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The Return of DC Streetcars?

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The Return of DC Streetcars?
Posted by wallyworld on Wednesday, July 1, 2009 11:22 AM

Does this herald the return of a underground conduit system or perhaps some more exotic technology? Is everything old suddenly new again?

 

http://www.welovedc.com/2009/06/23/dc-mythbusting-the-dc-streetcar-system/

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Posted by CSSHEGEWISCH on Wednesday, July 1, 2009 2:02 PM

In this case, it looks like something that's old is still old.  I would guess that this particular street hasn't been resurfaced in decades.  At any rate, conduit electrification is a labor-intensive and expensive way to operate streetcars.

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Posted by wallyworld on Wednesday, July 1, 2009 2:29 PM

 One would think so but apparently they will have to either rescind the ban of overhead power distirbution or get very creative in relation to who these vehicles would be powered as it would be an opportunity to stretch the envelope in technical terms rather than revisit the history of traction, but then again, most likely perhaps the ban is already envisioned to be removed. I always thought that the idea that overhead wires were a blight on the scenery was abit extreme. If my failing memory serves me correctly werent the Washington Annapolis interurbans dual voltage in order to run over the local DC lines?, I cant seem to recall if they were fitted with a plow for the conduit.

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Posted by Modelcar on Thursday, July 2, 2009 11:16 AM

CSSHEGEWISCH
In this case, it looks like something that's old is still old.  I would guess that this particular street hasn't been resurfaced in decades

Just a comment:  Sighting old streetcar tracks.  Here in our fair city of Munice, In., I know of an {residential}, intersection where the tracks are still visible.  If my memory {reading the history}, serves me correctly....Our streetcar system in the city was abandoned in 1931....!

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Posted by NKP guy on Thursday, July 2, 2009 11:37 AM

 I can't top you csshegewisch, but I can get close!  Ravenna, Ohio still has a brick-paved street (Sycamore Street?) that has the rails of The Northern Ohio Traction & Light Company on it, unburied since the end of service in 1932!  I believe this one block stretch of track is the very last interurban rail left in Ohio's Western Reserve.  When in Ravenna, I go out of my way to drive down this street and feel the rails 'neath my tires.  Nothing else feels quite like rubber tires on a steel track.

My first visit to Washington DC was in 1956 and I still remember being absolutely slack-jawed seeing PCC's moving along with the poles tied down to their roofs!  Like another contributor here, I, too, enjoy seeing a maze of wires over tracks in the street, but somehow it seems wrong in a place like DC or even New York, to say nothing of Paris or London.  

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Posted by daveklepper on Friday, July 3, 2009 3:21 AM

Muncie's streetcars did last into the 1930's, for a short time  a local operation of the Indiana Railroad.  They even received some new double-truck lightweights in the 1930's, transferred by Indiana Railroad from the New Albany - Jeffersonville run which had been abandoned.  The Muncie people thought they were new, having been thoroughly reconditioned.  But even then, under Indiana RR management, gradual bus conversion as track wore out and road repairs were made, was in progress.   Marion's lasted through WWII as a local cooperative operation with the operators and maintenance people all part owners.

 

The French have developed two competitive wire-less tram schemes, plus of course battery operation, which is old hat.   One uses a power rail within the pavement that is automatically energized only when the tram is above it (sort of five meter sections insulated from each other), and the other simply transmitts ac electric power with the primary of the power transformer buried in the street and the secondary just above the street below the tram.

Both are in use in French cities, Marseilles being one.    Only one kind in one city, of course, and only in archtecturally sensitive downtown areas, with trolley wire elsewhere.

 

The Washington DC system was a very well run high-speed streetcar system and it was mostly politics that got it switched to all-buses.   Roy Chalk wanted to continue to run streetcars, all PCC's.

 

Yes, the Washington, Batlimore, and Annapolis interurbans that were assigned to the runs to Waashington could run on 600V trolley, 600V conduit, and 1200V trolley, if my memory is correct.   In any case, I am sure they used conduit while running downtwon on I think New York Avenue, using the route of the Benning line (10 and 12).    Some of their interurban cars were three-truck two body articulateds, much like modern light rail cars.   But they had train doors and could mu with the two-truck cars.

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Posted by hutton_switch on Monday, July 6, 2009 5:37 PM

I am a native Washingtonian and note that the photo provided is in a residential area of DC (Georgetown, to be specific).  Though the tracks that remain in this section of town would certainly benefit those who live in this/these areas, a light rail system in today's DC needs to serve major thoroughfares, like K, L, and M Streets, the business, mostly non-governmental sections of DC.  M Street runs through South Georgetown, and light rail would need to run up Wisconsin Avenue, which goes south to north through Georgetown.  In general, a light rail system in DC needs to provide service to those area of town that are not adequately served by the Metrorail system, and Georgetown is the primary example.

