Peninsula Transportation and the Pacific Electric Railway

Peninsula Transportation and the Pacific Electric Railway

Train enthusiasts may recall the “Red Car,” the Pacific Electric Railway system that covered the Los Angeles region with more than 1,000 miles of rail lines in the early 1900s.  By 1914, there were more than 1,600 trains criss-crossing and connecting communities in Los Angeles County daily.

In 1904, Pacific Electric reportedly considered extending the San Pedro line “to run around and through the Palos Verdes hills to Redondo and then to Santa Monica.” At this time, the Peninsula was one of the few remaining areas in the County without major roads or transportation services. 

So important was the reach of the Pacific Electric, it was included in early planning documents for the Peninsula.  Frederick L. Olmsted, Jr, the famed landscape architect with the Palos Verdes Project, wrote in 1914, the “constructional feature of most importance to the success of the project is the electric railway.”

With Redondo Beach, Torrance, Wilmington, Lomita and San Pedro nearly built out to the boundaries of Palos Verdes, the electric railway was essential to connect the “New City,” a residential development, to the surrounding business, industrial and shopping districts. 

Similar to the 1904 plans, the railway would run from San Pedro to Redondo and intended to be “primarily a passenger line for local residents and pleasure traffic.”

Ever conscious of preserving the natural environment, the rail line would run through a tunnel with multiple openings or along the cliffs in a way that would “cause the least damage to the landscape.” 

Locating the rail line so it would “better serve a larger area of residential propert[ies]” was key.  The line would have on either or both sides a parkway where possible, and walking paths to accommodate car and foot traffic.

The importance of the railway and transportation to and from the developing community was seen again in 1924 when the Palos Verdes Project offered a 1000 acre site to the University of California to locate its southern campus (UCLA) on the Peninsula.

The Project cited the availability of both rail and automobile transportation facilities that would connect it to the larger metropolitan area.  Pacific Electric had already approved preliminary surveys for a line that would connect the site to the Gardena, Torrance, and San Pedro lines. 

With other plans under consideration by the Board of Utilities of Los Angeles, the site would allow travel to downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena, Redondo Beach, Playa del Rey, Venice, and Santa Monica.

The California Regents were not enticed and built the campus in Westwood.

The decrease in ridership caused by job losses in the Great Depression, the popularity of private cars, and improved roads making car travel faster, ultimately doomed Pacific Electric.  California’s massive program of freeway construction in the 1930s also contributed.

Once considered one of the nation’s greatest interurban transit systems, Pacific Electric dissolved lines or converted them to bus lines.  In 1953 it sold its passenger services to Metropolitan Coach Lines, a bus service company.  Shortly thereafter, the service was incorporated into the LA Metropolitan Transit Authority, now the LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The closest Peninsula residents got to the Pacific Electric was the Redondo Beach line.  In 1925, the Palos Verdes Transportation Company started regular bus service from Malaga Cove to Redondo Beach so residents could access the railway. 

The electric railway line proposed for the Peninsula can be seen in the center strip that is now a walking path on Palos Verdes Drive in Palos Verdes Estates.

To this day, the Peninsula struggles for a public transportation system as efficient and effective as the Pacific Electric Railway might have provided.

Monique Sugimoto and Dennis Piotrowski are adult services librarian with the Palos Verdes Library District.

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