End of the Line? Conductor Vows to Save Port of L.A.'s Red Car Line

Bryant has operated the Red Car for the past 10 years | Photo: Julia Waldow

"Any kids want to blow the whistle?" asks Bob Bryant, a conductor for the Port of Los Angeles Waterfront Red Car Line in San Pedro.

It is a sunny Sunday afternoon, and Bryant is about to operate the Red Car from the Marina Station up to Ports O'Call Village. A few kids make their way to the back of the train, reaching out to pull a cord dangling from above. A loud chooooo echoes through the air.

Lined with vintage advertisements, open-air windows and reversible benches, the car chugs along, whistles blowing and wheels clicking, smelling of shiny "No. 1 Electric Lines Red" paint, mahogany and the sea-salt air of the Marina. It's a tourist attraction and a step back into the past, and for Bryant, it requires a specific formula.

"The best way to do it is sit there, close your eyes for a second, and say, 'I'm my grandmother and what did it feel like and look like riding this Red Car?' And open them. And it is spectacular," said Bryant, whose friend Bob Henry offered him a job at the Port 10 years ago.

Equipped with four stops, the Red Car is a historic replica of the original Pacific Electric cars that transported workers and settlers across early Los Angeles. Since its installation 12 years ago, it has carried 1.1 million passengers along a 1.5-mile stretch of Harbor Boulevard and traveled the distance it would take to go around the world six times. Its five conductors serve as "ambassadors to Los Angeles and the Harbor Area," advising passengers on where to eat and what to see.

Despite the Red Car's success, however, Bryant and his co-workers may find their jobs reaching the end of the line.

Bryant acts as an ambassador to San Pedro, telling riders what museums to visit and where to buy the best fish tacos | Photo: Julia Waldow
Bryant acts as an ambassador to San Pedro, telling riders what museums to visit and where to buy the best fish tacos | Photo: Julia Waldow

Come late September, the Red Car's tracks will be dug up to make way for the construction of a new town square and the realignment of Sampson Way into Ports O'Call Village. The project is expected to last 18 months, and plans to restore the Red Car line following construction do not currently exist. It would cost $40 million in current figures to replace the rail line, which the Port built for $10 million in 2003.

The Red Car, which operates on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and charges one dollar for an all-day pass, is also being cut for expenditure reasons. Although the Red Car makes about $11,000 to $18,000 a year, expenses to run the car reach nearly $2 million annually.

Collecting revenue, however, is not the car's main function, Bryant says.

"When Bob Henry decided to build the Red Car station, it was built for transportation," he remarked. "[The Cruise Center] had buses that bused their employees to Long Beach to spend their money. The Port said, 'Wait a minute. Why don't we have some sort of transportation to bring them back into San Pedro to have them spend their money here?' It's frustrating to me because ... we're doing what we were supposed to do."

Discontinuation is not a new dilemma for the Red Car system. The original Pacific Electric (PE) Red Cars were built in the early 1900s and had all but disappeared by 1961, wiping out 1,000 miles of rail line. Originally every major part of Los Angeles had an easement for the PE Red Cars, but as buses, automobiles and freeways increased, it became more difficult to operate the trains, according to L.A. Metro.

"[The Red Cars] helped build Los Angeles," Bryant said. "If it wasn't for the Red Cars, it would have been a disaster. L.A. would have never developed."

When the Port of Los Angeles decided to revive part of the Red Car system, it wanted to preserve this legacy. The line initially featured two replica rail cars with wooden seats, brass fittings and wood-paneled interiors identical to those of the original cars. For six years, the two trains traveled up and down the waterfront, taking passengers from 22nd and Miner up to the Cruise Center. However, when the recession hit, the Port was forced to cut back. Currently, only one car (500 or 501) runs at a time.

Staying focused is imperative while operating the car. 'You are paying 100 percent [attention] ahead of you,' Bryant said. 'You have to operate it defensively.' | Photo: Julia Waldow
Staying focused is imperative while operating the car. 'You are paying 100 percent [attention] ahead of you,' Bryant said. 'You have to operate it defensively.' | Photo: Julia Waldow

Back on the train, Bryant drives the car straight ahead. Sporting a locomotive-themed tie, he offers suggestions of where to go and explains the Red Car's past to those on board. His favorite part, though, is hearing riders talk of the olden days.

"I remember one very close friend of mine sitting in the Red Car with his son and his grandson, and the grandson saying, 'Grandpa, did you ride this when you were a kid?'" Bryant said. "And [the grandpa] saying, 'Yes, I used to date your grandma and we used to travel this on our dates.' In his eyes you could see his memory of when he dated his wife. I mean those years are gone, and he could remember them."

Older relatives bringing younger relatives along for the ride is a common occurrence. Carol Hughey and her husband Ron brought their two grandchildren onboard for what Ron considers "its historical significance."

"It was very pleasant," Carol said. "I was impressed by how restored it was -- every detail. It was just a beautiful museum piece. You just don't see things being made like that today, and I'm kind of sad that it's going to leave."

Faced with the prospect of the Red Car's demise, Bryant is committed to saving the train for the sake of riders like Carol, Ron and their grandchildren.

"This is being stolen from the community," he said.

Bryant, a San Pedro native, is no stranger to community involvement. A retired salesman for both Prudential Insurance and Sears, Roebuck & Company, Bryant chaired the board of St. Peter's Episcopal Day School for eight to 10 years. He spent 12 years as an AYSO commissioner, hosting international soccer teams, sending referees and coaches to clinics and putting on summer programs for kids. For the past five years, he has also sat on the Northwest San Pedro Neighborhood Council, where he produces the newspaper and coordinates a fair that instructs young people on how to get jobs.

"In all the years I've been alive, other people have seen things in me that I still don't see in myself," Bryant said. "I believe in not being the person that's the outspoken leader. I feel like you sort of need to be in the background and lead from your integrity, your honesty."

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Those same values have propelled Bryant into preserving the Red Car. Not only has Bryant met with numerous city officials, but he has also brainstormed an alternate rail route that would run from 22nd Street to Ports O'Call Village. Bryant has also spoken out against an option to rebuild the Red Car in 10 years, calculating that it would eventually take $100-140 million to replace the current system.

"Does anybody believe that the Port should spend $140 million to put back what they already have?" he asked.

Bryant has begun a petition titled "Save the Red Car!" and plans to speak with both Councilman Joe Buscaino and Mayor Eric Garcetti within the next two weeks.

"The bottom line is, we're going to fight for the Red Car, and the mayor's going to get a batch of petitions on his desk," Bryant said. "If he won't see me, I'll stand at his home and hand it to him as he comes in."

Although Bryant is at the forefront of the movement to save the Red Car, he stresses that he is not doing anything for personal gain.

"Whether we shut the Red Car down or whether we don't, honestly, personally, I've had the privilege of operating it," he said. "Yeah it's a shame. But I've done things not for me, but for other people -- children, young people. I'm fighting for the next generation. I don't want to see that type of icon ever be taken away."

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