Transportation Deployment Casebook/2021/Virginia Streetcar

Streetcars in VirginiaEdit

Streetcars, as they are called in North America, are rail transport vehicles which runs on tramway tracks on public urban streets. They were driven initially by horses like drawn carriages, but electrified carriages largely replaced them in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The main technological components which makes up the streetcars are steel manufacturing, railroad construction and electricity. Their main advantages were their durability, capacity, efficiency, networkability, safety, operating costs and environmental friendliness. They were most commonly deployed in urban areas with high population counts and standards of living. In Virginia, there were multiple places where they were implemented and they are detailed below.

Early period before StreetcarsEdit

Before the rise of the streetcars, the most common form of transportation were horse-drawn carts for long distances. For short distances, most people opt to walk on foot. Other modes which were less common were Omnibuses and steam or cable powered streetcars. These methods were riddled with limitations such as uncomfortable rides with wooden wheels on rough roads, slow travelling speed, the need to maintain horses and complex maintenance burdens. The market for transportation was also on the rise as the population in major cities continue to increase. There were railroads before the proliferation of streetcars and hence, people knew about the potential to put miniature versions of them in the urban city to solve transportation problems. Thus, these limitations with previous transport methods and also the rising demand of transport stirred interest in new transport innovations.

Rise of StreetcarsEdit

The invention of the streetcar/light rail mode was brought about by the Omnibus companies. They sought to boost profitability of their carts by increasing ridership along their routes and realised that a cart that rode along rails could carry more passengers. Using the previously Omnibus routes, North America's first streetcar line opened in 1832 from downtown New York City to Harlem. This laid the groundwork for railroads in urban environments.

When Thomas Edison founded the Edison Illuminating Company in the early 1880s, he brought the concept of electrical grids to cities and enable the carriages to be powered by electricity. As inspired by Thomas Edison's work, electrical transmission for streetcars was done using an overhead catenary system using direct current. It lowered the operating costs of streetcars when switching from horses to electricity for railroad companies, and transformed the city streets from horse carts to streetcars.

The technology of the streetcars were created by Frank Julian Sprague in 1887. He created the electric motor which functions using a horseshoe magnet wrapped around an armature circuit. When the armature is rotated, the wheel is turned by electricity. After testing his trolley system which allowed the motor to return power to the main supply through a bottom connection, Sprague installed the first successful large electric street railway system. The Richmond Union Passenger Railway in Richmond began passenger operation on February 2, 1888.[1] In the beginning of 1894, most railroad companies which had travelling routes have begun installing the electrical grid to prepare and lay the infrastructure for the streetcars boom from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Early market developmentsEdit

The early market in Virginia was not dominated by any one company, but each location has their own local railroad company serving the region. Each individual railroad company operated within the regions which they own, slowing building the infrastructure such as rail track, routes, streetcars and powerlines. They also retained the same fare from the horse cart days and instated the municipally mandated five cent fare. These spurred the development of streetcar suburbs as real estate opportunities came and more streetcars were laid. Below is a list of transportation-influenced suburbanised streetcar suburbs which are still left over from that era.

List of Streetcar Suburbs in Richmond

  • Barton Heights
  • Bellevue
  • Ginter Park
  • Hermitage
  • Laburnum Park
  • Highland Park
  • Highland Springs
  • Sherwood Park
  • Washington Park
  • Westover Hills
  • Woodland Heights

Other infrastructural developments were also constructed in tandem with the reduced travel time to passengers, such as the entertainment complex at the peri-urban fringe of Richmond. Despite Virginia having 85% rural residency rate and a population of about 1.8 million, the number of travellers which needed to take the Richmond streetcars were estimated to be 85,000 people.[2] With a growing population and the fame of the Richmond Union Passenger Railway, more railway companies were set-up. The initial line first developed was not due to market demand, but due to the innovation by Frank Julian Sprague. By 1894, the Richmond Union Passenger Railway has a length of 50 miles of streetcar rails under its name.[3]

