Boston's Green Line Crisis

by Scott Moore

Two LRVs in Boston were equipped with trolley poles for moves on the system where the catenary had not been modified for pantographs.

Photo: Scott Moore


In 1964, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) was created to expand beyond the original 14 communities served by the rapid transit system, and to take advantage of the newly passed federal aid legislation. Since 1964, the MBTA has actively sought federal funding to assist in capital improvements, and operating subsidies. The following will critique, in some detail, the capital improvement grants supplied to Boston's Green Line, focusing primarily on the rolling stock rebuilding and procurement for the system, the effectiveness of the programs, and how they were managed.

History Prior to 1964

Some of the problems that existed within the Green Line system initially dated back to the 1940s, when the Boston Elevated Railway Company (BERy) attempted to modernize its streetcar fleet. In 1941, as a large scale test of the standardized PCC car's abilities, the BERy purchased 20 "single-unit" cars for use on the Watertown line. With the tests proving the vehicle satisfactory, BERy opted to purchase more cars. The bulk of Boston's PCC fleet was ordered between 1942 and 1945 amid wartime controls. On May 21, 1942, the War Production Board began placing controls on raw materials. By that time, the Office of Defense Transportation, established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, also established a method of allocating new PCC cars to cities, based on how bad the need for new equipment was and how important that city was to the war effort. This allocation method allowed the BERy 225 PCC cars over a span of four years in three different orders. In an effort to keep costs competitive, the orders were split with half of the cars from each order using Westinghouse electrical equipment, and the other half using comparable General Electric equipment.

After the end of World War II, the BERy took delivery of its first "All-Electric" PCC cars. The 25-car All-Electric fleet was the first and only group of PCCs in Boston having all functions on the car performed by electrically driven systems. The friction brakes on the new cars were applied with solenoids, and the doors and windshield wipers utilized electric motors.

In 1947, the BERy was purchased by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and christened it the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). The MTA began converting some streetcar routes to buses and trackless trolleys. In 1951, the MTA took delivery of Boston's last order for new PCC cars. Unlike the All-Electrics, the new "Picture Window" cars reverted to the more conventional use of compressed air for friction brakes and doors, but unlike the "Wartimes", utilized General Electric's new MCM Controller. By 1953, the PCC cars dominated the system, with a few "Type 5" cars remaining for limited short-turn services.

In 1958, after the Interstate Commerce Commission issued a Certificate of Abandonment to the Boston and Albany Railroad, the MTA set out to convert the "Highland Branch" into a modern rapid transit route. The Authority quickly converted the streetcar routes in Cambridge to trackless trolleys and brought those PCC cars back to the subway-surface system. The Picture Window cars were overhauled to be the primary group of cars on the new line. The 1941 cars, by now called "Tremonts", were overhauled extensively and converted to multiple-unit operation. The All Electrics received similar treatment to the Tremonts, but the different technology still kept them from being compatible with the rest of the fleet. The MTA also bought and modified 25 second-hand PCC cars from the Dallas Railway and Terminal Company to add capacity to the system and retire the last of the Type 5 cars. The MTA inaugurated Highland Branch service between Riverside and Park Street in July 1959, long before the euphemism "Light Rail" had been coined.

By the time the MBTA came into being in 1964, the system had 344 PCC cars. Many of the cars had been poorly maintained. Five distinctly different models of PCCs existed, using technology which had evolved over the years that the cars were produced. The five groups did not include the four sub-groupings of "Wartime" PCCs, which differed in braking systems as well as the electrical systems mentioned above. Although all of the cars, except the All-Electrics and Ex-Dallas cars, were operationally compatible the replacement parts were not. Also, the demands placed on the PCC fleet by the success of the Riverside line was quickly taking its toll of the aging fleet of cars.

In an attempt to keep the PCC fleet intact, the MBTA began overhauling a number of cars through the mid-to-late 1960s. Many of these cars would resurface on the Green Line system sporting the MBTA's new grey and white paint scheme. Meanwhile, in 1966, talk of a new type of "low platform" car surfaced. The new cars would replace the cars in service on the Riverside line, which would be relocated to the other Green Line routes "permitting the disposal of obsolete equipment". Interestingly enough, all of the cars on the Riverside line and on the rest of the Green Line were PCC cars at the time.

