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The Return of DC Streetcars?

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Posted by Falcon48 on Friday, September 4, 2009 1:42 AM

I don't know much about transit systems in foreign countries.  But I know quite a bit about transit systems and transit history in this country.  I also spent my entire career working for a major railroad, so I think I know a little bit about transport economics.  And, yes, I use public transit.  I'm a native of the Chicago area and, except for a 14 year exile in Omaha/Council bluffs (recently ended) I have used public transit of over 50 years.  I'm actually one of a dying breed who prefers public transit to driving an auto.

From that perspective, I don't see any advantage to running a public transit vehicle on railroad tracks embedded in the street (a streetcar) rather than running it on the pavement (a bus).  As I understand your point, it is that a streetcar has marginally greater vehicle capacity than a bus.  But that hasn't been an issue in the U.S. since WWII.  Rather the issue has been finding enough passengers to fill the existing capacity.  In fact, the catastrophic decline in public trasit ridership after WWII was a major factor in the streetcar to bus conversions of the 1950's, And, even if capacity were an issue on some lines at certain times of day, you can add a lot of buses for the huge infrastructure costs of a streetcar line.

This was driven home to me just a few days ago.   Chicago, of course, is a major transit city.  The other day, I rode a CTA bus from the Jefferson Park Blue Line station (a big rail-bus transit point) down Lawrence Avenue during the evening rush hour.  Lawrence is a major east-west street, which once had an important streetcar line (and later trolley busses).  The neighborhoods through which it runs haven't fallen apart like some neighborhoods further south, and are actually gong through a revival.  In spite of this, the bus I was on was never more than 3/4 full, with no standees - and remember this was at the height of the evening rush hour.  Clearly, "capacity" was not an issue.  I also note that CTA recently announced a new service where you can get bus schedules on a Blackberry.  Now, think about this a second.  Why is this information of any value?  It is only because the headways on most bus routes are long enough that it's useful to know when the next bus is coming.  Headways long enough to require a published schedule aren't consistent with a capacity crunch.

I've never denied that there were some isolated cases where streetcar lines made sense.  In general, these are historic or tourist lines (like the San Francisco F line or the New Orleans St. Charles line) or lines operating into tunnels or subways (like the Boston Green line).  But, in the vast majority of cases in this country, they do not.  If there is a "revival" of streetcars, it will only be because there are federal government funds available for these projects, not becaue of any intrinsic advantages of streetcars,

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Posted by daveklepper on Friday, September 4, 2009 4:28 AM

You actually presented the case for the streetcar.   You seem to be an exception.   Time and time again, streetcars have proven themselves to attract patronage better than buses.   So filing up the transit vehicle, given that the operator is paid no matter how many ride, is done better by the streetcar than by the bus, assuming modern and comfortable equpment in both cases.

When New York Railways (owned by GM though a directly owned subsidiary) but buses on the Leington Avenue line, many riders switched to the Third Avenue Railway (then T. A. Tranist, don't know for sure the date of the name change) Third and Amsterdam Avenue line, which got new home-made lightweights at the same time time.   (A modern car rebuilt from parts from old and scrapped streetcars.   Even the Brill 77E trucks were actually constructed by welding together pieces of frames from old "maximum traction" trucks, so the cars had four motors and decent springing.)   Maybe you are jaded from all your railroad work, but most transit riders first prefer electric vehicles and second prefer rail when available.

But the bus will always the lion's share of the transit business.   Look at the economics:

Postal buses and buses       1 - 8000 poeple past a given point an hour each way, 2-20,000/day

Streetcar      8000 - 12,000,  20,000 - 30,000/day

Light Rail      12,000-20,000     30,000 - 50,000/day

Heavy Rail      20,000 - 100,000      50,000 - 260,000/day   more than that takes 4 tracks

So the streetcar is pretty limited.   But it does have a place.

And lines are designed for expected capacity.   Just because a bus runs half empty does not mean a streetcar on the same line will be mostly empty.   The streetcar has attracted and will attract new riders.

Of course in Chicago and New York, heavy rail rapid transit and commuter rail present options for many people that would otherwise drive.

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Posted by Falcon48 on Friday, September 4, 2009 9:35 PM

I'm not "jaded" by my railroad work.  What my railroad work has taught me is that companies - even healthy ones -  don't make big investments unless they can reasonably expect to earn a decent return on those investments, and they constantly look for ways to minimize the investment required to do a particular job.  It's something that railroads worry about all the time, even when they are doing financially well.  It's certainly something that transit operators would have worried about after WWII, as their customers deserted them in droves for private autos and they became less and less financially viable. 

