Old Curiosity Shop
By Bob Davis dnry122@yahoo.co

Old Curiosity Shop for August 2019: Time to hit the road!

Bobby Boy goes “Hitchin’ a Ride”

“And I feel like, I’ve gotta travel on….”  Going back over 60 years in our record rack, this song is so appropriate for those of us who like to see what’s around the bend or off in the distance.  I see many reports on Facebook posted by Peter Ehrlich, a retired San Francisco Municipal Railway streetcar operator.  I used to see him in The City when I went up north to ride the vintage trolley cars.  He even wrote a book about the Muni “F” Line, which uses cars built the late 1940s plus some older trams.  Now he lives in a semi-rural area of New York, and travels about the country visiting the many electric railway systems that have opened in the last 30 years.  I’ve added some comments, indicated by “BB:”

Peter Ehrlich Road Scholar

Some trip observations, in general:

Worst state, in terms of giving one advance notification of the mileage to upcoming cities: Pennsylvania. Virtually non-existent. BB: During our 2011 RV trip, I found that navigating the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch area is an exercise in exasperation.   I thought New England was bad, but the signage in the Lancaster area is apparently designed for people traveling by horse and buggy.

Best: Most Western and Midwest states. To qualify, these signs must have three cities listed.

Best on-the-road coffee: Most Pilot travel stops.

Weirdest street/road names: Nebraska. Example: "828 1/2 Road."  BB: We have some goodies here in California, such as Sandy Mush Rd. near Merced or 7th Standard Rd. north of Bakersfield.

Most unrealistic speed limits on freeways: Pennsylvania (55mph in many instances).  BB: Motorhome travelers are strongly urged by RV gurus to stay at 55 on the open road, because gas mileage goes from “not good” to “appalling” once you get above “double nickel”.

Best freeway rest areas: Ohio.

Worst freeway rest areas: Texas.

Worst drivers: Tennessee.

Rudest drivers: Anyone who drives a Cadillac Escalade.  BB: This reminded me of the cartoon that showed a man at a BMW agency, who’s about to take delivery of his new Beemer.  The salesman says, “Your car will be ready shortly, in the meantime, here’s our customer lounge, where you can view our ‘How to Drive Like an A***ole’ video”.

Best notification of lanes to use to pay cash for toll bridges: California.

Worst notification of lanes to use to pay cash for toll bridges: New York.

Worst freeway traffic tie-ups, non-construction areas: California.  BB: No surprise there!

Worst freeway traffic tie-ups, construction areas: Tennessee.

Most corrugated road in a construction zone: North Carolina.

Foggiest freeway: I-77 crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains into Virginia.

Most strictly-enforced speed limits in construction zones: Nevada.

Worst urban road reconstruction zone: Denver.

Most confusing road markings directing one into an urban area: Sioux City, Iowa.

Most interesting scenery: Between Twentynine Palms and the junction with I-40 in California--100+ miles across the Mojave Desert.  BB: This is Amboy Rd. and the National Trails Highway (Historic Route 66).

Most boring scenery: US 522 in Pennsylvania, south of Huntingdon.  BB: This road is the route to the Rockhill Trolley Museum and (currently inactive) East Broad Top RR.  Rockhill Trolley Museum is well worth driving through boring scenery.  Their latest acquisition is a Siemens-Duewag Light Rail Vehicle from the San Diego Trolley system.

Most beautiful scenery when crossing state lines: I-40, from Arizona into New Mexico.  BB: Even my wife, who is not a big fan of the Southwest, admires the scenery along I-40.  Even better is US 84 from Santa Fe to Chama; she was fascinated by this area.

Cleanest cities: Kansas City, Salt Lake City.  BB: have only gone through KC, but Salt Lake City is a nice place.  Maybe it’s the conscientious Mormon attitude at work, but SLC seems to know how to get things done and keep their city a showplace.  When we visited there in 2001, there was an interruption in the then-new light rail line.  The transit personnel had a bus bridge up and running and people on the ground making sure the passengers were directed to the next bus.

Cheapest gas: Arkansas, followed by Missouri. In some places, as low as $2.40 a gallon.

Most expensive gas: Needles, California. ($4.49 a gallon!!!. This is at least a dollar more than anywhere else in California, including San Francisco.)  BB: The petrol purveyors in Needles know that there’s over a hundred miles of hot, dry desert between there and the next likely source of fuel in Ludlow.

Freeway where one can see the most trains as one travels: I-40 in Arizona and New Mexico (parallels the old Santa Fe main line. I must have seen at least 40 trains.)  BB: Back in 2007 we took Historic Route 66 from Kingman to Crookton on our first cross country RV trip.  Motorhome drivers are advised to stay at 55 mph on open roads because fuel mileage takes a nosedive if you go faster.  We’d be motoring along, and I’d see the headlight of a BNSF train in the rearview mirror.  Soon the train (probably going 70 mph) would catch up with us and then pass.  This happened a number of times.  Then there was the time we stayed overnight at La Posada in Winslow in 2004—trains as frequent as Red Cars on the PE that went by my home in Monrovia back in the 1940s.

