Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal

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

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Re: Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal

Postby jaystreetcrr » Sat Jan 22, 2011 11:58 pm

I followed the link posted above by 3rd Rail and read the Stephen Smith article and I also read some of Smith's sources. Thanks for posting this and I recommend that everyone check it out. This piece raises some interesting points that I hadn't considered while the author attempts to debunk the American Streetcar Conspiracy...however...Mr. Smith seems to have a conspiracy theory of his own. It wasn't GM or National City Lines that trashed the streetcars, it was liberals, labor unions and progressives.
As a quick sidetrack, I'm amused that "progressives" are now the Great Satan for some on the right, responsible for all that's gone wrong with our nation, from the Progressives of a century ago to mushy liberals of today who prefer the p word as a fancier label. If they need a corpse to dig up and kick around, why not blame it all on the Whig Party. They believed the government should finance "internal improvements" like railroads, a crazy theory that ex-Whigs like Abraham Lincoln clung to as they morphed into Republicans.
So back to the streetcars. As every trolley buff knows, the history of most lines is a string of bankruptcies, reorganizations and financial shell games. Mr. Smith touches on this but blames governments who restricted the lines with franchises mandating street paving, the nickle fare, levels of service, etc. Yes, of course these things eventually hamstrung traction companies as motor vehicles began to threaten them, but were they forced to sign these contracts at gunpoint? Smith can't admit that perhaps some of those traction magnates might have been inept businessmen, focused only on short term greed, and when bigger predators came along they were eaten alive.
I'm reminded of Sinclair Lewis' George Babbitt. One minute he's griping about the bad service of the local traction company but then he remembers that some insider information on a new streetcar line might allow him to reap easy real estate profits. You can't have it both ways, nor can you blame poor business decisions on the gummint.
And yes, the "traction magnates" were hated by the public, and politicians across the spectrum, from Tammany Democrats to good government reform Republicans, could score populist points by beating up on this easy target. At least Smith's article reminded me what a big deal the nickle fare was for people, a "birthright" as he puts it....sort of like cheap gas today.
And then there's the labor unions. Yes, as the 20th century progressed, it became harder to call out the militia to club and shoot your motormen and conductors back into line. Funny how those same underworked, overpaid transit workers are the real reason behind fare raises and service cuts today. But wasn't the automotive juggernaut that crushed the streetcars built by some of the most well compensated, organized workers in labor history? How did those auto companies every make a penny when they were so oppressed by their workers?
You don't have to be a crazy conspiracy theorist to recognize that rail transit in this country was deliberately destroyed. The fact that some members of government and the public were along for the ride doesn't excuse the actions of those who profited. Automotive interests were working to undermine rail transit long before National City Lines was incorporated, and the public agencies that finished off the streetcars were only following the usual endgame of this style of slash and burn economics--the profit is privatized, then government is forced to clean up the mess and pay the bills.
But I wonder why Mr. Smith and others doth protest so much? Why not celebrate? Cars rule. The streetcars are gone and they aren't coming back. What is he afraid of? That those sinister, all powerful forces--progressives, rainfans, Roger Rabbit--will wield this conspiracy myth and wring a few bucks out of the feds for some light rail line? Fear not. Like those Cubans with their patched up 1950s American cars, we are stuck with our transportation monoculture, no matter who really created it.
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Re: Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal

Postby 3rdrail » Sun Jan 23, 2011 1:50 am

jaystreetcrr wrote: Funny how those same underworked, overpaid transit workers are the real reason behind fare raises and service cuts today.


Talk about editorial bias ! I don't know where you are from, Jay, but I can tell you from personal long-term career-related observation that being a transit worker in Boston (or any major city for that matter) is definitely not as you describe. In Boston, the job consists of intolerable stress due to reckless motorists, constant confrontation with fare evaders, sometimes violent, drunk and drugged armed passengers (while the transit workers themselves by regulation are un-armed), a virtually unheard of "split" shift of working, going home, and then coming back to work once again (totaling one shift), injury fakes who will drop on the floor at the slightest jolt with a smile on their face requiring long reports and harsh scrutiny from management, all the while having smarmy, unappreciative on-lookers scrutinizing them, looking for an opportunity to notify management of any percieved infractions, however minor. For the service that they perform day in and day out, considering what they have to put up with, they are worth at least twice the money and then some.
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Re: Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal

