Bob Diamond (seated) gives one of his Atlantic Avenue tunnel tours. Photo: Steve and Sara Emry / Flickr

Bob Diamond (seated) gives one of his Atlantic Avenue tunnel tours. Photo: Steve and Sara Emry / Flickr

THE COMMUTE: If you’ve ever ventured out of Sheepshead Bay to go shopping — and why would you want to? — and visited Fairway in Red Hook, you have most likely seen three rusted Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) street cars behind the store on trolley tracks. They are there no more. After being on property owned by the O’Connell Organization for many years, a few weeks ago, company head Greg O’Connell decided to have them removed because of the serious deterioration they have undergone since Hurricane Sandy. He decided that it would be better to donate them to the Branford Electric Railway Association (BERA), which would house them at an undisclosed location and aid in the search for a permanent home. If none can be found, the cars will be scrapped for parts. The O’Connell Organization paid for the cars’ transport.

There is also a question as to whether the trolleys were, in fact, O’Connell’s property to donate, although they were on his property. Bob Diamond, whose dream it is to construct a waterfront trolley line in Red Hook utilizing an abandoned Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) tunnel beneath Atlantic Avenue, which he discovered in 1980, claims to have rightful ownership to the vehicles. Diamond abandoned the trolleys on O’Connell’s property several years ago after his plans to operate trolley service failed to materialize.

The Story Of A Dreamer

Those of you who are unfamiliar with Diamond’s story, and are interested in his plight, owe it to yourselves to read this article in its entirety in the TheVerge.com. Although much has been written over the years about the oldest subway tunnel in the world — built in 1844 beneath Atlantic Avenue and sealed closed in 1861 — this article is by far the most comprehensive. Diamond discovered the tunnel at age 20 after spending much time rummaging through municipal archives. There may even be an old locomotive buried in the tunnel. Diamond really did the city and history a huge service by discovering this tunnel, at great personal sacrifice by devoting his entire life to this tunnel. His efforts, however, have gone thoroughly unappreciated by the city. As Diamond states, the tunnel was part of his persona. I am not going to quote passages from the article because I would like you to read the article in its entirety. It is that good. It discusses the history of the tunnel, tours of the tunnel Diamond gave between 1982 and 2010, and his battles with the city.

The Last Trolleys In Brooklyn

The PCC cars were the most advanced trolley cars of its day and were in use in Brooklyn on only a few lines for fewer than 20 years when they were replaced by old smelly buses. The New York City Transit Authority — now part of the MTA — didn’t see fit to replace them with new buses. That didn’t prevent them from claiming that this was “another transit improvement” in the signs on the buses. Although, I was only six at the time in October 1955, I remember those signs and the new diesel fumes all too well.

In Brooklyn, the PCC trolleys last ran on the Coney Island Avenue B68, the Church Avenue B35, and the McDonald Avenue B50. The B50 did not receive replacement bus service. The PCC cars also previously operated on the Vanderbilt Avenue B69, and Smith Street B75 routes, and perhaps a few others. Four trolley cars continued to run over the Queensboro Bridge for an additional year. PCC cars were also in use on the Newark City Subway until 2001.

Most trolley routes discontinued service between 1948 and 1953. There are many reasons why trolleys are no more, from Mayor La Guardia’s hatred for them to a conspiracy by tire and rubber companies and General Motors to get rid of trolleys, a conspiracy that was not known about until the late 1970s. You can explore all that on your own if you are interested.

Trolleys Once Ruled Brooklyn

Before subways, we had elevated lines and streetcars. The streetcars, which were electrified at the beginning of the 20th century and also called trolleys and more recently light rail, provided the major source of surface mass transportation in Brooklyn. Buses, then called omnibuses, didn’t start operation until the 1920s and were much smaller than the buses we are familiar with today. They were more like jitneys, carrying only about 20 passengers, as compared to trolleys, which were longer and had more seats. Over the years, buses grew in length, increasing seating capacity from 20 in the 1920s to 53 by 1948. Since then, until the arrival of articulated buses, bus seating began to shrink to 31 on some 40-foot buses today.

Virtually all north/south routes in Brooklyn were operated by trolleys as well as virtually all east/west routes in northern and central Brooklyn. Since much of southern Brooklyn was still undeveloped in the 1930s and north/south trolley lines existed primarily to bring people to the shore, a need arose for east/west service by the 1930s. Rather than undergoing the expense of constructing additional trolley lines, the option of less expensive bus service was chosen.

It was decided to number the bus routes, since trolleys were identified by a large letter in front, denoting the major street of operation. (Numbers came later.) The first bus routes were the 1A, 1B and 1C, followed by the 2, 3, and 3A. Routes 4 through 20 quickly followed. The suffixes were later dropped. For example the 3A became the 31. However, all other route numbers higher than 22 were originally trolley lines, except for the B82, 83 and 84 which were either renumbered or newly created. So you can envision how extensive Brooklyn’s trolley system was. Brooklyn also flirted with a hybrid known as trolley coaches on a few routes and we also once had a few cable car routes.

