Interurban

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"Interurbans" redirects here. For the publishing company once known by that name, see Interurban Press.
An interurban tram from the Philadelphia & Western Railroad, which survived long in the interurban business

The interurban (or radial railway) is a type of electric railway, with streetcar-like light electric self-propelled railcars which run within and between cities or towns. They were prevalent in North America between 1900 and 1925 and were used primarily for passenger travel between cities and their surrounding suburban and rural communities. Limited examples existed in Europe and Asia. Interurban as a term encompassed the companies, their infrastructure, and the cars that ran on the rails.

The interurban, especially in the United States, was a valuable cultural institution. Most roads and town streets were unpaved, and transportation was by horse-drawn carriages and carts. The interurban provided vital transportation links between the city and countryside. In 1915, 15,500 miles (24,900 km) of interurban railways were operating in the United States. For a time, interurban railways were the fifth-largest industry in the United States.

By 1930, most interurbans were gone with few surviving into the 1950s. Oliver Jensen, author of American Heritage History of Railroads in America, commented that "...the automobile doomed the interurban whose private tax paying tracks could never compete with the highways that a generous government provided for the motorist."[1][page needed]

Definition of "interurban"[edit]

A map showing the Detroit United Railway's network in 1904. Interurban routes link street railroads in Detroit, Port Huron, and Windsor.

The term "interurban" was coined by Charles L. Henry, a state senator in Indiana. The Latin, inter urbes, means "between cities".[2] The interurban fit on a continuum between urban street railways and full-fledged railroads. George W. Hilton and John F. Due identified four characteristics of an interurban:[3]

  • Electric power for propulsion.
  • Passenger service as the primary business.
  • Equipment heavier and faster than urban streetcars.
  • Operation on tracks in city streets, and in rural areas on roadside tracks or private right-of-way.

The definition of "interurban" is necessarily blurry. Some town streetcar lines evolved into interurban systems by extending streetcar track from town into the countryside to link adjacent towns together, and sometimes by the acquisition of a nearby interurban system. There was a large amount of consolidation of lines following initial construction. Other interurban lines became, effectively, light rail systems with no street running whatsoever, or they became primarily freight-hauling railroads due to a progressive loss of their initial passenger service over the years.[citation needed]

In 1905 the United States Census Bureau defined an interurban as "a street railway having more than half its trackage outside municipal limits." It drew a distinction between "interurban" and "suburban" railroads. A suburban system was oriented toward a city center in a single urban area and served commuter traffic. A regular railroad moved riders from one city center to another city center and also moved a substantial amount of freight. The typical interurban similarly served more than one city, but it served a smaller region and made more frequent stops, and it was oriented to passenger rather than freight service.[4]

History[edit]

Emergence[edit]

Postcard of electric trolley-powered streetcars in Richmond, Virginia, in 1923, two generations after Frank J. Sprague successfully demonstrated his new system on the hills in 1888. The intersection shown is at 8th & Broad Streets

The development of interurbans in the late nineteenth century resulted from the convergence of two trends: improvements in electric traction, and an untapped demand for transportation in rural areas, particularly in the Midwestern United States. The 1880s and saw the first successful deployments of electric traction in streetcar systems. Most of these built on the pioneering work of Frank J. Sprague, who developed an improved method for mounting an electric traction motor and using a trolley pole for pickup. Sprague's work led to widespread acceptance of electric traction for streetcar operations and end of horse-drawn trams.[5]

The late nineteenth century United States witnessed a boom in agriculture which lasted through the First World War, but transportation in rural areas was inadequate. Conventional steam railroads made limited stops, mostly in towns. These were supplemented by horse and buggies and steamboats, both of which were slow and the latter of which was restricted to navigable rivers.[6] The increased capacity and profitability of the city street railroads offered the possibility of extending them into the countryside to reach new markets, even linking to other towns. The first interurban to emerge in the United States was the Newark and Granville Street Railway in Ohio, which opened in 1889. It was not a major success, but others followed.[7] The development of the automobile was then in its infancy, and to many investors interurbans appeared to be future of local transportation.[8]

Growth[edit]

From 1900 to 1916, a large network of interurban lines was constructed in the United States, particularly in the states of Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Iowa, Utah, and California.[9] In 1900, 2,107 miles (3,391 km) of interurban track existed, but by 1916, this had increased to 15,580 miles (25,070 km), a seven-fold expansion.[10] During this expansion, in the regions where they operated, particularly in Ohio and Indiana, "...they almost destroyed the local passenger service of the steam railroad."[11] To show how exceptionally busy the interurbans radiating from Indianapolis were in 1926, the immense Indianapolis Traction Terminal (nine roof covered tracks and loading platforms) scheduled 500 trains in and out daily and moved 7 million passengers that year.[12] At their peak the interurbans were the fifth-largest industry in the United States.[13]

Decline[edit]

The last day of electric operation on the Sacramento Northern Railway, February 1965. At left is the California Zephyr.

