Transportation Deployment Casebook/2020/Connecticut Streetcar


Figure 1 Trolley in Connecticut

Streetcars, trams or trolleys are names of the mode of transport that involves the movement of carriages powered by diesel, electricity or mechanical pulley on designated paths on public urban streets. The networks on public streets on which they operate are called tramways. In some cases, streetcars had their own right of way on certain segments of streets. The usage of streetcars began in the early nineteenth century and transitioned through various iterations(including fuel methods, road networks and ownership) into today’s modern electricity powered “light rail” systems.

History of streetcar systems in the USEdit

The history of the American streetcar system can be traced back to early 1800s when omnibuses were used to pull carriages. This was the earliest iteration of a streetcar system where the carriages travelled along special designated routes on the road. The idea was to reduce friction by moving on steel rails with specially designed steel wheels to reduce friction thus increasing the number of passengers. A fee was charged by the owners of the initial systems for each passenger based on the distance travelled. Naturally, the idea of profiting from mass transportation resulted in an increase in investment from private banks and high net worth individuals in this industry across states. In 1832, the first streetcar company owned by Joh Mason began service in New York. Then, in 1873, the cable car was introduced in San Francisco by Andrew Hallidie (Kahn, 1940). This system involved long cables connected to the carriages mechanically pulled by a power-station at the end of the road. In September 1882, Thomas Edison’s electric distribution company went into operation (Con Edison: A Brief History of Con Edison - electricity, 2020). This led to the electrification of streetcar systems with the first system being installed in Richmond, Virginia in 1888. This was followed by the City of Brooklyn in 1890.


History of streetcar systems in the State of ConnecticutEdit

The primary player of streetcar systems in Connecticut was the Connecticut Company. In 1895, it acquired the New York and New England Railroad Company effectively operating 90% of the street railway network in Connecticut((General Railroad Commissioners, 1869). A complete list of companies owning streetcar networks and assets are shown in Table-1. The list was compiled from the McGraw Electric Railway Directory(1894–1920).

1) Bridgeport Traction Company
2) Connecticut Company
3) Connecticut Railway and Lighting Company
4) Danbury and Bethel Street Railway
5) Groton and Stonington Street Railway
6) New London and East Lyme Street Railway
7) Shore Line Trolley Museum
8) Waterbury Traction Company

Technological merits and demeritsEdit

Omnibuses were mainly made out of wood and pulled by horses. Depending on the number of passengers it could carry(generally 4-5), the number of horses were increased. This was the first mode of transportation at the end of the 18th century and continued in the first decade of the 19th century. The frames were made up of wood and included benches for passengers to sit facing each other. The tyres also made out of wood. The omnibuses operated on roads that were uneven further reducing efficiency. Horsecars were then introduced to reduce these inefficiencies. Although they were animal powered, the tram’s ran on improved iron or steel wheels and operated on steel tracks laid out on the existing routes. This reduced rolling resistance between the wheels and rails allowing for more load and greater distances to operate on. This increase in capacity translated into lower fares increasing the patronage country wide.

Figure 3 External cost of horse drawn carriage

The obvious downside with animal-powered transport was that there was only so much work that horses could do. The horses needed feeding at regular intervals and the resulting manure put a strain on the street’s cleanliness. The manure also jeopardized the health of the growing population and the environment of the city. One report from New York mentioned that horses produced 22 pounds of manure per day amounting to over a 100,000 pounds in a year (Kohlstedt, 2017). The effects were exacerbated during winter when the snow and rain caused unbearable pollution. Although the transportation provided by horse carriages greatly benefitted the general public in their daily lives, the external cost increased the social cost on society significantly. In other words, the public paid for the transportation that the carriages provided but would not have paid enough for the carriage companies to provide adequate cleaning services for the city. This can be modelled using the marginal external cost theory shown in Figure-3. Initially, the user pays the equilibrium price at Ppri at a quantity of Qpri which is the equilibrium price from the supply and demand of horse carriages. But the external cost of pollution and pressure on agriculture to feed the horses produces a marginally social cost of MSC. The mode of transport would have been sustainable if the user paid a price of Psoc which would have considered the overall cost on society. Therefore, an external cost of MEC is being borne by society. To articulate this effect, an example can be used. Suppose John has to go for grocery shopping and has to travel on a horse drawn carriage for 20 mins. He will be paying $X dollars in fare to the conductor for this journey. But this amount will not be contributing fully towards the cleaning of the route. If Adam wants to walk on that route, he has to bear the stench and potentially walk on manure, something he had no part in.

The next technology used in public transport was the mechanically pulled cable car. This was the first innovation to replace horse drawn carriages and was introduced in San Francisco in 1873 by Andrew Hallidie. Hallidie initially worked at a mine where he used his father’s rope designs to replace existing fragile ropes used in the industry. He left the industry in 1857 and moved to San Francisco setting up a rope manufacturing company and established himself as a suspension bridge builder. Despite a lack of confidence and funding from his associates, he set up the first system in August 1873. Using large pulley systems connected by underground wires the cars gripped on and off depending on the speed required. At the end of the routes, a turntable was used to rotate the trolley. An example of the pulley and turntable is shown in Figures 4 and 5 respectively.