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Posted by Alan Robinson on Monday, July 6, 2009 7:04 PM

I have to wonder if the photograph shows a remnant of DC's long-abandoned and all-but-forgotten cable car system. Most of us associate cable cars with San Francisco only, but may cities used cable cars between about 1870 and 1900, even in flat areas. You can find a list (it may be partial) in the Wikipedia article about cable cars.

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Posted by GLeeFlming on Monday, July 6, 2009 8:06 PM
It's the old electric system. If I remember correctly, there was an effort to remove the tracks a few years ago, but at least some of the local residences liked it as it was -- the cobblestones and the rails, too, slow traffic down. Driving on the rails can be fun if you have avery, very steady hand -- it's much smoother than the cobblestones, but rather slippery!
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Posted by inarevil on Monday, July 6, 2009 9:06 PM

Alan Robinson

I have to wonder if the photograph shows a remnant of DC's long-abandoned and all-but-forgotten cable car system. Most of us associate cable cars with San Francisco only, but may cities used cable cars between about 1870 and 1900, even in flat areas. You can find a list (it may be partial) in the Wikipedia article about cable cars.

 As mentioned above in another post, DC's streetcar system ran through underground conduit.  There was a Federal ban on overhead wires for esthetic reasons.  The trolley cars had standard poles on them for trips out of the District where they could run under the less expensive overhead wires.  I remember seeing the stretch of track in the photo when I lived in the DC area.  I stumbled upon it while I was exploring and learning the area.  Never did get back to it to see how far it ran.

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Posted by daveklepper on Tuesday, July 7, 2009 2:37 AM

Washington, DC, never operated cable cars.   However, some similar conduit in NYC was converted  from cable conduit, including 3rd Avenue's streetcar line.

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Posted by MikeyZGuy on Tuesday, July 7, 2009 8:17 AM

Not quite right.  D.C streetcars did have overhead wires in certain sections of town.  I grew up in the Brookland section of northeast DC in the 50's and 60's, and remember the overhead wires quite vividly.  In fact, it was the sport of youngsters to sit in the back of the streetcar, reach out through the open windows in the center rear of the car and pull downward on the shoe retraction cable. This would disconnect the shoe from the overhead wire, and kill the power to the car momentarily, eliciting shouts of  profanity from the operator.  Good for a giggle back then. If one got caught in the act, the worst case scenario was getting put off at the next stop with a crumpled shirt collar from being assisted off the car. A report from a member of the Popes Creek (MD) Sub railfan group..."For those who are following the DC Streetcar proposal... there are now fresh rails embedded in the pavement of portions of "H" St. NE, and a pile of rails along with some clearing of trees and brush near where the old Sheperd branch crosses South Capital Street.  That is where the carbarn facility is supposed to go.  It looks like we really will be getting street cars in D.C. once again!  I hope they restore an old PCC to DC Transit colors for history's sake."

  

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Posted by Kootenay Central on Monday, July 13, 2009 4:06 PM

That is wonderful to see so many years later. Amazing!

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Posted by daveklepper on Thursday, July 16, 2009 3:05 AM

The Capitol Transit main streetcar lines on 14th Street, 11th Street, and Calvert Bridge to Navy Yard were all conduit without any wire.   The Rosslyn-Benning, branches to Seat Pleasant and Kennilworth heavy line, had a pair of plowpits on the east side of the city and wire beyond to the eastern destination, but conduit all the way to Rosslyn.   The North Capitol line  had a plowpit pair near where the line turned off North Capitol and ran next to the B&O Baltimore line right-of way to Branchville with wire.   The Branchville-Belltsville shuttle dinky was one double-end non-PCC car, all wire.  There were two plowpit pairs in Georgetown.   One was for the line to Frendship Heights and there were as a separate pair just beyond the junction with the Rosslyn trackage on PRW for the Cabin John LIne.   My memeory of street names is not perfect.  Downtown Washington was definitely all conduit, no wire, but as noted outer areas definitely did have wire, even before crossing the city line to suburbs.   Is Wisconsin Avenue the main street between Gerogetown and Frenship Heights?  I think a Reform Synagoge where I both once sang with the choir (part of a visiting choir) and also did some acoustical consultation is located on that street.  It had wire, not conduit.   Pennsylvania Avenue had a landscaped center mall "neutral ground" PRW for the streetcars, but it was conduit.   What a beautiful, fast, well-run system it was, as find as any anywhere.   At the end, most PCC's had fluorescent lights!    One, the "Silver Sightseer" was air-conditioned. 

