2009 Key System History Presentation at Transbay Taskforce


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Will Spargur's "History of the Key System" presentation drew a near-record crowd at the November AC Transit Transbay Taskforce meeting.

All enjoyed his presentation on the rise and decline of AC Transit's predecessor

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2009 Key System History Presentation at Transbay Taskforce

  1. 1. 1    The Rise and Fall of Street Cars in the US from the perspective of the Key System By Will Spargur Presented at AC Transit Transbay Taskforce Meeting November 10, 2009 Summary The Key System that served the East Bay cities with a variety of electric street cars for nearly 60 years provides an example of the processes that played out across the nation to nearly all street car lines in big and medium size cities. On April 20, 1958 a ceremonial train made the last passenger rail crossing on the bay bridge. It was just another grim milestone in the decline of street cars in the United States marking the end of an era that began shortly after the gold rush with horse drawn street cars on flat iron rails and ended with a tidal wave of Americans fleeing to the suburbs in their new cars at the end of World War II. In the 1920s and 30s any American city of 100,000 or more boasted an electric street car system moving people to work, school and play. Nearly all were privately owned. Key System History Presentation  November 10, 2009  Will Spargur (cspargur87@gmail.com)   
  2. 2. 2    The Key System that served East Bay cities from Richmond to San Leandro grew out of small companies running horse drawn cars on iron rails in the 1860s supplemented by steam and cable cars in the 1870s-80s and finally electric street cars in the 1890s. These street car lines ran uncoordinated, overlapping routes until Francis Marion Smith, also known as Borax Smith. Smith made his fortune mining borax in the deserts of Nevada and California and later developing and expanding commercial uses for processed Borax such as in laundry soap, glue, pesticides and glazes for stoves and cookware. He eventually settled in Oakland around 1880 and in 1893 he began buying up small transit operators around the east bay to consolidate them into what would become know as the Key System. Key System History Presentation  November 10, 2009  Will Spargur (cspargur87@gmail.com)   
  3. 3. 3    In 1903 service was expanded to San Francisco when Smith built the Key Pier to provide connecting Ferry Service to San Francisco. Key System got its name from the Pier which looked like an old fashion key from above. The pier stretched nearly 3 miles into the bay about half way to San Francisco almost touching Goat Island. It initially had only 3 tracks but was expanded over time to 9 as ridership exploded. Ferries finished off the final three miles to the ferry building in San Francisco from which commuters could catch a street car to destinations in SF. A fire destroyed the pier in 1933 and it was rebuilt a little shorter to make room for the new bridge being built. Key System History Presentation  November 10, 2009  Will Spargur (cspargur87@gmail.com)   
  4. 4. 4    The first serious competition to the street cars and the key system occurred with the development of the Model-T. Henry Ford's new assembly line techniques allowed him to mass produce automobiles that were affordable to the average wage earning American instead of toy of the rich. Ridership on the Key System peak at 18 million in 1924 then began a steady decline. By 1930 they had lost 3 million riders as people abandoned the street cars to automobiles. The Bay Bridge opened to automobile and truck traffic in 1936. It would take another 2 years before the bridge was ready for trains. During this time Key users would have to rely on the Ferry Pier for the leisurely (and long) transbay commute. Key System History Presentation  November 10, 2009  Will Spargur (cspargur87@gmail.com)   
  5. 5. 5    From 1937 to 1938 the Key System built 88 special cars that would be operated on the Bridge. The Bridge Units were based on the old WWI era trains that ran the route from Oakland to Richmond on San Pablo Ave. They were big - 110 feet long and could seat 135 passengers about the size of 2 BART cars. And like BART the trains could be joined together to form longer trains carrying over 1,000 passengers in a single go. Although they had a sleek modern appearance for the time they were underpowered - made on the cheap from scavenged parts of older trolleys. This frugalness was necessitated because declining ridership was cutting deeply into profits. The Key System couldn’t even afford to pay its share for the tracks on the Bay Bridge and deeded 30 of its trains to the State instead. The state in turn leased these units back to the Key. Key System History Presentation  November 10, 2009  Will Spargur (cspargur87@gmail.com)   
