|THE P.C.C. ERA IN DETROIT – Part 1
(The Need for a Modern Streetcar — But Detroit Would Have to Wait!)
|In 1936, the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania became the first city in the world to operate a PCC streetcar in regular
service. Pittsburgh Railways Company car #1604 (above) is an example of the pre-war style PCCs manufactured
through 1945. When these #1600-series PCCs were being built for Pittsburgh Railways, the St. Louis Car Company
diverted two cars from that order to Detroit for testing on DSR routes. (Voogd075 photo courtesy of Dutch Wikipedia)
THE NEED FOR A MORE MODERN STREETCAR:
Although the "Roaring Twenties" are often viewed as a period of economic boom for most Americans, things weren't
so upbeat at the time for the nation's streetcar industry, which was already in the process of losing passengers to
buses. Not only were buses replacing streetcars in many cities across the country, but the increasing popularity of the
automobile was also beginning to take a toll on ridership numbers. Many now considered streetcars to be old, noisy,
and most of all, slow.
In an attempt to reverse this decline in ridership, a group of executives representing a number of electric and street
railway companies, along with representatives from the various streetcar manufacturers, founded a committee in 1929
to design a new, modern, standard-designed streetcar that could successfully fight off the increasing competition
arising from the rubber-tired transportation industry. Heavily involved in this venture was Dr. Clarence F. Hirschfield
who was Chief of Research at the Detroit Edison Company. Hirschfield had been hired by Dr. Thomas Conway, Jr.
(chosen head of this new committee) to lead the research effort behind the design of an entirely new streetcar.
Although he had no prior experience in electric railway transportation, Conway felt that Hirschfield could enter the job
without any preconceived ideas.
The formation of this committee, known as the Electric Railway Presidents' Conference Committee (or the
ERPCC), would result in the successful development of a new modern high-performance streetcar. This new type of
streetcar would later prove that it could effectively hold its own against buses and automobiles, and would turn out to
become one of the most reliable and better designed streetcar ever built. This new streetcar was much quieter, larger
and roomier than buses, more comfortable riding, and offered a smooth and rapid acceleration — compared with the
jerky motion of the older cars. These cars actually accelerated faster than the automobiles of that day.
|One feature of this newly designed streetcar was the redesigned motorman's cab. The old-style cars (left photo) required a |
waist-level high controller box and a brake handle to operate — resulting in the motorman's hands always being occupied.
The motorman had to either stand or sit on a high stool in order to accelerate the car by means of a long handle located on
top of the controller. On the new style cars the motorman sat in a seat to the left, much like on a bus, and operated the car
with his feet (right photos). In the car pictured above, one pedal was used for braking, the other for acceleration. A control
board on the dashboard contained gauges and switches for the doors, interior lights, exterior lights, etc.
These newly designed streetcars would also successfully eliminate three major streetcar complaints from riders —
excessive noise, vibration, and poor ventilation. The newly designed under-truck would help to absorb bumps along
the tracks, while the heating, ventilation, and braking were much improved over the old streetcars.
This newly designed streetcar would be named, the Presidents' Conference Committee car — more popularly
known as the P.C.C. The PCC style streetcar design would become the standard for the industry during the next few
decades. The first fleet of PCC cars were ordered in 1935 by the Brooklyn & Queens Transit Co. — but the first car
(#100) was delivered to the Pittsburgh Railways Company, and went into service on July 26, 1936. Production on
the PCC would continue in North America until the early 1950s, with a total of 4,978 units being built. Thousands more
were also produced in Europe through the remainder of the 20th century.
|In 1936, the DSR began purchasing hundreds of these
small-size Ford "Metro" Transit buses after it decided
to convert its streetcar fleet over to buses. Over 2,100
small-size Ford coaches were purchased by 1946.
(Photo source: DSR Files)
THE MODERN STREETCAR ARRIVES IN DETROIT:
The DSR entered the war era with a deteriorating streetcar fleet, and hundreds of small-size buses. The bus operation
had been performing well, as new buses were purchased prior to the war. But government-imposed gasoline and tire
rationing would force the DSR to make major adjustments, including restoring full-time streetcar service on many of the
lines which the department had begun to use buses during evening hours after 7 p.m. and all day on Sundays.
This same government rationing program was also being imposed on private automobile owners, which turned these
auto owners into transit riders by the thousands. These events forced the DSR to bring out of storage retired, old,
and poorly conditioned streetcars — including some equipped with coal stoves. The cars had to be sent to the shop
to be refurbished, and then put back into service.
As auto assembly lines began producing tanks and airplanes for the war, depression era unemployment ceased, and
transit ridership boomed. But somehow the aging DSR streetcar fleet managed to hang-in there and performed quite
excellently, considering their age and worn-out condition.
When World War-II ended in August of 1945, the DSR was operating with a fleet of 908 streetcars on 20 car routes.
High wartime ridership demands had taken its toll on the DSR's existing rolling stock. Most of the rail fleet at that time
consisted of the Peter Witt style cars built between 1921 and 1930,land double-truck steel body cars that dated back
even further to the pre-1922 DUR years. During the war, orders from the Office of Defense Transportation (ODT)
required streetcar use over buses whenever possible to help conserve gasoline and rubber. Since no new rail
equipment had been purchased since 1930, the department's aging streetcar fleet was badly in need of replacement.
In August of 1945, the DSR — realizing that its existing rail fleet had worn out — ordered "two" PCC cars from the St.
Louis Car Co. for revenue service testing on its lines. Two demonstrator "air-electric" cars, numbered #100 and #101,
were diverted from an order being built for the Pittsburgh Railways Company. The two cars arrived in early October,
still in their red and cream Pittsburgh colors, and were placed into service on the DSR's heavy Woodward line.
|In early October of 1945, two PCC demonstrator cars, originally intended for Pittsburgh, PA., began trial |
service on the DSR's Woodward line. At first the two cars remained in their original Pittsburgh red and
cream paint scheme, but were renumbered #100 and #101. In this 1945 photo, car #100 is south along
Woodward Avenue at Larned. One of the older Peter Witt style streetcars can be seen following behind.
(Schramm Collection photo)
|Although the two Pittsburgh PCCs diverted to the DSR in 1945 only survived 10½ years in Detroit, the |
remainder of the #1600-series fleet that went to Pittsburgh continued in service for nearly 30 years.
Although a bit worn and in need of a major paint job, car #1601 is seen in this photo still in service along
the streets of Pittsburgh in 1970. (Joe Testagrose Collection photo)
(to be continued in Part 2, "The PCC Arrives in Detroit")
DETROIT PCC SERIES: 1 2 3 4 5
Information for the above article was compiled from numerous on-line sources relating to the history of the PCC streetcar, and from various articles written by Jack E.
Schramm on Detroit's Street Railways.
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© 2007 (PAGE LAST MODIFIED ON 04-29-07)
Meanwhile, here in Detroit,lthe reception toward these new
modern streamlined cars was somewhat lukewarm and indifferent.
Fred A. Nolan — who became DSR general manager in 1934
— found the PCC to be an impressive and undeniably attractive
transit vehicle, in addition to being quieter and faster than buses.
But Nolan insisted that the cars were not for Detroit, since he and
DSR management had already determined that the city's street
railway system would be converted over to an "all bus" operation
by 1953. Nolan felt that the PCC wouldn't be worth the investment
for so short a period. As a result, no new rail cars were bought by
the DSR during that time. Instead, over two thousand small-size
Ford Transit buses would be purchased by the city beginning in
1936 (left photo). However, World War-II would soon follow and
somewhat sidetrack the DSR's conversion program plans, if only
for a short period.
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