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Posted by RudyRockvilleMD on Thursday, July 16, 2009 10:09 PM

To answer Dave Klepper's question Wisconsin Avenue was the main drag between Georgetown and Friendship Heights on the DC line. Wisconsin Avenue continued on further into Montgomery County to Bethesda where it changed to Rockville Pike north of the Beltway.

As far as streetcar service on Wisconsin Avenue went the Route 30 Line ran from Barney Circle (17th and Pennsylvania Avenue SE) to Friendship Heights. The power collection was by center conduit from Barney Circle through downtown Washington to Wisconsin Avenue to just north of  P street where it was changed to overhead wire for the rest of the trip to Friendship Heights. The Route 20 line (Union Station-Glen Echo-Cabin John) shared Wisconsin Avenue with the Route 30 to P street where it turned west to head for Cabin John. Up through the mid 1930's Capital Transit ran a line from up Wisconsin Avenue fromGeorgetown through Friendship Heights to Rockville. I am not sure where the line ran once it left Friendship Heights.

After WWII the Capital Transit Company's streetcar lines were mostly all PCC, but one of the things that did street cars in in Washington, DC was the requirement for the center slot third rail power collection system which was expensive to operate and maintain.

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Posted by daveklepper on Sunday, July 19, 2009 3:27 AM

Still, the record shows that Roy Chalk, whose Carribean Airlines then owned Capitol Tranist, did want to retain the streetcar lines that were still operating.   The lines thought to have had conduit needing replacement were already agandoned, and nearly all the track and cars were in good shape.  Congress required the covnersion to buses, and given the high quality of real service provided by the then all-PCC fleet, one must presume some heavy handed lobbying by outside interests, and not necesarily GM.

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Posted by Falcon48 on Tuesday, August 4, 2009 10:00 PM

daveklepper

Washington, DC, never operated cable cars.   However, some similar conduit in NYC was converted  from cable conduit, including 3rd Avenue's streetcar line.

  Washington DC very definitely had cable cars.  They are well documented (including maps and pictures) in George Hilton's "Cabel Cars in America" book.
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Posted by daveklepper on Wednesday, August 5, 2009 10:25 AM

Sorry for the error.   Where did they run?  Capitol Transit was a merger of two systems.   Did both have ex-cable lines or only one?   And how did both systems adopt the exact same conduit configuration, so they could where necessary share tracks?

 

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Posted by Falcon48 on Thursday, August 6, 2009 12:02 AM

It was pretty common for cities to want to get streetcar tracks out of the street, particularly in the post WWII period. even if the streetcar company didn't want to convert. New York City, for example, was particularly hostile to streetcars once busses proved viable  There were also plenty of examples in the 1930's.  It''s not a "GM issue" at all.  I could make some comments about the so-called "GM conspiracy"  myth as well, which I've researched, but I'll control myself.

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Posted by Falcon48 on Thursday, August 6, 2009 12:19 AM

Unfortunately, I recently moved, and my copy of the Hilton cable car book has not yet emerged from the debris.  Hopefully it will soon.  Otherwise, I'll replace it, because it's really quite good. Aside from having maps, histories and pictures of all of the U.S. cable operations, it also has an extensive discussion of the technology and economics of these systems.  A monumental work on an obscure topic.  Hilton's book on narrow gauge railroads is of similar quality, and the book he did with John Due on interurban railroads is the seminal work on the subject.

Without the book, I can't give a complete answer to your question.  However, I recall that one of the major routes was on Pennsylvania Avenue, and the power house for it was roughly on the site of the current Commerce Deparment building.  The destruction of the power house by fire was an immediate cause for conversion to electric operations.

 

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Posted by daveklepper on Thursday, August 6, 2009 8:01 AM

I had the Hilton interurban book and it is terrific.  I hope to have it again some day, with the other two you mention.

 

It is wrong to it was not a GM issue at all.  You are only partly right.   GM did buy NY Railways in 1926 with the express intention of converting to bus as soon as a decent model could be developed, and it took them eight years.  GM did threaten cajole, and use influence in some cases, including New Orleans with reference to the Canal Street abandonment only.  The consipracy where they paid a meaningless small fine had more to do with their partly owned properties buying only GM buses and freezing Ford and White and Mack out of the business and not concerning streetcar conversion.

In 1952, MIT Professor Ballsbaugh, who taught transportation planning, said:

David, railroads have no future in the United States.   If you want to be a railway electrification engineer, go to France and become a Frenchman.   Exact quote.   GM Funded the department at that time.

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Posted by Falcon48 on Friday, August 7, 2009 2:34 AM

With respect to the "GM conspiracy", no less an authority than George Hilton himself testified before Congress that it was all hogwash. It's more a product of the hostility to GM in the 1973 oil crisis than anything that actually happened.

