What is an "interurban?"

2633 views
32 replies
1 rating 2 rating 3 rating 4 rating 5 rating
  • Member since
    June, 2002
  • 14,530 posts
What is an "interurban?"
Posted by daveklepper on Monday, November 05, 2018 10:44 AM
Based on comments to the excellent report on the Coastal Tramway in Belgium, I think needed is some clarification of what an interurban is.  Most new light rail lines provide transportation between suburbs and city centers.  Interurbans may or may not do that, but they definitely connect centers, which the Coastal Tramway does, more than two or three along its route.
Pittsburgh had interurban lines south to Charleroi-Rosco and Washington.  Cut back to their present length, they are suburb-to-city light-rail lines, not interurbans.   St. Louis's line to Bellville is an interurban because Bellville is an employment and retail center.  As are Milwaukee, South Bend, Michigan City, and Elgin.  If Baltimore's light rail system were extended to Annapolis and/or to Silver Springs (connection with Washington, DC's Metro), then it would be an interurban system, not just light rail.  Boston's system is definitely just light rail, not an interurban system.  And a multi-metropolitan streetcar system cannot be an interurban unless substantial  trackage is off-street.  Two examples in New England were the New York and Stamford (New Rochelle – Stamford) and Boston and Worcester.  The Eastern Massachusetts lines north to Revere, Lynn, and Salem were very marginally interurban north of Revere.  Los Angeles's Blue Line to Long Beach is an interurban and is even mostly on the old Pacific Electric RoW with similar street-running in Long Beach.
 
The Vienna Baden line in Austria is an interesting interurban line.  I rode it in 1960, with prewar wood mu cars, a two-car train.  (Now getting modern low-floor cars.) Now I believe there is a stretch of trolley-subway running in Vienna, but then it was all surface, shared with the local tram line to the city limits, mostly on street, in pavement shared with autos.  Then came the  separate RoW, though forests and farmland, and then street running again in Baden.  The street single-track terminal, with store-like station and ticket office, was close to a mainline RR overpass.  I aimed my Leica at an oncoming train.  From familiarity with some Yiddish, I was able to evesdrop  following conversation, here translated from the German:
 
"Is that stranger a spy?"   "No, he came on the Blue Tram.  Spies come in private cars."
  • Member since
    March, 2016
  • From: Burbank IL (near Clearing)
  • 11,110 posts
Posted by CSSHEGEWISCH on Monday, November 05, 2018 12:13 PM

The consensus tends to define an interurban as electrically powered, with direct suspension overhead and trolley pole pickup.  They are built to lower engineering standards than steam railroads with tight curves and lighter rail.  Equipment is shorter and narrower than steam roads, using radial couplers to handle the curves.  Freight service is minimal to non-existent.  Service tends to be frequent with one or two car trains between relatively nearby cities.

The daily commute is part of everyday life but I get two rides a day out of it. Paul
  • Member since
    December, 2008
  • From: Toronto, Canada
  • 1,373 posts
Posted by 54light15 on Monday, November 05, 2018 1:52 PM

I've ridden the Belgian coastal tram end-to-end. It's worth doing and I'd say it qualifies as an interurban. 

  • Member since
    August, 2010
  • From: Henrico, VA
  • 8,955 posts
Posted by Firelock76 on Monday, November 05, 2018 8:31 PM

I've usually taken the lazy man's approach and described interurbans as trolley cars on steroids, that is bigger, heavier, and faster, and instead of traveling between neighborhoods travel between towns or even counties.

Works for me.

  • Member since
    September, 2011
  • 4,051 posts
Posted by MidlandMike on Monday, November 05, 2018 9:16 PM

Trolley and interurban are terms that have fallen by the wayside.  Transportation planners seem to have replaced them with Streetcars for what we used to call trolleys, and Light Rail for everything else short of rapid transit.

