APTA Streetcar and
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Heritage Trolley Site
Hosted by the Seashore Trolley Museum
Minimize Cost

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Minimize Cost by Using Inexpensive Approaches


Use existing rail rights of way where possible

Several streetcar lines have been built using existing, but unused, railroad track or rail rights of way in full or in part. This provides obvious benefits in reducing the cost of constructing the line. Examples are the waterfront or riverfront lines in Seattle, New Orleans, and Memphis. Also the National Park line in Lowell and the Sugar House streetcar in Salt Lake City have used railroad rights of way. Such track will normally have to be repaired or replaced, but the cost is still much less than acquiring a right of way and building new track where none had existed before.

Reuse abandoned (paved over) track

Hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of abandoned streetcar track remain under the pavement in cities all over North America. At the time of streetcar abandonment there often were insufficient funds to remove the rails, so for expediency they were simply covered with asphalt. Heritage trolley lines in Dallas and Tucson (as well as in Manchester, England and in Stockholm, Sweden) have uncovered existing rails and used them for part of their route. Though such track can often be found, it can have serious limitations. First, utility construction since abandonment will frequently have crossed the right of way resulting either in a gap in the rails or new pipes, conduits, or manhole covers where the rails formerly ran. Second, rails at the time of abandonment may have suffered from years of deferred maintenance from cash-strapped street railway companies so may be worn or uneven. Third, heavy salt use in areas with a harsh winter climate may have corroded the rails. And fourth, electrolysis, a form of corrosion caused by the electrical current that powered the trolleys, may be another source of deterioration. Nonetheless, particularly in warmer climates, investigating the presence of abandoned rails is a worthwhile activity when planning a streetcar line along city streets.

Present utility operators may have maps showing where rails remain under pavement, and trolley museums or other historical sources will have maps of former lines showing where tracks once ran.

Single track with passing sidings rather than double track

Streetcar lines can be built in either a double-track configuration, with one track serving cars running in each direction, or in a single-track configuration, in which one track serves both directions, with occasional passing sidings (where the track splits into two with a switch at each end so cars traveling in opposite directions can pass one another). Obviously, single track is less expensive to build but is inadequate if service is so frequent that opposing cars need to pass one another frequently. From the earliest days of horse drawn streetcars, companies built single track wherever they could, subsequently upgrading to double track if traffic increased sufficiently. This practice is followed today in the construction of light rail lines. In cities such as San Diego, Baltimore, and Portland, long stretches of single track were constructed in the initial stages of new light rail systems and mostly have been doubled as ridership grew.

Streetcar operations can use similar practices to keep costs down. In Seattle, Tucson, and Tampa the heritage routes were built largely using single track with passing sidings.

Click here for a further discussion, with illustrations, of the single track option.

Collect and reuse paving stones

Streetcar tracks running in pavement were very often surrounded by bricks or granite paving blocks. Recreating this appearance not only lends an air of historical authenticity but also can provide the advantage of discouraging automobiles from driving on the tracks, as motorists tend to avoid rougher surfaces. Just as there are miles of abandoned streetcar track beneath pavement, there are miles of paving blocks still intact. As streets undergo major reconstruction, contractors can be asked to salvage and separate the paving blocks. These can be reused in construction of a streetcar line, saving the cost of new paving blocks or of alternate types of payment. The city of Portland saved and stockpiled such blocks for some years prior to construction of the tracks used by the light rail and heritage cars through an older downtown district.

Reuse second hand track material and overhead poles

Second hand rail in good condition and usable wooden cross ties can often be found for little more than the cost of disassembling and removing them. Typical sources are abandoned railroad sidings or branch lines. Trolley and rail museums have obtained track materials from such sources for decades. Track switches (where two tracks diverge) or crossings may or may not be suitable for trolley use and second hand rail may not be ideal for areas where the track is in pavement, but still considerable savings can potentially be obtained by finding used track material.

