In the beginning there was the horsecar. Yes, the first urban light rail system was
simply a relatively small, boxy car pulled by horses over rails imbedded into the
street. The first system of this type began operations in New York City in 1832 (two
years before Brooklyn, across the river, was incorporated into a city itself). The
horsecar was much more efficient than the coaches then in use. Running along rails
eliminated most of the friction, allowing horses to pull a much greater load with
a lot less effort. Soon horsecar lines crisscrossed the City of New York. The rapidly
growing City of Brooklyn began its own series of lines in 1854.
Although the horsecar was a revolution in urban transit, it had its shortcomings.
Horsecars ran about as fast as a brisk walk and created their own form of pollution
(putting many men to work cleaning the streets). Still, for riders they provided
ease in transit and shelter from the elements. Horsecars connected the city's various
neighborhoods; allowing riders to transverse the city and connect to railroads, ferries
and other forms of transportation. The expansion of horsecar lines fostered the city's
development along their corridors.
As the industrial revolution took hold, new technologies became available. Shortly
after the Civil War, the cable car was introduced in many American cities; replacing
many of the horsecar lines. The cable car operated by attaching the car to a constantly
running cable underground. To stop, the operator would detach from the cable and
apply the brake. Cable cars were larger and faster than horsecars and provided an
intermediate step in the development of the streetcar. However, cable cars also had
major drawbacks. They were expensive to operate and maintain. Also, the cable propelled
them at a constant speed and therefore could be quite deadly rounding sharp curves.
Thus, as a major form of transit in most cities, the cable car was short lived; soon
to be replaced by a new, far more efficient technology.
By the late 1880's electric generator and motor technology had advanced to the point
where its use as a power source for streetcars became possible. In 1888 Richmond,
Virginia became the first city to successfully electrify a streetcar line. The City
of Brooklyn followed shortly thereafter, electrifying the Coney Island Avenue line
in 1890. Subsequently, the remaining horsecar and cable car lines were replaced by
this innovative, highly efficient energy source. The last cable car line in New York
City ended its run in 1905; the last horsecar line ran up until 1917.
The new electric streetcar spread rapidly throughout American cities; becoming the
dominate mode of urban transportation in most cities throughout the first half of
the twentieth century. The electric streetcars became known as the 'trolley' after
its original electronic pick-up devise, called a trawler. The trolley created new
neighborhoods and centers of activity as the track network was extended.
Beginning in the 1920's, however, the trolley companies (all privately owned) began
to face a number of problems. This was a time expanding automobile ownership and
increasing automobile traffic. Furthermore, local governments were becoming increasingly
hostile to trolley operators. Track repairs were often hindered by demands on transit
companies to also repair adjoining streets; simultaneously, municipalities made additional
claims on their revenues. In New York the nickel fare was mandated despite inflationary
trends, making once profitable trolley lines (and subway and elevated lines) into
money losing propositions. Of course, shortly after the city took over transit operations,
the fare was raised.
Perhaps the greatest factor in the demise of urban light rail was the action taken
by National City Lines to purposefully undermine rail transit operations. Jointly
owned by General Motors, Standard Oil and Firestone Tires; National City Lines operated
under the cover of small bus companies, systematically buying up privately owned
streetcar companies, then replacing streetcars with fume spewing, inefficient busses.
Furthermore National City Lines lobbied local governments to eliminate trolley lines
as a hindrance to street traffic. National City Lines was ultimately found guilty
of criminal conspiracy to destroy the American streetcar system. Unfortunately, the
damage had already been done; by the time of the verdict (the 1950s), most of America's
trolleys were gone.
Ironically, in the 1930's the Presidents' Conference Committee (PCC) was formed to
solve the problems of urban transit (in regard to light rail). This Committee resulted
in the creation of the PCC car, still in use in many localities today. PCC trolleys
accelerate and brake faster than most modern automobiles (see PCC spec. sheet), while
providing an extremely smooth and comfortable ride, even on badly worn rails. It
holds about twice as many passengers as the average city bus and uses only $6 worth
of electricity per hour of operation (opposed to $32 worth of heavily polluting diesel
fuel per hour for a bus).
Unfortunately, the progress in streetcar technology came too late to save New York
City's trolley lines. National City Lines had done its work; New York Railways (a
major component of New York's streetcar network) was its first victim. Also during
this period, Robert Moses (who disliked rail transit of any sort) was busy promoting
the use of the automobile and the growth of the suburbs. On October 31, 1956, the
last three trolley lines in Brooklyn, fabled home of the Brooklyn Dodgers (i.e.,
'trolley dodgers') ended their run.
Nationwide however, the trolley was not completely dead. Boston, New Orleans, Cleveland,
Philadelphia and other American cities hung in, preserving at least a few of their
busiest lines. Toronto, north of the US border (and outside the reach of National
City Lines) maintained and extended their rail transit system after WWII; experiencing
post WWII ridership gains on their streetcar network.
Today, as we face the problems of energy conservation, air and ground pollution,
high operational costs and traffic congestion, light rail is increasingly being sought
out as a solution. Light rail is more efficient and provides far superior service
to bus or electric trolley bus service. Furthermore, using traditional methods and
materials, light rail lines can be constructed for less than 1/100th the cost of
a subway or elevated rail system.
Numerous municipalities that retained their trolley systems are currently looking
to expand them, while others are looking to build anew. In San Francisco, after the
Nimitz Expressway collapsed in the earthquake of 1988, a new light rail line (using
restored PCC trolley cars) replaced an electric bus line. In addition to the increased
efficiency and environmental benefits, ridership is up 300% and the additional passengers
have been a boom to local shops and restaurants.
Today, the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association is planning to return PCC trolleys
to the streets of Brooklyn. We are currently extending our light rail line 6 blocks
along mapped city streets. BHRA is in the construction phase of New York's first
and only light rail project since the sad demise of our trolley system half a century
ago. BHRA is taking us into the future, using a fleet of newly restored PCCs, which
will soon be providing clean, efficient transportation for the people of Brooklyn