Transportation Deployment Casebook/2020/North Carolina Streetcar

An early historic life-cycle of a US Streetcar SystemEdit

Streetcar and its MarketsEdit

Streetcar, also called tram or trolley, is a vehicle that runs on track laid in the streets, operated usually in single units and usually driven by electric motor. The lines or networks operated by tramcars are called tramways. In the United States, historically the term electric street railways was used.

Tram vehicles are generally lighter and shorter than main line transport trains. The majority of trams are powered by electricity with the power being provided by a pantograph sliding on an overhead line. Older systems also used trolley pole or bow collector.

Some trams may be powered by electricity in the city and diesel in rural areas. The main purpose of the trams or street cars is to transport passengers however in some cases it transports freight. Now a day’s streetcars are also known as light rail. The main advantages of streetcars are:

  • They are relatively cheap to run (using electricity).
  • They provide faster and safer mode of travel as they run on dedicated tracks.
  • Mostly, tram don’t use fossil fuels thus being more environmentally friendly

In the early days, trams were also alternatives to cars which were limited in number / expensive and inefficient running on steam engines.

The main markets of Streetcars were growing cities / urban areas where the population density was increasing and people needed to live on the outskirts and travel to the CBD for work or other needs. In the 19th century in America, in most cities—residents worked and shopped close to where they lived so walking was the main mode of transport. But with the advent of electric streetcar (trolley) systems introduced in the 1880s, 1890s, and early 1900s, cities expanded. Many residents of the cities shifted further away from the central city to where the streetcars had good connectivity at much greater distances for their everyday needs. The electric Street Car system was introduced and found market in US (Montgomery, Alabama & Scranton, Pennsylvania- 1886), Great Britain (Brighton – 1883), Oslo introduced the first tramway in Scandinavia, starting in 1894. Sarajevo built a citywide system of electric trams in 1895. Budapest established its tramway system in 1887, which grew to be one of the busiest tram line in Europe, with a tram running every 60 seconds at rush hour. Bucharest and Belgrade had regular service from 1894. \

Pre Streetcar era and its originsEdit

Prior to the development of street car systems, mainly horse-pulled or in some cases battery powered carriages that were expensive to maintain and inefficient were used. Use of horse drawn streetcar companies included paying for storing and disposing manure apart from limited capacity to work, which was not desirable. Although horse drawn trams on rail were used in mining earlier, but due to the growing local transport market of the cities, the investment in setting up rails was becoming justified. These trams were more efficient in terms of speed and carrying capacity than horse drawn carriages. The Streetcar system mainly evolved from the horse drawn carriages to horse drawn streetcars on dedicated metal tramways to Electric powered streetcar using overhead Electric grid for power supply.

The Streetcar system was a combination of multiple technologies of that time. The streetcar system used:

  • Carriages from the Omnibuses or similar vehicles
  • Tramways / Tracks from railroads
  • Electricity and use of dynamo
  • Electric grid with overhead wires to power the streetcars

The cost of maintaining a horse which was the primary mode of personal transport in the cities was becoming more and more nonviable. The electric cars had many prototypes which were powered by batteries.

Gaston Planté developed the first workable storage batteries in the year 1859. Camille Faure patented his own version of the battery which comprised of pure lead plates coated with a paste of sulfuric acid and lead. This type of battery had its own technical problems. Battery was still in its development phase and was not efficient source of power due to charging and storage issues.

In 1834 Thomas Davenport, a blacksmith from Brandon, Vermont, U.S., ran a small car on a short section of a track powered by a small battery-powered electric motor The invention of the dynamo (generator) led to the application of overhead transmitted power to streetcar lines, which became popular in Britain, Europe, and the United States.

The Electric grid was the need of the hour. In the year 1887, a syndicate based in New York funded development of an electric grid of 12 miles in Richmond, Virginia for US$ 110,000. The electric grid system later spread across most of the major US cities. Initially, electric streetcars were single with one motor mounted on the floor or underneath or the axles however owing to the enormous growth of passenger traffic, two motors were used linking the cars.

In the early days before 1800s and even later, the main mode of travel within the city for most of the residents was walking. The distances were walkable as the size of the cities / urban areas was relatively small. However, as the cities grew in population, the size of the cities grew and the need of local public transport grew. This public transport was mainly horse drawn carriages to begin with. The city of New York had a population of 200,000 in the year 1830 and was growing fast adding new urban areas. This created a need of local public transport. A 12-seater carriage named Accommodation, is considered the first omnibus (bus used by public) that provided passenger transport services between New York City’s Broadway from Battery to Bleecker Street for 24 US cents starting in the year 1827. This led others to also provide similar services. Later in the year 1832, a horse drawn street rail road was launched from Fourth Avenue at Fourteenth Street to the Bowery at Prince Street. By 1850, 593 omnibuses ran on 27 routes in New York. In Washington D C., omnibus service was also introduced in the year 1830. The use of Horse trams (on rails) can be traced to the use of horse drawn trams on rail tracks in mines for haulage. However, the use of dedicated tramways (although drawn by horses) picked up in the US, and by 1860, New York had over thirty tram roads. These trams were much more efficient than omnibuses as they carried larger loads at higher speeds. New York had over thirty tram roads by 1860. The success of trams also marked shift of investment from private individuals to business firms in urban public transport as investment was required at a larger scale to develop the tramway rail infrastructure.