  • Member since
    June, 2002
  • 14,530 posts
Posted by daveklepper on Tuesday, November 06, 2018 6:36 AM

All the above is true, but still historically correct terminology can be helpful.  Does anyone have the fine Hilton and Drew book and can quote their definition?

  • Member since
    September, 2010
  • From: East Coast
  • 908 posts
Posted by D.Carleton on Tuesday, November 06, 2018 1:40 PM

Editor Emeritus, This Week at Amtrak

  • Member since
    June, 2002
  • 14,530 posts
Posted by daveklepper on Wednesday, November 07, 2018 4:57 AM

Excellent right-up, thanks.

However,

Trolley wire on the Philadelphia & Western was only used in shops and the yard.

Otherwise, only 3rd rail. 

  • Member since
    September, 2017
  • 990 posts
Posted by charlie hebdo on Wednesday, November 07, 2018 7:15 AM

CSSHEGEWISCH

The consensus tends to define an interurban as electrically powered, with direct suspension overhead and trolley pole pickup.  They are built to lower engineering standards than steam railroads with tight curves and lighter rail.  Equipment is shorter and narrower than steam roads, using radial couplers to handle the curves.  Freight service is minimal to non-existent.  Service tends to be frequent with one or two car trains between relatively nearby cities.

 

Mostly true.  But the CA&E (aka Roarin' Elgin; Great 3rd Rail) was certainly an interurban and mostly third rail pickup.

  • Member since
    June, 2002
  • 14,530 posts
Posted by daveklepper on Wednesday, November 07, 2018 7:45 AM

Switzerland is building a new interurban line.  Basel, the Capitol, and Zurich, the largest city, are connected by a main-line electrified railway with frequent passenger service.  But smaller communities beween are currently more conveniently served by a bus route.  So an interurban line is being built between the Zurich suburb or Alseiten and the Basel suburb of Kilwangen.  At both ends it will connect with the local tram lines and also with the railroad local passenger service.  There is also a raiload transfer connection at Dietikon, about midway.  Not clear about thorugh running at each end over the local tram lines, but it should be possible.  All are meter gauge, except the railroad.

  • Member since
    September, 2011
  • 4,051 posts
Posted by MidlandMike on Wednesday, November 07, 2018 9:12 PM

The Seattle light rail line south to Sea-Tac airport, is slowly being extended in stages to the ultimate goal of Tacoma.

  • Member since
    December, 2005
  • From: Cardiff, CA
  • 2,930 posts
Posted by erikem on Thursday, November 08, 2018 11:26 PM

charlie hebdo

 

 
CSSHEGEWISCH

The consensus tends to define an interurban as electrically powered, with direct suspension overhead and trolley pole pickup.  They are built to lower engineering standards than steam railroads with tight curves and lighter rail.  Equipment is shorter and narrower than steam roads, using radial couplers to handle the curves.  Freight service is minimal to non-existent.  Service tends to be frequent with one or two car trains between relatively nearby cities.

 

 

 

Mostly true.  But the CA&E (aka Roarin' Elgin; Great 3rd Rail) was certainly an interurban and mostly third rail pickup.

 

The Northern Electric (which later became the northern half of the Sacramento Norther) was a third rail interurban. The Central California Traction was also third rail, energized at 1200V.

  • Member since
    September, 2003
  • 6,778 posts
Posted by Overmod on Friday, November 09, 2018 10:50 AM

The plot thickens, I think, when you look at the definition a bit more empirically.

Little doubt in my mind that the 'electrified' part is largely circumstantial, driven by contemporary trends in technology and economics that were sometimes extremely transient.  By the time practical diesel truck motors and associated transmissions (epicyclic, fluid, or even improved friction-clutch) were available, had there been remaining demand for interurbans in general you'd have seen extensive 'dieselization' or even conversion of older equipment to motor rather than wire use.  

Likewise, a big part of "interurban" service was that it served the region between the urban points.  Third rail wasn't only deprecated because of capital-related reasons and power losses: it was considerably less safe for passengers to board or depart a car at non-platform locations or the usual sort of flag stop.