Similarly, poles suitable for supporting the overhead wire may also be found second hand. Standard wooden telephone poles were commonly used to hold trolley wire, though steel poles were normally used in downtown sections. Local telephone or electrical utilities may be a source of usable second hand wooden poles. As well, in many cities the original steel poles that held up the trolley wire were kept after trolley abandonment to hold streetlights, signs, or guy wires. In some cases these poles were decorated with ornate period caps making them particularly desirable for return to their original purpose. Searching the city that will host the line or neighboring cities may uncover such poles which potentially could be obtained for reuse at reasonable cost.

Also span wires (that support the contact wire) can , with necessary permission, be attached to buildings along the line, as was often done in construction of streetcar lines a century ago. Wire can also be attached to existing utility poles with suitable permission from the owner.

Construction and Operation

Encourage volunteer labor in construction/operation

Trolley museums, since the movement began with the founding of the Seashore Trolley Museum in 1939, have built the equivalent of heritage trolley lines (normally in rural settings) using almost entirely volunteer labor as well as material, often second hand, acquired at little or no cost. A number of urban heritage lines (Tucson, Fort Collins, and Fort Smith as examples) originated from this same volunteer preservation perspective. In some cases, notably Tucson, the volunteer labor has even extended to constructing track in urban streets. Though the work involved in constructing track, setting poles for overhead wire, and suspending that wire is physically demanding and requires special skills, if a heritage operation can find volunteers with sufficient motivation, great progress can be made at very low cost.

Similarly, volunteers can play an active or role in regular operations and maintenance, or handle these functions in their entirety. In heritage operations such as Dallas and the cities mentioned above, volunteers perform some operating and maintenance functions. In others they share or supplement paid staff.

Even in a major city such as San Francisco in which the city’s transit operator operates the heritage trolley line, volunteers contribute greatly. The volunteer nonprofit Market Street Railway performs a variety of functions: They serve as advocates in planning roles for creation and expansion of the service; their volunteers acquire and restore cars to be used in the operation; and still other volunteers in the early years rode cars in regular service to serve as hosts and help keep the cars clean.

Use low cost construction techniques and second hand material or facilities with long lives

Again following the trolley museum example, second hand components can be used in the construction of streetcar lines if funds are not available to purchase new material.

Normally, the highest cost item in construction of a line is building track running in street pavement or crossing streets. A very large component of the cost is relocating utility lines (water, sewer, gas, steam, electricity, phone, or cable television lines) that are laid beneath the pavement but close enough to the surface to interfere with track and the associated foundation. To the extent that track can be located where utility relocation can be minimized construction costs can be reduced. Similarly, a track design that minimizes the needed depth of excavation will be less expensive to build (such an approach was used in the new Portland downtown streetcar).

A number of heritage lines have reused existing buildings for car storage and maintenance facilities saving the cost of building from scratch.

Secure donated services

In addition to the efforts of volunteer enthusiasts mentioned above, a line may be able to secure volunteer help from firms or employees of firms in fields that offer services similar to those needed by a the new line. As an example, union employees of an electric utility in Tucson volunteered to install and maintain the overhead wire for the heritage line and their firm agreed to allow the employees to use bucket trucks and other equipment as they performed this task. Conceivably, agencies or firms with skills in street, building, or track construction could provide similar support if approached. If the entity developing the heritage line is organized as a nonprofit with 501(C)3 status, such donations may be tax deductible for the commercial concerns that provide them.

Another source of donated labor, though generally for periods as short of a day or time, is work release programs run by correctional departments. Frequently non-violent offenders may have their sentences reduced if they perform community work, under supervision of guards. Often the participants are very happy to perform the work both to reduce the boredom of their incarceration and for the possible reduction in sentence. Availability of funding for the guards and for transport, along with competition from other potential users, are key factors in whether this source of labor is available.

Military or National Guard

A source of large scale donated services, principally in construction and other labor intensive tasks is the military. A number of trolley museums have used this source over the years  Both active duty and reserve units frequently undertake community service projects as training exercises. Units from the Army, Navy Construction Battalions, or Marines are the most likely sources, but other branches may be suitable sources as well. Projects undertaken in the past include track construction or maintenance, site preparation, and building construction. Substantial lead time may be necessary to secure these services, but those planning heritage lines are encouraged to contact local military and National Guard units to explore this possibility.


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