Trolleys & Streetcars are Boondoggles; Buses are Superior

There was an article posted recently about the surge in construction of urban “light rail” systems like trolleys and streetcars. Many cities from Tampa, Florida to Portland, Oregon have spent big taxpayer dollars on such systems.

The article was full of photographs of shiny, colorful streetcars dropping smiling passengers along the route. One caption said that the Portland system moves 16,000 passengers daily! And we are supposed to admire the shiny cars and think about all of those happy passengers and be thankful that our cities are re-discovering streetcars, and be grateful to the liberals who promote them.

Nonsense. First, never be swayed by pretty pictures. Second, never be swayed by ridership numbers. Because you never know what it really is costing to have those shiny trolley cars move those passengers.

For instance, the Portland system has gone from 5,000 passengers per day in 2001 to only 16,000 today over a full 13 years of operation on a system that cost $12.4 million per mile to build, or more than $100 million. This is an astronomical cost considering that you could move the same number of passengers on buses, and that that bus systems cost taxpayers zero to build because they use existing city streets.

The socialists who promote and build these light-rail systems never tell you how inefficient they are or how much it really costs to move those passengers. Because it is not their money; it is YOUR money. And it is crucial to remember that these trolley systems are not built to move passengers in the first place. They are built to create a big public show and to generate another government bureaucracy that uses huge sums of taxpayer dollars for construction, operation, maintenance and management of these systems by legions of unionized government workers who then will kick back parts of their bloated paychecks to the Democrat party that favored the system in the first place.

Buses are much lighter than trolleys, only about one-third the weight per passenger, so they use much less energy and therefore have much lower operating costs. Buses are much cheaper to buy. But the trolley advocates always point out that streetcars are “European” and they remind us of America’s storied past when trolleys were everywhere. And indeed they were. They often connected small cities or small towns and often ambled through the countryside. Because in the late 19th century and early 20th there were no paved roads or cars or buses, but there was electricity. And so electric-powered trolleys on steel tracks were a good way to move people the short and medium distances that needed to be covered.

Trolleys disappeared, however, because they were expensive to operate and rigid in their layout. They could not change routes, for instance, in order to accommodate changing ridership and population patterns. A bus can simply go down a different street, or eliminate one route entirely overnight in favor of another.

There is a famous story among socialists and environmentalists about the Los Angeles trolley system called Pacific Electric. It was first established in 1887 and was finally dismantled in the 1960s and 1970s. The socialist claim that PE was moving passengers efficiently but that General Motors, Standard Oil and Goodyear Tire “conspired” and pulled up the tracks in order to replace the trolleys with buses built by General Motors, fueled by Standard Oil and rolling on Goodyear tires.