P&W in Philadelphia is an interesting case: it wasn't an 'interurban' at all, but a steam railroad converted to run interurban-type cars, with some interurban-type amenities appended to it -- a case could be made for similarity with the New York Dyre Avenue #5 line (or the prospective run-through of cars on the NYW&B as originally mentioned) where the operation on the dedicated part of the ROW was anything but 'interurban' style.

Meanwhile, we have the push in the '20s toward increased speed, which is fundamentally difficult to reconcile with a number of 'interurban' service features even given the overload capacity of electric MU traction for rapid acceleration (and true regenerative dynamic braking that 'might' be practically used for power cost saving as well as brakeshoe conservation).  As noted, if you can preserve the useful part of serving demand that does not easily parcel into stations, providing high speed on other parts of the route adds to perceived value and 'take rate' for many of the riders.  But there comes a point where no streetcar local model doesn't waste more time than even 90-mph running elsewhere contributes -- let alone door-to-door convenience in any weather with largely-amortized fixed expenses, as in the personal automobile on free 'good roads'...

  • Member since
    June, 2002
  • 14,530 posts
Posted by daveklepper on Sunday, November 11, 2018 11:54 AM

Actually, the overload of traction motors was solved for mu cars at the same time it was solved for diesel locomotives, by the AC hysterises-non-sychronous brush-free computerr-controlled motor, which is now in use in nearly all diesel-electric and electric locomotives, streetcars, light-rail cars, trolley and battery buses, and sububan mu cars.  As an economical-with-regard-to-land-use solution to highway congestion, light rail is making a comeback, and in certain cases its characteristics put it sqarely under the definition of an interurban line.  St. Louis - Bellville, Los Angeles - Long Beach are probably the purest examples.

Regarding SEPTA's 100.  It is a suburban light rapid transit line.  In some respects it is an interurban line, but it is completely grade-separated, which certainly means rapid-transit, not interurban.  Up to sometime in 1949, it did regularly host genuine interurban cars of the genuine interurban Lehigh Valley Transit's Liberty Bell route.

Even though it is not electrified, I would label the Camden - Trenton NJT River Line a "Diesel Interurban," because in all other respects it operates like a typical interurban, including street-running in both Camden and Trenton.

  • Member since
    May, 2010
  • 2 posts
Posted by railfank on Tuesday, November 13, 2018 5:57 AM

Don't forget Iowa's CRANDIC. It traveled between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids and was better known as the "Vomit Comet" during WWII when Navy trainees rode up to CR for fun & games. I rode it to go home at Thanksgiving and Christmas, connecting with C&NW to Carroll IA.

  • Member since
    June, 2002
  • 14,530 posts
Posted by daveklepper on Tuesday, November 13, 2018 7:05 AM

Absolutely.  Cader Rapids and Iowa City met every definition of an interurbsn, and so did the Ceder Falls and Northern.

  • Member since
    September, 2011
  • 4,051 posts
Posted by MidlandMike on Tuesday, November 13, 2018 7:51 PM

Regarding Iowa, should we consider the Mason City to Clear Lake line of Iowa Traction to be a still electrically operating interurban, although now for freight only?

  • Member since
    June, 2002
  • 14,530 posts
Posted by daveklepper on Tuesday, November 13, 2018 10:40 PM

Probably not.  It certainly is an ex-interurban, and now can be called a freight-only interurban or an electric freigiht switching railroad like Niagra Junction was.

  • Member since
    September, 2017
  • 990 posts
Posted by charlie hebdo on Wednesday, November 14, 2018 10:14 AM

I wish we still had the CA&E, in a modern version, of course.  And certainly not diesel powered, which generally seems archaic to me.

  • Member since
    September, 2011
  • 4,051 posts
Posted by MidlandMike on Wednesday, November 14, 2018 8:50 PM

I have heard the Mount Mansfield Electric RR, that ran about a dozen miles from Stowe, VT to the CV connection at Waterbury, referred to as a rural trolley.  The line folded in the depression shortly before the CCC cut ski trails on Mt Mansfield.  If it had only held on a little longer.