Postby jaystreetcrr » Sun Jan 23, 2011 10:12 pm

My apologies 3rd rail for laying on the sarcasm way way too thick. I am a daily rider of the NYC subway and I see the kind of stuff you describe. Bus drivers have been assaulted and killed in recent years by irate/crazy passengers. Track workers die in preventable accidents. Yet every time there's a fare increase or budget crisis, the tired canard of lazy overpaid transit workers with their lavish benefits is rolled out.
So sorry. No sarcasm, no attempts to be clever here. My sympathies are all with MTA and other transit workers. They're down dodging rats in a cold wet tunnel tonight so I can get to work on time tomorrow. They deserve every penny they get and more. I am sick of workers like these, and other unionized workers in the public sector, being turned into greedy villains and the cause for the busted budgets of cities and states.
By the way, I just read that New York Railways, the Green Line streetcar operation, was purchased in 1925 by the Omnibus Corporation, a GM subsidiary.
Again, a thousand apologies.
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Re: Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal

Postby 3rdrail » Sun Jan 23, 2011 11:09 pm

I admire the way that you have "manned-up" to what I am sure was probably meant differently than the way that it came out. (I also have had experience with another type of transit worker, including one that I arrested following him trying to bulldoze his way into the roadway in a nine-ton bus where I already happened to be in my unmarked cruiser in plain clothes, and another holding drugs while working on the NEC who gave me a good foot pursuit and fight. I won both times.) I suppose transit workers, like fire fighters, are an easy target only because they are so visible. But like fire fighters, if you've had the actual experience of walking in their shoes (or boots), you'd say to yourself, "what the hell am I doing here !"
Interesting find regarding the NYRy's.
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Re: Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal

Postby jaystreetcrr » Mon Jan 24, 2011 9:36 am

Is it possible to edit or delete my older posts at this point? I don't want my unclear statements alive forever.
Yes, New York Railways was taken over in 1925 by a GM subsidiary which planned from day one to junk the streetcars and substitute buses. By 1936 it was all over. I'm sure that references to the WPA tearing up streetcar tracks refers to the aftermath of this. Manhattan trolleys used an elaborate conduit system, similar to cable cars, that couldn't just be paved over or left in place. The WPA wasn't just ripping up tracks out from under the cars as part of a progressive plot.
New York Railways was noted in its dying years for shoddy old equipment and a defeatist attitude. Makes sense now. Meanwhile, its scrappy, resourceful rival, Third Avenue Railway System, was rebuilding old cars, buying up good second hand equipment and even building state of the art aluminum cars in its own shops. However, they were forced to convert to buses when Mayor LaGuardia threatened to revoke some of their franchises. Shortly after the final bustitution, the company went bankrupt.
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Re: Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal

Postby Leo Sullivan » Tue Jan 25, 2011 6:20 pm

Don't worry, Jay. Many of us understood what you meant and, the explanation
is also in place right after your original comments.
There are so many details in the story that, I suspect we''ll never get them all in the
same place. Onerous franchise requirements probably started the spiral. The companies.
(and the cities) never understood inflation and, that was factor #1. Two five cent fares a
day was once a viable contribution to the economics of the operation. It was also an hour's
pay for the average passenger. As passengers and employees (and everyone else) got
raises, the company proportionately didn't. The (Boston) MTA was getting, if I recall, 20 cent fares when I was
earning $4.00 an hour. Lightweight cars, PCCs, One Man Operation, Buses, nothing could
address that big a discrepancy. The budget motive replaced the profit motive, for the company,
now an "agency"but, not for the supplier. The government started "assisting" agencies
financially and, prices spiraled beyond inflation. Compare the cost of transit equipment in 1960
and dates beyond with the cost of automobiles, lamb chops, dishwashers, towels
trucks, whatever. The productivity of the transit equipment didn't increase either but,
that is for another post
Enough ranting for one thread.
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Re: Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal

Postby goodnightjohnwayne » Thu Jan 27, 2011 3:53 pm

3rdrail wrote: a virtually unheard of "split" shift of working, going home, and then coming back to work once again (totaling one shift)


Actually, split shifts make tremendous sense, given the nature of mass transit and commuter rail. If you can use a single split shift of workers, rather than two shifts, the economics of the operation are far better.
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Re: Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal

Postby walt » Thu Jan 27, 2011 11:03 pm

goodnightjohnwayne wrote:
3rdrail wrote: a virtually unheard of "split" shift of working, going home, and then coming back to work once again (totaling one shift)


Actually, split shifts make tremendous sense, given the nature of mass transit and commuter rail. If you can use a single split shift of workers, rather than two shifts, the economics of the operation are far better.


