May 2000

A Wayne Avenue trolley coach crosses in front of a Germantown Avenue car in this 1960's view. The former was converted as part of a pre-NCL plan, the latter survived the abandonments.Paul Matus photo

When National City Lines
Came to Town

Three Years That
Changed the Face of Philadelphia Transit

by S. L. (Mac) Hackbridge

Foreword by the Editor
For three decades spanning a worldwide depression, World War II and an enormous postwar economic expansion, U.S. cities were a battlefield between competing forms of transportation. By 1960 the war was largely over and the face of America had been changed.
     What forces brought down the street railway industry—large, well-developed and mostly free enterprise—in so short a time span?
     Forty years later the debate still rages, surprisingly hotly, between highly polarized groups. Some hold to the argument popularly advanced during the long years of automotive expansion and transit contraction that railways fell of their own weight—done in by social change and historical forces as neutral and inevitable as the rising of the sun and the movement of the tides.
     Others see a "conspiracy" where a handful of powerful corporations set their sights on competing business interests and executed a master plan which foresaw not merely the end of electric traction, but of all transit, to be replaced by private automobiles on public roads.
     Both views have currency because the answer is so complex. It wasn't a single force, but a combination of forces taken together, that created a critical mass which brought down a giant industry.
     One of these forces was National City Lines, formed in large part by General Motors, Standard Oil of California and Firestone Tire, to acquire transit systems and convert the system fleets, it is charged, to use the founding companies' products. A major document arguing this position was Bradford Snell's American Ground Transport, described earlier in The Third Rail.
     It was not simply the conversion of individual street railway systems that contributed to the industry's precipitous decline, but the rapidity with which conversions took place. Any industry needs a certain amount of continuing capital investment in order to keep the suppliers of that industry afloat. In the case of the street railway industry, this included not only equipment builders, but suppliers of hardware, electrical equipment, track parts and such. Rapid conversion not only ruined the market for new supplies, but created a huge pool of spare equipment and parts which was purchased by surviving systems, in the U.S. and abroad.
      Thus the industry suppliers were deprived not only of a current market for new materials, but a future market as well. By the time the pool of good used equipment and parts was gone, so were the suppliers that could have revitalized the industry.
     In the case of Philadelphia, the greatest shrinkage of the system took place in little more than three years, during 1955-1958. The following article provides some insight into how this happened.

Continued on page 2






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