I could write a lot about this subject becuase I've looked into some of the original sources, not just what people with political agendas have written about it. I don't want to get into a lot of detail here, but let me make a few points: 

 (1) The factual basis of the "conspiracy theory" is that GM and several other companies provided capital to a transit holding company called National City Lines in the form of purchases of preferred stock.  This is a financing device wihich in no way gives the preferred stockholders any "control" of the company -it simply gave them a right to be paid dividends before any dividends are paid to the common stockholers.  As part of the deal, NCL agreed to buy all of its supplies from the companies that had bought its preferred stock (in other words, if NCL bought busses, it would buy them from GM, if it bought tires, it would buy them from Firestone, etc).  At no time was NCL controlled by GM or any of the the suppliers involved in this arrangement.  In fact, it was NCL which cooked up this arrangement and marketed it to its suppliers. I would point out that it is not at all unnusual for a supplier to provide financial support to its customers.  That's exactly what Sam Insull did when he purchased and supplied capital to various interurban properties, including the North Shore and the South Shore.  Insull was not a traction tycoon - he was an electric utilities man (the Henry Ford of the electric utilities industry).  His primary interest in traction companies was because, at the time, they were some of the largest users of the electric power his utilities were producing, and he believed he could keep them viable with additional capital investment.  I haven't seen any railfans claim that this was some kind of nefarious"conspiracy" by the Insull companies.

(2) NCL certainly had a strategy of converting most of its streetcar properties to busses.  But the "conspiracy theory" isn't that NCL converted, but that the conversions would not have ocurred but for the nefarious conspiracy with GM et. al.. In other words, the conversions didn't make sense from a transportation standpoint, and were done only to sell busses and bus products, This, in turn, is said to be the reason why streetcars pretty much disappeared from the urban transportaion scheme across the country.  Now I could get into a big discussion of why it would be stupid economics to convert a viable streetcar company into a less viable bus company just to sell busses and bus products, but there's a simpler answer.  NCL didn't control anything close to the entire transit industry.  If the "conspiracy theory" were true, the NCL properties would have converted, but the non-NCL properties would not have (because, according to the conspiracy theory, streetcars were superior).  But that isn't what happened - the non-NCL companies converted too.  Further, as you get into the 1950's, many of the conversions were made by public authorities.  Foir example, the huge Chicago system was converted by the Chicago Transit Authority, a public agency having no NCL or GM affiliation, and they did so largely without buying GM products.  Other big non-NCL cities in the midwest that converted included Milwaukee (which appears to have decided to start phasing out its streetcar system in the 1930's), Kansas City, Twin Cities and many others. While some U.S. cities kept a few streetcar lines (usually lines that operated in subways or private rights of way which gave them and advantage over street bound traffic), no city kept the comprehensive streetcar systems they had in the early 20th century.

(3) The universal pattern of streetcar conversions shows that something  fundamental was sweeping the entire industry, and it's not difficult to see what it was.  Streetcars require extensive infrastructure and investment, in the form of the trackage embedded in the streets which is expensive to construct, and expensive to maintain.  That cames with it other requirements which were also expensive, like franchise requirements to pave the street in the track area, taxes based on the value of the investment represented by the track structure, etc. Some cities also required streetcars to operate with two person crews, but imposed no similar requiredment as to busses.  And, by the 1930's, many cities simply wanted to get rid of the tracks in the street and refused to renew franchises unless the transit companies agreed to do so. At one time, it was necessary to have these facilities in order to provide public transportation on city streets because there wasn't any viable alternative.  But, once busses proved practical, why should transit companies continue to bear these expenses for the privilege of running street vehicles on railroad tracks embedded in the street when they could avoid all of these expenses by converting to busses that simply drive on the pavement and have other street users pay most of the infrastructure cost?  And there was a lot of pressure to cut costs, because most transit companies experienced very significant losses of passengers in the 1930's and the 1950's.  The economic case for conversion was overwhelming, as shown by the fact that everyone converted.  It's not fundmentally different than what happened when electric streetcars proved superior to cable cars in the late 19th century - a mass conversion.  Transit companies weren't in the business of running streetcars.  They were in the business of moving people, and they would embrace whatever technology they believed could do the best job at the lowest cost.  By the 1930's, the bus was clearly superior in small and medium size cities (many of which had been running Birney streetcars, the best advertisement for busses there ever was).  By the 1950's, the bus was superior in big cites as well. Result - mass conversion.

