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Encyclopedia > Streetcar
a historic postcard showing electric trolley-powered streetcars in Richmond, Virginia, where Frank J. Sprague successfully demonstrated his new system on the hills in 1888

A streetcar is a railway vehicle designed to carry passengers on tracks, usually laid in city streets. The term is most widely used in North America and is similar, but not identical, to the term tram used elsewhere. In the U.S. a tram is a tourist bus in the appearance of a heritage streetcar, a suspended cable car (aerial tramway), or a rubber-tired people-mover used for parking lot shuttles at theme parks and major events.

The term streetcar is generic to most forms of common carrier rail transit that runs or has run on streets, providing a local service and picking up and discharging passengers at any street corner, unless otherwise marked.



The first streetcar lines developed from city stagecoach lines that were developed into omnibus lines that picked up and dropped off passengers on a regular route and without the need to be pre-hired.

Some of the earliest streetcars appeared in Baltimore, Maryland in 1828 and in New York City in 1832. These streetcars were an animal railway usually using horses and sometimes mules to haul the cars, usually two as a team. Rarely other animals were tried, including humans in emergency circumstances.

The horsecars were necessary but had problems. One of the best advantages over earlier forms of transit was the low rolling resistance of metal wheels on steel rails, allowing the animals to haul a greater load for a given effort. Problems included the fact that any given animal could only work so many hours on a given day, had to be housed, groomed, fed and cared for day-in and day-out, and produced prodigious amounts of manure which the streetcar company was charged with storing and then disposing of. Since a typical horse pulled a car for perhaps a dozen miles a day and worked for four or five hours, many system needed ten or more horses in stable for each horsecar. New York City had the last regular horsecar lines in the U.S., closing in 1914. A mule-powered line in Celaya, Mexico operated until 1956.

Cable cars

Main article: Cable car (railway)

The next type of streetcar was the cable car, which sought to reduce labor costs and the hardship on animals. Cable cars are pulled along a rail track by a continuously moving cable running at a constant speed and on which individual cars stop and start by releasing and gripping this cable as required. The power to move the cable is provided at a site away from the actual operation. The first cable car line in the United States was tested in San Francisco, California in 1873.

Cable cars suffered from high infrastructure costs, since a vast and expensive system of cables, pulleys, stationary engines and vault structures between the rails had to be provided. They also require strength and skill to operate, to avoid obstructions and other cable cars. The cable had to be dropped at particular locations and the cars coast, for example when crossing another cable line. After the development of electrically-powered streetcars, the more costly cable car systems declined rapidly.

Cable cars were especially useful in hilly cities, partially explaining their survival in San Francisco, though ironically the most extensive cable system in the U.S. was in Chicago, Illinois, a flat city. The San Francisco cable cars continue to perform a regular transportation function, in addition to being a tourist attraction.

Trolley cars

Trolley cars, so called for the trolley pole used to gather power from an unshielded overhead wire or cable, were first successfully tested in actual service in Richmond, Virginia in 1888, in an installation by Frank J. Sprague. There were earlier commercial installations of electric streetcars, including one in Berlin, Germany, as early as 1881 by Werner Siemens and the company that still bears his name. The earlier installations, however, proved difficult and/or unreliable. Siemen's line, for example, provided power through a live rail and a return rail, like a model train setup, limiting the voltage that could be used, and providing unwanted excitement to people and animals crossing the tracks.

Since Sprague's installation was the first to prove successful in all conditions, he is credited as being the inventor of the trolley car.

Trolley car systems in the U.S. and Canada became quite extensive, but, hit by the Great Depression, automobile competition, hostile politicians and predatory practices, declined precipitously after World War II. Some systems never closed however, with lines surviving in several cities even at the trolley's nadir in North America.

Concern about automobile traffic, fossil fuel availability, pollution and quality-of-life issues began a trend back to urban electric rail travel in North America during the 1970s, and a significant number of new lines and extensions and upgrading of other lines has occurred.

A rare but significant variant of the trolley car was the conduit car, which drew its power from an underground third rail.

Summary of nomenclature

The term streetcar was and is used interchangeably with horsecar or trolley. Cable cars are less often referred to as "streetcars."

What would be called a streetcar is known as a tram in most of the world, though some tram installations or routes would not be called streetcars.

