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Light Rail for better public transport

This Discussion Document is published by the LRTA Development Forum to stimulate discussion and does not necessarily represent the views of the LRTA



In many ways the USA can be regarded as a leader in correcting on a major scale the unwanted invasion of its town centres by the automobile and simultaneously dealing with the many environmental and social problems that accompany it. Rarely though do worthwhile projects succeed without some form of local opposition and some of the public attitudes in this auto-dominated era have been no exception. By having proved its ability to produce spectacular results such as attracting the motorist and distributing tourists and shoppers within the CBD, the streetcar has forced many opponents to give ground to this new tramway concept. Because the list of successful applications in the USA is growing at a fast rate (2), this discussion document will elaborate in detail on just a few. These few examples tend to demonstrate how ingenuity, combined with a "salvage" approach, has played a major part in keeping costs down.


When Britain quot;turned the screw" soon after the Second World War, presumably to weaken any resolve to modernise track infrastructure or renew rolling stock or both, the prime reason appeared to be transit economics. Staying (if possible) in the black took precedence over retaining a friendly transport system for future generations. Just how the elimination of a Aberdeen's modern post-war tram fleet contributed towards an economy drive becomes somewhat difficult to understand about half a century later. Another example that older readers will no doubt remember was the complete elimination in Leeds of a fleet of what was regarded as the most technically advanced tram produced in pre-war Britain. These cars were recently claimed as being able to perform well alongside many present day buses (3). Transport nostalgia maybe, but the Americans are actually doing with old rolling stock something that our forebears had convinced themselves would never happen here. The nearest we in mainland Britain have come to using vintage trams on a regular public service has been the popular tourist operation along Blackpool's promenade.


Only two years ago Portland reintroduced a modern streetcar service basically to act as a distribution feeder in its CBD. Although MAX is the light rail operator for the region, the streetcar operator (Portland Streetcar Inc.) is quite distinct from MAX. The 3-section articulated streetcars were actually built by a Czech builder (Skoda) and, being designed for pure CBD use, cost considerably less than the larger and more robust LRVs.

About to start operation in Tacoma (Washington) is another streetcar-type service with vehicles also built by Skoda. Although almost identical to Portland's trams, the Tacoma vehicles are not equipped with fare collection equipment because the new 2.8-km line will be free. Although both Portland and Tacoma have gone for low-cost new trams, it should be pointed out that many new heritage systems in USA have saved much capital expenditure by utilising either refurbished vintage stock or replica trams built to vintage design. The list is quite extensive and this discussion document will select and describe just a few of the more interesting examples.


A two-mile corridor with restored tram tracks through Charlotte's (North Carolina) city centre is about to turn the clock back by 65 years. Tram number 85, a regular single-deck streetcar in Charlotte before the Second World War, survived a non-transit career until rescued and restored for further service as a vintage streetcar. Number 85 will not be alone, being joined by other ex-Charlotte trams, one of which actually hauled passengers through the streets of Piraeus (Greece) until 1960 (4).


Although DART, the modern light tail system in Dallas, has been an outstanding success with numerous extensions in the pipeline, a lesser-known streetcar system, operated by the McKinney Avenue Transit Authority, has provided a service almost by default. Not too many years ago some road works uncovered the tracks of the former tram system, and much to everyone's surprise they were found in a remarkably good condition. Because some of the former street cars still existed it was not too long before a public service could be operated. Although isolated from DART, extensions at each end of the tramway will soon permit convenient integration.


What better way to generate interest in a tourist landmark than to produce a replica British-styled double-deck tram, and operate it along a pedestrianised mall with shoppers? With overhead wires not an option, a most unusual arrangement of supplying power was devised: a set of batteries is charged by an induction coil at one end of its 400-metre line. This double-deck vehicle can carry up to 62 passengers, collected at 3 intermediate stops. Because of safety requirements and the casual pace of the pedestrian shoppers, the tram operates at 8 km/hour and needs 6 minutes for a one-way trip.


It is hard to imagine just how some long-gone tramway hardware from Britain could actually survive and become a vintage or tourist facility in a US city, a city with strong links to the American automobile industry. Such an unlikely event actually occurred in Detroit (Michigan) where the Detroit Citizens Railway operated a heritage service on narrow gauge (90 cm) track, backed up with a small number of vintage European trams (5). As with the previous Los Angeles example, the secret of public acceptance is its clean and safe operation, and although operating at little over walking pace, it caters well for shoppers and tourists alike who may not be in a hurry anyway and just value the hop on hop off convenience.


Although a contradiction in terms, this title accurately describes the attitude in New Orleans (Louisiana) towards streetcar modernisation. Built in the mid-twenties, most were systematically refurbished and given a few modern safety devices without destroying their vintage appearance. Because of network expansion some new cars have been added, but carefully designed to clone the prevailing 1920s look. The more astute passengers though would notice some disguised air-conditioning equipment and an entrance specially designed to include a wheelchair lift. New Orleans never lost faith in tramway operation, albeit with vintage-type rolling stock, and replicas will be used during 2003 when the former Canal Street service is returned to tram operation after 39 years of buses (6)


A 3.8-km heritage tramway was made possible when Memphis (Tennessee) cancelled a motorway project and used the Federal funds to build what Memphis called the Main Street Trolley (7). Although the heritage rolling stock came partly from Melbourne in Australia, it provided an attractive service which was soon expanded along the banks of the mighty Mississippi River. Memphis has further plans to convert to a light rail system with a target date of 2007 (8).


Although Melbourne has played a significant part in supplying W-class trams to heritage tram systems, many in the USA, it also used this historic class to provide a free tourist service around its own CBD. How different from Birkenhead (UK), where a new heritage service could only start when two replica Hong Kong trams were imported. Attitudes will need to change somewhat in Britain before our tourist cities follow America's lead.


  1. A Streetcar Bill : HR 1315, THE COMMUNITY STREETCAR DEVELOPMENT AND REVITALIZATION ACT - introduced by Congressman by Earl Blumenauer during March 2003.
  2. Congressman Earl Blumenauer : Over 40 places interested.
  3. Brian Render - LEEDS TRAMCARS, A PENNY RIDE TO TOWN - page 191.
  4. Charlotte publicity brochure - 1st. April 2003.
  6. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - August 2002.
  7. MODERN TRAMWAY - November 1991.
  8. TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT - January 2001.

Discussion Document 005: top of page

Prepared by F A Andrews - for the LRTA Development Group - June 2003.