Other efforts intended to relieve the demand for cars brought about by the Riverside line, included the termination of the Tremont Street line in 1961 from running Lenox Street in the South End to North Station. This move provided a few more cars for the remaining routes. In 1967, facing continued public opposition to the closing of either the Watertown and Arborway lines the MBTA tested the used PCC car market. Available PCC cars were located, but the systems could not come to terms on price. In June 1969, due to the continued car shortage, the MBTA closed the Watertown branch of the Green Line on "trial" basis. Buses were substituted between Watertown Square and Kenmore Square.

Attempting Modernization

The MBTA's replacement for the PCC cars, dubbed the "Type 6", entered the design stages in 1969, and a wooden mock-up of the proposed car appeared in early 1970. Around the same time, the San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI) had hired Louis T. Klauder and Associates to design a new type of car to replace their PCC fleet. Both systems had produced their own designs, based on their own needs and desires. Both cars were also initially designed to be a high performance version of the PCC car. The new Boston cars' specifications included air-conditioning. MUNI put out the contract proposal for 78 cars in 1971, expecting the price per car to be in the $300,000 to $350,000 range. In July 1971, the bids received $500,000 to $700,000 per car. MUNI rejected the bids and set out to redesign their car and eliminate any costly and unnecessary parts of the design.

In 1971, UMTA became concerned with the high costs of the design of the MUNI car. The MBTA by this time was looking for a fast solution to the Green Line problems, and was looking at importing a Düwag car from Europe. Finally UMTA, in an effort to promote standardized equipment, at a reasonable price, for San Francisco, Boston, and any other cities that may be interested in new cars, created the Boston - San Francisco (BSF) Committee in early 1972. The BSF Committee, and its design work, saw the MBTA and UMTA pare down MUNI's original design, making it compatible for both systems. Other systems expressed varying degrees of interest in the program initially, namely Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Newark, Cleveland, and El Paso, Texas. Mexico City and Toronto also peeked in at the progress, but eventually, all of them would drop out leaving the MBTA and MUNI to design their own car.

The BSF Committee finally completed the design of the "United States Standard Light Rail Vehicle" (LRV) with sufficient concessions on both sides that the car would function in both cities, but the design did not totally please either system. Finally the contract for 230 cars was put out to bid, with Boeing-Vertol becoming the successful bidder at $63 million. Both the MBTA and MUNI would later expand their orders to 175 and 100 cars respectively, increasing the overall cost of the contract to $72 million.

Keeping the Green Line on Track

While the MBTA was involved in the design specifications of the LRV, the PCC fleet was continuing to fall further into a state of disrepair. In 1971, the MBTA opted to scrap a number of PCC cars. A second scrapping program in 1972 was postponed at the request of the City of Boston, for fear that the Arborway line might be shut down beyond Heath Street.

Around the same time as the MBTA was ordering the LRVs, the Authority received federal funding to rehabilitate a number of PCC cars in an attempt to shore up the older fleet until the LRVs arrived. PCC cars were entered into the program based on the condition of each individual car. No long term planning was done to select one or two groups of mechanically similar cars. Much of the work was cosmetic with cars emerging from the program in a new green, white, and grey paint scheme. Some cars received mechanical work as needed.

A freshly painted PCC car at the Watertown yard, August 1972.

Photo: Collection Larry Mills

In May 1973, after placing its initial order for 150 LRVs, the MBTA again began scrapping PCC cars. Between 1971 and 1973 the PCC fleet was reduced to 314 cars, and by 1976 to 278 cars. Upon arrival of the first production LRVs, the MBTA began reducing its fleet of PCC cars even further, and by the end of 1978, the PCC fleet stood at 209 cars.

The New Cars Arrive

One car, slated for San Francisco, arrived in Boston on May 30, 1975 for testing on the Green Line. Delivery of Boston's LRVs was originally slated for November 1975, but problems with the cars pushed that date back. MBTA chief executive Robert Kiley predicted 32 cars would be in service by the end of 1976. Kiley cited that the cars were "exotic", and that the new cars would be difficult to maintain. At this time mention was also made of a program to rebuild 100 PCC cars as a back-up fleet.

