Transportation Deployment Casebook/2022/British Columbia

Streetcars in British ColumbiaEdit

The streetcarEdit

A streetcar (North American English) is a rail-based passenger transportation system which primarily operates within the public right of way on urban streets.[1] As the precursor to modern light rail systems with longer articulated vehicles and dedicated rights of way, early streetcars were generally single cars that used steel tracks set within the pavement and shared street space with other vehicles.

In North America, an interurban was a type of streetcar system that operated longer distances between urban areas. While they had some differences to streetcars such as multiple carriages and freight carrying capacity, interurbans essentially used the same technology as streetcar systems and operated on tracks within the public right of way of rural roads.[2]

The essential technological characteristics of British Columbia’s streetcars and interurbans are:

  • The railway – a system of steel wheels on steel tracks at a fixed width guided by flanges which minimise the rolling resistance of vehicles and subsequently the effort required to move them[3]; and  
  • Electric traction – a drive system using electric motors powered by a pantograph connected to overhead wires

Although early streetcar systems used horses or steam as propulsion systems, those in British Columbia used electric traction from the outset.

British ColumbiaEdit

British Columbia is located on Canada’s west coast east of the province of Alberta and between the US states of Alaska to the north and Washington to the South. The province’s geography is dominated by mountainous regions including the Coast Mountains in the west and the Canadian Rocky Mountains taking up most of the interior.[4] Owing to this geography, British Columbia’s population and major settlements are concentrated in the south-west including the capital city of Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island and the relatively flat Lower Mainland region including Metropolitan Vancouver and other smaller cities.[5]

Streetcars and interurbans played an important role in the economic and urban development of British Columbia, enabling fledgling colonial towns to grow beyond walking distance and supporting larger, cheaper homes for workers in growing ‘streetcar suburbs’.[6] Interurbans also played a pivotal role in connecting the settlements of Vancouver and New Westminster (today considered part of Metropolitan Vancouver) with passenger and freight services. Although passenger service between towns and new commuter suburbs was the primary market for the systems, the interurbans in particular were advantageous for farmers to deliver goods to the cities as they were much more efficient than horse-drawn carriage.[7]

Transportation before the streetcarEdit

European settlement across Canada has been historically tied to the development of transportation networks. Although New Westminster was established as the first urban centre in 1859, Vancouver became the most important city as a strategic port with the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1886.[8] Prior to the advent of electric streetcars, other cities had used horse-drawn omnibus services and later horse-drawn or in some cases steam powered streetcars as their primary means of local transportation. Montreal and Toronto had horse-drawn streetcars in use since 1861, supplemented by horse-drawn omnibus carriages.[3] As British Columbia’s settlements were barely fledgling frontier towns by the time electric streetcars arrived in 1890, horse-drawn streetcars were never implemented leaving horse-drawn carriage (known as hackney coaches) as the primary means of transportation.[9]

As Vancouver replaced New Westminster as the most important settlement, there was a growing need for transportation of passengers and goods between the two towns, while Vancouver in particular experienced rapid growth as a port city established by the Canadian Pacific Railway, creating a need for new housing for workers within commuting distance.[6]

Invention of the streetcarEdit

Frank J. Sprague, nicknamed the “Father of Electric Traction,” is popularly credited as the inventor of the electric streetcar systems that proliferated in the late 19th century.[10] Although the initial technology for streetcars was already in place in the form of guided steel wheels and steel rails, it was Sprague’s contributions to refining the design of the electric motor, regenerative braking and power supply that enabled the deployment of streetcars powered by electric traction.

Sprague was initially employed by Thomas Edison to pioneer electric lighting, however Sprague became more interested in power and resigned to establish the Sprague Electric Railway & Motor Company in 1884, which was the first two develop a constant-speed non-sparking motor with fixed brushes that could maintain a constant rotation speed under different loads.[11] Sprague also improved the efficiency of these motors by developing a method of regenerating power to the supply system through braking – particularly useful for railways with steep gradients.[10]

The other technology critical to the electric streetcar’s deployment is overhead power supply using wires and a pantograph. Although Sprague improved upon the design and is sometimes credited with their invention, the first trolley poll was developed by Charles Joseph Van Depoele in 1874 and presented at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition in 1885.[12]

Early electric streetcars were first deployed in Alabama, Pennsylvania in 1886 and Nebraska in 1887, however the Richmond Union Passenger Railway was the first large-scale deployment to use Sprague’s innovative designs for electric motors and overhead power. Sprague’s company was bought out by Edison to support production, and within two years there were 110 electric streetcar systems using his equipment across North America, Italy and Germany.[11] Existing horse-drawn streetcars were converted to electric traction in most North American cities, which British Columbia capitalised on the new technology to establish its first systems.

