Transportation Deployment Casebook/2021/West Virginia

Streetcars in West VirginiaEdit

The streetcar (commonly referred to as tram in European English) refers to a vehicle that travels on rails and often shares the road with private motor vehicle traffic. Streetcars were a popular form of public transport in the US from the late 1800s to the early 1900s and evolved gradually as new technology emerged. The purpose of this article is to study the life cycle of the US streetcar system in the early era, with a focus on services in West Virginia (W VA) from 1890 to 1940.



The birth of the streetcar came about with the omnibus – a carriage that was animal-drawn (usually horse or mule). The omnibus evolved with rails which increased passenger throughput considerably. This early rendition of the streetcar was simple to operate because people were familiar with animal-drawn vehicles from their experiences using the omnibus. While they were simple, horses brought about disadvantages such as the need to be fed and cared for regularly, which increased costs. Horses could only work a limited time every day and produced lots of manure which the operators were responsible for storing and disposing of.


Steam engines (steam dummies) were used in streetcars for a short time following the animal-drawn streetcar era. They were limited in size since they had to fit in the body of the streetcar, resulting in underpowered vehicles. Steam engines also produced a lot of smoke and noise which severely reduced the visual amenity and air quality of the cities.


Cable-hauled streetcars were attached to overhead cables that were powered centrally. While this technology was not used in W VA, they were effective in hilly cities (e.g. San Francisco where they are still used widely today) since their non-driven wheels did not suffer in traction during steep gradient climbs. Their disadvantages include inefficiencies associated with the simultaneous movement of all streetcars, expensive infrastructure, high maintenance costs, and the need to detach from the cable whenever crossing another cable line (which increased fraying of the cables).


The streetcar took off when innovators utilised electricity for power. The first electrical streetcars were powered by heavy, inefficient batteries which were attached to the streetcar. Still considered in its infancy at the time, streetcar technology underwent significant technological transformations while it remained cheap and cost-effective to do so. Another early version was Siemens’ line which provided power through live and return rail and utilised the Dynamo generator. Siemens version had limited voltage (and henceforth power), and the use of return rail meant that road users were injured on contact. Further to this problem, this streetcar would create additional electrical shock hazards if the wheels lost contact with the return rail. Various issues including derailment, or heavy sanding of the rail by preceding streetcars would cause this hazard. Frank J. Sprague innovated this technology by designing a spring-loaded trolley pole that maintained contact with the wire through a wheel. Sidney Howe Short’s design of the first electric motor was also utilised in streetcar technology and improved efficiency. Short’s design removed the needs for gears by directly connecting the armature to the axle for the driving force. Electrically powered streetcars quickly proliferated in the United States and displaced the animal-drawn streetcar. The 24-hour operation, profitable aspects, and increased safety made the electrical streetcar the eventual transportation mode of choice throughout the early 1900s.


Streetcars major market were customers living in suburban fringes who wanted to travel into the city centre (such as in Huntington), and customers wishing to travel between urban centres and customers who wished to travel in and around the city centre (such as in Charleston). Electrical streetcars became profitable, attracting significant investment from capitalists and businessmen thereby accelerating its growth.

Pre-Streetcar Era - OmnibusEdit

Horse-drawn omnibus was prevalent before and throughout the streetcar era. Omnibuses were not easily accessible due to their high cost. But cities were growing, and there was a hunger for a reliable transit system that could move many passengers at a time. The omnibus was slow, limited in capacity, and did not satisfy the transportation needs of the growing city population. Paved roads were not always available, and omnibuses struggled on unpaved roads especially during the Winter.