  6. 6. 6    The Passenger train service started on the Bay Bridge in January of 1939. One year after opening the bridge to trains the Toll Bridge Authority dropped the toll from 40¢ to 25¢. The Southern Pacific and Sacramento Northern- who were also running commuter trains on the bridge – went belly up almost immediately. And Key ridership dropped. The Key faced harsh completion for transbay commuters. The corner cutting and recycling of older parts imposed severe service limitations. A fully loaded train would crawl at 20-25 mph up the incline up to Yerba Buena island as buses and trucks zoom past at 50mph. Taking the train began to seem like more a leisure activity than a mode of transport. Although the trains had big picturesque windows that provided great views they did not open and there was no air-conditioning. Imagine riding on a fully loaded train on a hot day. And remember that a suit was standard attire. Key System History Presentation  November 10, 2009  Will Spargur (cspargur87@gmail.com)   
  7. 7. 7    WWII reversed this decline almost overnight as gas and tire rationing moved people out of their cars and on to mass transit. Factories that made cars now made planes and tanks. In 1940, one year before America entered the war ridership was 10 million but by 1945 it more than tripled to 35 million. The war years were boom times for the Key Rail but with factories committed to the war effort they were unable to modernize their trains. Once the war ended the steady decline resumed. With government sponsored low interest mortgages, returning GIs flocked to suburbs not easily served by transit. Meanwhile the Key trains, worn-out by heavy use during the war and lack of capital investment limped along frantically trying to develop a profitable business model. In 1946 National City Lines saw an easy target and moved in for the kill. Key System History Presentation  November 10, 2009  Will Spargur (cspargur87@gmail.com)   
  8. 8. 8    National City Lines backed with financing from GM, Mack, Firestone, Standard Oil, Phillips 66 were buying up transit systems throughout the United States from Baltimore and St. Louis to Los Angles. They moved quickly to replace electric rails with rubber tires and gasoline engines. Although the key had already been replacing its minor routes with motor buses - National City Lines accelerated the pace with the goal of completely replacing all the rail lines – including the bridge routes with buses. This was advertised in many cities as a modernization program. Few drivers mourned the passing of street cars because this meant more space on the road as rails were ripped up. By 1948 National City Lines had successfully replaced all local lines with buses. Only the Bay Bridge Interurbans remained. By the 1950s National City Lines focused on removing the last rails of the Key System – the Bay Bridge Units and they found a willing accomplice with the Bridge Toll Authority. Traffic was rapidly increasing on the bridge which was reaching its limited and people were looking for ways to increase capacity. The rails were an easy target. Key System History Presentation  November 10, 2009  Will Spargur (cspargur87@gmail.com)   
  9. 9. 9    In 1954 19,000 people were using key trains to cross the bay while 152,000 were driving. Although with modern trains the tracks were capable of carrying far more people (BART carries 150,000 people a day in transbay tube). Studies at the time indicated that faster trains could attract riders back to the Key Bridge Trains but National City Lines instead spent millions ripping out the local street car tracks. The antiquated trains couldn’t attract commuters. National City Lines wanted to stop operating the bridge trains and the Toll Bridge Authority wanted that space which brings us back to April 20, 1958 as the last Key Train pulled into the Transbay Terminal. Even with the aggressive cost cutting the buses suffered the same declining ridership and within 2 years Alameda Contra Costa Transit was formed to buy out the failing Key System. Key System History Presentation  November 10, 2009  Will Spargur (cspargur87@gmail.com)   
  10. 10. 10    Although the Key System rail disappeared in 1958 the idea of a rapid rail system didn’t. In 1947 a Joint Army-Navy Board recommended an underwater transit tube. Even with the tracks gone transbay commutes where increasing and bridge just didn’t have the capacity to allow everyone to drive. The year before the last train on the Bridge the Bay Rapid Transit District was formed but it wouldn’t be until 1974 that a train crossed the bay again. This time underwater. Key System History Presentation  November 10, 2009  Will Spargur (cspargur87@gmail.com)