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The Art of Streetcar Maintenance

With Pacific Electric 717

Written & Photographed by Rey Castillo, SCRM Motorman and maintenance volunteer.


A massive perk of being a member of the Southern California Railroad Museum is being able to set time aside on an otherwise-boring weekend and come down to engage in one of our many ongoing, volunteer-led projects. No prior experience is needed, only a willingness to learn and basic competency when handling tools. I guarantee you won’t get bored either, as you can hop from project to project as it suits your fancy. I’ve been helping out in our maintenance division since I joined the museum in 2017, and the most important lesson I’ve learned is: No job is too small.

Pacific Electric 717 showing off her Hollywood starlet looks. She doesn’t look a day past 81, wearing authentic PE Electric Lines Red with gold lettering.

One of our ongoing projects is returning Pacific Electric 717 to service. This car was originally built in 1925 by the Brill Company of Philadelphia, PA, and was used to take passengers between the busy Los Angeles downtown core to the wide-open San Fernando Valley through Hollywood Blvd. It’s for this reason that 717, and the four other cars of her type in our collection, are called “Hollywoods.” You may recognize her from such films as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and the Disney California Adventure Red Car trolleys, but don’t let her silver-screen looks fool you, as a lot of work goes on behind the scenes to get this showgirl rolling.

After 717 had her front recently rebuilt, including new paint and a new headlight bulb, it fell onto the maintenance division to inspect the streetcar from roof to railhead. Everything is examined closely to ensure it’s in tip-top condition, from the wear in the electric traction motors to calibrating the air pump so it provides adequate air for the streetcar to stop. Even something as small as the control stand is not spared, as contact points inside are lubricated and inspected to ensure there are no electrical arcs. Much of this job does involve small, minute details, but it all adds up to one glorious whole in the end.

Sometimes, during these inspections, we find more problems than we realize. For example, we found two of 717’s marker light bulbs on one end had burned out, which led to a quick dip into the parts warehouse just outside. Other issues were not as one-note, like some of 717’s relay insulators being thin and worn out. This usually leads to the hunt for spare parts or, in some cases, taking them from other cars. If we cannot find new parts, the best thing we can do is clean them up as best we can and reinstall them.

SCRM Operator John Cunningham gets his hands dirty on one of Pacific Electric 717’s relay insulators.

We would like, one day, to have a larger volunteership aid with our streetcar and locomotive maintenance, as our volunteer force is the only thing keeping a car as old as 717 around for people of all generations to enjoy. Whether it’s a first-time look, or a nostalgic trip to the past, our streetcars keep running thanks to your donations and our efforts. If throwing a wrench around on the weekends sounds like your kind of thing, or if you would just like to donate to our various projects, click on the links above. We happily await your support.

Special thanks to our museum collections manager Rod Fishburn, Kjell Larsson, Ryan Keck, John Cunningham, Carson King, and all the other volunteers who keep our cars running.

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