Early Market DevelopmentEdit

Before the streetcar, the primary transport mode in the city was walking. Cities were growing in population and expanding geographically – people needed a way to travel from the outskirts into the city centre to work, socialise, and shop. Streetcars became the primary transport mode for several cities in W VA. Low fares, relatively high cost of omnibuses, and fast service were reasons for its growth. Additionally, property developers constructed streetcar lines to increase the value of new real estate in outer suburbs. Like a “magic bullet” as described in The Transportation Experience, the streetcar’s patronage was increased by the increase in suburban population which made further upgrades viable. The streetcar reduced travel times between the suburbs and city centre, and in between urban centres through an interurban line such as that through Huntington, and Charleston. Functional enhancements stemming from the newfound efficiency and popularity of the streetcar system helped to build the market through network externalities. Other examples of self-created market discovery included the opening and connection of trip attractors like country clubs and amusement parks as demonstrated in Huntington and Charleston. These developments primary purpose was to maintain ridership during evenings, weekends, and holidays. The growth of the residential South Side of the Ohio River in Huntington is a great example of the interplay between land use and transport which is prevalent even today. Huntington’s population skyrocketed from 11,923 in 1900 to 50,177 by 1920 and this is largely believed to have been only possible due to the vast streetcar system. Herein lies an example of the positive feedback loop between the population (and thereby customers) and the streetcar system. As streetcar systems grew, so did the population and vice versa.  

Policy in The Birthing Phase (1890)Edit

Transit policy in West Virginia during the birthing of the streetcar system differs greatly from the form it takes today. Streetcars were the dominant form of transport in the late 1800s and many capitalists sought to build systems in multiple cities after seeing their effectiveness in other areas. Capitalists and investors birthed streetcar systems in cities where there was a demand for a reliable and fast form of transport. There was so much competition in Huntington and Wheeling that streetcar operations became unprofitable. The unregulated market of streetcar systems in the state had various disadvantages including complex and different fare and timetabling systems. The competing companies had no interest in collaborating to increase the value of their streetcar systems through network effects. Network effects or externalities such as syncing timetables to allow for better transfer windows which increase the value of the streetcar lines beyond the sum of their parts was not undertaken. Huntington was an exception. Z.T. Vinson, with the help of U.S. Senator Johnson M. Camden of Parkersburg, consolidated the two competing companies “Huntington Electric Light and Street Railway Co.” and the “Huntington Belt Line” into the “Ohio Valley Electric Railway Co.” and interconnected their routes to form a more useful line to the people of Huntington, Ashland, Kenova, and Catlettsburg. For most of the birthing phase, the government left the free market to configure and test the streetcar business model out for itself. In line with other states in America at the time, the government had no real stake or interest in regulating transport and its policymaking. Although, the government was responsible for approving proposed streetcar transit routes which allowed new lines to be formed by private entities. Streetcar companies served public mass transit but were privately owned. Yet they were subject to an important government policy restricting the cost of fares to 5 cents (the nickel fare) regardless of inflation.

Transition of Technology

The birthing of streetcar systems was associated with horse-drawn travel which came with a set of lock-in implications. It was simple to improve upon horse-drawn streetcar by switching to electrically powered streetcars because the cost savings were significant, and the rails were compatible. In some cities such as Wheeling, the steam-powered streetcar was very quickly replaced for environmental reasons. The construction of overhead trolley wires to electrify the system essentially locked-in the electrical streetcar for the next few decades. Two trolley overhead wires were utilised because of the safety hazards brought about by return rails, effectively locking in pantograph streetcars as the dominant technology through West Virginia. In Huntington, Short’s mid-track slot method of electrical power became the dominant streetcar technology which also utilised the two overhead wires but with a safer distribution of electricity. Huntington was undergoing its early stages of technological network development, so it did not have issues with a complex system of overhead wiring which posed safety risks.

Interurban Movement

West Virginia streetcar market was largely shaped by interurban connections more so than urban streetcar systems. Urban areas in W VA were largely still walkable, so streetcars served the niche of transporting people from outer urban and suburban areas to the city centre and in between urban locations.

