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
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.
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.