Old Curiosity Shop
By Bob Davis dnry122@yahoo.com

When last we gathered in the Old Curiosity Shop to sit around the salvaged caboose stove and tally up Bobby Boy’s travels by electric railway, Los Angeles had just returned to the list of international cities with local electric railway service.  It was just a small fraction of the old Pacific Electric system, but it was a start.

Yakima Valley Back in 1973, I visited the Yakima Valley Transportation Co. when it was a subsidiary of Union Pacific.  By the mid-1980s, freight traffic had declined to the point where even this low budget operation had to be abandoned.  But back in 1974, a local group imported two single-truck trams from Oporto, Portugal and ran them as part of a BiCennial project.  They acquired the Selah line from Union Pacific after the freight service was abandoned. In 1991 Pat had just bought a new Toyota Cressida, and we took it on a road trip to the Pacific Northwest and the Great White North, at least the British Columbia province.  We stopped in Yakima and rode the remnant in one of the Oporto trams, and I even got to run it for a bit.  Going northward, the conductor waited until the car is in the middle of a rather rickety-looking bridge, THEN asked for tickets.  On the way back, anyone interested in running the car got a turn at the controller for a few hundred feet.  Had we been the only passengers, they might have let me take it all the way to the street-running section.

LA Metro Subway  After years of studies and plans that wound up gathering dust on shelves, Los Angeles finally opened a real subway (the Subway Terminal operation that ran from 1925 to 1955 was a short bypass line to the basement of the Subway Terminal Building to street running in Glendale Boulevard.  It was not a subway in the New York or Boston sense.)  The first segment opened in Jan 1993 and ran only to MacArthur Park.  The main destination for downtown workers was Langer’s Deli, which was conveniently close to the temporary terminal.

Network SE (London)  In 1993, we found a bargain-rate air fare to England.  Pat had been there before, on a package tour that included England, Scotland and Ireland.  This was an independent tour that gave us two weeks in England and the Isle of Man.  Our first lodging was at a bed and breakfast in Sydenham, a suburb on the south side of the Thames. The street it was on had a Network Southeast station at both ends.  Most of the suburban lines south of the Thames are electrified, powered by third rail energized at 750 volts DC.  The older cars are equipped with large traction motors and Westinghouse air brake systems, and sound just like American interurban cars.  While we were waiting for a train at one of the Sydenham stations, a train arrived on the opposite track and stopped with a hiss of air and the rattle of old-school brake hardware.  The air compressor started up, then, when all the doors were closed, the driver released the brakes and the train took off with a growl of traction motor gears that put me into ecstasy.  Pat looked like she was about to get a bucket of water to throw at me, and said “Don’t foam all over the platform!”

London Underground  The Underground is actually two systems, the sub-surface lines and the deep tube lines.  We only rode the sub-surface lines, which started out in the Victorian days powered by steam locomotives. This is one of the world’s largest rapid transit systems, usually ranked in the top five.  I don’t know if the Guinness Book of Records has a section on railway enthusiasts riding all of the Underground lines and trying to do this in record time, but it would take a dedicated subway fan to even plan this excursion.

Volk’s Electric Railway  It doesn’t go very far, and it’s not very fast, but Magnus Volk opened his electric railway in Brighton only a few years after Thomas Edison opened the first central-station power house.  It runs along the beach, and should be on every electric railway fan’s life list.  Not only did we ride Volk’s, in honor of the Who and Elton John, I played a pinball machine (“from Soho down to Brighton, I must have played ‘em all….”)

London Tilbury & Southend  This sounds like a good name for a fictional railway in a BBC mystery show, but it’s for real, and it runs eastward out of Fenchurch St. Station.  It started out in the 1850s with steam power, and wasn’t completely electrified until 1961 (yes, after the remnant of the Pacific Electric quit).  It’s now powered by 25,000 volts AC.  I rode the train to Upminster, where a London Underground line ends.  Top speed on the LT&S is 75 mph.

British Railways (electric main line)  After a stay in the London area, we took the Britrail electric service to York, where I visited the National Railway Museum, another item on my life list.  From there we went to Newcastle, where we caught a diesel railcar train to Carlisle.  Next day, we made our way to Heysham, where we boarded the ferry for Douglas, capital of the Isle of Man.

Manx Electric Railway  1993 was the centennial year for the Manx Electric Railway.  Like San Francisco Muni, they still have their very first car in running order.  The line runs from Douglas, the capital city, to Laxey, where the Snaefell Mountain Railway starts, and on up the coast to Ramsay, an old seaport and shipbuilding center.  Highlight of our visit was for me to run MER 5, built in 1895, on the section between Ramsey and Laxey, which included sounding the air whistle to encourage a band of sheep to graze somewhere other than the railway.