Policy in the Growth PhaseEdit

Policymaking during the growth phase of the streetcar in W Va was centred on the implementation of various lock-ins and value increases which were pushed forward by the streetcar companies and allowed for by the city government. It is already evident that streetcar service and policy is largely shaped by city politics. A largely hands-off approach on the regulation of streetcars by the state was taken except for approving business and operation cases presented by the invested parties. Streetcar investment and development may have crossed some state lines such as in Huntington, but ultimately the regulatory landscape was administered by city officials since companies and financial entities were mostly focused on business in singular cities. The free reign of investment by the streetcar companies and investors is evident from the symbiotic, simultaneous construction of new lines and extensions with property development, and parks and recreational developments such as in Huntington and Charleston. Competition grew as more investors entered the market upon seeing success in streetcar operations in other cities nationwide. In Charleston, the frequent acquisition and rebranding (renaming) of the streetcar companies were associated with an increase in lines or extension of lines (i.e. track miles).


Development during the mature phase of streetcars as a mode was incremental. The nickel fare policy established in the birth phase remained in place which tightened the profitability of streetcars year after year. 1 USD in 1890 is worth 1.54 USD in 1940, so streetcar companies’ revenue decreased by 40% in real dollar terms. Growth in labour costs further reduced their profitability. Streetcar companies wanted to transition to a one-person operated streetcar instead of two to save on costs. Effective lobbying by the powerful transit unions prevented this transition policy from being enacted. To maintain profitability, streetcar companies were forced to cut costs in service and maintenance which made the streetcar less attractive to customers.

Cities grew significantly in population, and their transport needs become more complex with it. Where in the growth period streetcars served the market niche of getting people to the city centre, multiple urban areas formed in the cities which was challenging to solve using the streetcar. The emergence of automobiles around the 1930s proved to be a strong competitor to the streetcar. Automobiles rapidly replaced the horse-drawn omnibus as a private vehicle due to their superior power and could easily start and operate quickly without the difficulties presented with the horse. As more automobiles were used in the cities, gridlock situations become much more common. The streetcar was trapped in traffic congestion with the automobiles since they shared the road. Buses also improved in safety, speed, and comfort, and many of the streetcar operators in W VA saw the bus as superior technology and began the gradual conversion of many streetcar lines to bus lines. Buses also became cheaper to run than streetcars after 1915, as the American economy became more materials-focused following the war. The oil and materials surplus stemming from the end of the war made it significantly cheaper to purchase and own an automobile. American society was already undergoing a transformational shift as private cars became more attractive compared to public transit. It would be more appropriate to recognise that the streetcar was the superior technology at the time to serve the market, but was superseded by the bus. Buses didn’t need complex electrical systems and rails to be built before they could begin operation. Buses, by nature, could effectively navigate the gridlock situations occurring in the cities by flexibly choosing an alternate route while streetcars were restricted (locked-in) to their rails.

Life Cycle of the Streetcar System (1894 – 1920)Edit

Birth 1890

Growth 1900 – 1915

Maturity 1915 – 1930

Year Market Size Predicted Market Size
1894 45.5 34.10381
1897 55.5 60.03586
1902 124.87 141.0631
1903 194.8 164.0476
1904 227.39 189.1632
1905 218.08 216.126
1906 225.58 244.5275
1907 286.25 273.8524
1908 313.77 303.5123
1909 332.79 332.8916
1910 343.79 361.3976
1911 366.04 388.5067
1912 351.31 413.8001
1913 365.575 436.9825
1914 425.14 457.8855
1917 508.41 506.8601
1918 496.5 518.9763
1919 559.95 529.2861
1920 550.9 537.9951
S_max 580
b 0.204733976
t_i 1907.544502
Regression Statistics
Multiple R 0.972094
R Square 0.944967
Adjusted R Square 0.941729
Standard Error 0.365395
Observations 19
df SS MS F Significance F
Regression 1 38.97306 38.97306 291.9034 3.86E-12
Residual 17 2.26973 0.133514
Total 18 41.24279
Coefficients Standard Error t Stat P-value Lower 95% Upper 95% Lower 95.0% Upper 95.0%
Intercept -390.539 22.87469 -17.073 3.91E-12 -438.801 -342.278 -438.801 -342.278
X Variable 1 0.204734 0.011983 17.08518 3.86E-12 0.179452 0.230016 0.179452 0.230016

