John Speller's Web Pages - Projected Railroads



Streetcar Desire

First a definition. I use the word streetcar to describe a one-, two- or three-car electric tracked vehicle conveying passengers in an urban or inter-suburban context. Some people call such vehicles "trolleys," but this term is misleading for the following reasons. First, it is not the vehicle itself that should be called a trolley, but strictly only the electricity-collecting device that rides along the overhead electric wire. In lesser trafficked areas the expense of the overhead electric system might be saved hy using hydrolleys. Second of all, there can be confusion since the term trolley or trolley-bus is also applied to non-tracked pneumatic-tired vehicles that also collect their electric power from overhead wires. These are a fine kind of public transportation too, though not as efficient as streetcars, since the friction of the wheels against the rail is much lower than the friction between a tire and the road. So streetcars, please.

Streetcars are the ideal solution for an urban context for the following reasons:

(1) They are an extremely "green" form of transportation, using very little energy and producing no exhaust.

(2) They are extremely quiet, since the electric traction motors are much more silent than an internal combustion engine. Furthermore, if people use them in preference to cars or buses, it lowers the amount of motor traffic in the area and makes neighborhoods even quieter.

(3) Because they use the existing road network - with a track laid in each carriageway of two-way streets and a single track in opposite directions on parallel one-way streets - they require very little infrastructure and are relatively cheap to build. Because they operate in the same way and obey the same laws as normal motor traffic, they are no more inconvenient to motor traffic than any other vehicle.

(4) Unlike main-line rail and light rail they do not require substantial catenaries to support the overhead wire. Instead they only need a single wire, which can often be suspended from the lampposts or other unobtrusive, lightly-constructed poles. This makes them both extremely cheap and very unobtrusive in the neighborhood.

(5) They are in my opinion safer than light rail systems, since they do not require level crossings. We are constantly hearing of accidents to main-line trains which hit vehicles at level crossings. Fortunately these are rarely disastrous since main-line trains are very substantially built. In the case of light rail systems, where the trains are relatively flimsily built in comparison with main-line trains, there is a much greater potential for disaster with light rail systems which have level crossings -- as the St. Louis Metrolink light rail system does at Sarah Street, Taylor Street, etc. There is of course a solution to this, though not necessarily a cheap one. It has been part of railroad technology since at least the 1820s, and is known as "the railroad bridge." So what price human life? In most cases 2 or 3 million dollars (not nearly as much as it should be).

(6) Modern streetcars are designed to have their doors a few inches above the pavement, level with the sidewalk, so that they are more disabled friendly than any other form of transportation. A wheelchair can just enter on the level, without the need for a lift. Most modern streetcars or trams are fitted with pantographs for collecting the overhead electric current, since the trolley-wheels of older vehicles can sometimes lose contact and fly off the wire, which is inconvenient and occasionally dangerous.

One of my daughters used to live near the 5' 2½" gauge Girard Avenue streetcar line in Philadelphia. This has been operating successfully since the nineteenth century using, incidentally PCC streetcars built in St. Louis by the St. Louis Car Company. .

The Loop Trolley Company has been set up in St. Louis to built a streetcar line along Delmar Avenue east from Trinity Avenue to De Balivière Avenue and then south down De Balivière Avenue to terminate in Forest Park, a distance of 2.2 miles. The route seems to me an excellent one. It connects with two stations on the Metrolink light rail system, as well as serving the fashionable Loop commercial district near Washington University. The CH2M Hill Corporation has undertaken an engineering study for the line. The Loop Trolley Company purchased two refurbished 1927-1930 vintage Peter Witt streetcars formerly used in Milan, Italy, through the Gomaco Trolley Company of Ida Grove, Iowa. While these are of historic interest in being very similar to the streetcars which operated in St. Louis from the 1920s to the 1960s, my one misgiving about this project is that they are likely to be both higher in long-term maintenance costs and less disabled friendly than new street cars would be. The superior Skoda European streetcars are now being built under license in the United States by United Streetcar, LLC. The "Loop Line" would be a very useful addition to St. Louis's public transportation system, and I hope that the Loop Trolley Company will be successful in raising the funds to complete it.

For the neighborhood I lived in when I was in St. Louis I would suggest a very useful streetcar line about 2¼ miles long running east from the Shrewsbury Metrolink station and serving the St. Louis Hills and Southampton neighborhoods of St. Louis. The line would start at Lansdowne Avenue and River Des Peres Boulevard and travel east to Hampton Avenue. It would then continue across Hampton to Devonshire Avenue and thence to Wherry Avenue, where it would turn northeast as far as Chippewa Street, the Old US Route 66. It would then go west on Chippewa to Lansdowne and thence back to its terminus at Shewsbury Metrolink station. Since the streets concerned have speed limits of 25 and 30 mph, high speeds would be unnecessary, so that up to one third of the cost could be saved by adopting a narrower gauge than the usual 4 ft. 8½ in. Streetcars are successfully operating on gauges as small as 1 meter (3 ft. 33/8 in.) on some systems in the Czech Republic, France, Italy, The Netherlands and Norway.

For heritage and tourist lines, old-style streetcars are built new in the USA both by the Gomaco Trolley Company and the Edwards Railcar Company

A state-of-the-art Alsthom-Vevey tramcar operating on the meter-gauge Saint-Étienne tramway in France. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
A preserved PCC tram in Saint-Étienne, France. These were a meter-gauge version of the PCC streetcars built by the St. Louis Car Company. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Plan of the Delmar Loop Trolley Company's proposed line in St. Louis
Streetcar line connecting the St. Louis Metrolink with the St. Louis Hills and Southampton neighborhoods
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