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
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
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:
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
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
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:
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’!