The first LRV in Boston, painted in San Francisco colors and equipped with trolley poles to perform clearance tests, July 1975.

Photo: Collection Larry Mills

Testing of the LRVs was being performed at the USDOT test center in Pueblo, Colorado. The door systems on both groups of cars were acting up, and the propulsion system was causing interference with the cab signals being used on the San Francisco cars. Arthur E. Hitsman, Director of Boeing Vertol Surface Transportation systems said the LRVs "will be the most tested cars the industry has ever seen". The MBTA began receiving the new LRVs in the middle of 1976, but continued problems kept the cars out of service until December.

In the wake of a severe car shortage, brought about by a relentless snow storm, the MBTA hastily sent four LRVs into service on December 30, 1976. The system continued to accept the new cars while the LRVs already delivered and accepted continued to experience problems. In April 1977, LRV service was suspended for nine days after the center trucks began derailing on tight turns in the MBTA's yards. Deliveries of the cars were suspended simultaneously until the problem was solved.

As 1977 proceeded, the cars were being received favorably by the public, but their reliability continued to be a problem. The doors had been redesigned by Boeing, with less than the original 1300 parts, but were still not operating properly. LRV availability rates in October 1977 were up to 64% of the fleet, but at a Brookline Selectmen's meeting on November 28, MBTA Director of Operations, David Gunn, said that he was not sure if the LRVs would be totally satisfactory. The LRV fleet was up at 56 cars on December 8, 1977.

LRV 3444 being delivered to the MBTA at Riverside, November 1977

Photo: Norton D. Clark

Continued problems with the articulation sections, and the center trucks, prompted the MBTA to issue Special Order 102, which listed 14 unmodified LRVs which could only enter the Riverside yard while being driven from the "B" end. Cars approaching Riverside on the "A" end necessitated either a repairman or a shifter to meet the car as it entered the yard. Other problems through 1977 were the battery trays, the air conditioning system, and the air compressors.

Through 1978, with 135 LRVs on the property, David Gunn was becoming increasingly critical of the LRVs. Gunn said that it takes more MBTA personnel to keep 50-odd LRVs going on the Green Line than it does to maintain 220 rapid transit cars on the other lines. Gunn also said that the MBTA would refuse the last 40 cars awaiting delivery, until the LRVs became "generally more reliable". The MBTA also planned to return 35 LRVs to Boeing in 1979 for further modifications. To this point, 200 modifications had been made to the LRVs. Gunn noted that 34 traction motors had failed on the LRVs, even though they were designed to run for 200,000 miles. A total of eight spare motors had been purchased by the MBTA, the remainder of the motors were being taken from other disabled LRVs.

Questions of voided warranties were raised, as MBTA personnel were not following Boeing's repair manuals. James Slattery of the Boston Carmen's union stated that Boeing might not pay for the modifications to the 35 cars being sent back, leaving that cost to the MBTA. At this time, 40 of the 135 LRVs on the property had been cannibalized in an attempt to keep the remainder of the fleet in service. Slattery claimed that the cost of returning the cannibalized cars to service would be approximately $700,000 per car.

By mid-1979, LRV availability dropped to an all time low. In the month of May, availability varied between a high of 47 cars per day, and a low of 14. June was even worse as the high was only 38 cars per day, and the low was 17 cars. With the MBTA averaging 34 cars per day, out of the 135-car fleet, the MBTA sought to settle the problem once and for all.

The MBTA reached a settlement with Boeing on November 19, 1979, which would net them $34 million, modification kits, and a six-month warranty on those kits. Boeing would keep the remaining 40 cars and the MBTA would not send the proposed cars back to Boeing for further modifications, and either pick up or forfeit the five cannibalized cars already returned to Boeing. The MBTA would also relieve Boeing of any further liability to the LRVs. The five cannibalized cars at Boeing were ultimately forfeited.

The PCC Fleet Makes a Resurgence

While the MBTA continued to scrap PCC cars, certain cars were set aside for reconstruction. A pilot car was completed and entered service on September 15, 1976. This car became the most reliable vehicle on the Green Line being available 90% of the time.