Initial role for policyEdit

Since 1840, the federal government started promoting transport infrastructures, which resulted in both public and private investments in railroad and streetcars, aiding the initial birth of streetcars.[4] From the 1840s, almost all transport companies were privately owned as it was essential that the streetcar railroad had the public right-of-way to lay tracks in the streets and operate horse carts, cable cars and streetcars.[5] The streetcar railroad companies faced multiple challenges such as susceptibility to the machinations of real estate interests, demands by local politicians and the ire of racial segregationists. While it created the 20th century cities, the peculiar political economy of streetcars brought about the ruin unto itself. The streetcar attracted the attention from a wide variety of local groups, and they used their political power for their own ends to reshape the life of the metropolitan residents.[6] From 1901, protest against segregation of streetcars occurred in all major cities of Virginia, Portsmouth, Lynchburg, Norfolk, Danville, Richmond and Newport News. However, the 1906 legislature mandated the state-wide streetcar segregation and further attempts at boycotting streetcars were short lived.[7]

Growth of Streetcars in VirginiaEdit

The growth of individual streetcars companies were short lived. Most of the expansion experienced by the companies were actually acquisition mergers between the smaller railroad companies. Over time, the businessmen who ran the streetcars, called "traction magnates," consolidated ownership of multiple lines, establishing powerful and oftentimes corrupt monopolies in many cities.[8]

There were a series of Jim Crow laws which segregated the streetcars into whites area and blacks area.[7] However, there were news reports of all white women standing while all black women sitting sighted regularly in Southern cities including Richmond.[6] Despite these sightings, the racial segregation remained a deeply rooted issue regarding streetcars.

When Tazewell converted from horses to electricity in 1904, it was the smallest town in America with an electric street car, with 2 miles of track. [3]

Later developments of Streetcars in VirginiaEdit

After the streetcars have been built out by their respective regions, the decline of streetcars began almost immediately in Virginia. A 1903 worker's strike by motormen alerted the state militia to respond, resulting in a riot and two gun deaths. John Mitchell Jr., an outspoken African-American newspaper editor led a boycott of the streetcars due to racial segregation enforced by armed traffic man. Weakened by the rioting and unwillingness to relent on the streetcars Jim Crow policy, the most railroad companies went into receivership.[9] Other railroad companies, which were mostly owned by rich people of the Northern states, became easy prey for local state politicians and local railroad directors who often did not have the companies’ best interests at heart. The public animosity against the railroad companies made them easier targets. [6] Coupled by the rise in popularity and therefore demand of automobiles like buses and cars and the Great Depression during 1930s and early 1940s, streetcars were phased out and operations ceased. Richmond’s decline in streetcars was affected by cultural trends. The city maintained an electrically-powered streetcar system for the longest period, starting the state's first in 1888 and being the last to close down in 1949.

In Charlottesville, after the reorganization of the Charlottesville City and Suburban Railway which defaulted on its pay as the Charlottesville and Albemarle Railway in 1903, the new railway faced hardship in establishing a profitable business. [10] Although they tried to adapt the mode by changing markets and earn profits through their electrical service, it did not last. Their direct current power supply was losing the competition against the municipal natural gas provider. Their streetcar's cheap travel fee and short travel duration hindered them further. They were again bought out and requisitioned by another company to struggle one last time, but the rail line did not survive the Great Depression.

The upgraded version of streetcars, known as the light rail, are the reinvention of this transportation mode. In 2011, The Tide light rail in Norfolk, Virginia began operations, albeit a very shaky start.[11] Other attempts at revitalising this mode of transport in other cities of Virginia has faced significant impediment. In 1996, the City of Chesapeake city council voted in favour of a light rail system. Voters supported it in a 2000 referendum, but no funding was available. The city council declined to provide even partial funding for a light rail study in 2010. In Northern Virginia, a Columbia Pike streetcar was proposed, but was ultimately cast aside. [12]

Quantitative AnalysisEdit

To do an overview of the life-cycle of streetcars, S-curve (miles of track length vs. time) is used to identify the periods of birthing, growth, and maturity.


