Rebirth of the Streetcar

Written by David Peter Alan, Contributing Editor

RAILWAY AGE, MAY 2021 ISSUE: Nearly wiped out decades ago, the lightest form of light rail has made a remarkable comeback.

Two centuries ago, before anyone had the idea of laying rails on the ground so wheels could run swiftly and smoothly over them, nobody could travel faster than they or a horse could walk, or a boat could sail. Then came trains and streetcars, and everybody’s world suddenly seemed smaller. 

Then, in the past century, came the decline of passenger trains and the near-extinction of streetcars in the United States and Canada. The past few decades have brought the rebirth of the streetcar, but not necessarily the way it was in its former Golden Age. It has become a genus, with several different species of vehicles that could be classified as “streetcars” or as the related species of “light rail” in all parts of the nation. 

There were elevated railroads in New York City and a few other places by the late 19th century, but even the “accommodation trains” that made plenty of local stops did not bring everybody within easy walking distance from their homes or offices. Then came inventors like Frank Julian Sprague and Granville T. Woods, who figured out how to propel a vehicle along rails by taking power from an overhead wire. The streetcar or “trolley car” (named after the wheel at the end of the trolley pole that comes in contact with the wire) was born. From their debut in Richmond, Va., in 1888, the cars were an instant success. Streetcars replaced cable cars everywhere except in San Francisco, and the horse barns that had previously pulled omnibuses became “car barns.” 

Cars were connecting every neighborhood in cities, and ran between cities and towns on interurban routes. Then came decline and near-extinction, largely driven by Alfred P. Sloan, Chair of the Board of General Motors. There is an apocryphal story that Sloan was watching hoards of Cleveland commuters board streetcars to take them home from work in 1922. As the story goes, he decided that the only way to sell enough automobiles was to destroy the streetcars. Whether or not that was the start of Sloan’s own culture war, he succeeded brilliantly. By the mid-1960s, only eight North American cities (Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, New Orleans, San Francisco and Toronto) had at least one surviving line.

Yet, during the past 40 years, the streetcar has rebounded from the precipice of the grave. Counting cities and towns that sport at least one line with vehicles that can be called “streetcars” under a broad definition, there were 41 in the U.S. and five in Canada last year. It was a remarkable comeback for a mode whose vehicles were once considered worthy only of being scrapped, and the idea behind it was disrespected as obsolete, even silly.

That was not true everywhere, though. In 2010, I interviewed Justin T. Augustine III, then head of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA), for a story about how transit in his city was faring five years after Hurricane Katrina had devastated it. He said: “If you want to involve the community, you have to involve the streetcar.” New Orleaneans have always been loyal to their streetcars, both the 1923-vintage Perley Thomas cars that still run on St. Charles Avenue and the 2000-vintage cars designed by local manager Elmer von Dullen, which run on the other lines. The von Dullen cars capture the flavor of the historic vehicles with wooden walkover seats and windows that can be opened, but they also have some modern features, including A/C.

At one time, most streetcars looked like the ones that run in New Orleans today. There are also historic cars running in Dallas, Memphis and Boston, as well as in San Francisco, El Paso, and Kenosha, Wis. Before Sloan and his cohorts ended the Golden Age, they all ran on rails, collected power from an overhead wire through a trolley pole, and could be recognized easily, despite stylistic differences. Interurban cars, which usually ran on private rights-of-way through towns and between cities, were often larger and geared to run faster than their cousins who plied city streets, but these were only minor differences.

Today, there are newly manufactured cars with a “heritage” look, “modern” streetcars of several descriptions (including those that replaced older cars on legacy systems or long, multi-section units with much larger capacity than traditional streetcars). There is also light rail, which can be considered a big cousin of the streetcar or a descendant of the interurban cars. Some LRVs stretch the definition of “streetcar” to its limit. New Jersey Transit’s RiverLINE between Trenton and Camden runs Stadler diesel LRVs with a passenger cabin at each end and the engine in a shorter section in the middle. They are much larger than historic streetcars. Still, the line includes some street-running track, in the “street railway” tradition. 

Even some vintage cars have been modified. Cars that historically ran in Melbourne, Australia now run in Memphis, Tenn., with pantographs; purportedly in preparation for a light rail line to the airport that was never built. Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) cars that once ran in El Paso returned to service there with pantographs, rebuilt by Brookville. According to the line’s manager, Carl T. Jackson, the change was made to facilitate operations. Trolley buffs consider running streetcars with pantographs instead of trolley poles to be sacrilegious, but riders inside the car can’t tell the difference, and it’s fun to ride the cars, however they collect their power.

Maybe the secret to the rebirth of the streetcar is the diverse selection of vehicles running on the lines scattered throughout the United States and Canada. There are historic cars in New Orleans, Dallas, Memphis, Boston, San Francisco, and Kenosha. San Francisco is also the only city in the world that still has cable cars, a type of streetcar that moves by gripping a moving underground cable, rather than by taking power from a wire. There are heritage-style cars, many made by the Gomaco Trolley Company in Ida Grove, Iowa. They have recently run in Tampa, Memphis, Little Rock, Charlotte, and other places. Gomaco cars come in Birney, Peter Witt, and other styles, including some battery-powered models that run in a mall in Glendale, Calif., and two places in Taiwan. Many enjoy riding vintage streetcars or those with a “heritage” style. 