In 1977, the PCC Reconstruction Program began, with federal assistance, to produce a proposed 50 PCC cars that would be capable of withstanding another twenty years of service. Cars that were entered into the program were ultimately chosen from the Wartime fleet, later being limited to those cars with Westinghouse equipment. Extensive body repairs were required on the cars. Rusted and rotted steel was cut away, and new steel was welded into place, as this method would yield a better quality product.

The reconstruction program quickly fell on hard times however. More sheet-metal work than originally anticipated was needed on the cars. The oldest Wartime cars had steel bodies, with canvas and wood roof sections. On the pilot car, this section was replaced with a piece of fiberglass. On the production rebuilds, this section was replaced with steel. After the first three cars of this type went through the program, other cars of the same series were rejected due to the excessive costs incurred with the roof work. This further limited the number of PCC cars to rebuild to the last group of Wartime cars.

Modifications that were to be included on the rebuilt cars, but were soon dropped from the program were two-way radios and public address systems. The cost of the cars continued to soar, as the cars selected for rebuilding rarely came from the revenue service pool. The pressure that the scrapping program had put on the PCC fleet, and the initial failures of the LRVs, required that all operational cars be available for service at all times. The PCCs entered into the program had been out of service for sometime due to accident damage or cannibalization. The result of the program, however, were "like-new" PCC cars. But as the 1977 annual report predicted that 20 rebuilt PCC cars would be in service by the end of 1978, only 15 cars were active at the beginning of 1980.

The Green Line, 1980 to Present

In mid-1979, MBTA Chairman and CEO Robert L. Foster announced, "Boston can and will have a fleet of 175 of the newest and best streetcars operating in the United States." Mr. Foster's prediction was, to say the least, inaccurate. The settlement with Boeing later that year froze the fleet at 130 cars (135 cars minus the five "shells" forfeited to Boeing). Several accidents, some a result of the tendency of the cars to derail, continued to decrease the number of cars available for service. By the middle of 1980, ten of the LRVs were classified "beyond repair".

In 1980, the MBTA conducted a three month test of the new Canadian LRV. The MBTA did not purchase any of these cars however. In 1983, the MBTA did re-purchase nine LRVs from Boeing. The nine cars were what remained of the 40 cars previously rejected in 1979, after San Francisco purchased the other 31 cars. The MBTA also got back the five forfeited "shells" bringing the number of LRVs on the property to an all time high of 144, although not all of them were operational. The PCC rebuilding proceeded through 1984 completing 34 of the proposed 50 cars. These cars provided service on the Green Line through 1985, when the Arborway line was closed. Eleven of the rebuilt PCC cars still operate at Mattapan, and the remainder were sold off in 1991. None of the rebuilt PCCs were retained for further service on the Green Line.

After severing its relations with Boeing, the MBTA was now on its own to design modifications based on its experience with the cars. Vendors were sought to replace some components, while the MBTA considered rebuilding other original components. Through the early 1980s, a program was developed to return the cannibalized LRVs back to service. The outlook on the program appeared to be hopeful, as on March 1, 1982, 114 LRVs were in the active service fleet. Solutions were ultimately found for the air conditioning system, the air compressors, and the coupler/draw-bar assemblies.

3520 was the first LRV to receive major modifications to its air-conditioning system. Two Sutrak units were installed on the car and tested. Twenty-five more LRVs were retro-fitted with the Sutrak units, and another fifty LRVs received similar units from Vapor.

Photo: Scott Moore

To help eliminate some of the problems with the troublesome "Plug-type" doors on the LRVs, 3462 shows a new design of door that does not recycle when it is accidentally closed on someone or something. The wide rubber strips are soft enough that trapped objects can be pulled through.

Photo: Scott Moore

In 1986, the first of the new "Type 7" cars entered service. The Type 7s were designed with the best features of the LRV, the PCC, and the Canadian LRV. The new 100-car fleet quickly became the back-bone of the Green Line and today provide the bulk of all Green Line service. The LRVs are still prominent during rush-hours however.