  • Member since
    June, 2002
  • 14,530 posts
Posted by daveklepper on Thursday, November 15, 2018 7:41 AM

New Hampshire and Vermont Spingrield Terminal was similar but also handled freight.

  • Member since
    February, 2002
  • From: Mpls/St.Paul
  • 10,982 posts
Posted by wjstix on Wednesday, November 21, 2018 2:34 PM

INTERURBAN n. A railroad connecting cities or towns.

                 - Webster's Student Dictionary, 1996.

 

Stix
  • Member since
    March, 2016
  • From: Burbank IL (near Clearing)
  • 11,110 posts
Posted by CSSHEGEWISCH on Friday, November 23, 2018 10:05 AM

charlie hebdo

I wish we still had the CA&E, in a modern version, of course.  And certainly not diesel powered, which generally seems archaic to me.

 
Most of CA&E's territory was and is adequately served by existing suburban operations:  the UP West Line to Wheaton, BNSF to Aurora and MILW West Line to Elgin.  Even if through service over CTA continued, CA&E probably would not have lasted much longer than it did, also see CNS&M.
 
What is so archaic about diesel-electric motive power??
The daily commute is part of everyday life but I get two rides a day out of it. Paul
  • Member since
    December, 2007
  • 1,127 posts
Posted by Falcon48 on Friday, November 23, 2018 4:09 PM

wjstix

INTERURBAN n. A railroad connecting cities or towns.

                 - Webster's Student Dictionary, 1996.

 

 

This might be a dictionary definition of an "interurban" but it's definitely not the common usage of the term in the rail industry.  After all, under this definition, the Union Pacific would be an "interurban", something which Mr. Harriman would have found pretty amusing.

Earlier replies have already discussed this at some length.  Many years ago, a famous Supreme Court justice commented on the definition of "obsenity".  I can't quote him exactly, but he said something to the effect that he couldn't define the term, but he know it when he saw it.  The term "interurban" in railroading is in somewhat the same boat.  But, in general, it referred to a "trolley" railroad between cities.  As another commentor already mentioned, interurbans were usually (but not always) built to lighter standards than conventional railroads and powered by overhead trolley wire.  But there were many exceptions.  The North Shore Line, the CA&E and the South Shore Line in the Chicago area were generally considered "interurbans" through the 1920's, but were mostly built to conventional railroad standards (and the CA&E was mostly powered by 3rd rail).

But the answer to "what is an interurban" also depends on why the question is being asked.  For example, the old Interstate Commerce Act, which gave the Interstate Commerce Commission extensive regulatory authority over the nation's rail system, contained broad exclusions for electric interurban railroads not operated as part of the steam railroad transportation system (what we would call the "general railroad system" today") .  There were also "interurban" exclusions in other Federal railroad legislation.   As detailed in the Hilton-Due book, the ICC struggled for years with the question of what railroads were covered by these exclusions, and there are a good number of ICC decisions discussing the status of individual "interurban" railroads. 

The way the ICC ultimately sorted this issue out was that electric railroads which had interline ticketing arrangements with steam railroads or handled interline frieght with them were not "interurban" railroads but were part of the steam RR system of transportation and subject to the same rules that applied to steam railroads.  Based on this, "interurbans" like the Pacific Electric, North Shore, South Shore, CA&E and many others were ultimately held to not be "interurbans" for purposes of Federal railroad regulation.  

This, by the way, is the reason that the hotly contested abandonment of the NSL in the early 1960's was handled and approved by the ICC.  If the ICC had considered NSL to be an "interurban", it would have had no jurisdicition over the abandonment (as the statutory "interurban" exclusion covered construction and abandonment of rail lines).  But the ICC held (in accordance with its earlier classificaion of NSL) that the railroad was not an "interurban" and that the proposed abandonemnt was subject to its jurisdiction.

