Streetcars Get A New Life in San Diego

Three ex-Muni PCC cars are being slowly but steadily readied for a new life down the coast in San Diego. That city’s now-iconic red ‘trolleys’ (actually light rail vehicles) represented the first new American urban surface rail system in decades in 1980. Much expanded, the San Diego Trolley remains one of the great rail success stories.

new-life-1.jpg

San Diego Vintage Trolley volunteers, including Market Street Railway members Dennis Frazier (second from right) and Dave Slater (right), pose with (left-right) Chuck Bencik, Ron Sutch, Harry Mathis – MTS Board Chair, and Art Aydelotte in front of the repainted nose of car No. 531 (ex-Muni No. 1170). Rick Laubscher photo.

At its core is a loop of track encircling downtown, serving the business district, waterfront, convention center, Gaslamp Quarter, and the Padres’ ballpark.
Along the length of the track loop, new residential towers have sprouted as more residents forsake the suburbs for the attractions downtown.
Harry Mathis, Chairman of the Board of the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), sees a major opportunity there. “The red trolleys are really an interurban line that happens to run through the middle of downtown. We want to bring streetcars back downtown to share those tracks.”
Mathis, who grew up in San Francisco “standing on the steps as the old streetcars roared through the Twin Peaks Tunnel,” recognizes that any new service has to complement — not compete or interfere with — light-rail (trolley) service on the Blue and Orange lines, both of which terminate downtown but run more than a dozen miles east and south. “We’d only be running off-peak — between 9:00am and 4:00pm on weekdays, and possibly on the weekends — with charters available in the evenings.”

The three PCCs that would start the ‘Silver Line’ service are ex-Muni cars No. 1122, 1123, and 1170. They’ve been renumbered 529, 530, and 531 respectively, to continue the sequence San Diego used on its own PCCs which ended service in 1949. They were acquired from Gunnar Henrioulle of South Lake Tahoe, who purchased a number of Muni PCCs upon their initial retirement. (Market Street Railway purchased four ex-Muni ‘Baby Tens’ from Henrioulle several years ago and gifted them to Muni for future restoration.)

new-life-2.jpg

San Diego No. 529 (ex-Muni No. 1122) stripped down to bare metal as part of its restoration. Ron Sutch photo.

All three San Diego PCCs are being stored under cover at MTS’ light rail shops, where volunteers for San Diego Vintage Trolley, Inc., a wholly-owned nonprofit subsidiary of MTS, are working on them. Two have had their front ends repainted in the pea-green & cream used in the 1940s, primarily to show visitors what the future could look like. The third car is being rebuilt with new body panels, with professional labor donated by Carlos Guzman, whose company has the contract to perform body and paint work on the red trolley fleet. The craftsmanship is excellent, but the work must be fit between paid projects so restoration will take time. Cost of materials is covered by public grants and corporate and individual donations.

The restoration is managed on a volunteer basis by Dave Slater, and the many volunteers include native San Franciscan Dennis Frazier, Market Street Railway members both. Since the original San Diego Trolley system was mostly built on freight railroad tracks, the PCC wheels need to be changed to railroad profile. The overhead not being compatible with poles, pantographs will be installed (though the rear trolley poles will be retained for visual effect), and wheelchair lifts will be installed in the front stepwells.

Once restored, the San Diego Silver Line would run a clockwise loop around the downtown, a direction dictated by existing track. Mathis hopes this is just a starting point, a proof of concept like San Francisco’s 1980s Trolley Festivals. He envisions a line going north into Balboa Park, much like San Diego’s historic PCCs did in the 1940s. He believes 2015, the centennial of the park, might be a good target date to inaugurate such service, but acknowledges there’s no current funding. Another possible line might connect downtown with the airport. These lines might be served by additional renovated PCCs if they could be found, or by modern low-floor streetcars such as run in Portland, Seattle, and Tacoma today.

So, San Diego, which showed America the way to build cost-effective rail transit almost 30 years ago, now seems poised to go ‘back to the future’, reincarnating its PCC era as well.

Comments: 8

  1. Thank you, Rick Laubscher, for coming to San Diego, visiting our project and for writing this nice article about us and our project. All of the volunteers are working real hard to get these three ex-MUNI cars rebuilt and out on the rails here in San Diego. Some of the projects we have accomplished since I have been on the project are: Getting all the crank up windows to work correctly and getting a workable “People Catcher” on the front of all the cars. We have also replaced all the under window panels and moldings on 1123/SD 530 and 1170/SD 531 because they were all water logged from being left in open storage, in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, with windows open. We will do that project on 1122/SD 529 when it comes out of the body and paint shop later this year. As you know, Rick, I rode these cars, in SF, while going to City College from 1960 to 1962. I never thought I would be rebuilding them in 2008-09. Anyone who would like more information on this project, I suggest you go to this website: http://www.sdvintagetrolley.com. You can get history, photos, a map of our Downtown Loop route, and a lot more. Enjoy and wish us a lot of luck. Thanks again, Rick.

  2. Muni or Market Street Railway should have kept #1170 for restoration back to its Bicentennial number (#1776) and colors. Image that going down the F line on the 4th of July, and/or pair it with the saved Muni Bicentennial GMC #3210!
    P.S. Who owns #3210 and where is it kept? I see occasional pictures of it on Flickr. Is it the real deal or a “1:1 scale model”?

  3. Mr. Garnes: I have been under #1170, here in San Diego, and the St. Louis number writen there is 1777. Not 1776. One of our volunteers has also researched that subject and came up with 1777 as well. Sorry!!

  4. A little back-story on PCCs in San Diego: The first PCC cars on the West Coast went into service in San Diego in July 1937. SDERy beat LA by a few weeks. The streamliners ran for less than 12 years; all streetcar service was abandoned in April 1949. Twenty of the cars were sold to El Paso City Lines (yes, an NCL property). One was cannibalized for parts, the others remained in service until the mid-70s, after a number of idle periods and restorations of service. Today, ten survive in El Paso, and one has gone to the Baltimore Streetcar Museum where it is now a replica of Baltimore 7303. The remaining eight were sold to a scrap dealer; of these 508 and 528 were preserved and are now in storage at Orange Empire. Thus it is appropriate that the cars “rescued from the forest” (i.e., South Lake Tahoe) will bear the numbers 529, 530 and 531.

  5. Mr. Davis: You sure know your San Diego/El Paso streetcar history. Yes, San Diego was the first with PCC cars, we beat LA, as you said. I have seen 508 and 528 at Orange Empire Museum, in Perris, CA, and unfortunately, they are in poor condition. They let me go inside one of them to get photos of the interior colors. We have the correct numbers for the exterior colors and with the photos I took, we will be able to get the interior colors correct. Keep checking the SD Vintage Trolley website for updates. See my entry above.

Comments are closed.