This is nonsense like all of the anti-business, anti-corporation hysteria that comes out of the left. Here are some excerpts from about the Los Angeles trolley system (with italics added for emphasis) with a comment after each: reports: Electric trolleys first traveled in Los Angeles in 1887… The Pacific Electric Railroad was created in 1901 by railroad executive Henry Huntington and banker Isaias W. Hellman. …Revenue from passenger traffic was rarely enough to turn much profit (if any), although the carrying of freight usually did. …Following these acquisitions, PE was the largest operator of interurban electric railway passenger service in the world, with 2,160 daily trains over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of track. It ran to destinations all over Southern California, particularly to the south and east. …In the pre-automobile era, electric interurban rail was the only way to connect outlying suburban and exurban parcels to central cities. Although the railway owned extensive private rights-of-way, usually between urban areas, much PE trackage in urban areas such as downtown Los Angeles west of the Los Angeles River was in streets shared with automobiles and trucks. Virtually all street crossings were at-grade, and increasing automobile traffic led to decreasing Red Car speeds on much of its trackage. At its nadir, the busy Santa Monica Boulevard line, which connected Los Angeles to Hollywood and on to Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, had an average speed of 13 miles per hour. comment: Yes, 13 miles an hour. Do you see a problem? Those tracks crowded out car and truck lanes, or tracks embedded in the streets were very difficult for cars and trucks to navigate along and over. They led to many accidents. Car-streetcar accidents were also common. This is another “hidden cost” of streetcars. reports: Traffic congestion was of such great concern by the late 1930s that the influential Automobile Club of Southern California engineered an elaborate plan to create an elevated freeway-type “Motorway System,” a key aspect of which was the dismantling of the streetcar lines, replacing them with buses that could run on both local streets and on the new express roads. comment: Buses and cars are much more flexible. This is ultimately why the streetcars went away all across the country. Notice that this replacement plan was being proposed by the late 1930s, yet the socialists are claiming that the GM-Standard Oil-Goodyear “conspiracy” was executed in the 1950s and 1960s. reports: PE’s multiple car trains coming and going from Pasadena, Sierra Madre, and Monrovia/Glendora used those same streets the final few miles to the 6th and Main PE terminal and were totally bogged down within this jammed traffic. Schedules could not be met, plus former patrons were now driving. The San Bernardino line, Pomona branch, Temple City branch via Alhambra’s Main St., San Bernardino’s Mountain View local to 34th St., Santa Monica Blvd. via Beverly Hills, and all remaining Pasadena local service were all cut in 1941. comment: This system was failing long before it was finally dismantled. It was in fact being propped up by freight revenues from trains running on the same tracks. reports: Aware that most new (World War II) arrivals planned to stay in the region after the war, local municipal governments, Los Angeles County and the state agreed that a massive infrastructure improvement program was necessary. At that time politicians agreed to construct a web of freeways across the region. This was seen as a better solution than a new mass transit system or an upgrade of the PE. comment: So it is not the story that the socialists tell at all reports: PE’s lucrative freight service was continued …through 1964 under the Pacific Electric name by the Southern Pacific Railroad using diesel-electric locomotives on the heavy-duty PE rail-bed and rails and tripping the iconic Wig-Wag crossing signals of the former PE. comment: Rail freight service is usually profitable. Rail passenger service virtually never is. reports: A 1974 inquiry in the Senate heard allegations about the role that General Motors and other companies …played in the dismantlement of streetcar systems across the USA and in particular in Los Angeles in what became known as the Great American Streetcar Scandal: comment: This is the “conspiracy” story discussed above. Notice that it was never proven; it was just “allegations” because this is what socialists always specialize in – allegations. Today the Great American Streetcar Scandal is the boatloads of taxpayer money being sunk into a new generation of cash-guzzling, energy-guzzling streetcar systems. reports: San Francisco’s new F line provides a good example. This is a double-track streetcar line, built to Light Rail standards, which now carries almost 20,000 people per day (all in Vintage cars, we would note). The construction cost was about $30 million per mile, which is high even for Light Rail. Portland, Oregon, the only line using modern streetcars. The 4.6 mile loop line was constructed for $12.4 million per mile, including seven new streetcars, built in the Czech Republic. Tampa, Florida, a 2.3 mile line built for $13.7 million per mile including eight Heritage streetcars. The cars themselves, replicas of 1920’s Birney streetcars, cost $600,000 each (compared to up to $3 million for a modern Light Rail Vehicle). Little Rock, Arkansas, a 2.1 mile line built for $7.1 million per mile, including three streetcars. comment: On the other hand, bus systems cost $0 per mile to build. They use the existing streets. Buses cost about $200,000 each. Train tracks are also very expensive and labor-intensive to maintain, much moreso than roads.

Meanwhile here are two paragraphs about our PRIVATE freight railroad system in the United States, the best, most efficient railroad in the world:

It has 140,000 miles of track in 49 states (excluding Hawaii), 22,000 fuel-efficient locomotives (most of them upgraded or state-of-the-art) and 1.5 million freight cars. It burns 4 billion gallons of diesel fuel a year transporting 1.9 TRILLION ton-miles of cargo. It takes virtually zero government subsidy except for occasional small public/private projects. It is the most efficient and fuel-efficient rail system in the world and three times as fuel-efficient as trucks.

It maintains its own tracks at an extraordinarily high level and has gross revenues of $55 billion a year as the backbone of our industrial transport economy. It carries one-and-one-half times as much freight as trucks do including much of our coal, oil, chemicals, raw food products like grain, steel, car parts, cars, plastics, lumber, shipping containers from all over the United States and the world, and myriad other products that could never be carried economically by truck. It makes profits of $5 billion a year. The four major freight railroads are Union Pacific and BNSF in the West, and CSX and Norfolk Southern in the East.

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