Places where one can see a preponderance of obese people: Any Golden Corral.  BB:  Wasn’t aware that we had some of these in LA County.

So why has Peter logged so many highway miles, and encountered such memorable conditions?  Both he and I lived through the 1970s, when most news from the US railway scene was grim.  We could go all the way back to 1924 to find the peak years of trolley lines in the US, and even then, some railways were going down for the count.  Even before then, there were interurban electric railways that had “seemed like a good idea at the time” but were sold for scrap when the money ran out.  Rail operations that survived into the 1940s received a “stay of execution” when World War II restrictions curtailed driving, but by late 1945, abandonments started again.  Dr. Jon Bell compiled a year-by-year list of streetcar system abandonments, and it shows over 90, ending with El Paso, Texas in 1974.  That left us with Boston, Newark NJ, Philadelphia, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Shaker Heights (suburb of Cleveland), New Orleans (only city with traditional streetcars) and San Francisco.  By then, there were more operating trolley museums than there were full-time streetcar systems.

But the tide turned in 1981, starting with modern light rail lines opening in San Diego, Calif. and Edmonton, Alberta.  Now we have light rail and streetcar lines opening faster than I can get out to ride them, so I depend on Peter and other railway enthusiasts to cover the action.  A few examples:

Back in 1968, Jerry Lee Lewis recorded “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous”, a reference to the days when it was a center of beer brewing.  Up until 1963, there was fast electric railway service between Chicago and Milwaukee on the North Shore line, but the connecting streetcars were replaced with buses in 1958.  In 2018, Milwaukee opened a modern streetcar line called “The Hop” (inspired by the hops in beer?) which seems to be quite popular with calls for extensions.

There’s a song about “Cincinnati, O-hi-o” and Dr. Demento fans may remember “The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati”.  A comment attributed to Mark Twain (but it may be apocryphal): “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it's always 20 years behind the times.”  The late Jim Murray, prizewinning sports columnist for the LA Times, was not impressed by Cincinnati, and usually made some uncomplimentary remarks if an assignment took him there.  The old Cincinnati streetcar system was abandoned in 1951.  It was unusual in that the cars had two trolley poles, almost like an electric bus.  Several of the primordial electric railways back in the 1890s used dual wires instead of using the rails as one side of the electric circuit, but Cincinnati stayed with this system until the end.  Finally after a soap opera of political infighting, the new streetcar line, called the Cincinnati Bell Connector opened in 2016.  According to one critic, it doesn’t go far enough and it may be more of an instrument of gentrification than regional transportation.

Time for a Marty Robbins song: “Out in the West Texas Town of El Paso….” Streetcars ran across the border to Ciudad Juarez until 1973, because the Mexican franchise said nothing about running buses.  What was ironic about this setup was that until the city took over the service in 1974, the trolleys had been run by El Paso City Lines, one of the last National City Lines operations to be bought out by a government entity.  NCL was the transit holding company blamed by many for the closing of streetcar operations in favor of diesel buses.  The only time I set foot in El Paso was Oct. 1989, when Pat and I were part of a tour group heading for New Orleans on the Amtrak “Sunset. "  We arrived a bit early, so I had some time to wander outside the station and found remnants of trolley tracks in a nearby street, but they hadn’t been used in a long time.  The streetcars, which had come from San Diego in 1950 after their transit went all-bus, were stored in the open, but the dry climate kept them from rusting away.  Once again, after many years of planning and discussion, things finally came together a few years ago, and the cars that were in better shape went off to Brookville Mass Transit in Pennsylvania for a major makeover with upgraded equipment in classic PCC bodies. 

Although there are several other cities with new or nearly new electric railways, and I covered Memphis and Little Rock in OCS for August 2011, I’ll wrap up this session with another town that has been honored in song, Kansas City. Back in 1952, Little Willie Littlefield recorded “K. C. Loving”, one of the early compositions by Lieber & Stoller   (I have an original Federal 45 of this)  Probably the best known version of the song after it was retitled “Kansas City” was by Wilbert Harrison, whose recording on the Fury label went to #1 on the Pop charts.  For an instrumental take on KC, here’s Wild Jimmy Spruill the guitarist who sat in with Tarheel Slim on “Number Nine Train” back about 60 years ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4mZtsEM9UA

Getting back to the streetcar scene, Kansas City abandoned service in 1957, with cars being sold to Philadelphia, Toronto and Tampico, Mexico.  Some of the PCC cars were scrapped and the parts were sold to a Belgian company. Streetcar service returned in 2016 with the Main Street line, which has been a success, and may herald the building of extensions.  Best of all from the railfan point of view, the south end of the Main St. trolley line is at Union Station, where Amtrak trains stop.

Meanwhile, here in Los Angeles, we have three electric railway projects under construction and more on the drawing boards.  Keep on trackin’!

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