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RyPN Briefs December 21, 2010
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Book Review: Pacific Electric's 500 - Class Cars
Interurban Pioneers

John Smatlak, Shade Tree Books, Bellflower, CA

108 pages, softbound, $30.95.

This focused and intensive book chronicles the technological and operating history of the Pacific Electric Railway's 500 class cars from inception through retirement and rebirth through replication.

Smatlak places the evolution of the cars within the framework of the changes undergone by the Pacific Electric system and the greater Los Angeles region as an organic part of the whole. Thus the book, while full of technical details about the cars, their equipment, and mode of use, also provides the contextual basis for understanding the wider and richer history of the railway system. It is profusely illustrated with historic photographs to build on the context, as well as illustrate the technical evolution of the cars. Along with the historic photos of the cars in use, drawings, shop documents, even the original bills of sale for the cars makes this one of the most complete histories of a single class of rolling stock I've had the pleasure of reviewing.

Smatlak does not stop chronicling the cars history with their retirement, however. He has included a chapter showing how some carbodies were recycled and either purposely or accidentally preserved in adaptive reuse. Some of these carbodies are then shown in their third careers as parts of the collections of railroad museums when they were no longer needed for their second incarnations. So, we are also provided with a capsule history of the evolution of railroad museums as they found, moved, and preserved these cars (to a greater or lesser extent) over the past 45 years.

Finally, the rebirth of the 500 class cars as models for the new Waterfront Red Car line and the new line itself are covered, a shorter history but as contextually rich in its chapter as the rest of the book covers the longer history of the original.

As an experiment, I passed this book along to a friend I work with who has no interest in railways but is from Southern California and likes architectural history. He was a bit lost in the rail jargon, but captivated by the images and contextual information to the extent that he took the book home to share with his young children, and they are now planning a specific visit to the new waterfront line to ride the cars during their upcoming holiday family reunion trip. This book has a wider audience than just railfans.

$30.95, Shade Tree Books, PO Box 1539, Bellflower, CA 90707-1539 or zap John Smatlak a PM on RyPN.org.