Additionally, unlike today, where most bus routes remain stagnant, the early days of bus operation saw frequent bus re-routings. Trolley routings were even more subject to change than today’s bus routes. Separate trolley routes over existing trackage operated only during the summer. One of those operated over Gates Avenue, Franklin Avenue, Ocean Avenue and Parkside Avenue onto the existing Coney Island Avenue trolley trackage, providing direct beach service for residents of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Open air trolleys were also in use on beach routes during summer months. Many were sorry to see the trolleys go.

Conclusion

Although I have never met or had any contact with Diamond, I sympathize with his plight. I know what it is to have a dream and be passionate about realizing it. Mine is to see the Brooklyn buses rerouted in areas where the current routing has outlived its usefulness. Diamond’s is to restore and utilize the tunnel he discovered for trolley service between Downtown Brooklyn and Red Hook. Let’s hope that both of our dreams — a more functional bus routing system and utilization of the Atlantic Avenue Tunnel — see the light of day.

The Commute is a weekly feature highlighting news and information about the city’s mass transit system and transportation infrastructure. It is written by Allan Rosen, a Manhattan Beach resident and former Director of MTA/NYC Transit Bus Planning (1981).

Disclaimer: The above is an opinion column and may not represent the thoughts or position of Sheepshead Bites. Based upon their expertise in their respective fields, our columnists are responsible for fact-checking their own work, and their submissions are edited only for length, grammar and clarity. If you would like to submit an opinion piece or become a regularly featured contributor, please e-mail nberke [at] sheepsheadbites [dot] com.

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  • Heimen Stoffels

    Let’s hope the PCC’s get a second life with Diamond. Ever since reading and viewing about the tunnel a few years ago he got me interested and I’m on his side. And PCC’s are absolutely great cars to ride on! I rode them a couple of years ago in a trip the Transit Museum of The Hague, The Netherlands. The Hague had PCC’s in service for many, many years until they replaced them with newer street cars in the 90s.
    From all of the street cars I’ve ever rode (quite a few, actually), the PCC’s gave me by far the best experience I’ve ever had on a street car. It’d be awesome to get them running in the abandoned LIRR tunnel, I know I’d be one of his first customers :)

    • Allan Rosen

      I forgot to mention that not only were the old buses that replaced the PCCs dirty and smelly, the ride was terribly rickety and all the windows always rattled. Compare that to the smooth quiet acceleration and deceleration provided by the PCCs which felt more like subway cars, and the ride was like night and day.

      I also remember, the operator of the Church Avenue trolley didn’t know what do do with his hands since there was no steering wheel. He just kept them folded in front of him. It seemed so strange.

      You also had to pass through a turnstile to board that didn’t require a fare. Don’t remember if that was to prevent someone from exiting from the front.

      • max smart

        Thought you were too young to have ridden the trolleys

      • max smart

        maybe it was to prevent you from falling off

      • Heimen Stoffels

        Turnstiles on vehicles are still used. Amsterdam has sort-of turnstile at the doors of streetcars and Groningen has them in buses. Haven’t seen them anywhere else in the world that I’ve been to though so not sure if there are more places that still have it.

        I won’t comment on the PCC vs bus one since I haven’t ridden any US buses from that era.

  • Bill Hough

    Alan, as usual your post is informative and well written. I have some additional thoughts which might put a perspective on the situation.

    Regarding the unfortunate situation with the PCCs in Red Hook, they were a relic from an abortive attempt at running a neighborhood streetcar service that dated back to the 1990s. As you know, I used to work at NYCDOT and my impression of Mr. Diamond is that “he didn’t play well with others.” While NYCDOT could be a difficult agency to deal with, there are two sides to every dispute.

    More recently, photos show the cars in question had become rusting piles of junk and graffiti magnets. The O’Connell organization’s press release http://redhookwaterfront.com/2014/02/the-oconnell-organization-donates-trolley-cars/ states ” The list of issues that arose post-Sandy with respect to these trolley cars includes rust, rotting, missing doors, frozen gear cases, destroyed windows and glass, and motors which were immersed in salt water.” My personal opinion is that the cars were abandoned on O’Connell’s property and needed to be removed because they were becoming an safety hazard. I’m sure the real lawyers will sort this out should Mr. Diamond sue Mr. O’Connell.

    Next, regarding the so-called “streetcar conspiracy,” find yourself a copy of the January 2006 issue of Trans magazine-this issue’s most interesting and provocative article, “Did a Conspiracy Really Kill the Streetcar?” Given all of
    the press and PBS specials about how Big Bad GM was single-handedly
    responsible for destroying the street railway industry, it’s nice to have a long-time industry professional attempt to set the record straight. He does this by using the Twin Cities experience as a case study but the results can be extrapolated to the rest of the world.

