September 02, 2015

Photo Essay: A Last Ride on the Last Red Car

"That's right, get all your pictures now. You only have until September 27 and then we're all out of a job," the conductor announced, as I was snapping some photos of the interior of Red Car #500, a replica of the Pacific Electric streetcar that used to run along the Port of LA waterfront from 1902 to 1934. The Red Car trolleys disappeared from LA entirely by the 1960s, but they came back for weekend service just in San Pedro in 2003 as part of a waterfront revitalization project.

The waterfront is still being revitalized, but this time, with a major renovation of Ports O'Call (which needs it), that means the removal of the Red Cars at the end of this month.

Officially, they're being removed to make way for street work to be done along Sampson Way (where the streetcar runs), but the plan includes no provision for retaining the Red Car rails and putting the cars back in service.

I'd always been curious about the Red Cars when I'd seen (and heard) them tooling along the waterfront, but I was never quite sure of the schedule or the fare or the route, and hadn't bothered to figure it out. I figured they'd always be there.

Now that they're running free weekend service until they're taken out of commission on September 27, I had no excuse—I had to head down to the Port, figure out where to park, and hop on the trolley, if I could find one of the stations.

I accidentally stumbled across the southern terminus at the 22nd Street Marina, where the Red Car reaches the end of the line and takes eight minutes to set up its journey back to where it came from, the Cruise Ship Terminal.

The Red Car did let some passengers off there, but it was still pretty full of riders now ready to face the opposite direction, as the seat-backs got flipped so no one would have to ride backwards.

Turns out I wasn't the only one riding the Red Car just for the ride. I would be staying on the streetcar the entire trip until I returned back to Miner Street.

The entire journey of the Red Car from one terminal to another is only 1.5 miles, but some people do use it as public transportation, to commute from one end of the Port to another.

Others, like me, gaze out the window, absorbing an experience you can't get anywhere else in LA anymore.

The thing is, when Sampson Way and Ports O'Call do get their big makeover, more people will need more options of getting there, especially during special events like the annual Christmas Boat Parade, when traffic and parking are notoriously nightmarish.

But even though it cost $10 million over the course of three months in 2003 to install the heritage rail line, officials estimate that it would cost $40 million to put it back in.

Seems like a shame to have built two new cars from scratch in the exact same style as the original 500-class Red Cars (the "Fives")—perhaps rectifying the mistake of ever decommissioning them in the first place—along the original Pacific Electric right-of-way, with new stations in the exact same spots as the original depots...

...only to give them the boot 12 years later, replacing them with trolley-style busses. Just five years ago, they even considered extending the line to Cabrillo Beach, Harbor Park, and Berth 46!

Officially, service is being "suspended" as of September 27 for at least 18 months, the duration of the Ports O'Call project. Does San Pedro need an olde tyme electric train that only seats 50 people and only goes 20 mph? Maybe not, but people sure do like it. That train was full—with even some standing straphangers—throughout my entire round trip.

In addition to the #500 and #501 replicas, the Port also runs an original 1907 Red Car, the #1058. It was actually reassembled into a 1000-class car in the 1960s with parts from two wrecked 950-class cars, and was used as a rubber-tired, diesel-engined trolley bus before being returned to the rails. Unfortunately, this one is only available for special events and charters, but now seems like a good time to bring it out for the public to ride, one last time.

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