Problems Associated With the PCC Fleet

It seems as though the MBTA felt throughout the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the days of the PCC were numbered. Much of this seems apparent in the rather haphazard way in which cars were selected for rehabilitation. Cars were singled out for rehabilitation based upon which cars were in the most need of work, regardless of type. If the MBTA had better planned their rehabilitation efforts throughout the 1960s and 1970s, they could have determined which class of cars had the most sound body/frame structures, and the best availability of replacement parts. With this in mind, a determination of the level of work necessary to bring about the largest number of compatible vehicles, with the lowest cost per car, could have been achieved. This would have left the MBTA with a vehicle it could rely on in case there were problems with the LRVs, and probably would have resulted in lower PCC rebuilding costs in later years.

A number of the cars included in the rehabilitation program in the mid-to-late 1960s, were again treated in the federally funded program in the early 1970s. The confusion that seemed to reign within the system was exemplified by the wasted money and effort spent on the All-Electric fleet during that time.

The 25-car fleet of All-Electric PCCs were viewed as the "Black Sheep" of the PCC fleet once they were assigned to the Arborway in 1959. They were not well liked by operations and maintenance personnel, as they were so different from the rest of the fleet. The Wartimes and Tremonts typically operated together in trains after 1959. The Picture Window cars were also capable of operating in trains with the Wartimes and Tremonts, but this practice was never accepted. With the 25 All-Electrics being incompatible with the remainder of the Green Line fleet, it is difficult to understand why fifteen cars in the All-Electric fleet were sent through the federally funded rehabilitation program in the 1970s. Some cars even had extensive body work performed.

While the rehabilitation program was drawing to a close, a directive from the MBTA called for the removal of the All-Electric and Picture Window fleets at the earliest possible convenience. Parts for both fleets had become difficult to obtain. The All-Electrics were removed from service causing an equipment shortage for the Arborway line, which required weekday busing between Arborway and Copley to handle the passenger loads. Some of the All-Electrics still in the federal rehabilitation program went directly from the overhaul to pre-scrap storage. The bulk of the All-Electrics were removed from service by the end of 1977, with the last two lingering into the beginning of 1978.

The PCC reconstruction program was a result of the MBTA's unwillingness to trust these new "exotic" LRVs. What is still a mystery is why the MBTA continually insisted on reducing the PCC fleet while the LRVs were still experiencing problems. At the end of 1978, the PCC fleet was reduced to 209 cars, a drop of 69 cars from the end of 1976 when the LRVs entered service. Although the MBTA did not scrap any PCC cars in 1979, 38 more cars were disposed of in 1980. Reductions in the PCC fleet after 1980 can be understood as LRV reliability had begun a significant upward trend.

Problems Associated With the LRV Fleet

The apparent root of the problem with the LRVs, was the politics that surrounded the entire program. After the MBTA's initial design of the Type 6 car, the system decided that the way to speed the procurement of new vehicles was to purchase a car from Düwag of Germany, "off the shelf". UMTA initially gave the MBTA some approval, but then changed its mind in the wake of the Nixon administration's "Buy America" policy in 1972. The MBTA would not be able to obtain funding for new vehicles without UMTA approval, and with UMTA now interested in buying a standard american streetcar, the new car had to be designed. At the time, there were no domestic streetcar builders, so UMTA awarded the job to Boeing-Vertol, a company whose primary business was building helicopters.

Critics of the UMTA decision to allow the aerospace companies' involvement in constructing surface transit vehicles felt that every time an American aerospace company has gotten into the field, the result was a financial disaster. Critics also claimed that the government should be using its resources to promote competition while coming up with a standard design to promote high-volume and low-cost units, similar to the privately funded PCC program in the 1930s. Rohr industries, another major aerospace firm, had similar problems building rapid transit cars for the San Francisco-Oakland area and Washington D.C.

Other problems pertaining to the design of the car was the use of "single supplier" parts. Garrett Air Research designed the modern "chopper" control system, while Rockwell supplied the gearboxes. There were no other suppliers of the propulsion system for the LRV. The lack of competition between suppliers allowed prices for replacement parts to soar. Originally, the cost of the Garrett package was budgeted for $17,228, by 1980, the cost had risen to $85,617.

Initiating LRV service in Boston brought about a new set of political problems. Governor Michael Dukakis, who was seeking re-election at the time, felt that the new cars and improved service on the Green Line would bring him the necessary votes to win. Ultimately, Dukakis was not re-elected, but several memos, news clippings, and reference slips made it evident that the State House wanted the LRVs accepted in a hurry.

