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What Is a Streetcar?



What Is a Streetcar?

Let’s say your downtown or small town—old or new—realizes it needs streetcars to fulfill its hopes and dreams for its future, a future not unlike the past. How does it begin to explain, to the larger public, the politicians, the press and the planners, what streetcars are?

Let’s begin with a definition:

Streetcars are rail transit vehicles designed for local transportation, powered by electricity received from an overhead wire.

That's simple enough. As always, there will be a few exceptions. Some streetcars, in cities such as Washington, D.C., where overhead wires were forbidden, got their electric power from a “slot” in the street, a few were powered by storage batteries, and those now running in Galveston, Texas, have diesel engines. But the general rule has been and will remain electric motors with an overhead wire and a trolley pole. After all, that is why we call them “trolleys.”


Photo: W.S. Lind

Streetcars in Service, Philadelphia.

Rails are a must. You cannot turn a bus into a streetcar for the same reason you cannot make a sow’s ear into a silk purse: the original material always shows through.

Streetcars differ from buses, but they also differ from Light Rail (although streetcars and Light Rail work well together, and can even share the same tracks). The main difference is purpose: as our definition says, streetcars are for local transportation. A Light Rail line may operate ten or twenty miles out beyond the downtown, running at high speeds between suburban stations spaced a mile or more apart. Streetcars operate in the downtown and perhaps a bit beyond it, picking people up and letting them off at almost every street corner. Often, people will use Light Rail to come into town, then use a streetcar to get around town. Of course, along downtown portions of the Light Rail line, it also serves as local transportation. But the much lower construction and operating costs of streetcars mean they can serve the downtown more widely, and do so without reducing the overall "line speed" of Light Rail trains.

A table showing the differences between Light Rail and streetcars might be useful:4

Characteristic  Light Rail Streetcar
Right-of-way Mostly on private right-of-way; needs broad curves and gentle grades Mostly on streets in mixed traffic; can adapt to any built environment
Materials  All new, heavy duty  Often used, light
Overhead wire Catenary  Simple span wire
Vehicles  Large, modern, usually in two or three-car trains Small, often traditional
Stations  Separate, built, often massive to serve whole trains Sign indicating “Streetcar Stop”
Labor  Paid  Often volunteer, at least in part
Capital cost  Should not exceed $20 million per mile though many systems now do Average less than $10 million per mile
Functions  Line haul, distribution Distribution, downtown loop or shuttle
Route length Usually more than 10 miles Always less than 10 miles
Peak use Rush hours No real “peak,” ridership spread throughout day
Main users Commuters  Some commuters, also many tourists, shoppers


Photo: W.S. Lind

Light Rail

Photo: W.S. Lind

A Streetcar




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