Lifecycle of the streetcar (1890s to 1920s)Edit

Early market developmentEdit

Early streetcar and interurban lines in British Columbia addressed distinct market niches. Streetcars arrived early during Vancouver’s development as a port city at the Western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway just four years earlier. As the city was experiencing rapid growth, Marchetti’s Constant limited the area available for workers’ housing to roughly 2.5km from the city centre. The faster travel speed of streetcars compared to walking expanded this catchment to 7.5km, allowing for the expansion of the city. In both Vancouver and Victoria, streetcar lines fuelled real estate speculation creating new ‘streetcar suburbs’ with commercial strips and cheap housing for workers.[6]

Interurban lines served a different market niche, as they were originally established to connect existing urban centres such as Vancouver and New Westminster. While serving this existing market of intercity travel with a more attractive experience than the hackney coach, they also served a new and unintended market of freight from farmland along the route. While passenger services were always given priority[13], farmers quickly learned that electric interurbans with multiple carriages were far more economical for transporting produce to markets than horse-drawn carriages.[14]

Birthing phaseEdit

British Columbia’s first streetcars were deployed in 1890 as electric traction systems using Edison and Sprague’s equipment first deployed in 1888 (discussed above). The first system opened in Victoria on the 22nd of February 1890 in Victoria, a 5-mile line with four wooden cars competed by the local National Electric Tramway and Lighting Company Limited.[15] Just four months later, Vancouver’s first streetcar line was opened by the Vancouver Electric Railway and Light Company Limited. The next year in October 1891, the first local streetcar line in New Westminster and an interurban line to Vancouver were opened by the Westminster and Vancouver Tramway Company.[16]

These three companies were commercially owned and operated at a profit and didn’t benefit from any government support besides the discounted rate of $1 per year charged by the City of Vancouver for the use of public streets.[17] There was negligible network expansion for the first few years until all three companies experienced financial difficulty and eventually collapsed before being brought together as the Consolidated Railway and Light Company, which itself went bankrupt in 1895. The networks then re-emerged in 1897 as the British Columbia Electric Railway Company (BCERC) which successfully owned, operated and expanded the streetcar and interurban networks until their eventual closure in the 1950’s.[15]

Separately, the Nelson Electric Tramway Company Limited established a 4-mile streetcar line in 1899 in Nelson, BC, a small town in the Southern Interior of the province.

The maximum extent of Victoria's urban streetcar network. The Saanich interurban line is not shown.[18]

Growth phaseEdit

BCERC was initially hesitant to expand the networks after repeated market failures of its predecessors and government policy ruling out bailouts. The growth of the network began in earnest between 1900 and 1910, lasting until the beginning of the 1920’s. During this period, Victoria’s streetcar network expanded to include 10 streetcar lines and an interurban line to Saanich in the north. Similarly, streetcar and interurban lines expanded into the 1920’s in the Lower Mainland, matching and in some cases preceding the cities’ urban development. The total length of the system jumped in 1905 and 1910 when BCERC leased and electrified existing freight lines from Canadian Pacific to open interurbans to Richmond and Chilliwack.[13] Although written histories discuss expansion of streetcar and interurban lines "into the 1920's", no sources have been found for system expansion beyond the year 1920.

At some point between 1911 and 1914, Nelson’s single streetcar line was extended from 4-miles to 5.5-miles.

Maturity and declineEdit

Streetcars in British Columbia began to reach maturity around 1918 to 1920 in terms of system length, although their popularity and ridership increased into the early 1920's. While urban development continued and demand for transit remained strong, automobiles were becoming more popular and motor buses run by rival companies were beginning to compete with streetcars and interurbans. In 1924, BCERC responded to this market competition by establishing the British Columbia Rapid Transit Company to purchase competing motorised passenger and freight services in the Lower Mainland. While this secured the financial success of the company, in practice it meant the end of investment in streetcars and the beginning of the decline phase.[13]

Map of Vancouver transit routes in 1936 including streetcars and motor bus lines.

