Lives Per Gallon and the Rail Deconstruction Myth

A new book on our oil addiction (“Lives Per Gallon”)is getting some decent press, including this interview over at Wired. In it the author retells this anecdote:

Consumer choice has been reduced by companies including General Motors, Standard Oil (which later became ExxonMobil) and Firestone Tires, which conspired to eliminate the clean electric trains that were being used for mass transit around the country. During the 1940s and 1950s, these companies created the National City Lines, a shell company that bought up the local clean electric transit systems and tore up the tracks so that no one else could ever use them. The companies replaced the trains with dirty diesel buses and encouraged people to buy cars. The group was eventually found guilty in federal court for anti-trust violations, but it was too late to do anything about it.

A great story, but is it true? Many people think not. For more, see this from a Pasadena man who specializes in debunking that particular urban legend:

General Motors, Standard Oil, et al were indicted in 1947 on two counts under the Sherman Antitrust Act. They were convicted only on the second count: attempting to monopolize sales of supplies used by the bus lines they controlled. Simply put, they were convicted of conspiring to have their bus lines buy buses and supplies from them, not monopolizing transit. In any event, the L.A. Railway had decided to convert to buses in 1940, four years before GM bought it.

The fact of the matter remains that rail transit was killed off by the decisions of thousands of individuals to use their cars. While some find it comforting to think that some monolith did in the Red Cars, the fact remains, we did it to ourselves.


  1. An article from Transportation Quaterly (1997) examined this story closely: