San Diego Trolley Opens

The San Diego Trolley began operating between downtown San Diego and the Mexican border, initiating a resurgence of light-rail use in the United States.

Summary of Event

On July 26, 1981, revenue service began on the first line of the San Diego Trolley, extending from downtown San Diego to San Ysidro within two hundred feet of the Mexican border at Tijuana. This was the first entirely new trolley line to be built in the United States since World War II. The project was completed under budget, with the 15.9-mile initial route costing approximately $5 million per mile. San Diego Trolley
Light-rail public transit[Light rail public transit]
Tijuana Trolley
Public transportation
[kw]San Diego Trolley Opens (July 26, 1981)
[kw]Trolley Opens, San Diego (July 26, 1981)
San Diego Trolley
Light-rail public transit[Light rail public transit]
Tijuana Trolley
Public transportation
[g]North America;July 26, 1981: San Diego Trolley Opens[04580]
[g]United States;July 26, 1981: San Diego Trolley Opens[04580]
[c]Transportation;July 26, 1981: San Diego Trolley Opens[04580]
Wilson, Pete
Mills, James R.
Larwin, Thomas F.
Demoro, Harre W.
Graub, W. Campbell

Described as a “functional, no-frills system” by city officials, the line utilized existing railroad tracks of the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railroad (SD&AE) for a major portion of the route and city streets for the downtown segment, rather than spending money to acquire a new right-of-way. German-made cars of a standard design seventy-six-foot-long articulated units seating 64 passengers with standing room for an additional 124 were bought, rather than custom-designed new cars. Funding came from the state gasoline tax and a .25 percent sales tax.

Expensive fare booths and turnstiles were rejected, and a European-style self-service proof-of-payment fare system was adopted instead. Machine-issued tickets are used, with roving inspectors providing enforcement. Very simple, but functional, shelters are provided at the eleven stations along the line, and the seven stops in the downtown area are merely extensions of the sidewalk. The electric cars powered from overhead wires travel at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour along the railroad right-of-way, but downtown street speeds are much slower. The trolleys cover the route in slightly more than one-half hour, less than one-half the time required by the previous bus service.

The objective of the line was described as dual-purpose: to provide a means for residents to travel to work, shopping, and recreation, and to serve as a tourist attraction. Built by the Metropolitan Transit Development Board and operated by San Diego Trolley, Incorporated, tourists quickly gave the line the nickname “Tijuana Trolley” because it was the quick route to the Mexican border. Initially, the line was a single-track operation, with sidings or short sections of double track spaced to allow a fifteen-minute headway. Its instant popularity, however, resulted in pressure to add more cars and double track. To further support economic development, middle-of-the-night freight service is provided on the former SD&AE trackage by a private contractor.

Electric trolleys were a common means of public transportation through World War II. Some historians attribute the trolley’s decline to automotive, oil, and rubber-tire industry lobbies, which influenced local politicians to replace trolleys with buses. Other observers point out the trends toward suburbanization and lower-density cities as the key factors. Sun Belt cities have low population densities, with a growing population and employment base spread over a large area; the traditional downtown core is relatively weak. Most growth has occurred since World War II. Automobile dependence is high; transit ridership is low, especially outside the old urban core.

A demand for the kind of mobility provided by regional rail exists in Sun Belt cities. An appropriately scaled product was needed to meet this demand a product with low operating costs, low capital costs, and high public acceptance. This is provided by regional light rail, a concept that is based on trolleys but that has major operating differences, as well as a more modern image.

Light rail is an evolutionary development of the trolley or street railway toward modern rapid transit. It usually uses overhead electric power distribution and employs cars similar to the trolleys of yesteryear, but light rail provides higher performance. Its track is usually segregated from traffic, but is not necessarily grade-separated throughout the line. Often former railroad rights-of-way or median strips of boulevards or freeways are used. If vehicular traffic is light or if there are no other options, tracks can be situated in the street with other traffic. In congested city centers, a subway or aerial structure can provide full-grade separation; this option, however, is often too expensive for smaller cities. In some cities, the track area downtown is reserved solely for light-rail vehicles or as a paved mall for pedestrians and light-rail vehicles.

The San Diego Trolley in San Ysidro, California, near the U.S.-Mexico border.


Light rail, having evolved from the street railway, is very flexible in design and can accommodate very sharp curvature, steep grades, and a variety of station configurations. Thus, the biggest cost saving in light rail as opposed to other forms of rapid transit is in the civil-engineering features. Because of this reduced investment, light rail becomes economically feasible in corridors having less ridership than is required to justify full-scale rapid transit. Its design flexibility allows staged plans for upgrading as use expands. Light rail possesses many operating possibilities; a light-rail vehicle can operate in the middle of a busy street and can operate at high speeds on a railroad right-of-way.