The initial limitation of this system was the funding and construction of the elaborate pulley system, the underground cables and the turntables. The pulley system ran on steam power(late electric power) continuously. Underground trenches had to be dug in to allow the cables to go through. The closed pulley system also meant that the street cars ran on fixed straight routes and at a constant(often very low) speeds. The expansion of routes meant that more underground digging and construction of powerhouses were needed at new locations which required significant investment and support from local government and the community.

The introduction of the streetcar system was therefore to move away from the high investment of installed underground cables and mechanical pulleys. The streetcars took power from overhead lines which in turn got power from generators at the end of the route. In a way, the system was the same as the cable car, but the source of power was replaced by electricity. The streetcars have an electric motor on board which draws power from the overhead wires connected by a pole on the roof. The first of this system was installed by Frank Sprague in Richmond, Virginia in 1888. Following the success of the line most existing cable car systems transitioned into electric streetcars. The ease of constructing routes and power resulted in an increase in routes across the country. The sprout of electric streetcar systems can be seen in the route map of the Connecticut Company from 1920.

Figure 6 Turntable in San Francisco

The technological merits and demerits of the aforementioned modes are summarized in the table below.

System Horse-Drawn Mechanical - Pulley Electricity
Merits • Capacity •Improved design of carriages and rails •No animal power required •More reliable service •Less pollution •Comparatively lower investment than mechanical •No underground cables required •electricity produced by steam engines
Demerits • Pollution •Resources required to feed horses • Initial investment •Interaction with other modes of transport(pedestrians, horse carriages) • Bound by fixed tracks •Significant share of total electricity of a city •Interaction with traffic •Power outage results in unreliable service

The Connecticut StoryEdit

Figure 7 1920 Map of the Connecticut Company System and Connections

The history of streetcar systems in Connecticut can be best explained by looking at the track length of street cars in a certain period of time. The McGraw Railway Directory was a biannual publication that recorded the financial state, assets and details of street railway companies across the USA, Mexico and Canada. For this analysis, the track length owned by different companies in the state of Connecticut were recorded between 1894 to 1920(the records were missing for 1895,1896 and 1915,1916). The length of electric tracks owned by each company in that particular year were added to give the total length in the state. The cumulative length of street rails owned in Connecticut are shown in Table-2. Transportation lifecycle, like any other technology(and products) are widely claimed to follow a logistic sigmoid function. This function produces a characteristic S shaped curve. The S curve can be used to identify the different stages of the lifecycle, namely birth, growth, maturity and decline. The data obtained was used to estimate a three-parameter logistic function.

S(t)= K/(1+exp⁡(-b(t-t_0)) where S(t) = status measure (track length)

          K     = saturation status level
          b      = coefficient to be estimated (explained later)
          t       = time (in Years)
          t0      = inflection time (year in which half Smax is reached)

The model can be transformed to show the following linear relationship.

ln⁡(S(t)/((K-S(t)) ))= -bt+bt_0

which is further simplified to show the analogous form y = mx + c In this case, bto is the y intercept and -b is the gradient of the curve. Using K = 2600(maximum recorded length) as the initial assumption, a number of regressions with increasing K values were conducted. The model inflexion point(point where the curve went from increasing to decreasing) happened when K = 2820. This was confirmed with a correlation coefficient ( R ) value of 0.993. The resulting y intercept and gradient were then used to calculate to. The t0 and K values were then used to calculate the predicted track lengths across the timeframe. The actual and predicted data from the model were then plotted and is shown in Figure-8.

Figure-8 Actual vs Predicted track length in Connecticut (1894-1920)
Year Length (miles)
1894 231.21
1897 348.33
1898 397.48
1899 377.85
1900 469.71
1901 532.83
1902 449.68
1903 572.78
1904 655.04
1905 941.831
1906 778.447
1907 983.474
1908 1078.18
1909 1237.32
1910 1287.43
1911 1178.808
1912 1264.716
1913 1295.58
1914 1310.668
1917 2500.674
1918 2587.649
1919 2478.041
1920 2235.155
Summary of statistical parameters
Parameter Value
K 2820
R 0.992919
to 1910

It can be observed from the graph that after 1910, although the actual track length of streetcars in Connecticut increased, the increase was in a decreasing rate. Based on the above model and by analysing the data from McGraw Railway directory, the phases in the lifecycle of streetcar systems can be identified in Figure-9.

Figure 9 Phases of streetcar system in Connecticut

The birthing phase of streetcars involved the electrification of the existing mechanical and horse drawn carriages. In some cases, the rail tracks were modified to accommodate the different chassis of the electric carriages. Overhead lines were also established to power the carriages. This resulted in a clutter of cables in most cities, an external cost of the electric streetcar system. The success of the railroad for long distance transportation aided the case for electric car systems. The inter and intra modal transport systems allowed cities to grow further away from central locations. Furthermore, with the improvements in urban living necessities such as water and sewage, electricity and industrial steel the birthing phase coincided with a thriving population in the US. In Connecticut, the census data shows a five-fold increase in population between 1830-1930.