The main problem I've had with your examples all along is that you seem to systematically ignore the infrastructure costs of a streetcar system, which are huge compared to a bus system. Infrastructure costs can't be ignored - they are the 800 pound gorilla in this debate. A transit operator (or a railroad) would never ignore them unless someone were handing them great gobs of free money on a silver platter. Take your recent example of running “larger” streetcars with single operators as opposed to running “smaller” busses.  Obviously, if you ignore infrastructure costs (and if you assume that the system is running near capacity), running the “larger” streetcars will always seem financially preferable to running the “smaller” busses, because you will need less vehicles (and operators) to handle the same volume of traffic.  But the dynamics change dramatically if you need a big infrastructure investment to run the “larger” streetcars that you don't need for the “smaller” buses.  The question then becomes whether the costs you avoid by running the “larger” streetcars vs the “smaller’ buses (plus any additional reveneus you might earn if one accepts, for the moment, your claim that the public prefers streetcars) are sufficient to provide an adquate return on the massive investment for the rail infrastructure needed for the streetcars.  The infrastructure investment will almost never make sense in this situation.

And there's another problem with your example.  The "large" streetcars are advantageous only if the system is running near capacity.  If the vehicles aren't running near capacity, then there's no penalty in using smaller vehicles.  The many cities that purchased Birney safety cars in the 1920's understood this very well.  And the cities that today use small buses for many of their transit routes rather than full sized models understand it too. This is, in fact, the situation that nearly all U.S. transit operators faced during the mass conversion period.  Because of huge post WWII losses of traffic to private autos, the theoretically greater capacity of streetcars wasn't being used and wasn't needed. If the “large” streetcars aren’t needed to handle the available demand, then there is no return on investment from the infrastructure required to operate the "large" streetcars.

I also question your global claim that the public prefers streetcars.  Perhaps there are some cases where this was true, but there are also cases where it was not, as documented in the Slater article.  As I previously pointed out, the entire U.S. transit industry converted from streetcars to busses. These were companies run by transit professionals, not fools.  They obviously didn't believe that buses would cause a mass exodus of riders that would decimate their revenues.  Had they believed otherwise, they wouldn't have converted (or they would have stopped converting when they saw what was happening on other transit properties).   In this country, there have been hardly any new "streetcar" lines constructed since the mass conversions of the 1950's, so there really isn't much case history to show what the U.S. public generally prefers.   The closest example is the F line in San Francisco, but this is so heavily a tourist line that it has little general relevance.  The vast majority of U.S. electric rail projects built since the 1950's in this country have been rapid transit lines (either light rail or full rapid transit lines) which have obvious service advantages to anything (rail or bus) running in a city street, so it's not surprising that these would be preferable to street vehicles, rail or bus.    

 Finally, you state that  New York Railways was owned by GM though a directly owned subsidiary.  Presumably the “subsidiary” you are referring to was National City Lines.  The fact is that NCL was never a subsidiary of GM (“directly owned” or otherwise), nor was it controlled by GM.  GM and several other bus suppliers provided capital to NCL through purchases of preferred (non voting) stock.  That was braodly similar to what Sam Insull did in the 1920’s when he provided capital to various electric railway and transit companies (the difference was that Insull interests controlled these companies while GM never controlled NCL).  Apparently, it was somehow OK for Insull to support electric railway companies that bought electricity from his utilities but not OK for GM to support a company that bought its busses.

 

 

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Posted by blue streak 1 on Saturday, September 5, 2009 9:44 PM

Falcon48
Infrastructure costs can't be ignored - they are the 800 pound gorilla in this debate. A transit operator (or a railroad) would never ignore them unless someone were handing them great gobs of free money on a silver platter.

Infrastructure cost are different today. How many past streetcar lines were old horse car lines laid on raw dirt, no ballast, wooden ties, spiked to ties that rotted after awhile, street paved with no subsurface prepration, 60# rails, jointed rail (if that heavy), questionable rail joint bars not ever tightened, rail bonds that broke? Does it surprize us that they were going to pot? I observed 94th St near LGA airport being rebuilt and they stripped the street to at least 15" below the old rail (which looked very bad in guage and elevation) in the street (lower in places, compacted the subgrade, added proper gravel, compacted same, then laid concrete. I also observed the PDX streetcar line rebuilt near Portland Union Station removing the old tracks and they took all the soil 2 ft below the street level but was not there to them lay the rail.

isn't any (1995 or later) streetcar or light rail now built to have a proper subgrade, ballast or a concrete slab ( either direct fixation or independent dual block fixation ), noise reduction pads, steel fasteners of various designs (pandrol etc), welded 112# or greater rail. impeadace bonds, etc.

