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Heritage Trolley Site
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Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently asked questions about trolleys.

Does a trolley have rubber tires?

Strictly speaking, No. Trolley cars or streetcars have steel wheels and run on rails, which are often laid directly in street paving.

Today many cities use rubber tired vehicles which are decorated to look somewhat like trolleys, but these vehicles are not real trolleys nor streetcars and are not the subject of this website. Some people may feel they can obtain the benefits of a heritage trolley line by using these inexpensive faux trolleys, but the economic, developmental, and visitor attracting benefits are not generated by these bus trolleys. Authentic rail based systems are required to achieve the benefits.

As well, some cities, such as San Francisco, use electric trolley buses, which also may be called trolleys for short. See Definition: Electric Trolley Bus for a further explanation of this type of vehicle.

What is the difference between a streetcar and a trolley?

Following on the above point about rubber tired vehicles disguised as trolleys, there can be confusion about the terms "streetcar" and "trolley" when referring to vehicles on rails. Through most of the 20th century the terms were essentially interchangeable—both describing an electrically powered car running on rails. However, local usage often favored one term over the other. For example, in San Francisco the term streetcar has always been preferred, but in Philadelphia the term trolley has been more common.

Today some people planning heritage lines are stressing preferential use of one of the two terms to minimize confusion and encourage consistency. In some cases, the word "streetcar" is preferred in order to clarify the difference between a streetcar operating on rails vs. a rubber tired vehicle made to look like a trolley.

What does a heritage trolley use for fuel?

Trolleys run on electricity, normally 600 volts of direct current (DC) drawn from overhead wire, as historic trolleys did. In some cases—such as for heritage trolleys running along light rail lines—the voltage may be somewhat higher. One early heritage trolley system, Galveston, chose to use diesel power for its trolleys. More recently Savannah (GA) has developed an improved approach on their first car using a small biodiesel generator and supercapacitors to store energy. Thus heritage trolleys are pollution free at the point of use, and are very environmentally friendly.

Where does the power come from?

Electricity is readily available from public utilities, but is almost always alternating current (AC) in voltages higher than 600. To power trolleys the electricity needs to be reduced to 600 volts and converted to direct current. This can be done either by the traditional method of a combination of transformers and a motor generator set, or by solid state equipment. The most common and most efficient method used today is the solid state approach in which transformers adjust the voltage and solid state rectifiers convert the power to direct current.

For small operations a single unit, which can be a cube six feet per side or smaller, is sufficient. For longer routes or larger systems, multiple units may be required at different locations along the lines.

Why choose a rail-based system over a rubber-tired system?

A rail-based system provides numerous advantages that help outweigh its higher capital cost:

  • A sense of government commitment and permanence that reassures potential riders, neighbors, and businesses that service will continue.
  • People overwhelmingly prefer riding rail vehicles to buses, so rail solutions attract more passengers (see Transportation Research Record 1221 for a detailed treatment of rail vs. bus ridership).
  • For the above reasons, rail systems typically inspire business development.
  • Heritage trolley systems provide a sense of historical authenticity that blends very well with an urban environment, especially older, redeveloping neighborhoods.
  • Heritage trolleys with proper maintenance last essentially indefinitely (New Orleans operates cars built in the mid-1920s in daily, heavy service) while buses seldom have a life of more than 20 years.
How can we convince neighbors of a proposed line to support it?

Both residential and business neighbors often welcome heritage trolleys because of the improved access they provide and for the economic benefits they typically deliver. However, neighbors should be involved in planning for a heritage trolley system from the beginning so that they can learn of these benefits and alleviate any fears of perceived negative features. Negative points could include noise, disruption of automobile traffic, some impact on broadcast television reception, and increased numbers of people in a neighborhood. However, all of these can be mitigated by careful planning and neighbors will develop support and “ownership” if they are included in the process.

An excellent summary of the case for supporting a heritage trolley or streetcar line can be found in the publication Bring Back the Streetcars from the Free Congress Foundation. The text is reproduced on this site and bound copies of the study can be ordered to distribute to neighbors and other potential supporters.

Where can we obtain heritage/vintage trolley cars?

Several manufacturers currently make replica trolleys, normally using components salvaged from foreign cars. Also, some American style trolleys can be obtained from overseas. As well, there are a limited number of second hand trolleys available in North America, though they normally require heavy overhaul. Costs for newly constructed or fully rehabilitated heritage trolleys tend to range from $500,000 to $1.2 million in year 2006 prices. Click here for a further discussion of these options.

Is it dangerous to operate trolleys close to pedestrians or in mixed traffic with automobiles?

Trolleys can mix quite well with both pedestrians and auto traffic. European cities have found that laying streetcar tracks through streets that have been converted to pedestrian-only works quite well, and Memphis has had success with a similar approach in the U.S. Pedestrians quickly learn to stay clear of the tracks and they are reassured by the fact that they know the trolleys will not deviate from their well-defined path. Road vehicles operating through a pedestrian area are more disquieting to pedestrians as they must always be on the watch for a vehicle that can move over any part of the street.