By the 1930’s and in the midst of the Great Depression, streetcar patronaged declined and public opinion faltered as the fleet aged. By the 1940’s and 50’s, BCERC was faced with considerable investment to replace the ageing fleet and track assets so instead decided to launch a 10-year “rails to rubber” transition to convert all streetcar lines to trolleybuses. Vancouver’s last streetcar was removed in 1955, followed by the final interurban in 1958.[13] Incredibly, the birth, growth, maturity and decline of British Columbia’s streetcars took place entirely by commercial enterprise with no government funding or intervention.

Reinventing streetcarsEdit

Following the decline of streetcars in the mid-20th century, modern light rail systems have experienced a resurgence in the last two decades. Beginning with Portland, Oregon in 1986, dozens of North American cities have implemented new light rail or streetcar systems in their central areas.[19] Modern streetcar systems are being implemented for very different reasons to their predecessors. While 20th century streetcars expanded accessibility compared with previous modes, modern streetcars often offer little to no travel time or coverage benefits over existing bus services. Instead, they tend to be located in dense urban areas with the goal of supporting urban renewal and creating walkable, attractive cities.[20] These changing drivers indicate a reinvention of streetcars from a primary means of accessibility to an instrument for placemaking and economic development.[21] With that in mind, modern streetcar systems will likely exhibit different characteristics such as service quality, passenger comfort and urban design as opposed to system length and service coverage.  

*There is no evidence

Quantitative AnalysisEdit

Methodology: the life-cycle modelEdit

The life-cycle model divides the behaviour of a transport system over time into three phases: birth, growth and maturity.[22] The three phases can be estimated using an S-curve using the three-parameter function:

S(t)= Smax/[1+exp(-b(t-t0)]


  • S(t) is the status measure, (e.g. passenger-km travelled, miles of track)
  • t is time (usually in years),
  • t0 is the inflection time (year in which 1/2 K is achieved),
  • Smax is saturation status level, and
  • b is a coefficient.

As the saturation status level (Smax) of British Columbia’s streetcar networks is not known, a range of values have been tested in a linear regression spreadsheet model with the best value selected based on their t-statistic and R squared values.

For the purpose of this analysis, system lengths in miles of track at various years have been sourced from the McGraw Electric Railway Manual – the red book of American Street Railway Investments.[23] Although it would have been desirable to separate streetcar lines from interurban lines, multiple changes in company structure and inconsistent reporting formats have made it difficult to separate the two with consistent results. Years with missing data have been linearly interpolated, using footnotes to separate interurban lines from urban expansion where possible. Additionally, Vancouver and New Westminster have been analysed as a single system due to reporting changes combining or reallocating system length between the two divisions over time.


S-curve parameters
Variable Value
Smax 80
b 0.124293773
t0 1911.758838
Tabulated data
Year Length (actual) Length (predicted)
1890 5.00 5.02
1891 7.25 5.63
1892 9.50 6.32
1893 11.75 7.08
1894 14.00 7.93
1895 14.33 8.86
1896 14.67 9.89
1897 15.00 11.02
1898 14.63 12.25
1899 14.25 13.60
1900 13.88 15.06
1901 13.50 16.64
1902 13.50 18.33
1903 12.00 20.15
1904 14.00 22.08
1905 15.00 24.12
1906 15.00 26.27
1907 17.25 28.50
1908 17.30 30.82
1909 17.30 33.21
1910 17.30 35.65
1911 20.73 38.12
1912 24.15 40.60
1913 51.87 43.08
1914 55.30 45.54
1915 58.73 47.95
1916 62.15 50.31
1917 65.58 52.59
1918 65.84 54.78
1919 65.84 56.88
1920 65.84 58.87
Life cycle phases
Phase Years
Birthing 1890 to 1905
Growth 1905 to 1915
Maturity 1915 onwards