Split shifts are a necessity for transit operations and have existed for as long as transit companies have themselves existed. If, as is generally true, peak periods, or rush hours, consist of four AM and four PM hours, split four hour shifts deal with the need for more vehicles on the street during peak periods than are needed during "off peak" periods. Operators can be scheduled to operate the "extra" vehicles during peak periods only and still be full time employees if the split shift scheduling is employed. I actually worked a split shift schedule as a traffic checker back in the 1960's for the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC--- SEPTA predecessor) when ever a "peak period" ( as opposed to an all day) check was scheduled.
Please Move to the Rear and Speed Your Ride
( Philadelphia Transportation Company)
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Re: Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal

Postby 3rdrail » Thu Jan 27, 2011 11:50 pm

Guys ! Guys ! The comment was made as a response to a comment that transit workers were "underworked" and "overpaid", in an effort to explain why I believe that they are neither. The use of the phrase "virtually unheard of" was used in reference to the typical American work shift for most occupations in general, which almost always consists of eight contiguous hours for a full-time job. Are there exceptions ? Yes. Is it typical for transit companies ? Yes. Is it beneficial for transit companies ? Yes. I'm not suggesting otherwise.
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Re: Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal

Postby jaystreetcrr » Fri Jan 28, 2011 11:41 am

Yes I agree, enough ranting for one thread. I'll try and dial mine down a bit. And anyone who picks up on this in the middle should go back and read previous posts for some context.
One thing I'll do to tone things down is ban the word "conspiracy" when I talk about this subject. It's fun to say it with a smirk, but it reeks of X Files kooky paranoia...auto and oil execs in a boardroom like something out of The Godfather. The C word only turns history into urban legend--"GM took over ALL the streetcar companies, and junked ALL the trolleys, and made them buy GM buses..."
I think what set me off after reading the Stephen Smith article was that he makes a lot of good points and brings in some interesting sources, but.... Yes, the traction companies could be their own worst enemies and had built up a bad rep with the public. His take on the nature of conspiracy theories and why we car lovin' Americans need this particular one is right on. But then he cherry picks some out of context facts to concoct his own conspiracy theory! Progressives bashed the traction magnates and thought urban density created slums, New Deal agencies tore up some old trolley tracks and built some roads, the public agencies that took over the wreckage of transit companies finished off the streetcar--therefore, the lefties killed the trolley.
C'mon. Auto interests wanted to cripple rail transit and they succeeded. Yes, they had some help and the public mostly went along. LImiting the extent of the discussion to National City Lines doesn't erase what happened before and after.
So now we have the infrastructure that they've left us. What do we do? I love trains and trolleys, but I'd rather see our scarce transit bucks go to existing rail lines (like mine!) Cities unlucky enough to not have them would be better served by upgrading bus service for people who actually ride mass transit. I roll my eyes at claims that a light rail line will "revive downtown" or get suburban commuters out of their cars. Maybe...just don't waste money and give rail transit a bad name.
I just wish free market conservatives would lay off the train hating and stop fighting this old battle. It's as doctrinaire as any lefty urban planner thinking that light rail will create instant utopia. How about private autos AND streetcars in harmony? And rather than choo-choo bashing, I'd rather hear some theories on why private deregulated freight railroads seem to be thriving, even in the recession...some good news for a change.
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Re: Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal

Postby 3rdrail » Fri Jan 28, 2011 1:33 pm

Good post, Jay ! I think also that by it's very nature that it's only logical that we should be having this discussion, because let's face it, if this was a conspiracy, it was crafted by by a group of smoothies- some of the biggest names in American industry of the time. They would have discussed the repercussions, particulary the criminal ones, and "anti-trust" would have been foremost in that discussion. A conspiracy would have been designed so as to put question in the mind of the researcher while performing a very blatant series of moves.
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Re: Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal

Postby goodnightjohnwayne » Fri Jan 28, 2011 1:57 pm

3rdrail wrote:Guys ! Guys ! The comment was made as a response to a comment that transit workers were "underworked" and "overpaid", in an effort to explain why I believe that they are neither. The use of the phrase "virtually unheard of" was used in reference to the typical American work shift for most occupations in general, which almost always consists of eight contiguous hours for a full-time job. Are there exceptions ? Yes. Is it typical for transit companies ? Yes. Is it beneficial for transit companies ? Yes. I'm not suggesting otherwise.