Based on The Transportation Experience from page 374, the S-curves are largely displays of data. Assuming the data takes on a logistic shape, smooth curves which best fit the data are added to the somewhat noisier observations.[13] The life cycle model can be represented by the following equation.

S(t)=K/(1+e^((-b(t-to)) )


  • S(t) is the predicted system size, (streetcar track miles) in year t
  • t is time (year),
  • t0 is the (midpoint) inflection time (year in which 1/2 K is achieved),
  • K is saturation status level (final market size) for streetcar track miles,
  • b is a coefficient.

One concern when using this for forecasting is to identify the final market size (K). While we may know the current system size (P), to use an S-curve requires a final system size. The models can be fit for alternative final system sizes, one will best fit the data.  To apply the model, it is helpful to estimate the midpoint or the inflection year (t0). Again, this can be done retrospectively, but to do this prospectively requires assumption, though one estimate may fit the data better than others.  Knowing K, t0 and b, we can then predict the system size in any given year t.


This is a collection of Electric Railway Directories by McGraw from the late 1800s to early 1900s.[3] Lots of data and other information can be found in these directories. The data from the years 1894, 1897-1914, 1917-1920 were used. These cities in Virginia, VA and their respective residing railroad companies were analysed. Some of these company mergers are recorded below, but from 1910 to 1920, most of these companies were absorbed into the larger conglomerates or traded around, sometimes crossing city borders, and ceased to exist. The last railroad companies which represented the city solely are kept below to give an idea of how the streetcars developed in the different local regions.

The summed total rail track length in Virginia, VA:

Year Total Streetcar Track Length (Miles)
1894 64.5
1897 183.59
1898 206.79
1899 236.79
1900 257.7
1901 306.95
1902 337.92
1903 405.5
1904 429.8
1905 420.39
1906 423.18
1907 435.96
1908 441.02
1909 421.43
1910 401.66
1911 448.47
1912 479.4
1913 495.82
1914 488.25
1917 629.48
1918 635.125
1919 735.965
1920 631.955


Washington, Alexandria & Mt. Vernon Electric Railway Co. [merged into a Washington state railway company]


The Berkley Street Railway Co. (1888) → Norfolk, Portsmouth & Newport News Co. [merged 1906]


Piedmont Improvement & Construction Co. → Charlottesville City & Suburban Railway Co. (1894) → Charlottesville & Albemarle Railway Co. (1903)


Danville Street Car Co. → Danville Railway & Electric Co. (1900)


Bluefield & Hinton Electric Railway Co. (1903) → Bluestone Traction Co. (1904)

Hampton, NewportEdit

Hampton & Old Point Railway Co. (1894) → Newport News & Old Point Railway & Electric Co. (1898)

Citizens Railway, Light & Power Co. (1901)

Hampton Roads Railway & Electric Co. (1903)


Norfolk Street Railroad Co. + Norfolk & Ocean View Railroad Co. → Norfolk Railway & Light Co. (1899)

Norfolk & Atlantic Terminal Co. (1900) → Hampton

Port Norfolk Electric Railway Co. → Norfolk, Portsmouth & Newport News Railway Co. (1900)

Bay Shore Terminal Co. (1903)

Chesapeake Transit Co.


Lynchburg Electric Railway & Light Co. (1898) + Lynchburg & Rivermont Street Railway Co. (1899) → Lynchburg Traction & Light Co. (1901)


Petersburg Street Railway Co. (1896) → South Side Railway & Development Co. (1899) [merged]


Portsmouth Street Railway Co. → Old Dominion Railway Co. (1901)


Richmond Railway & Electric Co. (1890) → Richmond Passenger & Power Co. (1900) + [Richmond Traction Co. (1897) + Richmond & Petersburg Electric Railway Co. (1898) + South Side Railway & Development Co. (1899)] → Virginia Passenger & Power Co. (1901)


Radford Street Railway Co. (1899) → Radford Water Power Co. (1901)


Roanoke Street Railway Co. (1887) → Roanoke Railway & Electric Co. (1899)


City Street Car Co. → Staunton Light and Power Co. (1898)

Results and DiscussionsEdit

The S-curve parameters:

Analysis results
Parameter Value
Smax 677 mi
b 0.1155
ti 1907
R2 0.8645

The S-curve

S-curve analysis of Virginia streetcar

The various stages of the Virginia streetcar development lifecycle have been interpreted on the S-curve profile above. The transition from birthing period appears to be approximately 1900 and the system reached a mature stage of development from approximately 1915.