Vancouver & New WestminsterEdit

S-curve parameters
Variable Value
Smax 550
b 0.234742972
t0 1912.24568
Tabulated data
Year Length (actual) Length (predicted)
1890 2.95
1891 3.73
1892 4.71
1893 5.94
1894 24.00 7.49
1895 24.00 9.43
1896 24.00 11.88
1897 24.00 14.93
1898 26.50 18.75
1899 26.50 23.50
1900 26.50 29.38
1901 35.00 36.64
1902 35.00 45.53
1903 30.30 56.34
1904 35.00 69.37
1905 35.00 84.89
1906 35.00 103.14
1907 46.25 124.27
1908 58.70 148.28
1909 58.70 175.03
1910 58.70 204.15
1911 244.25 235.08
1912 380.64 267.07
1913 385.99 299.28
1914 439.61 330.84
1915 450.89 360.93
1916 462.18 388.90
1917 473.46 414.29
1918 471.41 436.84
1919 466.93 456.49
1920 469.32 473.33
Life cycle phases
Phase Years
Birthing 1890 to 1905
Growth 1905 to 1915
Maturity 1915 onwards


S-curve parameters
Variable Value
Smax 6
b 0.096980604
t0 1904.098249
Tabulated data
Year Length (actual) Length (predicted)
1900 3 2
1901 3 3
1902 3 3
1903 3 3
1904 3 3
1905 3 3
1906 3 3
1907 3 3
1908 3 4
1909 3 4
1910 3 4
1911 3 4
1912 3.833333333 4
1913 4.666666667 4
1914 5.5 4
Life cycle phases
Phase Years
Birthing 1899 to 1900
Growth 1900 to 1915
Maturity 1915 onwards

Reference listEdit

  1. Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). “Streetcar.” In dictionary. Retrieved March 12, 2022, from
  2. Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). “Interurban.” In dictionary. Retrieved March 12, 2022, from
  3. a b Sullivan, B. E. 2015. “Streetcars.” In The Canadian Encyclopedia. February 5, 2015.
  4. Robinson, J. L. 2020. “Geography of British Columbia.” In The Canadian Encyclopedia. July 24, 2020.
  5. Robinson, J. L. 2010. “British Columbia.” In The Canadian Encyclopedia. November 18, 2010.
  6. a b c Kumtuks. (n.d.) ”Vancouver explained: The Streetcar.” Retrieved March 12, 2022, from
  7. Vancouver Heritage Foundation. 2013. “Vancouver Transit: The Era of Street Cars.” March 12, 2022.
  8. Roy, P. E. 2011. “Vancouver.” In The Canadian Encyclopedia. February 13, 2011.
  9. University of Victoria. (n.d.) “Victoria’s Streetcar.” Retrieved March 12, 2022, from
  10. a b Edison Tech Center. (n.d.) “Frank Julian Sprague.” Retrieved March 12, 2022, from
  11. a b National Inventors Hall of Fame. (n.d.) “Frank J. Sprague: Electric Street Car.” Retrieved March 12, 2022, from
  12. Middleton, W. D. 1967. The Time of the Trolley, pp. 63–65, 67. Milwaukee: Kalmbach Publishing. ISBN 0-89024-013-2.
  13. a b c d Pabillano, J. 2009. “A Short History of Interurbans In The Lower Mainland.” March 24, 2009.
  14. Vancouver Heritage Foundation. 2013. “Vancouver Transit: The Era of Street Cars.” March 12, 2022.
  15. a b Gamble, A. 2016. “Once Upon a Tram: The British Columbia Electric Railway in Victoria and Vancouver.” May 27, 2016.
  16. Hatanaka, R. 2019. “Streetcars before Buses: British Columbia Electric Railway.” June 18, 2019.
  17. Mackie, J. 2021. “This Week in History: 1891 — An interurban tram connects Vancouver to New Westminster.” October 9, 2021.
  18. Ford, Tim. 2021. "What Victoria's long-lost streetcars can tell us about the future." Capital Daily. June 8, 2021.
  19. Trimet. (n.d.) “Celebrating 25 years of MAX Blue Line service to Gresham: The Line that started it all.” Retrieved 12 March, 2022, from
  20. Saunders, P. 2018. “What's Behind Today's Urban Streetcar Revival?” April 13, 2018.
  21. ArchDaily. 2017. “The Real Reason For the Resurgence of Streetcars in America (Spoiler: It's Not for Transport).” August 12, 2017.
  22. Garrison, W. L., & Levinson, D. M. 2014. The Transportation Experience (2nd: Policy, Planning, and Deployment. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  23. McGraw Electric Railway Manual. 1894–1920. Electric Railway Journal, 1. Retrieved from