The fortunes of the industry declined during World War I. Many interurbans were constructed in haste, financed by stock and bond sales. These companies had poor cash flow and struggled to raise capital. Lower than expected income failed to offset high operating expenses. Such companies were vulnerable to acts of nature, particularly in the Midwestern United States where flooding was common. Receivership was a common fate. In addition, the honeymoon period with the municipalities of 1895–1910 was over. Heavy interurbans caused damage to streets which led to endless disputes over who should bear the costs. The rise of automobile traffic aggravated these trends. Even as the interurban companies struggled financially they faced competition from cars and trucks on paved highways, while municipalities sought to alleviate traffic congestion by removing interurbans from city streets. Some companies exited the passenger business altogether to focus on freight, while others sought to buttress their finances by selling surplus electricity in local communities. Several which attempted exit the rail business altogether ran afoul of state commissions which required that trains remain running "for the public good," even at a loss.[citation needed]

Many financially weak interurbans did not survive the 1920s; others went bankrupt during the Great Depression. A few struggling lines tried combining to form larger systems in an attempt to gain operating efficiency and a broader customer base. This occurred in Ohio in year 1930 with the Cincinnati & Lake Erie Railroad (C&LE), and in Indiana with the Indiana Railroad. Both had limited success up to 1937–1938 primarily from revenues earned from freight.[14] The 130-mile (210 km) long Sacramento Northern Railway stopped carrying passengers in 1940 but continued hauling freight using heavy electric locomotives into the 1960s.[15]

Survivors[edit]

Interurbans business increased during World War II due to fuel oil rationing and wartime employment. When the war ended in 1945 and riders went back to automobiles, most of these lines were finally abandoned.[16] Several survived into the 1960s like the Illinois Terminal Railroad, West Penn Railways, Lehigh Valley Transit Company, Baltimore & Annapolis Railroad and Pacific Electric. Those surviving to the 1960s tended to be lines that had become commuter systems serving large cities, such as Chicago's North Shore Line and the South Shore Line.[17] In Philadelphia, surviving examples include SEPTA's Norristown High Speed Line, a descendant of the Philadelphia and Western Railroad, and Route 101, the former "Red Arrow Lines."[citation needed]

Infrastructure[edit]

Right of way[edit]

Interurbans typically ran along or on a public right-of-way. In towns, rails were usually in the streets, often the center. While street running limited acquisition costs, it also required sharp turns and made interurban operations susceptible to traffic congestion.[citation needed] Unlike conventional railroads, it was rare for an interurban to construct long unencumbered stretches of private right-of-way.[18][page needed] The torque characteristics of electric operation allowed interurbans to operate on steeper grades than conventional steam locomotives.[19]

Trackage[edit]

Most interurbans were built to standard gauge (4 ft 8 12 in or 1,435 mm), but there were exceptions. Interurbans often used the tracks of existing street railways through city and town streets, and if these street railways were not built to 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge, the interurbans had to use the non-standard gauges as well or face the expense of building their own separate trackage through urban areas. Some municipalities deliberately mandated non-standard gauges to prevent freight operations on public streets. In Pennsylvania, many interurbans were constructed using the wide "Pennsylvania trolley gauge" of 5 ft 2 12 in (1,588 mm). In Los Angeles, the Pacific Electric Railway, using standard 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) gauge track, and the Los Angeles Railway, the city's streetcar system, using 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) narrow gauge, shared dual-gauge track in downtown Los Angeles with one rail common to each.[citation needed]

Electrification[edit]

Overhead lines in Haubstadt, Indiana, circa 1924

Most interurban railways in North America were constructed using the same low-voltage 500 to 600 volt direct current (DC) trolley power in use by the street railways to which they connected.[20] This enabled interurban cars to use the same overhead trolley power on town street car tracks with no electrical change on the cars to accommodate a different voltage. As systems lengthened substations were established to boost voltage.[citation needed] In 1904, a high voltage single-phase alternating current (AC) system where AC was delivered directly to the interurban car became available and was promoted and distributed by Westinghouse and competitor General Electric. This system proved expensive to maintain and was not widely adopted.

