The quintessential North American trolley car, by virtue of it being nearly ubiquitous in many large cities in the 1940s and 1950s, and still being operated on a regular basis in several cities in the 21st century.
In 1929, faced with declining ridership on trolley lines, the presidents of the major streetcar-operating rapid transit systems in the United States and Canada formed the Electric Railway Presidents’ Conference Committee in order to design a modern trolley car and allow the various systems to attract passengers with shiny new equipment using a standardized design.
The committee came up with a design that incorporated many innovations. A newly designed motor was quieter than those used in older cars, and allowed for quick acceleration (important because trolleys make a lot of stops). Improved shock absorbers gave passengers a smooth ride. The controls used by the motorman were simplified, using foot pedals for most functions. Most importantly, the body styling was up to date, attractive and streamlined to catch the eye, with such touches as stainless steel “wings” around the headlight on the front of the car.
The PCC car, as it became known, was introduced in Brooklyn, New York, in 1936. Over 4,500 PCC cars were built and put into service from the ‘30s through the 1950s, running in 33 cities, which covered just about every city in North America that still had an extensive trolley network, from Toronto to Chicago to Los Angeles.
However, even the PCC car didn’t help most of the trolley lines compete against the automobile. The good news was that, thanks to the standard design, it was easy for transit systems to supplement their fleets by buying secondhand cars from cities discontinuing trolley service. Other PCC cars ended up running in regular service on other continents, and some were also sold or donated to museums where many continued to run, taking visitors around loops of track on the museum grounds.
At the beginning of the 1990s, PCC cars were still in regular service in several cities, most notably Toronto, Philadelphia, Boston, and Newark. Pittsburgh had refurbished the remainder of its old trolley system, converting it to a modern light rail system, but sharp curves on one line made it impossible to use the new light rail cars there. San Francisco had completely switched to modern light rail cars on the remainder of its old trolley system, but kept a few of its old PCC cars for use on special occasions, such as a special Market Street “Trolley Festival” while the cable car system was shut down for refurbishment in the mid-1980s.
In 1992, Philadelphia’s SEPTA discontinued regular service on its PCC car-equipped trolley routes, replacing them with bus service, but continuing to operate special PCC cars at certain times of year. Toronto eliminated its remaining PCC cars, replacing them with more modern trolley cars, in 1995. Then, in 1999, due to low ridership, Pittsburgh replaced its one remaining PCC-operated line with bus service. Finally, in 2001, the Newark City Subway was equipped with new light rail vehicles, replacing the PCC cars there.
Meanwhile, a combination of the success of San Francisco’s Trolley Festival and the demolishing of the Embarcadero Freeway as a result of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake led to PCC cars returning to regular service in that city. A new trolley line was built along the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf and tied into the existing Market Street trackage, and service began in 1995 using the San Francisco Municipal Railway’s fleet of historic trolley cars, including 17 PCC cars painted in the colors of various cities’ PCC car fleets. The line turned out to be a major tourist attraction.
Similarly, in 2000, the city of Kenosha, Wisconsin began a historic trolley operation using PCC cars acquired from Toronto, and also painted in the colors of various cities’ PCC car fleets.