Probably more than you never wanted to know.    

 

  • Member since
    December, 2007
  • 1,127 posts
Posted by Falcon48 on Friday, November 23, 2018 7:11 PM

In the unlikely event anyone wants to dig into this further, see the court decision in State of Illinois v. United States, 273 F. Supp 83 (1962), upholding the ICC decision authorizing abandonement of the North Shore, which has an extensive discussion of the "interurban" issue.  Unfortunately, I can't attach my copy to this note (probably because of my lack of computer skills), but it should be availabe on a non-subscription public legal research site (like "Findlaw") at 213 F. Supp. 83 (1962).  It was affirmed per curiam (i.e., without a written opinion) by the Surpeme Court in Illinois v. United States, 373 U.S. 378.   Just some more light bedtime reading.

  • Member since
    September, 2003
  • 6,778 posts
Posted by Overmod on Friday, November 23, 2018 10:09 PM

Falcon48
In the unlikely event anyone wants to dig into this further, see the court decision in State of Illinois v. United States, 273 F. Supp 83 (1962), upholding the ICC decision authorizing abandonment of the North Shore, which has an extensive discussion of the "interurban" issue ... it should be available on a non-subscription public legal research site (like "Findlaw") at 213 F. Supp. 83 (1962).

Ask and ye shall receive.

  • Member since
    June, 2002
  • 14,530 posts
Posted by daveklepper on Saturday, November 24, 2018 11:04 AM

Previous three posts are just great.   Thanks

  • Member since
    September, 2017
  • 990 posts
Posted by charlie hebdo on Tuesday, November 27, 2018 4:18 PM

CSSHEGEWISCH

 

 
charlie hebdo

I wish we still had the CA&E, in a modern version, of course.  And certainly not diesel powered, which generally seems archaic to me.

 

 

 
Most of CA&E's territory was and is adequately served by existing suburban operations:  the UP West Line to Wheaton, BNSF to Aurora and MILW West Line to Elgin.  Even if through service over CTA continued, CA&E probably would not have lasted much longer than it did, also see CNS&M.
 
What is so archaic about diesel-electric motive power??
 

Have you recently ridden the UP West or BNSF lines at rush hour?  Often packed, SRO.  Beyond Wheaton, the CA&E (with an intact ROW all the way to Quincy St.) would provide service to communities either not currently directly served by Metra that have grown tremendously since 1955 or areas in towns served that are now quite distant from the Metra stations.

Electric is simply better in many ways, IMO: noise, pollution, acceleration, to name three.

  • Member since
    August, 2010
  • From: Henrico, VA
  • 8,955 posts
Posted by Firelock76 on Saturday, December 01, 2018 6:40 PM

Needless to say I don't live in that part of the country, but if commuter rail is as overcrowded there as you say it is it and the CA&E right-of-way is still intact it would make perfectly good sense to re-establish light rail service along it.

And all-electrified, certainly.

Mind you, watch the NIMBYs and BANANAs come shrieking out of the woodwork if it's tried.  Hopefully, I'd be absolutely wrong on that.

  • Member since
    September, 2017
  • 990 posts
Posted by charlie hebdo on Saturday, December 01, 2018 7:00 PM

Firelock76

Needless to say I don't live in that part of the country, but if commuter rail is as overcrowded there as you say it is it and the CA&E right-of-way is still intact it would make perfectly good sense to re-establish light rail service along it.

And all-electrified, certainly.

Mind you, watch the NIMBYs and BANANAs come shrieking out of the woodwork if it's tried.  Hopefully, I'd be absolutely wrong on that.

 

Overcrowded (rush hour) on many trains and given the amount of freight on both UP-West and BNSF, there's little chance of additional peak trains.

It could serve places that now are commuter suburbs, such as Warrenville, Batavia, Geneva and Wayne, not served by Metra.  Of course the CA&E has been the Prairie Path for years and it could not revert to railroad status.  But we can dream!!

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Search the Community

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy