Birmingham Electric Company (1921)

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This article is about the company active from 1921 to 1951. For the earlier company, see Birmingham Electric Company (1890).

The Birmingham Electric Company (BECo), incorporated in 1921, generated public electricity and operated streetcars and motor coaches as Birmingham's public transit system from 1921 to 1951. Its headquarters offices were in the Birmingham Railway, Light & Power Building at 2100 1st Avenue North.

The Birmingham Railway, Light & Power Company had failed in 1918 amidst an inability to raise fares while facing new competition from automobiles and private jitneys. Lapses in service that winter prompted a public outcry and the company went into receivership. It re-emerged after winning concessions from the City of Birmingham, along with new segregated seating requirements. On March 31, 1921 the system was sold to the newly-organized Birmingham Electric Company.

The company embarked on major improvements to the city's streetcar infrastructure. It purchased 20 new cars in 1921 and another 16 in 1926. Routes were reorganized in 1927, especially in the downtown area. Campaigns to repave roadways, increase passenger safety and publicize the improvements coincided with an enlargement of the headquarters building at the corner of 21st Street and 1st Avenue North and construction of a new foundry and repair shop at the 4th Avenue Car Barn.

These improvements, as well as the side business of generating and selling electrical power, allowed the utility to survive the Great Depression despite the woeful economic conditions prevailing in the city. BECo purchased used stock from streetcar lines in Wheeling, West Virginia and East Massachusetts and had them rebuilt to be operated by a single driver. The company unloaded operators over union objections through the late 1930s.

America's entrance into World War II immediately increased street rail use as sales of rubber tires and gasoline were redirected to wartime production. In early 1942 ridership surpassed 6,000,000/month. Old and new cars were pressed into service, often maintained only with difficulty due to parts shortages. The metal bodies of cars which had been cannibalized for parts were sold as scrap. Female shop employees were hired for the first time.

In preparing for postwar decline in demand, the Company sought to compete by improving service. Raised "safety zones" were constructed for passengers in the downtown district and new trackless trolleys and motor coaches were purchased, along with 47 new standardized "P.C.C." streetcars. However cost increases due to inflation were not matched by public approval for fare increases. The utility sold off some real estate and postponed implementation of trackless service. An operators strike in April 1946 left streetcars and buses idled while negotiations continued.

Streetcars idled at the 4th Avenue Car Barn during the April 1946 strike
A Birmingham Electric Company streetcar outside Legion Field

In 1950 the Public Service Commission approved an increase in fares to 10 cents, the first increase in nearly 30 years. The PCC cars were sold to Toronto as trackless coaches came into service. At the same time, the Alabama Power Company began moving to acquire the Birmingham Electric Company. The Securities and Exchange Commission approved the sale with the provision that transit service be sold off to a third party. No bids were received in the initial sale offering, but a group of local investors eventually acquired the system at scrap prices. The Birmingham Electric Company became the Birmingham Transit Company, with the same management in place, on June 30, 1951.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency operates their Market Street Railway Car No. 1077‎ in the livery of the Birmingham Electric Company.