Snaefell Mountain Railway  This unique electric railway climbs to the top of the highest point on the Isle.  The track is 42” gauge and the cars use an ancient Hopkinson bow collector system for picking up the DC power to run the motors.  It’s said that on a clear day, one can see six kingdoms from the summit of Snaefell Mountain: The Isle of Man, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Heaven.  When we were there, it was cloudy, chilly and windy, and we thought the sheep that were grazing near the upper terminal had the right idea with their sheepskin coats.

Douglas Tramway (horse power)  The longest-running hayburner powered railway in the world runs along the waterfront of Douglas, connecting the port building with the electric railway, and going right by the hotel where we stayed. 

DC Metro  Although Pat had been to Washington DC many times (her first husband’s family lived in the Maryland suburbs of the Capital), I had never been there.  This was finally remedied when we went back east, with our first stop being Colonial Williamsburg.  Back in my school days, I had seen educational movies about Williamsburg, and now I finally got to see it in person.  From there we moved to Washington DC, where we stayed at a hotel that was near a Metro stop and across the street from a gathering place for taxicabs.  The national origin of the cab drivers was indicated by the names of some of the cab companies: Red Sea Cabs and Addis Ababa Taxi Co.  The Metro is a very useful was to get around the Capital; the first sections were built at about the same time as the BARTD system, but DC tracks are standard gauge.  In recent years, I’ve seen reports that the system is showing its age, but when we were there, it was running smoothly.

National Capital Trolley Museum  When we visited the area, the museum was in a park near Wheaton, MD.  It has since migrated northward to Colesville, and is in a scenic park area with a splendid new display and workshop building.  Among the exhibits are relics of the conduit power pickup system used by all streetcars that ran in the District until the DC Transit system went all-bus in 1962.  Some remnants of the conduit track were still in place in 1994, looking like cable car tracks.

Baltimore Trolley Museum (5’ 4” gauge) There’s Pennsylvania (and New Orleans) broad gauge (5’ 2.5”) and then there’s Baltimore gauge, which was said to be compatible with some horse-drawn carriages. The local trolley museum has a representative collection of streetcars, from open bench models to PCCs.  When I visited, a member whom I had met when he was active at Orange Empire let me run one of their cars, which like many of the older Baltimore trolleys, had no air brakes, just a big crank for the hand brakes.

Baltimore Light Rail The light rail lines in Baltimore mostly follow abandoned rights of way, an interurban (with a small surviving section for local freight service) and a former steam railroad branch.  When I rode they had quite a bit of single track running (rather like the Sacramento RT Metro) and poky street running in downtown.  A station left over from the railroad days had been “repurposed” as a veterinary hospital.

Seattle Waterfront Streetcar  This line is in the “Things That Aren’t There Anymore”  Back in the 1990s, we did a Coast Starlight trip to Portland and Seattle.  At Seattle we had a deep discount on room rates for the Edgewater Inn, which is on the Puget Sound waterfront.  Just across the street was the Waterfront Streetcar line, which featured Melbourne trams from Australia and operated as transit route 99.  It started in 1982, and was extended in 1990.  We rode it around 1995 but it looks like the passing of the man who was the “Godfather” of the line and some lame-brained decisions by local government entities resulted in the line being shut down in 2005 when the carbarn area was usurped by a sculpture park.  Seattle does have a modern streetcar line, and a light rail operation that I haven’t ridden yet, but the removal of the vintage tram operation for what seems to be a rather silly project leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum  One of the smallest railway preservation operations is in Shelburne Falls, Mass.  It has one small interurban car that ran on the Shelburne Falls & Colrain Street Railway line, which was about 7.5 miles long.  The one surviving car was built by Wason, in Springfield, Mass, in 1896, and has never been more than 50 miles away from its origin.  The car was retired in 1928, when the railway quit, and was a farm shed until 1991, when the farm family donated the car and restoration began.  It started running on the museum railway in 1999.  The ride is short, but the museum is a nice place to visit.

Montreal Metro “Bonjour!  Parlez-vous Anglais?”  The Province of Quebec seems to have abandoned active attempt to secede from the rest of Canada, but it’s still a place where knowing a bit of French can be handy.  Montreal is a large cosmopolitan city with lots of university students, so finding someone who speaks English is usually not too much of a challenge.  The Metro system pays homage to the mother country of the Francophones by using the Michelin rubber tired rapid transit trains.  It’s noisy but fast.

Montreal Deux Montaignes  This is an electric suburban line that runs to the area northwest of downtown Montreal. It leaves the central city by a tunnel, which accounts for the electrification back in 1918.  The original trains ran on 3000 volts DC, and some of the first electric locomotives were still in service when the line was rebuilt in the 1990s. But all this electric nostalgia went away with the rebuilding, leaving only a few warning signs in the downtown terminal showing “2400 volts;" like many modern electric railways, it’s now powered by 25,000 volts AC.  By the time I got there, the shiny new AC cars were running, and I took one to the outer terminal, where one of the GE locomotives from 1917 is “stuffed and mounted” near the depot.  When I arrived, it was around lunch time, and the depot includes a sandwich shop.  Deciding to try my French, I asked for a sandwich with “jamon et fromage.”  The young woman behind the counter, said, “You mean jambon?” I had slipped into Spanish, being from Southern California, but I got the sandwich I wanted.

