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High Speed Trolleys - 1

A Practical Solution for Today's Traffic Problems

By: Bob Morrisson

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The Interurban Trolley

In days gone by you could travel from city to city on a high speed interurban trolley. Interurbans were electric trains similar to city trolleys but they were heavier, they ran at higher speeds, and they were more comfortable. Many interurban lines were quite long, 30 or 50 miles or longer. At one time the US had a vast network of interurban lines.

Interurbans often operated on city streets until they reached the edge of town, at which point they struck out on their own right of way. You could ride the 45 miles from downtown Washington DC to downtown Baltimore MD in about an hour. Milwaukee residents could make the 90 mile trip to downtown Chicago IL in 90 minutes, sometimes on an air conditioned train with a dining car. The Pacific Electric Railway in the Los Angeles CA area had hundreds of miles of routes, some it four tracks wide. At one time you could ride in a train of 70' long cars through the center of town. Imagine meeting one of those behemoths face to face in your little automobile!

The Demise of the Trolley

Older trolleys were fast once they got moving but they were not terribly efficient at getting up to speed. The large motors and gears were quite noisy and the air compressor would run frequently. Nearby horses were not always delighted when the trolley operator released the brakes with a loud rush of air.

With the increasing popularity of the automobile the slow, lumbering trolleys often got bogged down in city traffic. When they reached the woods, where they didn't have to share space with any other vehicles, they could travel very fast. But as the population increased so did the number of stops along the line, resulting in slower service.

In the early 1930s the presidents of the major street railway companies developed the "President's Conference Committee" car, or PCC, which became the standard vehicle in most cities. PCC cars had greatly improved acceleration and braking and they had foot pedal controls, allowing the operator to sit while operating the car. The last traditional PCC car was built in the early 1950s. A fair number of PCCs from the 40s and 50s are still in service in a number of cities.

Despite the success of the PCC car, trolleys continued to decline. There was a brief respite during World War II when every trolley that could be found was pressed into service but after the war ended people began to enjoy the freedom provided by their automobiles. Economics, and effective lobbying by the rubber and oil interests, convinced many interurban and city trolley operators to abandon the rails for buses.

The award winning system In Washington DC was forced to close by order of Congress. Several of Washington's downtown lines operated on reservations in the center of the street and many suburban lines ran on private rights of way through the woods, making them ideal candidates for incorporation into an upgraded transit system. DC Transit modernized and air conditioned one car to demonstrate what could be done with the system but Congress had its way, as it usually does, and the system closed after almost 100 years of faithful service. I was on the last car when it rolled into Navy Yard car house on January 28, 1962. Several of the cars continue to operate at the National Capital Trolley Museum in Wheaton, MD.

Hardening of the Arteries

When the trolleys went away they were replaced by busses, which run on the highways and not on private rights of way. Many cities paved everything in sight to accommodate the ever-increasing load of cars, trucks, and busses. As traffic began to get unbearable, more highways were built until the cities turned into concrete jungles. In some cities entire neighborhoods were razed to make way for the highway, a process sometimes dubbed "Urban Ruin-All".

By the 1980s and 1990s many cities were faced with monstrous traffic jams, or should we say parking lots, that lasted far past the time when the "rush hour" was supposed to end. Some ingenious schemes have been devised to cope with "hardening of the arteries" but not all of them have been successful. Now we have lanes reserved for busses and high occupancy (HOV) vehicles but we still have congestion, it's just on more lanes. Many cities are widening their major highways yet again, knocking down hundreds of houses in the process. Even with all of this building it is no longer a question of "if" traffic will grind to a halt but "when".

Anyone who believes more highways will solve the problem should visit Dallas Texas, Atlanta Georgia, or Los Angeles California for a little reality check. These towns are a monument to what should not be done. There is talk of widening the Capital Beltway outside of Washington DC. Hopefully the decision makers will take a little trip out west to see how it has been done in the past and to decide for themselves how well it has worked, or how miserably it has failed.

At some point simple mathematics comes into play. One lane of a highway can carry only so many vehicles safely. If there are too many vehicles then you must either (a) increase the capacity of the highway by adding lanes or, (b) reduce the number of vehicles. Option (b) will work for only so long until the vehicle count increase again, at which point you have to resort to option (a). In many cities highways have already reached their point of diminishing returns.

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