Streetcars are enjoying a resurgence across the USA, but throughout the CC era, the car above was America’s streetcar. The PCC Car burst on the scene in 1936, the result of careful thinking and research by transit engineers and executives battling the steady erosion of traffic in the face of increased automobile ownership.
Compared to the heavy, slow, and rough-riding streetcars Americans were used to riding, the PCC was a major leap forward in terms of style, speed, and comfort. It was as modern, if not more so than the cars it shared the road with.
Just as importantly, the PCC car represented a fundamental change is how streetcars were built and bought. Until the PCC, virtually all streetcars were built to order for individual street railway companies, to their own designs. And those designs often changed when the companies came back to order their next lot. The result was that most transit companies operated a hodgepodge of cars, denying car builders economies of scale and complicating maintenance.
The car builders tried to standardize, but even their best efforts, like this “Master Unit”, introduced by J.G. Brill in 1928 garnered only a fraction of sales. Something had to be done, and in 1929 several transit executives formed the Electric Railway Presidents’ Conference Committee, securing financial commitments from operators to fund the development of a new standardized streetcar, popularly known as the Presidents’ Conference Committee or PCC car.
The PCC was a model of systems research and engineering. To reduce noise, the wheels and trucks featured heavy insulation. Inboard truck frames and roller bearings replaced greased-packed journal boxes, and instead of noisy spur gears, the wheels where driven by rack and pinion gearing. The body design was standardized, but modular, and PCCs would eventually be built in three different widths and multiple lengths, all with welded steel bodies – good bye rivets. The trucks were also modular, in widths ranging from narrow gauge in Los Angeles through broad gauge in Pennsylvania and Maryland, plus heavier-duty versions for suburban and interurban service. Virtually all PCCs were single ended, like Pittsburgh Railways 100 above, the first PCC to enter service, but a handful of operators acquired double-ended cars.
The Committee designed the PCC, but they didn’t build it. Any carbuilder willing to pay royalties could make their own PCC bodies and trucks. In practice, Clark Equipment built all the trucks for US and Canadian PCCs, while St. Louis Car and Pullman-Standard split the body orders. The St. Louis bodies were more sophisticated in terms of line and detail, but under the skin, the design was the same. J.G. Brill, until then the largest streetcar builder, didn’t want to switch to welded construction, and launched the riveted and ungainly Brillliner as their “modern” streetcar. It was a bust, garnering only 2 fleet orders. Not even a snappy Raymond Lowey-designed paint job for Atlantic City could make this beast look beautiful.
The PCC was a success. Between 1936 and 1951, 5,000 were delivered to 26 different transit systems in the US and Canada. Passengers appreciated the comfortable, brightly lit interiors, cushioned seats, smoother and quieter ride, and faster operating speeds. At the same time, transit companies enjoyed lower operating costs and increased ridership. Looking at this interior shot, it’s also clear that the PCC design had impact on other transit vehicles as well – at a glance only the reversing seats on this Philadelphia Red Arrow car tell you you aren’t in a GM “Old Look” transit bus.
Most systems bought between 50 and 100 cars at a time. Johnstown (PA) Traction had the smallest fleet, 17 cars purchased in 1947. while Chicago Surface Lines operated a fleet of 683 and Pittsburgh Railways 666. With slight modifications, the original design lasted through WWII, with the “Postwar PCC” launched with Pittsburgh Railways 1600 in 1945, and seen above as SEPTA (Philadelphia) 2100. The main differences were closer window spacing, “standee” windows, and a switch from air-electric to all-electric operation.
The last style change, to fixed windows and forced air ventilation – not air conditioning – was only used in the Pittsburgh 1700 series and to an even more dramatic extent in the Boston “Picture Window” cars of 1952, the last PCC cars built in the US. By then, the writing was on the wall for the US streetcar, done in by GM, Firestone, and Esso’s campaign of bus replacement, rising system maintenance costs, and city pressure to repave streets and switch to one-way street systems. Through the 50’s and early 60’s, city after city abandoned their streetcar systems and sold off or scrapped their PCC fleets.
