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Paving the Way for Buses: The Great GM Streetcar Conspiracy
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Paving the Way for Buses–

The Great GM Streetcar Conspiracy

Part I – The Villains

By Guy Span

Almost everyone accepts that GM plotted to buy up some transit companies and replace streetcars with new GM buses. This is considered the "Great Transportation Conspiracy" that finally ended up as a subplot in the cartoon hit "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" (and the main plot of a PBS docu-fictional entitled "Taken For A Ride"). Did GM actually buy electric traction companies and replace streetcars with buses? You betcha. Was it an illegal conspiracy to destroy streetcars? The United States government said no and acquitted the participants on that charge.

So who were the real heroes and villains in this story? One of the most recent villains is Bradford C. Snell, a researcher whose delusions of paranoia seem nearly limitless (at least in print). His 1974 report to the U.S. government was entitled "American Ground Transport–A Proposal for Restructuring the Automobile, Truck, Bus and Rail Industries." In it, he says his report "… demonstrates … General Motors to be a sovereign economic state whose common control of auto, truck, bus and locomotive production was a major factor in the displacement of rail and bus transportation with cars and trucks."

Snell’s 1974 report goes on to craft a plausible case for a vast conspiracy to destroy clean, economic, and user-friendly streetcars with ugly, smelly, and uneconomic buses so more people would buy cars. But there’s more! He also finds GM guilty of building diesel locomotives to eliminate electric freight railways and run up the operating expenses so more railways would either go bankrupt or raise their rates, thus benefiting the truckers (who would buy GM trucks). Snell’s report also accuses GM of collaborating with the Nazis during the war, defeating honest research into petroleum alternatives such as steam, steam turbine, and electrics. In fact, according to Snell, transportation in the modern 1970s was in such bad shape and so lacking in alternatives because of the machinations of GM.

To set this piece in its proper time frame, it is necessary to understand that this was an era of oil shortages, big gas guzzling cars, bankruptcy of nearly all the major northeastern railroads, the takeover of long-distance rail passenger services by a quasi-governmental agency (Amtrak in 1971), and a time when only five cities in the country still retained streetcars. Snell set out to connect all the dots with little regard for the facts. It was a good story, so he told it and in turn did a major disservice to the history of transportation in America.

While the breadth of Snell’s inaccuracies is too large to deal with here, it must be pointed out that inside each there was usually a kernel of truth. Some were just patently false. For instance: "The New Haven’s (railroad) replacement of its electric locomotives with GM diesels generatedhigher operating…expenses and substantial losses in passenger and freight revenues. During 50 years of electrified operation, it had never failed to show an operating profit."

The inconvenient facts: The New Haven was in bankruptcy from 1937 (the last year it could afford to buy newly-built electric locomotives) to 1947. By the time diesels rolled around, the New Haven used them to replace older and less efficient steam engines. Contrary to Snell’s implications, it retained electrification of its main line from New Haven, CT, to New York City, and under New York City law, all its passenger trains operated into the city using electricity. The New Haven Railroad reentered bankruptcy in 1961, not because it bought GM’s diesels, but because its franchise required operating lots of money-losing commuter and passenger service.

So for Snell, the New Haven was a microcosm of all railway profitability and the cause for it all was GM using its traffic muscle to foist off GM diesels on railroads that might have considered other alternatives. (Snell alleges railroads were forced to buy the diesels or lose GM’s significant freight business.) With railroads in trouble financially, they were offering poorer service at higher rates making trucking more successful. And the truckers would buy from GM. In Snell’s mind (and no where else), it was all a plot.

The next worst piece of revisionist history that Snell offers up is the motorization of New York City streetcars. Like the New Haven story, we find a gram of truth amid all the outrageously misleading claims. According to Snell, GM’s ownership of New York Omnibus in 1926 paved the way for the elimination of the surface transit lines. According to Snell, "At that time, as a result of stock and management interlocks, GM was able to exert substantial influence over (New York) Omnibus. John A. Ritchie, for example, served as chairman of GM’s bus division and president of Omnibus from 1926 to well after motorization was completed."

This is all true. But what did it have to do with the "busstitution" of New York’s transit lines? As it turns out, nothing. GM was simply moving in on a situation where it could sell some buses. The real villain of this piece was a Tammany Hall hack mayor, John F. Hylan, supported by the Hearst Papers. William Randolph Hearst had been supporting a populist campaign against the so-called "Traction Trusts" for years and his crony was probably just following orders. According to Zachary Schrag, author of "The Bus is Young and Honest," Hylan had been fired from the Kings County Elevated in 1897 (for studying law on the job) and had his own personal animosity toward the transit companies.