(4) Part of the conspiracy theory is that GM and the other conspirators were eventually convicted of their complicity in the streetcar conversion scheme, but by then the damage had been done, and they ended up paying only a small fine.  Based on your note, I think you recognize that this is untrue, but let me elaborate.  There was an antitrust case involving the relationship between NCL and its suppliers (including GM), but it had absolutely NOTHING to do with a supposed conspiracy to convert streetcar systems to busses.  It had to do with "exclusive dealing", a practice covered by the Clayton Antitrust Act.  Specifically, it involved the legality of the arrangement where NCL agreed to buy bus and bus related supplies only from the companies that had bought its preferred stock, which the court found to be illegal. 

Finally, with respect to your suggestion that Professor Ballsbaugh's comment about the future of U.S. railroads had something to do with GM's funding of his department, I would simply say that his observation would have been appropriate at that time - the future didn't look so good for railroads in 1952.  Futher, to the extent he saw no future for rail electrification in the U.S., he was correct, as shown by the fact that most of the then existing electrifications were subsequently discontinued.  It's only in recent years that any significant electrifications have occurred.

.      

 

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Posted by daveklepper on Friday, August 7, 2009 5:17 AM

You confirmed my statement that the only "conspiracy" was not really a conspiracy but an open (but non-legal) agreement to buy from only one manufacturer.  It is more than a matter of generalities.   New Orleans did want to get rid of most of its streetcar for he usual reasons that you have stated (most were converted before the law mandating two-man operation was repealed, and New Orleans never ran single-truck Birney Safety cars), but did want to keep both Canal and St. Charles, especially after conversion to one-man.  GM told them they would not locate a new plant in Louisiana if the Canal Line was kept.  It wasn't a matter of cash but of prestige.  And NOPSI nuckled under with the agreement that St. Charles would be kepot.

In New York City, Third Avenue Railway management did want to keep certain heavy streetcar lines which could still (some even with conduit) be operated more profitably with streetcars than with buses.  The city forced the conversion.  The anti-trolley impetus was so great that even Nortons Point, which could have been operated as a light line with the track connection to the rapid transit system for maintenanc kept at its elevated Stillwell Avenu terminal, was abandoned.   A 100% PRW line with no street running whatsover. frequent service, and a feeder to four subway lines at the elevated Stillwell terminal.

 

Roy Chalk wanted to keep the remaining DC streetcar lines and said so.   A Congressinal vote forced the change.   Remember that Washington built a new conduit line to serve some government establishment in 1942 and built new conduit trackage for the DuPont Circle underpass, plus a pair of new underground stations, after WWII, I think even after the Benning LIne was abandoned.

I was told that Ballbaugh had gone to the railroads for funding but was turned down, and then went to GM.   This is not direct information, however.   There was a professor in the EE Department that tried to fight for a place for railroads in the curriculum, but didn't get anywhere.  He also tried to preserve Old Colony New Haven commuter service and didn't get anywhere.   He was active in the conversion of the Highland Branch to a branch of the Green Line light rail system however.    His name was Professor Tucker, just occured to me.

I think everyone knows that if the USA had not gone overboard on the motorcar solving all personal ground transportation problems, the world would be a safer place today. 

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Posted by Falcon48 on Friday, August 7, 2009 7:11 PM

See the following link for a really good article on the GM "streetcar conspiracy".

http://www.lava.net/cslater/TQOrigin.pdf

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Posted by daveklepper on Monday, August 10, 2009 8:03 AM

Yet despite all the "evidence" the fact is that it was largely GMC that put the streetcars out of business.   Her is how:

1.   Politicking to get a law passed that money collected from state and federal highway taxes of any sort could only be used for highway purposes.   This meant that one of  the largest USA industries, highway transportation, did not pay real estate taxes on 95% of the property it used.   This gave personal auto passenger transportation and truck freight transportation a big boost compared to competition.

This law was overturned by new legislation, needed so the funds orginally intended for a 2nd Ben Franklin Bridge, but very very inadequate for that job, could be used instead for the Camden - Lindewald Rapid Transit (for which the money was sufficient), which has made the 2nd Bridge unnecessaruy by turning auto commuters into transit commuters.   The very first "crack in the concrete."

 

2.   Developed the first practical transit bus that could really compete with the streetcar.   The 1934 Yellow Coach.

 

 

3.   Developed the first practical diesel transit bus in 1952.   The standee-window WWII diesel, first used on military basis and then the basis for most streetcar conversions and replacement of worn out older buses after WWII.

 

4.   Occaisonal political influence as Canal Street New Orleans.

 

5.   Made it possible for a transit system owner to realize quick profits by selling streetcar track and copper wire scrap as income, and then leasing instead of buying buses with the leasing costs as operating expenses to justify fare increases or going out of business and dumping the whole shebang on the municipality.  Twin Cities efficient streetcars and Providence's excellent trackless network followed this course.