Other cities have introduced cars with a modern look, and most of them are popular with riders, too. All of the legacy systems replaced their earlier cars with modern counterparts that are about the same size, except New Orleans, where the 20-year-old cars sport a traditional style. Newark is the other exception. New Jersey Transit replaced the historic PCC cars with larger light rail vehicles in 2001, and changed the line’s name from Newark City Subway to Newark Light Rail. 

Cities with new lines or systems have introduced longer streetcars, perhaps in keeping with the success that many light rail systems have enjoyed during the past few decades. Portland’s cars have three sections and are almost as long as the cars on the MAX light rail system. Seattle runs similar cars on its two disconnected lines, although there are plans to fill the gap someday. Two new lines use cars from Spanish company CAF. One runs in downtown Cincinnati and the historic neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine (OTR), an area dominated by mid-19th-century houses where German immigrants once lived. Before the streetcar came, OTR was blighted and dangerous. Today, it is one of the city’s most popular neighborhoods, due in large part to the streetcar. The other is the Kansas City Streetcar running north from Union Station toward the River Market area. Business associations in Kansas City consider the line a major success, and there are now plans to extend it south of Union Station. Class I Kansas City Southern, headquartered in town, supports its extension.

Then there is light rail, a species of transit descended from the streetcar and related to it. Some streetcars are catching up to light rail vehicles in size. Articulated five-section Flexity cars have been the mainstays of Toronto’s nine-line system, the largest in North America, since 2014. The distinctions between long streetcars and light rail seem to be blurring, but almost every line running on rails is making its contribution toward bringing clean, electrically operated local transit back to city streets.

There are new advances in streetcar technology—notably cars that can run off-wire for parts of their routes, when they get power from lithium ion batteries that are charged while the cars run under wire. We recently reported on the Brookville Equipment Corp. Liberty NXT cars with that capability. They are going to Valley Metro Rail in Phoenix for use on the future Tempe Streetcar line. Brookville’s Liberty vehicles are three-section articulated units, and they are in service in Dallas, Detroit, Milwaukee and Oklahoma City. The company is also building vehicles for Seattle and Portland. Adam Mohney, Marketing Specialist at Brookville, told Railway Age that the company’s Dallas cars were the first in the country to use the off-wire capability, and that the other lines Brookville has supplied also have off-wire segments, as will the new start in Tempe. 

Brookville began in 1918 as the Brookville Locomotive Works and still builds them at its Locomotive Division, including the BL20GH units now running on Metro-North. In addition to manufacturing the Liberty vehicles, Brookville’s Streetcar Division also restores historic streetcars. The company restored PCC cars for service in El Paso and for Muni in San Francisco, including Muni Car #1, which first ran in 1912 and which Brookville calls “America’s First Streetcar” because it was the first publicly owned car. Mohney sees an advantage for Brookville to combine experience with both modern and historic streetcars. He said it gives the company the ability to customize the cars they build for each order because every city is different, and “we expect to see pretty solid demand in both markets.”

T.R. Hickey, a Senior Program Manager at Jacobs Engineering and Chair of the Standing Committee on Urban Rail Transit Systems at the Transportation Research Board (TRB), told Railway Age that he sees a trend away from historic or replica streetcars, toward modern models, as part of efforts by cities to promote “a modern downtown area.”

Hickey noted that the battery and capacitor charging systems like Brookville uses can save on construction costs by eliminating the need for some of the wire and the poles that support it. He also pointed to streetcars in their roles as driving economic development in cities and providing the last-mile link for local riders. He noted that Tri-Met in Portland concentrated on building light rail lines, while the city built the streetcar lines. Today, both act together as an integrated transit system.

Although the rebirth of the streetcar had been making steady progress since the 1980s, it has hit some restrictive indications lately. Two streetcar lines were discontinued before the virus hit. The Delmar Loop Trolley in St. Louis died at the end of 2019, after only 235 days of service. SEPTA eliminated the #15 trolley route on Girard Avenue in Philadelphia on Jan. 23, 2020. The line had been operated with PCC cars rebuilt by Brookville in 2004 and called “PCC II” cars. The agency maintains that the cars will return someday, but local advocates do not believe that. We reported on both of those terminations, which may be manifestations of Hickey’s prediction coming true. He told Railway Age: “The modern streetcar is coming to the fore,” and the last replicas were built for Little Rock in 2004. 

A number of other streetcar lines have been suspended on account of the virus. The lines in Detroit, El Paso, Little Rock and Kenosha have not returned to service. There are plans to bring the Detroit cars back this summer, and the Kenosha line will come back on a limited schedule: eight hours of service, Wednesday through Sunday. The situation in San Francisco is even more severe. All rail transit on Muni was suspended one year ago: six light rail lines, the historic streetcars on Market Street and the Embarcadero, and the unique cable cars. Only the J Church and T Third Street light rail lines have returned, and they run shortened routes with a shortened service day.

Do the recent terminations and suspensions mean that the proliferation of streetcars is stalling and has flattened out? We don’t know yet, but despite these setbacks, it is difficult to believe that the Rebirth of the Streetcar has been halted permanently. Planners and elected officials now know that laying rails and stringing wires for transit constitutes an investment in the community that goes far beyond merely running a bus route. Tourists and locals alike prefer riding a streetcar, even if it’s called a “light rail” line, to riding a bus. Streetcars survived a concerted attack by Alfred P. Sloan and his anti-transit alliance for nearly a century, and they are coming back. It seems difficult to fathom that the virus has caused more than just temporary setbacks to that progress. It appears far more likely that indications will change as restrictions due to the virus are relaxed, and that the return of the streetcars will again see green signals or vertical bars along the right-of-way.

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