At that time, there were a number of independent transit companies operating on the surface streets. By the 1920s, they all had one thing in common–a five-cent fare that didn’t pay the bills and the lingering public animosity stirred up by the Hearst paper. And the bills were extraordinary. In a scene soon to be repeated across America, these lines were struggling to pay special franchise taxes, pay for their own snow removal, and pay to repave the street to eight feet outside their tracks–all legacies of the horse car days.

Any appeal to Mayor Hylan was rebuffed. Bankruptcy and receivership didn’t help. In 1923, Gerhard Dahl, president of the reorganized B.M.T., published "Transit Truths" to gain some public sympathy. Dahl’s words serve to highlight the relationship between transit and Hylan: " … the B.M.T. has met with the bitter, personal and unfair opposition of Mayor Hylan." And from a letter to Hylan: "For seven years, you have been misleading and fooling the people in this community… For seven years, you have blocked every effort at transit relief. You, and only you, are to blame for the present…deplorable condition of the whole transit situation. You have used the transit situation as a political escalator. You have been willing to sacrifice the comfort, the convenience and even the necessities of the people of this community to your selfish political interests. You are persisting in that course." Unfortunately, this broadside changed nothing.

Finally in 1924, New York Railways gave up and offered to rip up some 46 miles of tracks and substitute busses. NYR was hoping to avoid upcoming paving costs and perhaps get around the 25-year-old nickel fare. Hylan made them eat crow and admit that buses were superior to electric traction. After that, it was just a question of when the buses would arrive.

Note that this all occurred years before GM had any involvement in New York City. So when GM arrived on the scene, a political battle had been fought and lost by electric traction. Since New York was the most modern city in America, this one change would help create the mindset that streetcars and rapid transit were old and inefficient. Certainly GM worked assiduously to support the concept that buses were "modern" and in particular, to control three of the five independent operating companies. In turn, this control would be used to influence the type of buses purchased.

Snell’s report completely misses a critical juncture in history. Rather than dreaming up a scheme to replace traction with buses, GM was introduced to such a concept by the arch villains Hylan and Hearst. As a result, by 1933, the first Manhattan line was converted to buses and except for the Third Avenue Railway (which hung on until 1946) the last was converted in 1936. New York City finally achieved its "modern" buses and despite the efforts of the electric traction industry, the rest of the country would soon follow suit.

Snell’s report can also be misleading (apparently intentionally so). Snell says, "In 1940, GM, Standard Oil and Firestone assumed an active control in Pacific (City Lines)… That year, PCL began to acquire and scrap portions of the $100 million Pacific Electric System (of Roger Rabbit fame)." This statement implies that PCL was getting control of Pacific Electric, when in reality, all they did was acquire the local streetcar systems of Pacific Electric in Glendale and Pasadena and then convert them to buses. Many superficial readers jump on this statement as proof that GM moved in the Red Cars of the Pacific Electric. The ugly little fact is that PCL never acquired Pacific Electric (it was owned by Southern Pacific Railroad until 1953).

Thanks to the Snell report, we now have the makings of a good controversy. Many researchers blindly quote Snell, passing his paranoid, incorrect, and misleading research off as fact. Penny Mintz, who as a student wrote an article for the New York University Environmental Law Journal (1994), fell into this trap and quoted Bradford C. Snell nine times. On the Web, one can find seventeen papers accusing GM of conspiracy based upon Snell’s mendacious imaginings (not including one in Polish and another in French). Interestingly enough, four papers ignore Snell and use other evidence to point to a conspiracy, most notably an excellent article by Al Mankoff. Five others take Snell to task and prove there was no conspiracy, including Professor George Hilton’s thoughtful article in Transportation Quarterly 51, No.3. The Snell report is even the basis for the PBS movie "Taken For A Ride," which does indeed live up to its title.

Competent scholars are outraged at the abuses in Snell’s report and are happy to expose its nature. Once arguing against Snell, they find themselves firmly in the non-conspiracy camp. Pro-conspiracy theorists rely on Snell and look like idiots. Thus it appears as if Snell’s work is more effective at polarizing opinions (generating heat) than it is in adding any light. If someone wants a real conspiracy theory, how about Bradford Snell in the pay of GM to make up preposterous stories so a real conspiracy would be overlooked?

(Part II will look at what GM actually accomplished with National City Lines (and others), examine the handicaps of streetcars, and introduce you to one of the heroes in this story–E. Jay Quinby.)