 

An auto based economy is not essential to a high standard of living.   The Swiss in particular use mostly public transit and rail intercity transportation and have as high or possibly higher a standard of living than the USA.   Sparcely settled areas (none left for the last 20 years) were taken care of by the Postal Bus.

 

From economics alone, really heavy streetcar lines that were not replaced by subways or other rapid transit should have remained streetcar operated.   Woodward Avenue in Detroit. Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, and the Long Beach interurban in LA should never have been abandoned.   If you check the operating costs per passenger mile on the various website, beginning with  APTA, you will find rail running 1/2 - 2/3 of bus, will all operating costs considered.   That is one reason why conventional streetcar lines not replaced by subways have been kept and will continue to run in Toronto. 

Sound business practice.   Not a conspiracy!

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Posted by Falcon48 on Tuesday, August 11, 2009 12:41 AM

Well, let me briefly respond to this, since I want to actually go to bed tonight.

1.  We need to distinguish between "streetcars" and "light rail" (a distinction usually not made by those who believe in the GM conspiracy).  While the vehicles might look the same, the service is very much different.  "Streetcars" are vehicles that share the street with other street vehicles and have to fight through the traffic, just like other street vehicles.  The difference is that, unlike other street vehicles, streetcars operate on railroad tracks most of which are buried in the street, while other vehicles drive on the pavement.  "Light rail", in contrast, is a form of rapid transit service, where the rail vehicles operate mostly on exclusive rights of way (typically, even when they operate in streets, they operate in reserved lanes). 

2. With respect to streetcars, once buses were developed which were large enough to handle the number of passengers a streetcar could handle (which occurred around 1950), it is difficult to see what advantage a transit company could see in retaining streetcars.  The railroad in the street (and the overhead wire) imposed large, continuing costs on the enterprise which could be avoided by conversion.  These included maintenance of the tracks (as I recall, the Chicago Surface Lines had a force of 100 employees who did nothing else), and periodic track renewal (The track structure had a life of 30-35 years. Since most streetcar lines had last been renewed in the 1920's. by the 1950's they were coming up on another renewal cycle).  Any railroader will tell you that tracks in pavement, such as at grade crossings, are some of the most difficult tracks to maintain and renew.  A streetcar system involved many miles of tracks in pavement, not just short distances at grade crossings. Beyond the direct track costs, most streetcar operators were responsible for street paving in the track area, which could be a quarter to a half ot the surface area of the street - expenditures which didn't benefit the transit company at all but benefitted competing transport modes).  Thye also had to pay taxes on all of this infrastructure (the track and overhead were typically treated the same way as a factory for property tax purposes).  If the transit company had streetcar tracks on a bridge that required renewal, they were typically subject to a hefty assessment for this as well.  Even if streetcars had "operating cost" advantages by the 1950's (doubtful), they would be more than offset by the infrastructure related costs of a streetcar system.  Then, add to all of this the opposition of many cities (like NYC) to the continued presence of tracks in the street, and the refusal of some cities to renew franchises unless the transit operator committed to conversion . 

Transit companies were in the business of moving people, not operating a particular kind of vehicle, and they would naturally select the type of vehicle that could do the job at hand for the least total cost (after all, they had switched vehicles before in the mass extinction of cable car lines in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th). Since the tracks in the street didn't give the transit company any particular operating advantages after the development of large buses (in fact, the tracks were a disadvantage, since an entire line could be tied up by a single double parked car), there was no reason to retain rail bound vehicles once the service could be handled by vehicles that drove on the streets.  At most, a transit company might decide to delay conversion until the streetcar system required significant investment, or might retain some lines with rapid transit characteristics (like lines that operated through subways).  Put aside your love of streetcars (I'm actually a big streetcar fan, and I spend many weekends operating them at a railroad museum) and your dislike of GM or automobiles, and think like a businessman rather than a railfan.  To a transit company in the 1950's, conversion of streetcars to buses is a no brainer. The same is true of puble transit agencies which, at the time, were financed primarily from the farebox. The only real issue is whether to do it all at once or to do it over time as the streetcar system required additional investment.  As you say, no conspiracy - just economics.