Canadian Ry. Museum  Southeast of Montreal is the Canadian Railway Museum at Ste. Constant.  It has a wonderful collection of steam, diesel and electric railway cars and locomotives.  During summer months, a former Montreal Tramways streetcar takes visitors on a loop around the property.

Willamette Shore (generator car)  Back in the USA, we visited Portland, Oregon, and rode the Willamette Shore line, which from 1912 to 1929 was part of Southern Pacific’s electrified interurban service in the area.  When the electric cars were replaced by buses, and some of them went to the LA area to run for many years on the Pacific Electric system, the track remained, running south from downtown Portland.  A local historical group arranged to use the track in the 1994, and operated service on an occasional basis.  They’ve used an original Portland car and a double deck tram from Blackpool, England.  Currently, the line runs on weekends starting in May, with replica cars based on the Portland trolleys that went to Council Crest. To avoid the expense of installing trolley wire, the car is powered by a diesel generator unit on a small flatcar, a system used elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

Connecticut Trolley Museum  This was of the museums on my “life list”.  It’s only about 55 miles from the Branford/Shoreline museum, but it’s not easy to get there without a car.  Finally, during a visit to New England, I was able to visit and ride through the countryside east of Hartford.

Melbourne tramways  While showing visitors the sights in the LA Railway carbarn at Orange Empire, I sometimes point to the LARy 1940 route map on display, and tell them, “There’s one place in the world that still has a streetcar system like this, with a gridiron street pattern and all the signs are in English. But you have to put up with a 15 hour airplane ride to get there-- it’s Melbourne, Australia.  Back in the year 2000, after the Y2K scare proved to be unfounded, I was invited to join a special tour group for a visit to Melbourne. We flew from LAX (for my first trip in  a Boeing 747) and spent a very intense week of tram and train riding, taking two days to cover the Melbourne tramway system, including some non-revenue track.

Melbourne Electric Suburban  Not only does Melbourne have extensive tramways, it also has a broad-gauge (5’ 3”, sometimes called Irish gauge) network of electric railways going into the suburbs, rather like what the Pacific Electric could have become in an alternate universe.  There are a number of locations where the Electric Multiple Unit lines cross the tramways, which requires special construction where the wires cross, because the trams run on 600 volts and the EMUs use 1500 volt current.

Bendigo tramway  Bendigo is a former gold-mining town about 50 miles from Melbourne.  Part of its once extensive tramway system is preserved as part of the town’s history, and some of the trams have PA systems for guided tours.  It was here that I got to run one of the classic Melbourne “W” class trams out at the end of the line.  When we got closer to downtown, I handed over the controller key, being rather uncomfortable with the idea of running in traffic with cars on the left (a carryover from the Mother Country).  Bendigo has a large collection of vintage trams, including some “left-handed” Birneys, the Aussie version of the small cars that used to run in Pasadena.

Ballarat tramway  On another day, we took a train out to Ballarat, the town featured in the Doctor Blake Mysteries that are shown on PBS.  The tramway museum is out on the edge of town, and the trams run near the shore of Lake Wendouree.  I got to run one of the works cars in their collection.

San Pedro Waterfront Red Car  Much closer to home, back in 2003 the Port of Los Angeles opened the Waterfront Red Car.  Using two replicas of Pacific Electric streetcars, plus a heavily modified PE wooden interurban car, this line ran from the Cruise Ship Terminal to a parking lot south of Ports o’ Call Village.  The cars originally ran on Fridays through Mondays every 20 minutes, but were later cut back to three days with 40 min. headways.  Finally in Sept. 2015, the line was shut down because of construction along the waterfront, and whether it will be restored or become one of those “Things That Aren’t There Anymore” laments may still be undecided.

Rockhill Trolley Museum  In 2007, we did our first cross country RV trip, and on the way back, stopped at this trolley museum in central Pennsylvania.  Most of their cars are from PA, and I got to ride two of them.  Rockhill is nextdoor to the East Broad Top narrow gauge railroad, which ran for many years as a tourist attraction, but is presently not operating.

Fort Smith Trolley Museum This museum has a small collection of streetcars, and some steam railroad equipment on static display.  We arrived there on a Sunday, and while I waited for the volunteer motorman to show up, I made friends with the cats that live there.  He showed up a bit late, explaining, “Monsignor was a bit long winded today”, fed the kitties, and  got out their active Birney car to give the visitors a ride.  After going to both ends of the line, the motorman let me take a turn at the controller (not a new experiences, I had run Pacific Electric Birneys at Orange Empire many times.)

I have 14 more electric railways on the list and dozens of steam and diesel powered operations, but we’ll take a break from railway action and tune in on music next month, unless another topic presents itself for discussion.  In the immortal words of Mr. Fats Waller, “One never knows, do one?”

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