The "typical American" doesn't have a traditional fixed benefit pension or a raft of plush benefits. Automatic annual pay increases? In this atmosphere of high unemployment, stagnant wages and low inflation? Not a chance.

In many respects, union workers are living a "blue collar bubble." Out in the real world, many professional, with post-graduate educations, are making less in real terms than transit authority workers.

In contrast, back in the days of privately owned and operated Electric Traction systems, the wages of motormen and conductors were far less than those of steam railway employees. Actually, during the First World War, when wage controls were imposed, the federal regulators were shocked to find that veteran streetcar and interurban operating crews were making half as much as factory workers. Sadly, the authorities moved to increase wages in the Electric Traction industry to industrial norms, which in turn to lead to the collapse of the teetering industry in the 20s and 30s.
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Re: Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal

Postby 3rdrail » Fri Jan 28, 2011 2:17 pm

I agree with everything stated, John. What I can't see is it's relevance to the quote above it. Because we've destroyed our own economy and industry resulting in insecurity and low wages in business, is no reason to deny liveable wages and benefits to another area of employment. Nation-wide, we're already seeing state and municipal workers' contracts and pensions being whittled downward, in many instances after benefits were installed by law or negotiated. (see the quote below from the SF Chronicle regarding a negative pension ruling) Two or more minuses don't balance each other out- they just increase the minus.
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.c ... z1CD7jA2Wd
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Re: Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal

Postby goodnightjohnwayne » Fri Jan 28, 2011 5:08 pm

3rdrail wrote:I agree with everything stated, John. What I can't see is it's relevance to the quote above it. Because we've destroyed our own economy and industry resulting in insecurity and low wages in business, is no reason to deny liveable wages and benefits to another area of employment.


It might be argued that "liveable wages and benefits" destroyed the Electric Traction industry after the government mandated wage increases.

Of course, the irony is that the debate has gone from the extinct private sector Interurbans and Streetcars of the early 20th century to the overly broad issue of public sector compensation in the early 21st century.
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Re: Revisiting The American Streetcar Scandal

Postby Desertdweller » Sun Feb 06, 2011 9:52 pm

Just a few observations by one about to leave the railroad industry.

A conspiracy theory has to involve a conspiracy. What we are alluding to in this thread as a conspiracy is also known as a "business plan". A business plan can be a criminal conspiracy if it involves more than one individual (remember, in this country corporations are individuals in a legal sense) plotting to do something illegal. Well, what was the alleged illegal act?
To establish a monopoly? To force competitors out of business? Hardly illegal. To engage in restraint of trade? Yes, that is illegal if it can be proven.

We also have to consider that transit systems are already legal monopolies. They are publicly regulated utilities. The public oversight is supposed to protect the public interest. At least in theory.

Was it short-sighted and stupid to dismantle electric public transit systems? It depends on the system in question, but in general I would say yes, it was. But if NCL could truly offer city governments a cost-effective alternative, they could have of
been a reasonable choice to save expense in the short term.

There certainly is a safety advantage in a transit vehicle that can maneouver to avoid collisions. And one that can pull over to the curb to load or discharge passengers.

The point was also made about electric transit using private rights of way. This is obviously the preferred method today.
But if you owned a home in an upscale neighborhood, would you really want a transit line transversing your back yard?

Split shifts. These may be uncommon in American industry as a whole, but it is pretty common in the shortline railroad industry here. Especially in situations where the manpower level is not up to traffic demands. The FRA allows a railroad to put a train crew member off duty in the middle of a "shift" (tour of duty) for a four-hour "release", then return to duty for the balance of up to twelve hours of service. Whether or not the four hours in question is compensated depends on the agreement the crew is working under. This means that when one is called to report, one may be looking at a sixteen hour period until one is off duty for the day. The rest time off duty is mandated at ten hours. So you will not be working (or sleeping) the same time the next day. Such a situation may continue until you reach the maximum allowable continous days of service. Usually it does not continue for days like that, but legally it can. I am not complaining here, but simply trying to explain the situation as it exists.
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