After World War II, light-rail service in North America was in a retrenchment mode. It was expected that only systems with substantial subway operations such as those in the older eastern cities would survive. There were some revitalization signs such as the extension of trolley service over a former commuter rail line in Boston in 1957 and the continued light-rail evolution in Europe. However, even in the 1970’s, rail-based public transit did not appear to have a significant future in the U.S. and Canadian West. An exception appeared to be in San Francisco, California, where the remaining five-line streetcar system was being upgraded with a subway under Market Street. The trend of the nation’s growth patterns indicated that conditions conducive to rail transit would never be duplicated outside the old industrial cities of the Northeast and upper Midwest.

Planners then developed cost-effective concepts for rail transit in lower-density cities, however, taking advantage of the fact that light rail provides a wide range of passenger capacities and performance characteristics at acceptable costs.

Technically, the Canadian city of Edmonton brought the new generation of light rail to North America on April 22, 1978, when its 4.5-mile route opened, using off-the-shelf German cars, a short downtown subway, a line along a railroad right-of-way with grade crossings, and self-service fare collection.

In San Diego, there was a growing movement to stop freeway construction, which tended to destroy neighborhoods, and to reduce automobile pollution and congestion. The Southern Pacific Railroad wanted to dispose of its unprofitable SD&AE railway. Funding for light rail was made possible through legislation sponsored by State Senator James R. Mills, who believed that a modern, cost-effective light-rail system could provide a fast, comfortable service that would be competitive with the automobile. Mills and others promoted the idea of a light-rail line along the initial route. The San Diego Trolley began operating in a city of previous transit obscurity.


The impact of the San Diego Trolley can be measured in three ways: the basic design concepts produced by the project, the continued expansion of light rail in the San Diego area itself, and the development of light rail in many additional cities.

San Diego’s light-rail design philosophy capitalized on real world opportunities for maximum gain with limited funding. The line had to be inexpensive to build and operate. The key elements of this design’s cost-effectiveness were the use of available rights-of-way, a minimum investment for initial operation (the starter-line concept), proven off-the-shelf equipment, system design for low-cost operation, and integrated operation with the existing transit network.

The starter-line concept meant that the initial line would be built with minimum infrastructure and would be designed to be upgraded as service needs increased. Since labor costs are a large part of transit operating costs, operating patterns and work rules had to be designed for operating efficiency. Integrated operation meant that bus service in the same corridor would be shifted to act as a feeder to the high-speed rail operation rather than to run express to downtown. This shift in bus service had the side benefit of improving non-central-business-district transit trip quality.

After the opening, ridership on the San Diego Trolley quickly exceeded predicted levels and continued to increase. The trolley’s reputation for high speed, low operating costs, and a high farebox return caught the attention of transit professionals elsewhere and encouraged other cities to follow San Diego’s lead. San Diego Trolley
Light-rail public transit[Light rail public transit]
Tijuana Trolley
Public transportation

Further Reading

  • Baxter, John. “The San Diego ’Trolley.’” Headlights, September/October, 1981, 9-10. A primarily descriptive report on the opening of the line. Includes photographs.
  • Demoro, Harre, and John Harder. Light Rail Transit on the West Coast. New York: Quadrant Press, 1989. The opening chapter provides a succinct factual background on the political, economic, and social factors that brought about the revival of trolleys. Essays on six West Coast light-rail systems are included.
  • Holler, Gena. San Diego Trolley. Glendale, Calif.: Interurban Press, 1990. Gives the context of local events leading up to the opening of the San Diego Trolley and examines obstacles that had to be overcome.
  • Vigrass, J. William. “Rail Transit.” In Public Transportation, edited by George Gray and Lester Hoel. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1992. A good overview of light-rail transit, its technology, and history, with descriptions of some U.S. and Canadian systems.
  • Wolinsky, Julian. Light Rail Transit: Planning, Design, and Implementation. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1982. A collection of papers from the Third National Conference on Light Rail Transit, which was held in San Diego in March, 1982. Provides a background in light-rail transit development and technology. The Transportation Research Board, the part of the National Academy of Sciences that produced this report, held a number of conferences and issued a number of other special reports on light-rail transit issues.
  • _______. “San Diego’s LRT: Trying to Stay Lean.” In 1994 Light Rail Annual and User’s Guide, edited by Mac Sebree. Pasadena, Calif.: Pentrex, 1994. A review of the San Diego light-rail system after more than a decade of operation. Includes a good history. The guide also contains descriptions of other North American light-rail systems.
  • _______. “Tijuana Trolley Rolls in San Diego.” Passenger Transport, July 31, 1981, 1, 9. A report on the opening of San Diego’s light-rail line from an industry perspective. This weekly publication of the American Public Transit Association is a good source for industry news.

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