 3. Light rail is different.  Modern light rail systems supply a service which is superior to buses operating on city streets (although some light rail systems are a lot better at this than others).  And, some of the electric rail systems that were convereted in the late 1940's and 1950's had similarities to modern light rail systems (like some of the PE lines).  The question here isn't whether light rail (either the old or new versions) is superior to buses on city streets, but whether these systems could be supported from farebox revenues (the only revenues available to a transit operator before transit subsides became available in the late 1960's).  The answer is clearly "no", a conclusion which the Southern Pacific (which owned the PE system) appears to have reached in the 1930's when it stopped investing in PE.  In fact, modern light rail systems, for all of their glitz and glamor, are big money losers.  I'm not aware of any light rail operations that can even cover their operating costs from the farebox, let alone their very substantial construction costs.  Now, the usual argument in favor of these systems is that they have collateral benefits beyond farebox revenues.  That may well be, but a transit operator in the 1950's wouldn't have seen any of these beneifits in its farebox, which was its only source of revenue. Since private companies aren't charities, they would convert or simply sell off or discontinue their transit operations.  Conspiracy proponents like to focus on the PE (which, by the way, was never controlled by National City Lines, the supposed puppet of GM in the conspiracy theory).  But look east to another property that furnished a superb level of transit service, much better than PE - the North Shore Line in Chicago. There's never been a suggestion that this company had any ties to NCL or GM.  But it couldn't survive either.  Moreover, this company simply shut its rail system down in 1963, without any bus conversion.  Again, no conspiracy - just economics. 

3.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with GM promoting its products, whether by sales pitches to transit companies or by lobbying cities that its buses were better than streetcars.  Companies do this all the time.  What do you think electric streetcar promoters like Frank Sprague were doing in the late 1880's and 1890's, or cable car promoters were doing a decade earlier?  What do you think Brill did when it tried to persuade a transit company to buy its streetcars over those produced by Cincinnati Car?  Streetcars had no divine right to be exempt from the normal workings of the marketplace, particularly when they were operated by private companies.

If you haven't yet done so, I suggest you read the article I mentioned in my earlier post.  It's very carefully researched (in contrast to the original conspiracy theory) and approaches the subject from an economics/business point of view that railfans usually don't see. 

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Posted by daveklepper on Tuesday, August 11, 2009 7:51 AM

Again, I agree with you it was not a conspiracy.   It was sound business practice.   I read the article some time ago and it does not disagree with what I posted.

 

GM developed the buses that could replace streetcars.  Not in 1950 but in 1934, the 1934 Model Yellow coach with rear engine and efficient peter-witt style passenger flow.   Then the economics where buses could compete with streetcars on a cost basis when diesel power replaced gas with greater fuel efficiency and far less maintenance.   But again, this was a GM development.  And this grew out of diesel development, just like the FT freight locomotives.  So, yes, GM was largely responsible for replacement of electric railways (and many of the streetcar lines replaced were almost entirely on private right of way, Sparows POint in Baltimore, Cabin John in Washington, Columbia Road in Boston. Hodimont in St. Louis, the trolley elevated served by a number of lines in Hoboekn and Jersey City, just to name a few..

 

The modern streetcar system in Toronton is mostly streetcar.   Sharing space with autos and general traffic.   There is a trend, Spadina, Harborfront to put new lines mostly on PRW, but King and Queen and Carlton are heavy lines running in street traffic.   St. Clair has moved to transit only lanes, used only by the streetcar line there and by the buses that share the street for some distance.

 

The economics of light rail and streetcar are similar.  Very heavy lines, those carrying more than 20,000 passengers a day, are still, even now, more economically operated by streetcars or light rail where land is available, then by buses.

 

Of course neither bus nor streetcar/light rail transit is self-supporting from the fairbox.   Which is one reason the Minneapolis and Providence abandonments took place.   If the two lawyer types (and both did spend time in jail, not sure of the reasons and I do not claim conversion from streetcars to buses was the reason in either case) had tried to sell the invested value of streetcars/trolleybuses, some quite modern, to the cities to have them run a subsidized transit system, they probably would never have recovered their investments when they bought the systems from the public service minded managements through stock purchases.   Instead, now they realized quick profits from the sale of scrap, of copper wire, with the good PCC's and modern trolleybuses sold to other transit systems (Boston bought Providence's modern TT's), then raise operating costs by leasing the busses from GM and upping the operating costs. but really intending to exit the business.

In Providence much of the service was provided for a while by older Pullman trolleybuses converted to diesel buses by Leyland pancake engines under the floor.  They were hard to drive, interiors were full of diesel fumes.   Even with leasing, not enough of the new DM's were available soon enough.

Sreetcars are still a valuable and useful form of transit, even when not light rail.  The reaction of an American motorist:  "Get that lumbaring slowpoke out of my way"

Has it answer by the Toronto motorist.

Great job, streetcar, without your help I would have 45 other automobiles competing for my street space.

 

LIght Rail is just the Politically Correct name for TROLLEY CAR OR STREETCAR

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Posted by Falcon48 on Tuesday, August 11, 2009 4:12 PM

I'm not familiar with what went on in Providence (or who got convicted for what).  As to Minneapolis, there's a very good, recent book on the Twin Cities streetcar system; Isaacs "Twin Cities By Trolley", University of Minnesota Press, 2007.  If you haven't seen it, I recommend it since it goes way beyond the normal picture book fare.  According to the book, several former TCRT officials were charged and convicted of a sale and kickback scheme in connection with TCRT's streetcar to bus conversion.  Apparently what they did was to cause TCRT to sell surplus materials (including almost new PCC cars) at discount prices and then get kickbacks from the purchasers, which they pocketed (p. 292).  Nice work if you can get it.  The book also has a good discussion of the "GM conspiracy" (pp. 293-97).

