American streetcars: those lovable, art-deco oldtimers

If you thought the streetcar had vanished from the American scene like the Edsel, the icebox, and the Brooklyn Dodgers, I have a secret for you: it's still rocking and swaying through eight cities. And given the price of bus fuel and the clotted condition of freeways, a number of other communities may be wishing they hadn't torn up their trolley tracks a generation ago.

Still other cities have introduced a new variety of streetcar, clumsy in its name (light rail transit) but sleek and quiet in performance, linking downtown with the suburbs much as interurban trolleys did in the ragtime era. San Diego launched such a line to Tijuana at the Mexican border 18 months ago, and Calgary and Edmonton have flourishing new light rail transit systems. Buffalo, N.Y.; Seattle; San Jose, Calif.; and Portland, Ore., will be next.

All eight North American streetcar cities - Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, Newark, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, New Orleans, and San Francisco - are still running historic equipment that was around when Truman was in the White House. New Orleans has the oldest cars, early 1920s relics with shiny wooden seats and leather straps for standees. The cars poke along the St. Charles line at 10 miles per hour or less. Though some of the seven others have added modern cars to their systems, all continue to run the redoubtable PCCs - those lovable, rounded, vaguely art-deco worthies first introduced in 1935 and manufactured into the early 1950s.

PCC is short for the Presidents' Conference Committee, a group of private transit executives who dreamed up the car to replace the sluggish, boxy oldtimers that by the late 1920s were already losing out to buses and cars on American streets. The PCC, though a marvel in design (it is still being copied in modern light rail transit), couldn't compete with Americans' affection for cloverleafs and eight-cylinder cars, and by the mid-1950s batches of perfectly sound trolleys were being junked or sold off to Mexico City and Cairo.

So I received a rather heady surprise not long ago when I went out to look for the American streetcar and found the PCC alive and chugging, only a few miles from my door, in downtown Newark. Even more surprising, Newark's remaining 26 PCC cars had once belonged to Twin City Rapid Transit of St. Paul and Minneapolis, where I grew up.

They were yellow with green trim in those days, but now, as we were reunited beneath Newark's Penn Station, the car marked City Subway (for it runs partly underground on an eight-mile loop) had a white coat with red and blue stripes. I stepped through the wide accordion doors and the years fell away. The roomy aisles, soft green seats, and silver window handles hadn't changed, and when the operator sounded his bell to warn some schoolboys venturing too near the tracks, I was back on University Avenue 30 years ago.

Next stop on my great American streetcar bazaar was Philadelphia and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) ''subway-surface'' trolleys, a blend of aging PCCs and sleek new Kawasaki cars. I am glad to hear that SEPTA is renovating its PCCs to get 8 or 10 more years from them, because the No. 36 I caught in the dungeonlike 30th Street Station was in sorry condition; even its bell had a hollow clang.

And the woman driver had to jump down several times to restore the fallen trolley pole in back. I rode out Elmwood Avenue, and on the way back I took a new blue and orange Kawasaki: no wasted plush or art-deco indulgences, all hard lines and utilitarian corners. But the ride was whispery smooth, and the woman in the space-age control booth was clearly happy in her work.

In Toronto that night, I luxuriated in the healthiest North American habitat of the endangered PCC. The Toronto Transit Commission operates the best public transit system on the continent, a smooth mingling of buses, trolley buses, streetcars, and subways. There are 200 PCCs still in service - Toronto's beloved ''red rockets'' - and though they are in shipshape condition, they will ultimately be replaced by the already operating Canadian light rail vehicle (CLRV) streetcars, much like Philly's Kawasaki cars.

One of Toronto's biggest PCC boosters is Charles Pachter, an artist whose lovely trolley lithographs adorn the walls of the Peter Pan restaurant. Through the plate-glass windows you can see the red rockets and the CLRVs on Queen Street day and night. ''There's such a thing as too utilitarian,'' said Pachter of the new cars. ''They lack the whooshing sound and good leather smell of the red rockets, and besides, they're noisier.''

Pittsburgh, last stop of my trolley odyssey, is also converting to new stock as it moves toward inaugurating a 1.1-mile downtown subway line in 1984, but it is maintaining, even restoring, its PCCs to peak form. Most of them are still wearing outlandish color combinations - stripes and swirls of all hues - from a previous renovation, and the best place to see this colorful parade is at Station Square, an attractive clustering of shops and restaurants around the old Pittsburgh and Lake Erie terminal. At rush hour you can watch an unending PCC stream cross the rickety Smithfield Street Bridge and disappear into Mt. Washington tunnel.

There are other trolley ventures afoot in the United States that are more for fun than transit. Detroit has a narrow-gauge downtown line, composed of relics from the English Midlands and Lisbon; the Baltimore Streetcar Museum offers rides near Penn Station; the Branford Electric Railway System in East Haven, Conn., takes you on a three-mile excursion into antiquity; and in Minneapolis, the Minnesota Tranportation Museum runs two ancient restored streetcars on a mile-long segment between Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet. They are boxy, pre-PCC cars with cowcatchers and wicker seats - not much speed but, believe me, a real toot.

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