Throughout the early stages of the LRV program, the public acceptance of the cars was quite positive. Riverside line ridership increased by 19% during 1977, with many passengers allowing the PCC cars to pass by, while waiting for the newer LRVs. Later, as the cars continued to have problems, public acceptance turned to criticism. Although passengers still preferred the cars' air conditioning and smooth ride, the number of cannibalized cars that were being stored in the Reservoir and Riverside yards, was becoming an embarrassment for the project, Boeing, UMTA and the MBTA.

Boeing was partially to blame for the initials failure of the program. UMTA never made Boeing prove in advance that the LRV could work. Robert Kiley would later say "Some obvious techniques were overlooked in this zeal for applying modern technology to streetcars...One technique that was overlooked...and it's surprising that it didn't occur to someone to go that route, is a prototype. It wasn't done, and I think it's the most crucial mistake made in the program". Unlike the PCC program, in which six years of work was performed before the initiation of full scale service, little research on the LRV was conducted. Manufacturers bid on the car based on specifications calling for levels of performance and reliability. Probably Boeing's biggest mistake was that the company felt that it was not in their commercial interest to license known, proven designs.

LRV 3412 at Harvard Avenue in December 1995. The Handicap Access logo has been applied to indicate that four seats have been hastily removed to make wheelchair placement locations.

Photo: Scott Moore


All of the lessons that were learned through the 1930s, with the careful and methodical design of the PCC car, had been ignored. This ultimately forced the design of a completely new streetcar from the ground up. The technology of the PCC streetcar also expanded into rapid transit cars. Boston's rapid transit cars, with the exception of the 01800-series Red Line cars, have their roots deeply embedded in the PCC development process. Propulsion systems, etc., are updated variants of PCC-type systems, and are still reliable today. Transit passengers do not care what makes the train operate, it is more important that the train operates reliably.

If Boeing had used proven technology for the LRV, many of the car's problems may never have existed. The Chicago Transit Authority received new cars from Boeing at about the same time as the LRVs were being delivered to Boston, however the 200 car order called for 190 cars utilizing SCM camshaft controllers. The SCM control system is a General Electric product, derived from the PCC program in the early 1960s, and is similar to the design used on the 01400 series Red Line cars in Boston. Contrary to the Boston and San Francisco LRV orders, Chicago specified that only the last 10 cars utilize solid state "chopper" control. The 10 cars with "chopper" control were tested, and then retro-fitted with the SCM Control to match the other 190 cars. The Chicago cars with the SCM Controllers, produced by Boeing, had no major problems indicating that the LRV's problems stemmed more from the use of unproven technology, and insufficient vehicle testing, not Boeing's ability to manufacture a rail vehicle.

Currently, Amerail in Hornell, NY, is rehabilitating a number of LRVs for the MBTA. The rehabilitation is designed to ensure that the cars will survive at least until the year 1999. Breda is currently building the new low-floor "Type 8" cars, which are to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and compatible with the Type 7s. The new cars are expected to arrive sometime in 1997 or 1998. With the MBTA planning on keeping the LRVs until 1999, it is possible that the system has learned from the mistakes of the past, and will be much more careful when purchasing rail-cars in the future.

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Anderson, Edward., "Riverside Revisited." Rollsign 25.1/2 Jan/Feb 1988: 29-32.

Announcing the Big New MTA Line Highland Branch. Boston: Metropolitan Transit Authority, 1959.

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Carlson, Stephen, P. and Schneider III, Fred. W., PCC-The Car That Fought Back: Glendale, California: Interurban Press: 1980.

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- - - "LRV's in Boston: The Road Back." Rollsign 19.3/4 Mar/Apr 1982: 11-12.

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"State To Investigate LRV Contract." Rollsign 15.11/12 Nov/Dec 1978: 56.

"Thirty-Five LRV's Returning to Boeing." Rollsign 15.11/12 Nov/Dec 1978: 5.

"$35 Million Investment to Make LRV's, Green Line More Reliable." Rollsign 14.11/12 Nov/Dec 1977: 9.

"When Boeing Gets Into the Streetcar Business." Business Week 12 Sep. 1977: 127 & 130.

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