With respect to Toronto, I haven't been there for more than 20 years so I'm not sure what they've been doing.  However, as I recall, they were running streetcar trains last time I was there. That changes the operating cost economics, probably more in favor of streetcars. Some U.S. cities also operated streetcar trains (either multiple unit or motor trailer), but these operations generally ended in the 1930's,as patronage declined.  For most U.S. cities after WWII, the issue wasn't how to increase capacity by running trains, but how to fill single cars as passengers deserted the transit system for private automobies.  I recognize that there were some U.S. cities that continued to have large loads, but this was a distinct minority.

With respect to comparisons between streetcar and bus "operating costs", I've dealt with railroad costing, and the first thing I ask when I see this term is what costs are included and what costs are excluded.  For example, an obvious difference between streetcars and buses are the infrastructure costs of the streetcar system.  Are the streetcar's infrastructure costs being treated as an "operating cost" in these comparisons, or treated as a "capital cost"?  If it's the latter (and I suspect, but don't know, that it is), the streetcar vs bus "operating cost" comparison isn't telling you anything about the relative economic efficiency of the two modes.  You have to look at the total costs of the two modes to get a valid comparison of economic efficiency, not just the part of the costs that happen to fall into the "operating" bucket. 

By the way, the same kind of issue arises when comparing the relative profitablility (or, more accurately, the relative unprofitability) of Amtrak "corridor" routes vs long distance routes.  I've often seen comparisons showing that Amtrrak's "operating" financial results on the corridor are much better than its long distance intercity routes. But this is an apples to oranges comparison due, in part, to the differing treatment of infrastructure costs Amtrak incurs for the two services.  On the Amtrak owned corridor, a big chunk of the infrastructure costs are treated as "capital" costs, not "operating" costs.  But, off the corridor, where Amtrak operates as a tenant rather than as the track owner, Amtrak pays its share of the owner's infrastructure costs mostly in the form of rental charges, which are treated as "operating" costs.    So, if one focuses solely on "operating" financial results, you don't get a valid comparison of relative economic efficiency.  Rather, the comparison is biased against the long distance service, because of the difference in the treatment of infrastructure costs. 

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Posted by daveklepper on Wednesday, August 12, 2009 2:19 AM

Operating costs include track maintenance including eventual track replacement but do not include the initial investment.   When I say that Woodward Avenue, Detroit, and Flatbush Avenue, Brookly,. regular streetcar lines, should have remained streetcar lines, I would note that the track was in good condition when lines were abandoned, and that the equipment was reasonably modern.  When it comes to the vast majority of streetcar and interurban lines in the USA, of course you are right, and the swing to personal auto transportation made then good candidates for bus conversion.   I am merely pointing out that there were and are exceptions.   Note that Philadelphia has restored streetcar service on Garrad Avenue and that the historic F line in San Francisco (mostly PCC's, some Milan Peter Witts, and an occasional special like the Blackpool "boat" and MUNI No. 1) is the one line that comes closest to paying all its operating costs in the entire MUNI network.

I think even you would agree that abandonment of Long Beach PE by the government authority that then owned it was a  bad mistake.    And Nortons Point in Brooklyn was similar (smaller) but much harder to restore, since much of the ROW now has buildings.

But to say that GM dfid not cause the conversion of streetcars to buses is like saying that Electro Motive did not cause the dieselization of North American Railroads.

But, again, it was not a conspiracy, just smart business practice.

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Posted by oltmannd on Wednesday, August 12, 2009 6:14 AM
Falcon48
But, off the corridor, where Amtrak operates as a tenant rather than as the track owner, Amtrak pays its share of the owner's infrastructure costs mostly in the form of rental charges, which are treated as "operating" costs.    So, if one focuses solely on "operating" financial results, you don't get a valid comparison of relative economic efficiency.  Rather, the comparison is biased against the long distance service, because of the difference in the treatment of infrastructure costs. 
Amtrak's rental payments to the host roads don't really even cover the operating costs, much less the host road's incremental capital costs for hosting the Amtrak trains. Nine bucks a train mile (or thereabout) is a real steal! Backing it off the LD train's costs doesn't change the picture much. They still leave a streak of red ink in their wake.

-Don (Random stuff, mostly about trains - what else? http://blerfblog.blogspot.com/

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