San Diego Electric Railway

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San Diego Electric Railway
Reporting marks SDER
Locale California
Dates of operation 18921949
Track gauge ft 8½ in (1435 mm) (standard gauge)
Headquarters San Diego, California

The San Diego Electric Railway (SDERy) was a mass transit system in Southern California using streetcars and (in later years) buses. The SDERy was established by "sugar heir," developer, and entrepreneur John D. Spreckels in 1892. The railroad's original network consisted of 5 routes, delineated as follows:

  • the Fifth Street and Logan Heights Lines;
  • the First and "D" Streets Lines;
  • the Depot Line;
  • the Ferry Line; and
  • the "K" Street Shuttle.

The company would establish additional operating divisions as traffic demands led to the formation of new lines. The company also engaged in limited freight handling primarily as an interchange with Spreckels' San Diego and Arizona Railway (SD&A) from 1923 to 1929.

At its peak, the SDERy's routes would operate throughout the greater San Diego area over some 165 miles (266 kilometers) of track. Steadily-declining ridership, due in large part to the phenomenal rise in popularity of the automobile, ultimately led the company to discontinue all streetcar service in favor of bus routes in 1949. The demise of some streetcar companies in the United States has been tied by some to the alleged General Motors streetcar conspiracy, in which a consortium of General Motors, Standard Oil, and others formed a front company, National City Lines, in order to buy streetcar lines, shut them down, and replace them with buses. The plot of Touchstone Pictures' 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit is loosely based on this theory.

The few surviving pieces of rolling stock are on display at the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum in Campo, the San Diego Electric Railway Association in National City, and the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, California.

"Before you can hope to get people to live must first of all show them that they can get there quickly, comfortably, and above all, cheaply. Transportation determines the flow of population." J.D. Spreckels



