Vintage PCC operation kicks off in San Diego.

San Diego's newly-restored vintage PCC car 529 is seen against the backdrop of sunny SoCal scenery and a Siemens San Diego Trolley LRV in this San Diego Metropolitan Transit System photo by Brett Shoaf. Used with gracious permission of MTS; click image for the agency's photo library.

Last weekend brought milestones for preserved PCC cars at both ends of the country, in two very different but exciting examples of heritage trolley operations.

In the East, at the Rockhill Trolley Museum in Pennsylvania, New Jersey Transit PCC car 6 was in operation on the museum’s line just past the 10th anniversary of its retirement with the end of Newark City Subway PCC operation on Aug. 24, 2001. The story of car 6 will be the topic of a separate post to be filed shortly.

At the moment, we’re looking to the West. The city which pioneered America’s first all-new light rail system 30 years ago kicked off its new Silver Line vintage trolley operation on Saturday, Aug. 27. A restored 1946 San Francisco car — wearing San Diego colors — now operates on a loop route using existing San Diego Trolley light rail tracks in the downtown area.

The new route, which will operate initially only on weekends and holidays, covers portions of the San Diego Trolley’s Blue and Orange LRT lines, ringing the city’s “Gaslamp Quarter.” Running clockwise,  the route starts at 12th and Imperial, thence to America Plaza and east on C Street to City College before returning to 12th and Imperial. The line passes many downtown landmarks and tourist attractions, including Petco Park, home of baseball’s Padres.

What makes this venture so exciting — aside from the obvious benefit of a gleaming heritage car and a ready-made right-of-way — is that it came to fruition thanks to close cooperation between San Diego Metropolitan Transit System and dedicated volunteers associated with San Diego Vintage trolley, a nonprofit subsidiary of MTS. Indeed, it required six years, more than 3,000 hours of volunteer labor and $850,000 in donations to bring car 529 from relative dereliction to operating condition.

"El Paso PCC's at gas company yard" is the caption to this July 1993 photo by flickr user Drew Jacksich (drewj1946). It shows several of the ex-San Diego cars which operated in El Paso until 1974. Used by Creative Commons license. Click for photostream.

The car itself was built in 1946 for operation in St. Louis, and was among those later sold to San Francisco, where it operated from 1957 to 1982 as Muni’s number 1122. Its new number, 529, picks up the torch from San Diego’s original PCC cars, which were numbered 501-528. Of course, those 28 streetcars were prewar “air-electric” PCCs, while 529 is an example of the “all-electric” postwar design. The advanced type of streamliners would never gain a foothold in the city, as San Diego converted its trolley lines to buses in 1949, and sold 20 of its PCCs to El Paso.

A number of San Diego’s original PCC streetcars still exist. Among them, cars 508 and 528 are preserved at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, Calif. Six of the El Paso cars are rusting out the years stored on desert property at the airport, where officials recently discounted plans for their use in any new rail project. And in another example of creative preservation, San Diego 503/El Paso 1503 will be restored by the Baltimore Streetcar Museum as Baltimore 7303, in honor of the city’s St. Louis Car Co., PCCs, of which none survives.

So, why not pursue an original San Diego car for the Silver Line?

“The PCC cars acquired for San Diego’s vintage trolley service are a postwar model – more readily available and in better operating condition than surviving examples of the cars that first plied local streets,” according to the San Diego Vintage Trolley Website.

Debatable? Perhaps. Although it seems a fair argument that full restoration to modern standards, including pantograph and wheelchair lift, is more easily accomplished and maintained with all-electric cars than with any available specimen of the prewar air-electric model which actually ran in San Diego.

Another of the ex-Muni cars intended for Silver Line service, already rechristened 531, is seen in June 2008, still wearing its final San Francisco colors. Photo by flickr user paulkimo9 and used by Creative Commons license. Click for photostream.

It’s true that postwar PCCs are more readily available than their prewar counterparts, with modernized versions running in several cities, including San Francisco — and that’s not to speak of the numerous specimens preserved and operating in museums around North America. Only in Boston do air cars continue to run in regular revenue service, on MBTA’s Mattapan-Ashmont line, although those are of later vintage than the original San Diego cars. Thus, a greater store of replacement parts and expertise are likely to be available over time for the postwar vehicles, even if they are not prototypical to San Diego. This is, after all, a heritage operation sharing tracks with modern  light rail, and not a museum operation. Restoring and operating any of those forlorn El Paso cars would almost certainly pose a much greater, and costlier, challenge.

Whatever its provenance, 529 certainly wears those vintage colors well, and it is intended to be only the first of its breed. Also reportedly acquired for the project have been two other ex-Muni PCCs (like 529 they came from a private collection in South Lake Tahoe) and two ex-Philadelphia cars (2186 and 2785, according to the San Diego Electric Railway Association).

Silver Line 529 isn't the only PCC with a past. Here we see another car painted in San Diego colors, this time in San Francisco. This car was built for Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1946, sold to Newark in 1953 and acquired by San Francisco in 2004. Heritage indeed! This June 6, 2009 photo was taken by flickr user Jamison Wieser and used via Creative Commons license. Click image to view his photostream.

While this operation is hardly the first of its kind in North America (as supporters of San Francisco’s legendary F-line will proudly remind you), it is another example of how the regular operation of heritage vehicles can be accomplished in conjunction with modern LRT and streetcar service.

For more on the Silver Line and San Diego trolleys, see:

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