Boston keeps the faith with PCC cars

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, March 07, 2017

I’ve always loved PCC streetcars. The way they look, the way they sound — to me they’re the very essence of big-city street transit. Though their basic design dates to 1936, I don’t think they look old-fashioned at all. They’re timeless, like an F unit.

That’s why I was heartened by the news last week that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has decided to spend some money to keep its small fleet of PCCs rolling on the historic Mattapan High Speed line. The agency says it will spend $7.9 million to overhaul the cars and keep them humming into the early 2020s.

That’s great news for the 4,600 daily riders who use the line to connect from Mattapan through Milton and Dorchester to the Red Line rapid-transit station at Ashmont. News media reports indicate the Mattapan passengers love the old trolleys.

Boston's Mattapan line hosts a unique fleet of PCC trolleys that are about to get a new lease on life. Dennis A. Livesey photo
It’s also great news for those of us who love classic traction. The 2.6-mile Mattapan line is a time machine, a stretch of private right of way that winds through the suburbs, some of it hemmed in by trees. Photographer Dennis Livesey photographed the line just a few weeks ago and his images really capture the beauty of this tiny stretch of railroad.

That “High Speed” designation, by the way, should be considered in context. The term was applied to the line when it was built in 1929 because the route was on private right of way and intersected only two streets at grade. Other than that, the pace of the PCCs is leisurely, as you’d expect.

That fact that PCCs are running anywhere is a testimonial their basic design. The cars began to take form in 1929, when the presidents of a number of U.S. street railway companies organized the Presidents Conference Committee, or PCC, charged with coming up with a new breed of streetcar that could theoretically stem what by then was the obvious decline of the industry.

Sometimes committees can do great things. This one came up with a semi-streamlined beauty, a curvy and radical departure from the boxy trolleys seen on most city streets. The low-slung PCC car looked like it was meant to move fast, helped along by a swept-back windshield designed to reduce nighttime glare for the motorman.

More important than style were the engineering improvements. Most notable was the extensive use of rubber in the carbody sills and wheelsets, designed to reduce the noise and clatter associated with streetcars. The cars also boasted dynamic braking, enabling them to run faster and stop more quickly, and forced-air ventilation, among other features.

Nearly 5,000 PCC cars ultimately were built in the U.S., in orders divided between St. Louis Car Co. and Pullman-Standard. Cars for Canada were manufactured in Montreal by Canadian Car & Foundry under license from St. Louis Car; Toronto’s PCC fleet carried on gallantly into the late 20th century.

A Philadelphia Transportation Co. PCC lays over at Wayne Ave. and Carpenter Lane at the north end of the Route 53 line in 1961. (The destination sign has temporarily been changed to Route 20 as a gag.) William D. Volkmer photo
I fell hard for PCCs in my childhood, during frequent trips to Philadelphia to visit my aunt and uncle, Rita and Mac Macintosh. Their home was in Mount Airy, a historic old district in northwest Philly. Their house had what was to me an incredible location: just 150 feet from the Wayne Avenue Route 53 streetcar loop of the Philadelphia Transportation Co.

For a kid from the small-town Midwest, the Route 53 line was exotic. The PCC cars would amble up Wayne Avenue to a point just short of my aunt’s street, Carpenter Lane, then turn into a tiny but double-tracked alley before going around a small commercial building to turn back toward center city.

I couldn’t begin to count the times I sneaked away from Mac and Rita’s back porch, hurry down to the trolley stop, and watch the motorman take a short breather before resuming his run. Sometimes, in the evenings, I could see him in the glow of a streetlight, pausing at the controls while he stole a few minutes to read the evening Bulletin.

Rita was a terrific aunt, by the way. In the summer of 1965, when I was 14, she surprised me with an afternoon visit to the PTC’s Luzerne Avenue car barn. A PTC public relations man was there to give me a personal guided tour. I was in heaven, surrounded by dozens of PCCs!

Alas, the Route 53 streetcar died in June 1981. SEPTA announced it was discontinuing trolley service “temporarily” while it replaced a bridge somewhere down the line. They did install the new bridge, complete with streetcar tracks, but later inexplicably decided to stick with buses. My evenings of sitting on Rita’s porch waiting for the clomp! clomp! of the PCC car rumbling over the loop switches were over.

The ex-Toronto PCCs in Kenosha, Wis., are painted for various PCC-operating companies; here the 'Johnstown' car takes a curve in January 2017. Robert S. McGonigal photo
But PCCs soldier on elsewhere in regular service, thank goodness. In fact, SEPTA still uses refurbished PCC II cars working its east-west Route 15/Girard Avenue line. In San Francisco, the Market Street line is a veritable Woodstock of vintage trolleys, a fabulous place to ride PCCs. And just down the road from me, incongruously, little Kenosha, Wis., uses PCCs on its downtown trolley route. But while those operations use PCCs that had been retired from other cities, and are revivals inspired partly by the old cars’ historical appeal, the workaday Mattapan trolleys are native to Boston and their line has never been abandoned.  

And now there’s the good news from Boston. MBTA’s overhaul project will upgrade the PCCs with new propulsion, brake, and power-supply systems. Meanwhile, the agency has set aside $1.1 million to study the Mattapan line’s future.

I suppose it’s too much to hope that Boston’s PCCs will last much beyond that, but when you think about how resilient they’ve been for 70-plus years, I have to ask: why not?

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