A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did General Motors destroy the LA mass transit system?

January 10, 1986

Dear Cecil:

I'm a big fan of the old Pacific Electric, the sprawling electric railroad known as the "Big Red Cars" that once covered much of southern California. Strangely, when I mention the old PE, many times someone within earshot says something to the effect of, "You know, back when they built the freeways, GM and the oil companies got together and forced them to tear up the tracks." Cecil, is there any truth to this rumor? If not, why do so many natives believe it?

Cecil replies:

If you think trashing the LA trolleys was the extent of GM's alleged crimes, Tom, you ain't heard nothin' yet. In 1974 one Bradford Snell, a staff attorney for the U.S. Senate antitrust subcommittee, advanced the startling proposition that GM had (1) sabotaged energy-efficient electric transit systems in 45 cities around the country, including LA, in order to sell more fuel-guzzling buses and autos; (2) forced the railroads to replace nonpolluting electric locomotives with GM-built diesels by threatening to withhold lucrative auto shipments; and, most astonishing of all, (3) treasonously built armaments for the Nazis during World War II through Opel, its German subsidiary. Not surprisingly, Snell's charges were widely publicized.

Snell lavished particular attention on the case of the Pacific Electric. Though it's difficult to believe today, Los Angeles once boasted the largest system of "interurbans" (heavy-duty inter-city trolleys) in the U.S., carrying some 80 million passengers a year in the late 1930s. According to Snell, all this went out the window starting in 1939, when GM got together with Standard Oil of California (now Chevron), Firestone, and other auto-related firms to set up a holding company that bought up trolley lines, dismantled them, and replaced them with buses. "The noisy, foul-smelling buses turned earlier patrons of the high-speed rail system away from public transit and, in effect, sold millions of private automobiles," Snell said. "Largely as a result, Los Angeles today is an ecological wasteland."

In a stinging counterattack, GM argued that Snell's accusations were off the wall from start to finish. The company said it relinquished day-to-day control of Opel in 1939 following the German invasion of Poland, and severed all relations with the firm when Germany declared war on the U.S. in 1941. It denied trying to strong-arm the railroads, pointing out that an earlier government investigation into the matter had produced nothing. Finally, it said its investments in various transit holding companies were small, that it exercised no managerial control, that many of the PE lines the California holding company bought had already been converted to buses, and that in any case the conversion to buses was part of a nationwide trend that was well under way before GM had made any transit investments at all.

Now, you may or may not believe GM's professions of innocence concerning the holding company. But most authorities agree that trolleys bit the dust in LA and elsewhere not because of a conspiracy but because they were slow and inconvenient compared to autos, and in the long run just couldn't compete. Los Angeles is typical in this respect. It has neither the high population density nor the concentrated downtown necessary to support rail transit. The PE, which was owned by the Southern Pacific railroad, made a profit in only 8 of the 42 years it was in business under its own name. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that many PE lines in LA proper operated on city streets, and as more cars crowded those streets, service got progressively slower. (The average speed on the run to Santa Monica was only 13 MPH.)

Buses were looked on as the transit industry's salvation because they were cheaper to operate and maintain than trolleys, with no tracks or wires. In fact, the PE had begun to convert to buses in 1917, and had changed over 35 percent of its system by 1939. A state commission in the late 30s urged that busification continue, and by the early 1950s most of the tracks were gone. The last line gave up the ghost in 1961. It's too bad — some think the PE could have been the nucleus of a decent, if heavily subsidized, modern rail system— but blaming GM is like blaming the inventor of gunpowder for war.

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