Modern streetcar lines in the U.S. may be called streetcars or trolleys or by the term light rail, especially if the line has some grade separation, dedicated right-of-way, or other rapid transit features.

In the Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire, the term streetcar is used allegorically to refer to Blanche duBois' promiscuousness and inability to form permanent relationships, as in the sarcastic phrase: "Men (or women) are like streetcars. There'll be another one along any minute."

There was actually a streetcar line in New Orleans named Desire Street and simply signed Desire. It is mentioned in the book and an actual New Orleans streetcar with that signage is seen at the beginning of the Marlon Brando-Vivien Leigh film.

Streetcars in North America


In Canada, most cities once had a streetcar system, but today Toronto's TTC is the only operator of streetcars in that country, and maintains the most extensive system in North America (in terms of total track length, number of cars, and ridership).

The first lines built in the United States (and indeed the world) were in 1832 from New York City to Harlem by New York and Harlem Railroad and in 1834 in New Orleans.

Most US streetcar systems were removed by the 1950s. Among the reasons, the US firm of General Motors formed a separate subsidiary named "National City Lines", whose business mission was to buy out streetcar operations all around the US and replace them with fleets of buses.

Surviving systems

Not all streetcars systems were removed; the San Francisco cable cars are the most famous example in the United States. More conventional streetcar operations survived complete abandonment in Boston, Cleveland, Newark, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco in the United States, together with Toronto in Canada. All of these systems have received new equipment. Some of these cities have also rehabilitated lines, and Newark, New Orleans, and San Francisco have added trackage in recent years. In Toronto, the city has added 2 new lines in recent years, and is activly upgrading its other lines. Further expansion is planned in combination with the city's plans for the rejuvenation of its waterfront.

More recently a number of American cities have built new light rail systems which operate partially in the right-of-way of city streets. These systems could be called trams by Europeans and Australians but are generally not known by that name within the US, where the term light rail is generally applied. San Diego, California was the location of one of the earlier of these new systems, which substantially utilized European technology.

Heritage Streetcar Systems

Heritage streetcar systems are used in public transit service, combining light rail efficiency with America's nostalgia interests. Proponents claim that using a simple, reliable form of transit from 50 or 100 years ago can bring history to life for 21st century Americans. Systems are operating successfully in over 20 U.S. cities,and are in planning or construction stages in 40 more. Heritage systems currently operating in Memphis, Tennessee, Tampa, Florida and New Orleans, Louisiana are among the larger.

Over 50 years after the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway, the revival of streetcar operations in New Orleans is credited by many to the worldwide fame gained by the streetcars made by the Perley A. Thomas Car Works. These cars were operating on the system's Desire route in the 1947 play and later movie of the same name. Some of the original cars have been carefully restored locally and continue to operate in 2004.

This is a tram-related article

See also

Wikimedia Commons has multimedia related to:

External links

  • Light Rail Central (http://lightrail.com/) (US/CA)
  • Light Rail Now advocacy (http://www.lightrailnow.org/) (US)
  • The Cable Building (http://www.lostnewyorkcity.com/buildingphotos/Plate-51-b.html) Broadway Cable car line (US/NY)
  • Market Street Railway (http://www.streetcar.org) (US/CA)
  • National Capital Trolley Museum (http://www.dctrolley.org/) (US/MD)
  • APTA Heritage Trolley Systems New Orleans page (http://www.heritagetrolley.org/existNewOrleans.htm)
  • Reader's Companion to American History, Public Transportation: The Electric Streetcar (http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/rcah/html/ah_072005_theelectrics.htm)

  Results from FactBites:
Museums In Motion - San Francisco's historic F-line streetcars (248 words)
San Francisco operates three basic types of streetcars: the vintage, often one-of-a-kind trolleys, the Peter Witt trams of Milan, and the art deco PCC streetcars, like No.
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more than 30 authentic streetcars, trams, and trolleys from around the world are currently available for service.
streetcar (1925 words)
1922, old Streetcars from Toronto were donated and brought up by train to be used as temporary housing for the people who had lost their homes in the devastating fire that had laid the town of Haileybury and surrounding area a burnt-out wasteland.
The streetcar idea came about some five or six years ago, when the minister of Northern Development and Mines suggerstd that if a street car in the Tri-Town area could be obtained and restored, they would look into funding it.
The streetcar was used as a chicken coop after the fire victims had rebuilt their house.
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