Next is power supply. Old paper insulated tar impregnated wire, Asbesdos insulation covering wire that falls apart when it get wet vs new insulation that has 100+ years expected life? Old PCB  transformers feeding motor generators instead of modern solid state transformer-rectifiers or maybe AC power direct to vehicles? Old trolley wire vs constant tension CAT? Insulators that now have a much higher dielectric rating today.

Falcon48
And there's another problem with your example.  The "large" streetcars are advantageous only if the system is running near capacity.  If the vehicles aren't running near capacity, then there's no penalty in using smaller vehicles

Do you observe in old pictures of street car lines maybe 2 - 3 streetcars in every block? Is that not a waste of street use as the combination of vehicles (autos, trucks, buses, streetcar) each has to leave a space from the vehicle in front? That is a direct penalty in using smaller vehicles. If we use Baltimore as an example combining the Penn Station line with the other one until the north and south splits has one less vehicle on the street (although longer) from Camden Park to the (?) old B&O station.

 

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Posted by aegrotatio on Saturday, September 5, 2009 11:12 PM

 I drove the Cabin John parkway for a short while and always wondered what the deal was with the dead-end turnaround on that road and the curious one-lane bridge.  Turns out this road was built on the ROW of an old DC streetcar line and that was the turnaround loop.  Also, the circles you see in DC that have tunnels that allow a road like K street to go under the whole circle?  Those are the old streetcar lines, too.

There's too much history that is unknown to my generation on how the streetcars worked.

I also found the reason for a curious arrangement of streets in Oakton, VA, was due to the electric trolley line's old wye and terminus.  I even found the abandoned ROW between the houses and an unusual skinny street, illogical dead-end streets, and old station, now a house.  It was all here, but all forgotten.

So much history lost to everyone.  It's a shame.

 

 

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Posted by daveklepper on Sunday, September 6, 2009 4:12 AM

NY Railways was not owned by NCL.   It was owned by the same subsidiary that owned Chciago Motor Coach (remember their double-deck buses) and Fifth Avenue Coach Company.  GM was the sole owner of all these companies.   And New York Railways was purchased in 1926 with the eventual conversion to buses in mind.   In 1926 the only buses that could compete at all with streetcars were the double-deckers.  They required a two-man crew.   In 1934 GM's subisidiary, Yellow Coach, finally produced a viable 40-seat and a viable 36-seat set of buses, single-deck, Peter Witt door arrangement except single-width doors, and on that basis, GM's management decided it was time to convert the major NY streetcar lines they owned.  GM's managed NY Railways fairly well while it was a streetcar company.  They improved service and restored two-man open-bench cars to their Broadway line (Third Avenue also had Broadway LIne, the Broadway-42nd Street line) realizing their was money to be made in vocational riding with open cars.   (14-bench open cars could seat 70 people.) Then they annnounced summer 1935 as the last year for Broadway open cars.   December 1935 began the streetcar to bus conversion process, and it was completed by the end of summer of 1936, although some trackage was retained for special moves, one odd one trip each a way a day franchise operation (I think this was the 9th & Amsterdam line), and a final grand parade later that year.

They owned one modern sreetcar, homemade in the shops in 1929 or 1930, just to show it could be done.  (Mybe this is what inspired Third Avenue's Slalughter Huff to build his own cars to modernize his vast Manhattan-Bronx-Westchester system.)  Otherwise, these were mostly very old two-motor double-truck longitudinal-seat deck-roof cars, with the rear doors not used on most, meaning front exit and entrance.   A few cars did have treadle rear doors and all were equipped (retrofitted) with the required one-man safety equpiment.  There was a great deal of good press about the bus conversion, but they still lost, not gained, ridershop overall. 

Most readers of this column, like I believe most Americans, like to ride trains.  So, the typical person walking along a town's main street, nice weather, intending to walk to his or her destination some 1/4-1/2 mile away on that street, will probably stop and pay the fare if a streetcar is in sight.  And enjoy riding the couple of blocks.   He or she will not do the same thing if a bus is in sight but just keep on walking.  That is the big difference.   People like to ride trains, and a streetcar is for them simply a train made smaller and more accessable and friendly .  A bus is like a friend who stops to give you a lift in his car and then wants you to pay your share of the expenses . You would rather drive your own car, thank you!

