here knows the standard presentation of the streetcar conspiracy theories. I think that few people knowledgeable about railroads put much stock in them. Unless there's some new facts to present, there's not much point in revisiting the topic.
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Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal.

Postby Ralph D Kautz » Sun Apr 23, 2006 9:55 am

Whayt you say may be true,certain lines were on their last legs when they were bused but others were a going concern I>E> Twin Cities, Pittsburgh East End Lines Ect.A look into the Pittsburgh Lines East Show that the people that Recomended that they be closed were all Graduates of GM University,Coinadence"I think not.Many new veiwers of this forum may wish to read about what happened to our electric transportation but needed a bit of information of where to look.Let them read and decide for themselves.Maybe GMs current problems started with their decisions in 1922, maybe not, I 'll let you decide.I would like to say bravo to those munciplities brave enough to bring back or expand the electric lines like New Orleans,Charlotte,and Tampa.I hope we see more pf both light rail and heritage lines in this country.Talk about doing away with pollution and replentishing the ozone layer Trolleys and Interurbans sure could do it.
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Postby 3rdrail » Mon Oct 23, 2006 6:04 pm

It almost seems that the NCL conspirators didn't realize that time alone would most likely have done in the majority of trolley lines in the post-war era. Jail time was served (hee-hee) following indictments for attempting to hasten their demise. Ken has brought up a key point as regards autos being delayed with fixed trackage, etc. This has been the battle cry of the anti-trolley people here in Boston as regards bringing back the Arborway trolley line.
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Postby BaltOhio » Tue Oct 24, 2006 7:48 am

I think this subject has been rehashed to death, but the legend simply won't die. The fact is, the legal case against GM, et al. was based on restraint of trade for using NCL to favor the products of GM and its other owners. Substituting buses for streetcars per se was not an issue in this case.

And, in further fact, aside from favoring GM buses (which were the most efficient and reliable in the industry anyway), NCL acted like any prudent business at the time and was quite successful at it. As for abandoning rail operations, they did what everyone else in the industry was doing at the time, and for the same reasons. Where buses were the most prudent financial and economic choice, they used buses, and kept those rail lines that were still justified as such.
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Postby 3rdrail » Tue Oct 24, 2006 12:20 pm

The federal statute applied to this case needed "elements" (key provisions which must be met to satisfy a criminal indictment and conviction) to prove its violation on the part of defendant NCL et al, therefore the government's "anti-trust" case was highlighted for purposes of winning a guilty verdict. However, in actuality, a whole is the sum of its parts, and the very real effect of the monopoly of interests representing GM, tire, and petroleum interests, was that trolleys were very much purposefully eliminated , due to their non-reliance on the aforementioned interest's goods. Even a hybrid, such as trolley busses , were quickly disposed of (on the Key System), whereby brand-new coaches being painted in company shops were diverted (to L.A.) without ever causing overhead to "sing" in Northern California, demonstrating the desire on the part of NCL, to "de-electrify". In many cases, lines eliminated were still heavily patronized, with expensive hardware in place (often brand-new), which went to the scrap yard not long after. As I stated previously, with the increasing popularity of cars, and resultant congestion on city streets, a similiar effect would (and did) take effect naturally. I believe that, however, this "down-sizing" of trolley lines would have affected primarily those lines "interferring" with automobile traffic and not those on their own private right of way (much of which, in 2006, we are desperately attempting to re-claim !)
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Postby pennsy » Tue Oct 24, 2006 1:19 pm

Hi All,

As an afterthought, it really would have been a good idea to have stock in General Motors, at that time. It would have paid off handsomely. Unfortunately, at that time, I was too young to be in a position to buy their stock.
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Postby pablo » Tue Oct 24, 2006 1:26 pm

Paul is completely correct. I add only the following: there was much more to the process than simply shouting "GM is trying to form a monopoly" or "There is a conspircacy!", but unquestionably, there were quite a few wheels set in motion that led to the demise of trolleys and transit, and indeed, there were some profitable lines that were simply thrown away, and indeed, we are trying to get back some of what was lost.

Why I think it was not made into a larger case or even proven to be a conspiracy are the same demographical and financial contstraints at work today with railroads vs. highways: who gets what money and how? Railed transport always loses, even if only due to image concerns.

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