But as the market for PCC streetcars evaporated, the basic technology found a new lease on life, in the form of light(er)-weight rapid transit cars. Brooklyn Rapid Transit pioneered the idea in the late 30’s, but New York City opted to stick with heavyweight cars. Not so Cleveland, Toronto, and Chicago, each of which operated large fleets of PCC-type subway and El cars. The Chicago cars seen here actually used salvaged components from the city’s scrapped PCCs.
The PCC streetcar continued to evolve overseas, thanks to licensing deals in the Netherlands, Belgium, and especially Eastern Europe, where Czechoslovakia’s Tatra Works, of T-87 fame, turned out over 3,500 T4 streetcars between 1967 and 1987. Many of these European PCCs operate to this day.
And the original PCC streetcars proved to be durable survivors. Many used PCCs went south and north of the border, with Toronto eventually operating the largest fleet of 772 new and used cars. Others went further, to exotic locales such as Sarajevo and Cairo, as seen here. And in 1970 6 US cities – Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Shaker Heights, and San Francisco – still operated PCCs in daily service, mainly on routes that offered extensive private right-of-way. Aging, but practically irreplaceable, the remaining PCCs were treated to varying levels of upgrades.
Some were extensive, like Boston’s rebuilds, others little more than paint jobs, like SEPTA’s unfortunate “Gulf Oil” livery. Boston and San Francisco eventually bought Boeing Light Rail Vehicles in the mid 70’s, but these advanced cars proved a trouble-prone dead end – about what you would expect when an aerospace company tried to make a streetcar.
My hometown operator, PAT Transit in Pittsburgh, could only afford new paint jobs, but they showed a level of imagination not seen anywhere else. The psychedelic “Mod Desire” of 1973 was the most extreme, but through the early 80’s PAT earned valuable advertising revenue painting cars in a range of colors and designs, including a giant Clark Bar and a camouflage trolley for US Army recruiting. (That Army car had to be restricted from a couple of lines, because it had a nasty habit of sneaking up on cars at wooded grade crossings.)
By the 1990s, the days of the PCC were numbered. The remaining operators acquired new LRVs from European and Japanese manufacturers, but once again, the PCC refused to die. In Pittsburgh, rebuilt PCCs continued to operate until 1997. In San Francisco, restored PCCs painted in the schemes of original operators ply Market Street on today’s F Line, and in 2009, Kenosha, WI, a city that never operated PCCs, launched a downtown trolley loop featuring a similar set of restored PCCs. Both the San Francisco and Kenosha operations are really tourist lines, but Philadelphia relaunched urban PCC streetcar service on Route 15 Girard Avenue with a fleet of extensively modernized and air conditioned cars in 2015.
Those cars, along with those for San Francisco, were rebuilt by Brookville Locomotive Works, in Brookville, PA. The company recently introduced first new American-made streetcar since the PCC, the first of which just entered service on Dallas’s Oak Cliff line. The PCC lives on, and the future of streetcars looks like this.
Lastly, there’s a reason for all the Pittsburgh photos here, and it’s not these were the cars I rode growing up. Pittsburgh played a critical role in the development of the PCC, and lightweight, standardized streetcars in general. In 1912, Pittsburgh Railways Superintendent P. N. Jones worked with hometown Westinghouse to create a new low-floor, lightweight streetcar, made possible much smaller electric motors and a floor that sloped to the center. These “Jones” cars – like 4398 seen here at the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum in Washington, PA – became the standard in Pittsburgh until the PCCs arrived.
As noted above, Pittsburgh placed the first PCC in service, and Pittsburgh Railways collaborated with St. Louis Car, and hometown suppliers Westinghouse Electric and Westinghouse Air Brake on the design of both the prewar and postwar PCC. PCCs ran on 68 different routes in and around the Steel City, from short shuttles to tunnel and river-spanning suburban lines, to 30 mile interurban runs. The PCC was America’s streetcar, and Pittsburgh was America’s PCC city.