    Bottom line, the rise of the automobile, and pro-car government policies, supported by a willing motoring public, are to blame, not NCL. We have met the enemy and he is us, or some such. Anyway, if GM’s to blame, how come streetcars died in non-NCL cities in the US, and, oh, by the way, around the world? For example, Great Britain ripped up all but one of its conventional tram routes by 1980. GM/NCL’s fault? Not bloody likely. Anyway, this article should be
    nominated for one of those R&LHS awards.

    Keep up the good work.

    • Heimen Stoffels

      It’s also a matter of service. Quite a few trolley lines in various places around the world served areas that weren’t connected before (or roughly connected). Sometimes the routing was weird though as they didn’t really go into towns or neighbourhoods like people wanted. So when the cars and buses came and roads improved, streetcars in those particular areas became obsolete as most people switched to cars or buses.

      • Allan Rosen

        I am not sure I understand you. Sounds like you are saying the trolleys were outdated. That wasn’t the case in NYC, because when the buses took over trolley routes here, in virtually all cases, they adopted the exact same route. You would think if they were outdated, the bus routes tat took over trolley routes would have operated differently from day 1.

        • Heimen Stoffels

          The guy I responded to talked about ‘around the world’ and so did I. Local exceptions exist, of course.

          • Allan Rosen

            I wasn’t disagreeing with you, only pointing out the difference.

    • Allan Rosen

      Bill, I’ve heard the same rumors about Mr.Diamond but didn’t mention them because I do not know how true they are. I wonder if someone else woud have had greater success with the City. I know there were others involved in the process who broke off from Mr. Damond’s organization, but they also failed to convince the City. So I do not believe he was te problem. I think O’ Connell made the correct decision and was not criticizing him.

      I do not think a conspiracy explains all the reasons for te demise of trolleys but how do you explain rubber companies buying up trolley companies, then discontinuing service if, which is what I heard, if there was no conspiracy? (I do not know what NCL is.)

      From what I heard on the street, the fact that trolleys stopped in the center of the street without pulling over to the curb was considered dangerous with more and more cars zipping around on both sides of the islands which were only painted and not raised or protected in any way. Also, over the years private ROWs for trolleys for converted to shared rights of way over the years (like on Ocean and Coney island Avenues) making them less effective. Cities which retained private ROWs were able to maintain more lines for longer periods.

      • Guest

        The guy I responded to talked about ‘around the world’ and so did I. Local exceptions of course exist.

      • fdtutf

        NCL is National City Lines.

    • RIPTA42

      Here’s another great anti-Conspiracy Theory article by Van Wilkins from the NERJ – http://www.erha.org/plot.htm

      Besides the fact that countless non-NCL properties converted to buses, there’s one other detail the conspiracy theorists overlook: NCL also converted several properties to PCCs. I don’t recall the source of this statistic, but I once heard that NCL was the single largest purchaser of the PCC car.

      • Bill Hough

        That Van Wilkins article summarizes most of the issues pretty well. The fact that so many non-NCL cities converted to bus pretty much debunks this theory. Again, this was a global trend.

  • max smart

    Always wanted to take that tour

  • VLM

    The waterfront trolley routing would be far better off not using a 150-year tunnel that doesn’t go anywhere underneath Atlantic Ave. Some more at this SAS post from September: http://secondavenuesagas.com/2013/09/23/is-light-rail-right-for-red-hook/

    • Allan Rosen

      I think I understand what you mean, but it sounds like you are saying the tunnel does not go under Atlantic Avenue.

      • VLM

        Sorry for the confusion. The tunnel is definitely underneath Atlantic Ave., but it doesn’t lead anywhere useful. Using it for the sake of using it doesn’t accomplish anything and would add to the costs.

        • Allan Rosen

          Atlantic Avenue Barclays Center isn’t anywhere useful? If that is the case, why did the MTA choose to terminate the revived B37 there? Running it along the street makes more sense?

          • VLM

            Running it along the street makes far more sense. Are you aware of how long — or short — the Atlantic Ave. tunnel is? It’s a gimmick, a historical relic, and nothing more.

          • RIPTA42

            There would have to be a station at Court. Once you start excavating for platforms and elevators, you’ve sort of lost any historical significance of the tunnel, let alone any convenience to the passengers by letting them off at street level. It makes no sense for light rail to use the tunnel.

  • Bill Hough

    Alan, NCL refers to National City Lines, the holding company that acquired many transit systems in the 1950s, converting many to buses. Problem, many non-NCL systems were converted as well. Basically, the streetcar to bus conversions were a product of their time and not some malevolent conspiracy. It’s a complicated story; you can start with this report: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-gm-trolley-conspiracy-what-really-happened/

  • History_Fan

    If you’re brave enough to take a trip to Canarsie these days, you can still see the old trolley poles in plain sight still standing along Rockaway Parkway headed towards East 95th and 96th streets.

    • Allan Rosen

      I think there are also a few along Surf Avenue.

  • Howard Hecht

    We need personal rapid transit (PRT) and Group Rapid Transit (GRT) throughout Brooklyn and Queens. These are fast, energy efficient, modern and cost effective.

    • Allan Rosen

      Please elaborate.