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Rockville, Illinois trolley, circa 1909
Rockville, Illinois trolley, circa 1909. Similar trolley lines eventually failed in the face of the spread of private cars, buses and declining ridership.

Trolley Debate Times Two

What Tom Rubin and Cliff Slater Left Out of the 'Trolley Conspiracy'

By Louis Guilbault

Tom Rubin's July 28 article, "The Other Side of the 'Trolley Conspiracy" presents a very pro-bus and pro-General Motors view of the near-disappearance of trams in North America. To get a more balanced picture of what happened, people should know some things not mentioned in Rubin's article, nor in Cliff Slater's 1997 article, which has a similar theme.

The most important point is that General Motors' bus division was, simply put, a dud. GM acquired the Yellow Coach Company in 1925 and it proceeded to lose millions of dollars for the next nine years. Then in 1935, Yellow started turning a profit, but only by selling hundreds of buses to companies that GM controlled, like Omnibus of New York and Chicago, and National City Lines, which was formed in 1936. Making money selling buses to yourself doesn't prove much. So who's "fundamentally uneconomical" here?

Less well known than the GM connection to New York City is that Public Service Coordinated Transportation Company (PSCT) of New Jersey was also a GM shop for decades starting in 1936. There was a special relationship between General Motors and PSCT. In a 1956 antitrust action filed against GM, along with the co-conspirators you might expect - Greyhound, National City Lines and Hertz (Omnibus was renamed Hertz in 1954) - was PSCT.

Oh yes, antitrust action against GM's bus division didn't stop with the conviction in 1949. GM was embroiled in litigation over its near-monopoly in bus manufacturing till a consent degree was signed in 1965.

Rubin says the bus represented "modern superior technologies". If indeed the bus is so much better, why do trams carry such huge numbers of people in so many cities in Germany, Switzerland, France, Austria etc., and in cities like Melbourne, Calgary and Hong Kong? Why are trams coming back in Portland, Dallas, the Twin Cities, Baltimore and many other urban centers? And why did General Motors abscond from the bus business in 1979?

Rubin is completely right about one thing. That is that streetcar companies were at a huge disadvantage in having to pay for the upkeep of their own rails, overhead etc. That, however, is a bookkeeping problem. It has nothing to do with the engineering advantages of one mode over the other. The stubborn Sir Robert Risson of Melbourne, bless his heart, went completely against the prevailing wisdom in the English-speaking world that buses were superior. Result? Melbourne has by far the biggest tram network in the US, UK, Canada, Australia or NZ, and it's upgrading and expanding,

There is nothing superior about the interior-combustion engine. That is really the whole point of EV World, and other groups that advocate alternative transportation. IC should have been thrown in history's dustbin decades ago. It is extremely complicated, inefficient, and generates huge amounts of excess heat, noise and toxic crud.

The buses that replaced trams in North America were profitable - for awhile. Then when they started losing money in the 1950s and '60s, the bus transit companies cut and cut, whined and whined, then bailed. Let government deal with it, they said, just like government provides all the pretty freeways for cars, trucks and buses to move on.

Rubin is also way off base in saying that streetcars couldn't handle the demands of the Second World War. One of the critical industrial centers of the war was Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh Railways' PCC streetcars did a fine job ferrying steelworkers between the mills and their homes.

Bus advocates just love the word "flexibility". And yes, buses have advantages. They also have drawbacks. Many people like the inflexibility of a tram line, of knowing that it's less likely to be shifted willy-nilly according to some transit planner's whims. Three studies by BC Transit in Vancouver, for example, found that people are 30-40% more likely to be drawn out of their cars by rail transit over buses.

Rubin actually says that the executives of National City Lines should have been awarded medals for putting up their own money to finance bus conversions. Medals! Does Rubin have any idea what the assets of these companies were worth?! There were tons of scrap metal, relatively modern trams to be sold off and, most of all, lots of choice real estate. Barney Larrick - a senior NCL executive for twenty years - he sure knew all this. After leaving the company, he cashed in on the assets of Twin City Rapid Transit a little too enthusiastically. He went to the slammer for convictions on thirteen counts of fraud and conspiracy.

Glenn Traer, another NCL heavy, fended off two lawsuits for flipping assets of the Chicago North Shore Railroad properties to feather his nest. He was smarter than Larrick, though, and spread the wealth among his friends (though not with average North Shore shareholders).

Buses have their place. You can't lay tracks everywhere. Most days I catch a Dennis Trident triple-axle double-decker bus home from work. It's very comfy. But it still spews diesel exhaust. General Motors, Firestone, Big Oil - none of them had any business controlling transit companies. We're all paying the price of their manipulation today.

Louis Guilbault has been a rail transit activist since 1988, and fascinated with the anti-streetcar conspiracy for almost as long. He regularly has op-ed articles printed in his local paper, as well as on the Electric Railway Historical Association of Southern California's website: www.erha.org/plot2.htm

Times Article Viewed: 5564
Published: 09-Aug-2005

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