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Pair of Washington Heights trolleys
Trollies in the Washington Heights section of New York, the last of which ran in 1948. At its height, the New York City trolley system boasted some 1345 miles of track.

The Other Side of the 'Trolley Conspiracy'

Was GM soley to blame for the demise of street and trolley car services in mid-century America?

By Tom Rubin

In preparing his Op-Ed, "Trolley Folly of Decades Past Still Affects Transit Systems," published July 24th issue of the Salt Lake City Tribune, Roger McDonough has unfortunately failed to fully research the underlying facts behind the near disappearance of streetcars from the American public transit scene.

In fairness, he is only one of many who have heard only side of the story of how General Motors Corporation and other major industrials were supposed to have destroyed streetcars in cities from coast to coast and chosen to believe what they have heard or read without question.

Yes, it is true that these entities founded and operated National City Lines (NCL) and other entities that did take over streetcar operators, tear out their tracks and junk the cars, and replace them with buses.

Yes, it is true that this resulted in a conviction of GMC on an antitrust charge (later reversed). However, a deeper look into the real facts provides a far different picture than the impression that is gained from Mr. McDonough’s piece.

The facts are, streetcars and electric interurbans were an important part of the American transportation scene for many years – and then, their time passed and they all but disappeared, not due to conspiracy or malice, but because they became fundamentally uneconomical given competition from more modern superior technologies.

During the two decades from just after the Korean War to the early 1970's, there was a fundamental shift in public transit in the U.S.  Prior to this period, the vast majority of transit operators were private, for-profit companies that operated without public subsidy and actually paid franchise fees and taxes TO governments.  After it, virtually every transit system of any size in the U.S. was a governmental agency, receiving substantial subsidies FROM governments – and the taxpayers.  It is important that readers understand how this fundamental shift in the profitability of transit impacted – drove – the elimination of streetcars from the American transit scene.

Streetcars and interurbans had their heydays up until approximately the end of World War I.  From then on, they became increasing obsolete as two far superior economic technologies – the private automobile and the internal combustion bus – became wider and wider used.  As the 1920's progressed, electric train transit operators found that they were in a less and less profitable business and, by the time the 1930's and the Great Depression came, most were clearly unprofitable.  The transit companies responded by reducing operating costs, cutting back service on marginal lines, reducing maintenance and capital renewal and replacement on their track and vehicles, petitioning governmental agencies for fare increases – and looking for superior technologies.

That superior transit technology was the internal combustion bus (although electric trolley buses – "trackless trolleys" – were also popular for a time).  Gasoline, and later diesel, buses required no direct investment in the right-of-way by the transit agencies, nor were they subject to property tax; just the payment of the fuel user fees that all other road users, such as auto and trucks, paid.  They also did not require large expenditures for right-of-way maintenance.  Also, on comparable routes, the operating costs of buses were generally superior to that of surface rail modes.  Finally, interestingly, in many cases, buses were very successfully marketed to the public as improvements on the old-fashioned streetcars.

Yes, National City Lines and other entities bought out many streetcar operations and converted them to bus – but, as the record clearly shows, there was not really any significant difference in the replacement of streetcars by buses in the transit operators that didn't sell out.  It was not a case of people having to conspire to get rid of streetcars; it was a case of many independent entities, from coast to coast, determining that buses were far superior to streetcars in trying to keep their companies going.  For example, in Los Angeles, there were two separate electric transit train operators, GM controlled one, but both eliminated their trains and tracks.  The few places where streetcars survived generally fell into one of two categories: (1) public agencies, owned by a city or county, where profit or loss was not the prime consideration, and (2) transit operators that were owned by utility companies and were not allowed to abandon the service by state regulatory authorities.

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