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Heritage Trolley Site
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Heritage and Vintage Trolleys

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Definition: Heritage Trolley and Vintage Trolley

The terms Heritage Trolley and Vintage Trolley are used to describe modern use of trolleys of a design dating from roughly 1900 to 1950. The terms can be used to refer either to a replica car that more or less accurately reproduces a trolley from the first half of the 20th century, or to an original preserved car restored to accurate or nearly accurate standards.  Some in the field use the term Vintage Trolley to describe an original car being used in regular service today and the term Heritage Trolley for an replica car, but many others use the two terms interchangeably.

In either case, the trolley (or streetcar) is typically of either a small single truck design (two axles assembled into a truck that does not swivel with respect to the car body) or a larger double truck design (four axles, two each assembled into a pair of trucks that swivel beneath the body). Single truck cars are normally less than 30 feet long and can seat up to 25-30. Street railways from the days of the original electrifications around 1890 until the double truck car was developed about a decade later used single truck designs. They largely disappeared or were relegated to lightly traveled lines early in the twentieth century. There was a resurgence of interest with the introduction of the Birney Safety Car around World War I, when a more modern, light car capable of being operated by one man (instead of a two man crew of motorman and conductor) was briefly popular, and used for many years by smaller cities.

Double truck cars are typically from 35 to 50 feet long, seating up to 45-70, and were the predominant type of streetcar used throughout the 20th century.

A single truck restored trolley (of 1900 style) from Portugal shown in San Francisco.

A restored single truck Birney (of about 1915) trolley being prepared for service ini Tampa.

A double truck replica trolley in New Orleans, based on the city's cars from the mid 1920s.

A double truck restored PCC car, built in 1947, running in San Francisco.


Trolleys are electrically powered, drawing 600 volts of direct current via a trolley pole from an overhead wire. The current returns to the power station via the rails. The cars have either two or four motors, which are mounted in the trucks parallel to the axles in older cars or at right angles in more modern PCC cars. Braking is normally accomplished by compressed air systems, with an electrically powered compressor providing air to operate the brakes.

As examples, the heritage trolley lines in Memphis and Dallas use single truck trolleys typical of the 1900 era. The lines in Fort Smith, AR and Fort Collins, CO use restored single truck Birney cars. Most others use heritage or vintage trolleys of double truck design. All are powered by electricity, with the exception of Galveston, which uses a type of diesel power never used in historic trolleys in transit service.

Heritage and Vintage trolleys, as was the case with the original trolley systems, typically operate in or near city streets. Most commonly the track is laid in the center of the street and the trolleys share the street with road traffic. In some cases they operate on private rights of way or in reserved areas in the center or along the side of streets. The cars are capable of negotiating very sharp turns and passing through very narrow areas, meaning they are easily adapted to existing conditions in the older sections of cities where they are normally used.

For further discussion of the differences between streetcars and light rail refer to the following brochure: Light Rail and Streetcar Systems - How They Differ; How They Overlap..


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