The legislative policy of electric streetcar systems was taken from the precursor horse-drawn and omnibus systems. Since the system required considerable capital investment, most local governments franchised the streets to individual operators. This was mainly done to use public funds in other endeavours. Naturally, this led to intense competition between different operators. This led to an oligopolistic market dominated by the Connecticut Company, Hartford Street Railway Co and Shore Line Electric Co. The anticompetitive market and poor service led to a negative perception about streetcar companies among the public and government officials. The government then stepped in to impose fare regulation. Although the operators wanted to increase fares in par with rising costs, this was halted by the regulation(National Research Council et al., 2001). On the other hand, automobile usage was beginning to gain traction in the US. Ford launched its first mass produced and affordable car, the Model-T in 1908. This coincided with the maturity phase of the streetcar lifecycle. The car sold a staggering 15 million units starting from 1908 and ending in 1927(1926 Ford Model T roadster, n.d.). This led to the strengthening of the American Automobile Association one of the strongest proponents of action on roads from the federal government(Weingroff, 2017). Furthermore, the onset of World War 1 in 1914 resulted in a push from the government for a developed highway system to make the transportation of military vehicles and supplies easier. This led to the first highway act passed by the US government, The Federal Aid Road Act in 1916.

Figure 10 Source(Macrotrends and US Census)

The initial demand for transportation from the horse drawn carriages resulted in the electric system to be innovated. As can be seen from the aforementioned timeline, the successive systems followed quite quickly. The success of trams, particularly the electrified ones resulted in rapid growth of this system across Connecticut. The financial benefits and the lack of demerits compared to previous systems encouraged more investors to rush into the market. In a simple economic model, this would mean that the supply of streetcar systems would have increased. An increase in supply would reduce prices due to competition and result in a lower revenue for suppliers. This is shown in Figure-7. As the supply curve increases and shifts to S-2 due to increase in streetcar companies, the equilibrium price drops. The decrease in pricing combined with other factors(discussed later) would discourage the growth of the market. In other points, at some point of time the market saturated and the rate of growth of slowed down. The streetcar companies did try and stay competitive amongst the growing competition and government regulation. Most of these companies had to produce their own utilities services to power their vehicles. They were also part of corporations that owned multiple utility factories. This provided them with an avenue for alternative sources of revenue. In order to maximize their resources, the larger companies owned amusement parks (eg. Connecticut Co owned the Lake View Park in Middletown) and ran discounted services on weekends.

Figure 11 Demand supply of streetcar systems in early 20th century

The most widely accepted reason for the downfall in streetcar systems is the influence of the big corporations namely General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum and Mack Trucks. This was known as the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy. Although the intricacy of the case is too elaborate for this paper, in essence the big corporations mentioned above took over the streetcar transit systems in a number of cities and either shut them down or converted them into bus routes. Naturally, this benefitted their automobile and fuel sales. In 1948, GM and the other companies were convicted and fined a mere $5000 for their attempt to monopolize the industry(Marshall, 2016). In some ways, this was the final nail in the coffin for streetcar transit systems in America. The last streetcar system in Connecticut was stripped out in New Haven in 1948.

Figure 12 Lifecycle of streetcars with important events

Streetcar systems have seen a recent revival at the beginning of the 21st century. This is largely due to the same reason from the 1900s. Cities are growing and there is a need to transport people to and from the suburbs , reducing congestion in city roads. Furthermore, the increased conscience about greenhouse gases and climate change in the public mind has discouraged the usage of cars in commuters. Another hybrid iteration of streetcar system is the light rail. Operating on its own right of way, light rail provides a more efficient and fast service. The success of streetcars in cities like Portland and extensive usage of light rail in Europe indicate the opportunity to reinvent the mode of transport. With urban designing focusing on more accessibility such as the 30 minute-city concept there is an increase demand for crowd sharing public transit systems. These demands can be fulfilled by redeveloping the streetcar system in a way that will reduce the initial capital cost and construction significantly. For instance, recent technological advancements have led to the creation of trackless trams or ART which run on rubber wheels, has train like carriages and can reach speeds upto 70 km/h. The first ART was launched in Hunan, China in 2017 and was deemed as success. As they are battery powered, they produce less noise and pollution compared to buses. The potential for trackless trams has attracted interest from a number of Australian cities with feasibility studies being undertaken currently (Ketchell, 2018). Therefore, the reinvention of streetcar systems with a 21st century touch is something that is being considered globally by urban planners. The preference for renewable sources of energy for vehicles and availability of technology such as augmented reality and machine learning will allow the streetcar to become a modern transit system for growing urban population.

Figure 13 CRRC Autonomous-rail Rapid Transit train at Metro Trans 2018 (20180613150358)