Orange County

‘Son of Red Car’ coming in 2019?

A Red Car on the route from Los Angeles to Santa Ana, 1940s (Orange County Archives).

A Red Car on the route from Los Angeles to Santa Ana, 1940s (Orange County Archives).

By Jim Tortolano

It’s been said that if you wait long enough, everything comes back into style. If all goes according to plan – and how often does that happen? – in four more years you will be able to ride a modern version of the once-venerated Red Car street car.

The Pacific Electric rail line that rolled outwards from downtown Los Angeles at the beginning of the 20th century tied Orange County into a network which transformed some cities and bypassed others. It boosted the agricultural fortunes of the area and brought many new residents into the area.

Route of the OC Streetcar (OCTA).

Route of the OC Streetcar (OCTA).

A starter version of a revived street car system is on its way. Last week the Orange County Transportation Authority authorized $56 million toward launching OC Streetcar, which will use part of the old P.E. right-of-way on a route which would link Santa Ana and Garden Grove. The line would primarily serve the downtown and civic center area of the county seat, and then travel west along Santa Ana Boulevard until it picks up the former rail route and turns diagonally northwest toward a new regional transit connection and station at Harbor Boulevard and Westminster Avenue in Garden Grove.

While the route will only cover 4.1 miles, it could be the beginning of something big. Anaheim is mulling its own street car line which would connect to the Disney resort area, Angel Stadium and Honda Center. If the OC Streetcar is a success, the line could be continued north along Harbor to pass through the hotel districts in Garden Grove and Anaheim.

The allocation of $56 million is on top of $48.45 million previously allocated for the project. That level of financial commitment would make the OCTA’s plan eligible for an estimated additional $144 million from the federal Department of Transportation.

The original Red Car system was a privately-owned transit system that by the 1920s was the largest electric railway system in the world. It was created in 1901 by Henry Huntington, who had a background with electric railways in San Francisco. Together with banker Isaias Hellman, the P.E. was launched, its first line reaching Long Beach in 1902.

As the web of suburban railways snaked outwards, it brought new activity to Orange County communities. The line reached Huntington Beach in 1904 and Garden Grove and Santa Ana extensions were finished in 1905. The railway’s farthest-southern reach in the county was Balboa.

The effect of the rail line was immense. In Garden Grove, for example, the arrival of the railway turned a sleepy village into a growing town, which became a significant shipping point for the farms and orchards in the surrounding area. Westminster, on the other hand, bypassed by the P.E., was slower to develop and grew little until the post-war boom.

A red "Red Car."

A red “Red Car.”

There’s a lot of mythology associated with the decline of the Red Car. It’s widely believed that an evil consortium of bus lines, auto manufacturers and tire makers destroyed the system, but the truth is more complicated. The Red Car lines (eventually the merger of P.E. and Southern Pacific) operated as a “loss-leader.” The fares didn’t cover the cost of operation, but the street cars brought people out to areas where Huntington, Hellman and others owned land. Transportation made those areas more attractive to new homebuyers. However, once the land they owned was built out, the economic value of the system declined. There were other factors as well. As more cars poured onto the roadways of Southern California, the speed of street cars – which ran at grade along city streets in addition to dedicated railways – slowed to the point where they became less and less desirable for getting around.

Piece by piece the system declined, with buses replacing street cars on most of the routes. Southern California fell in love with freeways. The last Red Cars ran in 1961, although freight service continued along portions of the rail system for years afterward. Eventually, the entire P.E. right-of-way was abandoned, the rails ripped up and the land purchased by the OCTA.

Two proposed light rail projects for OC using that route failed to come to fruition. OCTA officials think that construction on the “son of Red Car” could begin as soon as 2017, with service beginning in 2019. History repeating itself, as another old saying goes.

Sources: Orange County Transportation Authority, Wikipedia, Orange County Register, Garden Grove Journal, “Garden Grove: A History of the Big Strawberry.”

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