The railfan hobby has changed remarkably in the last half century.  Railfans expressed the hobby then by riding trains.  The "Running Extra" section in Trains ran to three or four pages, often, with various inspection and fan trips.  Most photographs in the magazine were taken in connection with train rides.   Today the railfan hobby is mostly photography and the vehicle of choice is one's private car.   The subject is usually freight trains, with passenger trains considered no more important than an interesting freight train.  So it is not remarkable that a crossection of railfans brings no really greater percentage of support of subsidized rail passenger service, all the way from streetcars to high-speed rail, than a crossection of Average Americans.   But just because they are railfans doesn't mean they are right.

The transit managers today that are opting for light rail do not opt for light rail, including streetcars where appropriate, because they are railfans.   They do so for good of their communities and to solve specific problems.

Possibly railroading remains in the Amercian's blood, despite the prevelence of the private car and air travel, because the railways truly did build the country.   And the streetcars built the cities, with the help of the elevateds in Chicago and New York.

People do use the F line to commute.   Some people even use the cable cars to commute.  Peope use Canal and St. Charles and Riverfront in New Orleans to commute.   And Garrard in Philadelphia to commute.  And the Portland Streetcar to commute.  And the Tacoma sreetcar to commute.  And the Kenosha dowtown trolley loop as part of their commute.  The Seattle waterfront line is not now in operation (It will reopen), but the same transit professional now retired who told be about the success of the Ballard conversion from diesel to trolleybus used that "tourist" line with its one Melborne W-class car shuttling back and forth as part of his daily commute to volunteer work at the Art museum.

After the massive converstion of the Montreal streetcar system to buses, the Mayor announced it had all been one grand mistake.  Now they are planning on reintroducing streetcars to supplement the subway system.  It will be mostly light rail, PRW, but their will be some streetrunning.

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Posted by daveklepper on Friday, September 11, 2009 4:01 AM

Falcon48 should read a newspaper or a book, or try to write a letter while riding a bus.   Can be done, I do it regularly, but ain't fun.   On a rail vehicle, streetcar, light rail, Metro, Amtrak, etc., it's routine and zero a problem, unless the track and/or equipment is in really bad shape.

 

I am assuming one gets a seat, of course, in both cases.

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Posted by CSSHEGEWISCH on Friday, September 11, 2009 6:55 AM

Well-maintained rail is hardly guaranteed when it's in the pavement.  Philadelphia has been notorious for poorly maintained street trackage and parts of the CTA street trackage in the 1950's were badly kinked.

The daily commute is part of everyday life but I get two rides a day out of it. Paul
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Posted by blue streak 1 on Friday, September 11, 2009 5:38 PM

CSSHEGEWISCH

Well-maintained rail is hardly guaranteed when it's in the pavement.  Philadelphia has been notorious for poorly maintained street trackage and parts of the CTA street trackage in the 1950's were badly kinked.

Can we be informed when this track was originally laid?  Refer to my previous post on early street car lines and how they were built.

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Posted by daveklepper on Tuesday, September 15, 2009 3:13 AM

Modern track construction is a far cry from the way street railways were installed up to the late 1930's.  IN street track is equivalent to railroad slab track today, and is more stable than regular railroad concrete tie construction.   The new track on Canal Street, New Orleans survived the great event wethout any major damage and was put right back into service as soon as electric power and the overhead were available.

 

Again, I suspect the reason Pittsburgh Railways didn't rebuild its downtown tracks is that they thought some government was going to build a subway for them as Philliy did for PTC.

 

At the end of streetcar service in Washington, nearly all track then in service was in good condition and the PCC's gave an excellent ride.

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Posted by daveklepper on Thursday, October 6, 2022 6:20 AM

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lacked the time tom post all on this area.  Hopefully, more to come

 

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Posted by daveklepper on Thursday, October 6, 2022 2:10 PM

Herewith Benning Carhouse.eat PlwAnr Layover, and at the Kennilworth Wye.

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Posted by daveklepper on Tuesday, October 11, 2022 6:34 PM

The Moderator and Kalmbach found a way to restore the Capital Transit thread at the Classic Trains magazine  forum, so by all means visit it for my (and hopefully others') memories of this well-run system.

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