"Rapid Transit in San Diego": An original 1886 horse-drawn trolley and its driver participate in a parade celebrating the groundbreaking of the Panama-California Exposition Center in 1911.
  • July 3, 1886: The first horse-drawn open-air streetcar of the San Diego Street Car Company (SDSCC) (founded by Hamilton Story and Elisa Babcock) makes its run up 5th Street. The fare is five cents.
  • November 9, 1887: The first electrically powered streetcar makes a test run on new tracks up Broadway to Kettner Boulevard and on to "Old Town."
  • November 19, 1887: Electric streetcar service is inaugurated on the San Diego and Old Town Street Railway, making it the first electric railway on the west coast and the second in the country to use the "ground return" for electric current.
  • 1888: The Electric Rapid Transit Company (ERTC) puts an electric streetcar into regular operation in San Diego.
  • July 22, 1889: The San Diego Cable Railway (SDCR) is incorporated and takes over the failed ERTC.
  • June 7, 1890: Opening day on the SDCR.
  • September 9, 1890: The SDCR opens "Mission Cliffs Gardens," a small recreation park (one of San Diego's first public recreation areas) overlooking beautiful Mission Valley, as an end-of-the-line attraction for cable car patrons.
Opening Day on the San Diego Cable Railway:
June 7, 1890.
  • November 30, 1891: John D. Spreckels incorporates the San Diego Electric Railway Company (SDERy).
  • January 30, 1892: The SDERy purchases the SDSCC and the majority of its assets for $115,000; over the next few years the company will also acquire the competing Park Belt Line and the Ocean Beach Railroad. Plans are made to convert all existing lines to traction, and ten single-truck, single-trolley, open platform wooden cars are subsequently purchased from the J.G. Brill Company.
  • September 19, 1892: Car No. 6 begins shake-down runs on the electrified portion of the line.
  • September 21, 1892: Double-decker Car No. 1, the first such electrically operated car in the United States, makes the inaugural run with many of the City's notables aboard.
  • October 15, 1892: The SDCR makes its last run, the company having declared bankruptcy earlier in the year.
SDERy double-decker Car No. 1 pauses at the intersection of 5th Street & Market Street during its inaugural run on September 21, 1892.
  • December 31, 1892: The line has grown to 16.70 miles of aggregated system track (12.21 miles of single electrified track with 4.49 miles for horse-drawn cars). Many new electrified lines will be constructed during the coming years.
  • August 1895: The Citizens Traction Company (CTC) is formed and purchases the remains of the SDCR for $17,600, adapting the line to electric operation in order to compete with the SDERy.
  • July 28, 1896: The first converted trolley car runs the entire length of the 4.7-mile long CTC line
  • February 12. 1897: Financial difficulties force the CTC goes into receivership.
  • March 23, 1898: Elisa Babcock, as agent for the SDERy, buys the properties and franchises of the CTC for $19,000 plus "fees and costs." The track gauge is subsequently widened from 3 ft, 6 in to standard gauge.
  • 1905: Spreckels builds a new power generating plant to accommodate the additional loads imposed by the expanding streetcar network.
Looking south on Market Street, circa 1904.
  • 1906: Spreckels announces he will form the San Diego and Arizona Railway (SD&A) and build a 148-mile line between San Diego and El Centro. The Third Avenue Streetcar Line begins operation. The SDERy logs 798,152 car miles.
  • 1907: The Third Avenue Streetcar Line is extended to the future community of Mission Hills, and is briefly renamed the Mission Hills Line.
  • 1910: Spreckels forces a ballot initiative to amend his charter with the City of San Diego to give him more than 25 years on his leases to operate streetcar service. With this greater security he is able to acquire major loans for service expansion and infrastructure.
  • 1911: The Imperial Avenue operating division is established in downtown. Spreckels builds second power generating plant at Kettner Boulevard and "E" Street when the plant built in 1905 can no longer provide sufficient capacity.
  • 1913: Construction of a new brick car barn located at Adams Avenue and Florida Street is completed.
  • December 31, 1914: The SDERy owns 38.9 miles of single track and 22.4 miles of double track, for a total of 83.7 miles of "equivalent single track."
  • 1915: The Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park spurs the next phase of transportation growth. A new electric car line is constructed up 12th Street to the Park's entrance with 101 new cars from the St. Louis Car Company and the Adams Avenue operating division is established in Normal Heights. San Diego's original Victorian style train depot is demolished and replaced with a new Mission Revival Style Santa Fe depot building. The SDERy logs 3,521,571 car miles.
  • 1916: The "Great Flood" washes out several rail lines. World War I increases the cost of railway construction materials by 50 to 150 percent. There is a significant increase in the private ownership of automobiles and the SDERy begins to lose revenue to private "Jitney Buses."
  • November 15, 1919: The "golden spike" is driven and construction of the SD&A is ceremonially completed at a cost of $18 million (three times the original estimate).
  • 1920: Spreckels announces plans to discontinue service on several rail lines to offset expenses, leading to approval of "zone fares". The SDERy purchases new streetcars that requires only one driver/conductor instead of two; older cars are retrofitted to reduce labor costs. Spreckels sells his power generating plants to the Consolidated Gas and Electric Company.
  • 1921: The first motor bus goes into service operating between National City and Chula Vista. "Number One" has hard rubber tires, two-wheel mechanical brakes, a four-cylinder engine, and a plywood body.
