History of the Streetcar
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 once again.

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