Similarly, trolleys traditionally shared street space with automobiles, and even though most motorists today have not been exposed to driving around tracks in the pavement and maneuvering to avoid the cars and passengers entering or leaving, mixed traffic operation remains viable. A number of North American cities (such as San Francisco, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston) continue to have trolleys sharing street space and cities building heritage trolley or streetcar lines are also adopting this approach. There are a number of practices for reducing the potential delays caused by mixing trolleys with other traffic. Click here for more details.

What entity should operate a heritage trolley line?

Some heritage trolley routes (as in San Francisco, Seattle, New Orleans, Philadelphia, or Memphis) are operated as regular transit routes by the local transit system. In other cases, the line is operated by another entity, usually a nonprofit, in cooperation with the transit agency and municipal authorities. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, and careful thought needs to be given to the appropriate approach for planned systems.

If a heritage line is operated by the transit agency then funding for capital and operating needs can be obtained as part of the normal transit funding process. Also, integration of schedules and fares will be easiest if the line is part of the organization providing other local transit. On the other hand, the heritage system will also then be subject to the normal budget process, including cutbacks at times of budget constraints.

If a heritage line is operated by a nonprofit, then securing tax deductible donations and volunteer labor may be easier. As well, if the nonprofit has dedicated sources of funding to support the heritage line (such as earnings from an endowment or proceeds of a local business assessment district) then segregating and protecting these funds from competing transit priorities may be easier. There may also be greater freedom in setting pay scales and working hours.

How frequently should trolleys operate on a new line?

Frequency of service depends on anticipated ridership, but also can help determine the level of ridership. If potential riders know a car will come within a few minutes of arriving at a stop, they are much more likely to use the system. However, operating nearly empty cars at regular frequency is not very efficient. Periods between cars of much more than 10 minutes will tend to discourage casual riders. Schedules can be adjusted to different levels to meet the demands of differing times of day or times of the week.

Does ridership grow in the years after a trolley system is installed?

Most heritage trolley systems find that ridership does continue to grow as people become more aware of the system, and as further development (often inspired by the trolley system) occurs along the route.

What does the word “trolley” mean?

The word “trolley” derived from the wheel that was used at the upper end of the trolley pole that ran along the overhead wire and drew the current that powered the car. Later, the wheel was generally replaced by a “shoe” that held a carbon block that slides along the contact wire. Nonetheless, the term “trolley car” survived and has been used interchangeably with the term “streetcar” for generations.

How does a trolley car work (what are key components)?

A trolley is an electrically propelled vehicle that runs on rails. Here are typical components and their functions:

Trolley pole – a tubular metal pole stretching at an angle from the roof of the car to the overhead wire to draw the 600 volts of DC current that powers the car.

Trucks – the wheel assemblies under the car. Contain the suspension that supports and cushions the ride and also hold the electric motors and gearing that propel the car.

Controllers – the device on the platform that the motorman (driver) turns to start and control the speed of the car. On cars built before 1935, the controller was normally hand operated. On PCC cars built from 1936 on, the controller was normally pedal operated. The speed is controlled by changing the amount of resistance (in the form of “resistance grids” on older cars) connected in series with the motors, and by changing the motors from pairs of two motors in series to all motors in parallel.

Braking system – on traditional trolley built after about 1900, brakes were operated by compressed air. An electric compressor cycles on and off (yielding a distinctive thumping sound) to maintain air pressure of around 80 pounds in the air tanks. The motorman operates a valve with his right hand that directs air from the tank to the brake cylinder under the car. The motion of the brake cylinder controls steel rods that move the brake shoes against the wheels. Later PCC cars also used the motion of the car to turn the motors into generators and then diverted that current into resistance that would cause the wheels to slow, and is known as dynamic braking. PCC cars were also equipped with air or electrically operated brakes that would provide final, low speed braking and electrically operated magnetic brakes that would grip the rails if the wheels slid on slippery rail.

Doors – for passengers were operated by manual levers on very early cars but by compressed air or electricity on later cars.

Gong – streetcars traditionally used large bells mounted under the car and activated by the motorman’s foot as a warning signal. They typically did not have horns or whistles installed unless operating outside of cities.

Signal bell – inside a car operated by both a motorman and conductor, the conductor signals the motorman to start or stop by operating a signal bell connected to a cord running the length of the ceiling.

Heat – was normally provided by electric resistance heaters mounted under the seats or along the floor. Very early cars had coal stoves.

Fare register or fare box – in early two man trolleys the conductor would walk through the car collecting fares from passengers and pulling a cord or levers to register the fare collected on a clock-like device at one end of the car. Later fareboxes—earlier versions of those used on buses today—were placed by the conductor or motorman for collecting passengers’ fares

Lifeguard – a mechanism under the front of the car designed to drop onto the rails and scoop up a pedestrian unfortunate enough to fall in the path of the car.