Actual miles of streetcar track in West Virginia from 1894 – 1920 were collected from the McGraw Electric Railway List and American Railway Investments Journal which detailed the miles of track operated by individual companies and cities. The source of data aimed to provide investors a complete overview of the streetcar operations so that they could make educated investment decisions. This source is more than a century old and is one of various historical books that have been scanned into digital copies as part of Google’s project to digitise the world’s books. Certain data was missing or incorrect. For example, some pages were illegible because of scanning errors or the natural degradation of the book over time. Most of the data collection was done by utilising the txt file representing the book which was created from optical character recognition. There were several data points which were not demonstrated correctly in the txt file, of which have been padded by adjacent year data points or determined by linear interpolation. Despite this, the actual miles of streetcar track data have been cleaned and modified to be of the highest and most realistic accuracy possible.

From a curve fitting process, the maximum track miles in West Virginia was found to be 580 which best represented the data, produced the highest R-squared value, and maximising the t-statistic on both the curve intercept and slope. While the data indicated a peak of 560 miles, it is difficult to determine whether this was a local peak or signals the end of the streetcar era in W Va. It is widely accepted that the last streetcar operated in W Va in 1937, so it is assumed that the peak of the streetcar life cycle was achieved around the mid-1920s as indicated by the curve.

As suggested by the S-curve, the birth occurred in 1890, rapid growth occurring from 1900 to 1915, and maturity setting in after 1915.


Many cities across the world are seeing a resurgence of streetcars (more so known as trams or light rail) in the 21st century as a response to increasing congestion. Though there are notable differences that make the system more effective than those in the early days. Modern transport policy is administered by dedicated transport government departments, in contrast to policy in the early era - New policies around the operations of the tram include exclusive right of way arrangements and preferential treatment on the road. Electricity is the new oil – trams have always used electricity. Trackless tram concepts have been floated around and even tested in some cities. Advancements in lithium-ion battery technology has made it possible to operate battery-powered trackless trams. This mode has cost advantages since they do not have the initial capital expenditure requirements associated with overhead wiring and laying of track. This is another example of the integration of technological innovations to improve the effectiveness and value of older systems.


$1 in 1890 → 1940 | Inflation Calculator. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2021, from

A Streetcar City. (2017, February 28). National Museum of American History.

All Aboard: Huntington’s Streetcars. (2017, December 19). Downtown Huntington.

Be Careful How You Refer to the So-Called “Great American Streetcar Scandal.” (2013, June 3). Bloomberg.Com.

Bryant, B. (n.d.). Iron Road: The Rise of Huntington, West Virginia, 1870-1920. 181.

E-WV | Streetcar Lines. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2021, from

Gazette-Mail, C. G. F. the. (n.d.). Streetcars once wound through Charleston (Daily Mail WV). Charleston Gazette-Mail. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from

Laubscher, R. (2015, May 18). GM Conspiracy to Kill Streetcars? Not By Itself. Market Street Railway.

McGraw. (n.d.). McGraw Electric Railway Journal/American Railway Investments Journal.

The Real Story Behind the Death of Streetcars in the United States. (n.d.). Planetizen - Urban Planning News, Jobs, and Education. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from

Trolleys & Trains, Wheeling, West Virginia—Ohio County WVGenWeb. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2021, from

Wheeling Traction Company, Wheeling, WV. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2021, from

William L. Garrison, & David M. Levinson. (n.d.). The Transportation Experience.

WV, J. E. C. F. D. M. (n.d.). The Mountain State streetcar era. Charleston Gazette-Mail. Retrieved March 24, 2021, from