It can be seen that the optimal value of Smax is 45 mi larger than the maximum installed system extent by 1920. This may reflect some latent system expansion that had not been realised by 1920. Even when the model was analysed excluding the years 1919 and 1920, which displayed an unexpected reduction in installed track extent, the Smax value exceeded the total installed track extent and supports a latent expansion theory.

The R2 value of the modelled S-curve indicates a confidence >86%, indicating that the model is not a very close representation of the measured data. It can be seen from the graph that it tends to under-represent the rate of track installation during the growth period, particularly the period between 1902 to 1906. Whilst this was a period of rapid construction in a highly competitive environment, the methodology of reporting the historic installed track in this period appears to be skewed by the extensive consolidation of streetcar operators over the study period.

Apart from the analysis of the lifecycle of the state-wide streetcar system, individual streetcar systems within each urban area was also supposed to be undertaken. However, the extensive consolidation of streetcar operators due to the economic and political pressure of the railroad companies in Virginia also caused subsequent attempts at S-curves poorly fitting due to having insufficient or incomplete data to undertake a meaningful lifecycle assessment at an individual system level. Even if they were done, the results will not show well as the streetcar railroad companies did not experience a natural growth expansion, but experience sudden growth and losses, making it a numbers game and defeating the purpose of modelling for their futures.


  1. 1992, Milestones: Richmond Union Passenger Railway, 1888, ETHW, retrieved 20/03/21<,_1888>
  2. Virginia Department of Transportation. 2006. A HISTORY OF ROADS IN VIRGINIA. Richmond: Virginia Department of Transportation, p.17. Available at: <> [Accessed 20 March 2021].
  3. a b c McGraw Publishing Company. (1894-1920). McGraw electric railway manual: the red book of American street railway investment. New York: McGraw Publishing Co.. Retrieved 19/03/21.
  4. Brar, Amritbir Kaur (2005). "Transportation Culture and Policies in the US". Economic and Political Weekly 40 (8): 733–736. ISSN 0012-9976. Retrieved 2021-03-22.
  5. SMERK, GEORGE M. (1986). "Urban Mass Transportation: From Private to Public to Privatization". Transportation Journal 26 (1): 83–91. ISSN 0041-1612. Retrieved 2021-03-22.
  6. a b c Glock, Earl Ferdinand, "The Rise of Modern Richmond and the Fall of Electric Transit" (2009). Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects. Paper 1539626601.
  7. a b August Meier and Elliott Rudwick. (1973). Negro Boycotts of Segregated Streetcars in Virginia, 1904-1907. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Vol. 81, No. 4. pp. 479-487.
  8. The New York Times, 1908. WILLCOX BLAMES TRACTION MAGNATES; Says Overcapitalization and Mal-administration Are Responsible for City Railway Conditions. PROBLEM OF NEW SUBWAYS He Would Make Less Onerous Terms for Private Capital -- President Bryan Is Pessimistic. [online] p.3. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 March 2021].
  9. Harry Kollatz Jr. (2004). Richmond's Moving First. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 24 March 2021].
  10. McGraw Hill Publishing Company. (1914). Making a Small Company Pay. Electric Railway Journal. Vol. 44. pp. 906–912. retrieved March 16, 2021
  11. "Norfolk light rail to debut Aug. 19". Trains Magazine. June 21, 2011. Retrieved 22 Mar, 2021.
  12. 2015. Trolleys and Light Rail in Virginia. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 24 March 2021].
  13. Garrison, W. and Levinson, D. (2014). The Transportation Experience (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press, USA. Retrieved 19/03/21.