Policies and ProblemsEdit

During the birthing phase of Streetcars in America, there was v little regulation for local transport within the urbanized clusters or cities. Mostly residents walked or used horses for commute. In the 1800s, horse drawn public transport services were introduced by individuals. However, as the streetcar system evolved and grew with dedicated tramways / streetcar systems, policy for streetcars started emerging. The basic public policy for streetcars was based on railroad policy modified for a smaller scale system of city level. Being with in the ambit of cities, the streetcar systems were mainly governed by city governments / councils. The councils awarded charters or franchises to businesses to establish and operate streetcar systems. The public policy focused on safety, services and prices.

As the streetcar network grew, demand for unique regulations / policies emerged. Some examples include rationalization of routes, multiple properties serving overlapping areas. Flat fare policy was adopted as opposed to distance-based fare for rail-roads. It was usually 5 cents. The chief promoters / owners of electrically powered streetcars systems were Electric Utility companies because the streetcars provided a base / minimum load demand helping the companies achieve economies of scale of production, transmission and distribution of power in the city.

The growth of inter-urban transit in America in early 20th century was generated due to the inefficiencies of the existing system of that time. The regular railroads were costly, irregular schedule, poor connectivity. With the introduction of street car systems, which were cleaner (electric powered than steam), cheaper to build & maintain and in some cases faster, the growth of streetcars was fast and widespread between 1895 to 1915. Inter-urban transit opened rural areas to urban market centres, and land prices along the tracks soared, leading to the opening of housing tracts along them. The highest growth rates for cities occurred at the turn of the twentieth century Streetcar service became very popular. Cities were quick to issue franchises. There was overbuilding of lines, and some lines were not well connected to others. A need arose to consolidate and rationalize the networks city wise. Washington, D.C., Optimal network connections were needed because lack of physical connections and/or transfer rights hindered end-to-end connectivity however, the systems lost much of public support by 1920s as they were considered unfairly priced.

The private sector was mainly responsible for financing, technically advancing and operating the streetcar systems and the public sector was responsible for regulating and formulating policies mostly on a need basis during the growth of the streetcar systems. In Los Angeles some thirteen systems were consolidated to become the Los Angeles Railway Corporation. America was growing very rapidly; with laissez-faire was the underlying norm for growth. The policies for streetcars were also shaped around it. Initially the government policy for rail roads was ad hoc however when the railroad systems matured, the government wanted to control the system for public welfare. There were policies related to technical issues or political / authority issues for example allocation of tax revenues.

Maturity & DeclineEdit

Streetcar systems grew rapidly from till the 1920s however they abruptly started losing local transit market to buses and cars rapidly. The buses had significant advantages over streetcars. They were not limited in reach to the tramways / tracks and financially viable over streetcars in suburban areas having low traffic volumes. They were more manoeuvrable in traffic and they didn’t require continuous power supply externally unlike streetcars which were not able to maintain their schedules. Once reason was traffic jams once the cars arrived on roads in large numbers in the 1920s & onwards. Also, a break down in the power supply didn’t render the entire line faulty as with streetcars. Also, in some cities, the streetcar operators were responsible to maintain roads which were also used by automobiles which increased operational costs. Similarly, car ownership took away market share of streetcars. The streetcars again became popular during World War 2 (1940s) due to labor movement in cities to places of work / industries built along tramway tracks however by 1960s, the market forces (mainly buses and cars) finally again brought down the market share drastically of streetcars. In response to the market decline of streetcars, the association of streetcar owners known as Electric Railway Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) designed streetcars that had better acceleration, quieter, better ventilated, had better seats and stronger built but that was not enough to reverse the decline after World War 2. Even the public policy was car / bus friendly as governments invested more and more in building roads.

Another major problem that the streetcar systems faced in their mature phases was rationalization. Most of the streetcar systems were owned and operated by different Electric utilities which resulted in unbalanced growth and non-standard fares. Also, there was relative ease of riders moving from one mode (streetcars) of transport to another (bus, cars) unlike people trying air transport over surface transport.

In the current scenario, I feel that simply providing a mode of transport from point A to point B may not be enough to become viable for streetcars as they require big upfront capital spending on fixed infrastructure however I see some advantages of street cars as a mode of transport and if they can re-invent themselves, they may make a comeback. One of the advantages of streetcar is that it gives a smooth ride, since it moves on fixed tracks and constant speed unlike buses or cars. This can be helpful in providing services on-the-move for example a street car can be a dedicated saloon offering saloon services to riders at a reasonable cost thus saving time of a commuter or else he or she would have spent precious weekend time in a saloon or become moving restaurants or coffee shops or book clubs or any such day to day service which we all need.

North Carolina Citywise Trackmiles GrowthEdit

YEAR Asheville Charlotte Durham Goldsboro Greensboro Raleigh Salisbury Wilmington Winston-Salem Others
1903 25 10 6 0 0 5 0 17 9 0
1904 22 10 6 0 0 5 0 17 9 0
1905 23 10 6 0 9 5 3 17 10 0
1906 19 17 6 0 9 6 3 17 10 0
1907 32 18 6 0 12 6 5 17 10 0
1908 22 17 6 0 12 6 5 21 12 0
1909 31 21 6 6 15 13 5 24 12 0
1910 29 26 7 6 15 13 5 25 12 4
1911 29 26 7 6 15 13 5 25 12 4
1912 29 26 7 0 29 13 5 25 12 4
1913 29 26 0 0 29 13 10 28 12 0
1914 34 141 0 0 29 14 10 29 13 4
1917 28 151 11 5 26 19 10 32 14 12
1918 28 156 11 5 26 19 0 32 14 13
1919 28 159 12 5 26 19 0 32 14 13
1920 28 159 12 5 26 19 0 35 14 13


  1. The Transportation Experience by William Garrison & David Levinson
  2. A Popular History of American Inventions by Waldemar Keampffert
  4. wikipedia