  • March 17, 1923: The SDERy begins its last major rail line expansion to Mission Beach ("Belmont Park"), Pacific Beach, and La Jolla. $2.5 million is spent on rails, Mission Revival Style terminals and substations, and Egyptian Revival Style stations, and $800,000 is spent on the acquisition of 50 new cars. Construction is completed in 1925.
  • December 18, 1923: Car No. 400, an all-steel model with a closed body and the first on the SDERy to feature a pantograph-type current collector, is delivered. All 50 pantograph-equipped cars would eventually have trolley poles installed at each end due to the pantographs' poor performance.
  • 1930: Buses begin to replace street cars from Ocean Beach to La Jolla, and 222 new buses are added to the fleet. Ridership and revenue goes down but the SDERy is able to weather the economic downturn.
  • 1935: The California Pacific International Exposition opens in Balboa Park without the need for expanded transit service.
  • 1936: The SDERy orders 25 single-end Presidents Conference Committee (P.C.C.) cars from the St. Louis Car Company, becoming the first streetcar system in the United States to utilize streamlined units. The cars are designated as Class 6. An order for 3 additional units is placed the following year.
  • 1941: World War II turns San Diego into a "boom town" again. Defense related industries revitalize the city, as does an influx of military personnel. Ridership on public transit increases 600 percent during the war years. Used transit vehicles are purchased from around the nation, and more electrical power is needed and substations are built (one in the basement of the Spreckels Theatre Building on Broadway). The $2.5 million rail line built in the 1920s to the beaches is ripped out along with the elaborate stations and terminals and replaced with a bus line.
  • 1942: The combined streetcar and bus lines carry 94 million people. Additional streetcars are brought in on loan from New York City, Salt Lake City, Utah and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania to help keep up with demand.
  • 1944: Combined ridership increases lead to more than 146 million trips.
  • 1945: Cars No. 502 and No. 503 are painted red and blue (in lieu of the standard golden yellow) to the American Red Cross blood donation campaign.
  • 1946: The SDERy begins to phase out streetcar lines and replace them with bus routes. By the following year, only 3 street car lines will remain in operation.
  • July 26, 1948: The Western Transit Company (WTC) purchases the SDERy.
  • August 1948: 13 new 45-passenger buses are placed into service.
  • September 9, 1948: The WTC announces that the SDERy will henceforth be known as the San Diego Transit System (SDTS), for $5.5 million. A new emblem (consisting of a pair of wings with a shield in the center) and slogan, "Safety, Courtesy, Service," are adopted.
  • January 13, 1949: The SDTS borrows $720,000 for the purchase of additional new buses, and makes an application to the State Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to discontinue streetcar service.
  • March 3, 1949: The PUC grants authority to the SDTS to abandon its remaining streetcar lines.
  • March 27, 1949: A "farewell to the streetcars" excursion, operated over the remaining trackage, is sponsored by the Pacific Railroad Society of Los Angeles.
  • April 23, 1949: 45 new GM buses (each costing $20,000) parade down Broadway to mark the retirement of the street cars; free rides are offered during the procession.
  • April 24, 1949: Rail service on the SDERy comes to an end at 5:45 a.m. as Car No. 446 pulls into the Adams Avenue car barn, making San Diego the first major Southwestern United States city to eliminate streetcars and convert to an all-bus transit system.
  • May 23, 1949: Work crews begin removing the overhead trolley lines and tracks on the loop at downtown's Union Station.
  • 1950: 17 of the P.C.C. model cars are sold to the El Paso City Lines (EPCL) for service on the international loop between El Paso, Texas and the Mexican border town of Juarez, Mexico.
  • 1952: Three more P.C.C.'s are sold to EPCL. All remaining Class 5 cars and the 3 "service" cars are purchased by the Allied Salvage Company for scrap.
  • August 1957: The 8 remaining P.C.C.'s are purchased by the San Diego Mill Supply Company. Car No. 508 is acquired by the Orange Empire Traction Company for display at its museum in Perris, California, and Car No. 528 is obtained by the Railway Historical Society of San Diego for preservation and exhibition.
  • July 19, 1981: After years of planning and development, the "San Diego Trolley" (a new interurban light rail mass transit system) makes its inaugural run on the 15.9-mile long "South Line" between the U.S. International Border and Centre City San Diego.
  • July 26, 1981: The San Diego Trolley begins revenue service; San Diego will become known in transit circles as "The city that started the 'light rail craze' in the United States."
  • February 14, 2005: The San Diego Electric Railway Association salvages the body shell of car 357 (formerly of the Bellingham, Washington streetcar system) from a Centre City San Diego restaurant site where it had been used as a "dining room" since 1972.[1]
  • December 14, 2005: The San Diego Vintage Trolley Co. purchases two former San Francisco Municipal Railway PCC cars. The cars are expected to run on a loop around Centre City using existing San Diego Trolley tracks; service may start in 2008.


  • Copeland, P. Allen (2002). California Trolleys In Color, Volume 1: San Diego and Los Angeles. Morning Sun Books, Inc., Scotch Plains, NJ. ISBN 1-58248-076-1. 
  • Dodge, Richard V. (1960). Rails of the Silver Gate. Golden West Books, San Marino, CA. ISBN 0-87095-019-3. 

Further reading

  • Thompson, Gregory Lee (1993). The Passenger Train in the Motor Age: California's Rail and Bus Industries, 1910–1941. Ohio State University Press, Columbus, OH. ISBN 0-8142-0609-3. 

See also

External links

A view of the SDERy streetcar barn located at "Mission Cliffs Gardens" on Adams Avenue, circa 1915.