Most interurban cars and freight locomotives collected current from an overhead trolley wire. The cars contacted this wire through the use of a trolley pole or a pantograph. Another design was to collect current from a third rail. Some interurbans used both: in open country, the third rail was used and in town, a trolley pole was raised. An example of this was the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin Railroad where a trolley pole was used in both Aurora and Elgin, Illinois. Third rail was cheaper to maintain and more conductive, but it was more expensive to construct initially and it did not eliminate the need for AC transformers, AC transmission lines, and AC/DC conversion systems. In addition, third rail posed a serious danger to trespassers and animals and was difficult to keep clear of ice.[citation needed]

Trains[edit]

Rolling stock[edit]

A pre-1910, all-wood heavy interurban car of the Fort Wayne & Wabash Valley Traction Company, preserved at the Illinois Railway Museum
A preserved box motor from Iowa

Interurban cars constructed in the 1890 to 1910 period were made of wood and often were very large, weighing up to 40 tons and measuring as long as 60 feet (18 m). These featured the classic arch-window look with truss-rods and cow-catchers. Three of the best known of the early companies were Jewett, Niles, and Kuhlman, all of Ohio.[citation needed] By 1910, most new interurban cars were constructed of steel, weighing up to 60 tons.[21][verification needed] As competition increased in the 1920s interurban companies and manufacturers were attempting to reduce car weight and wind resistance in order to reduce power consumption. The bogies were improved[how?] to provide a better ride, acceleration, and speed but with reduced power consumption. In the 1930s, better quality steel and aluminum reduced weight, and cars were redesigned to ride lower in order to lower wind resistance.[citation needed] Car design peaked in the early 1930s with the Red Devil cars of the Cincinnati and Lake Erie Railroad.[22]

In addition to passenger cars, interurban companies acquired freight locomotives and line maintenance equipment. A "box motor" was a powered car exclusive for freight that looked like a passenger interurban without windows and had wide side doors for loading freight. A freight motor was geared for power rather than speed and could pull up to six freight cars depending upon the load and grades. Freight cars for interurbans tended to be smaller than those for steam railroads, and they had to have special extended couplers to prevent car corner contact at the very tight grinding turns at city street corners. Maintenance equipment included "line cars" with roof platforms for the trolley wire repair crew, snow plows and snow sweepers with rotating brushes, a car for weed control and to maintain track and ballast. In order to save money, many companies constructed these in their shops using retired or semi-wrecked passenger cars for the frame and the traction motor mounted trucks.[citation needed]

Passenger trains[edit]

The first passenger interurban to Bellefontaine, Ohio on July 1, 1908

Passenger interurban service grew out of horse-drawn rail cars operating on city streets. As these routes electrified and extended outside of towns interurbans began to compete with steam railroads for intercity traffic.[citation needed] Interurbans offered more frequent service than steam railroads, with headways of up to one hour or even half an hour.[23] Interurbans also made more stops, usually 1 mile (1.6 km) apart. As interurban routes tended to be single-track this led to extensive use of passing sidings. Single interurban cars would operate with a motorman and conductor, although in later years one-man operation was common. In open country, the typical interurban proceeded at 40–45 miles per hour (64–72 km/h). In towns with the middle of the street operation, speeds were slow and dictated by local ordinance. The result was that the average speed of a scheduled trip was low, as much as under 20 miles per hour (32 km/h).[citation needed]

Freight trains[edit]

Many interurbans possessed substantial freight business. In 1926, the Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton Railway transported 57,000 tons of freight per month. By 1929, this had risen to 83,000 tons per month.[24] During the 1920s freight revenue helped offset the loss of passenger business to automobiles.[25] A typical interurban freight train consisted of a powered box motor pulling one to four freight cars. These often operated at night as local ordinances forbade daytime freight operation on city streets.[citation needed] Interurban freight in the Midwest was so extensive that Indianapolis constructed a very large freight handling warehouse which all of Indianapolis' seven interurbans companies used.[26][page needed]

Preservation[edit]

Numerous museums and societies have preserved equipment:

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Jensen 1993
  2. ^ Middleton 1961, p. 13
  3. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, p. 9
  4. ^ Bureau of the Census 1905, p. 5
  5. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, pp. 6–7
  6. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, pp. 7–8
  7. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, pp. 8–9
  8. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, p. 12
  9. ^ Rowsome & Maguire 1956, pp. 119–140
  10. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, p. 186
  11. ^ Bruce 1952, pp. 407–408
  12. ^ Rowsome & Maguire 1956, p. 138; 179
  13. ^ Patch, David (27 May 2007). "Toledo was hub of interurban 100 years ago". Toledo Blade. Archived from the original on 29 April 2015. Retrieved 5 July 2015. 
  14. ^ Keenan 2001, p. 4
  15. ^ Rowsome & Maguire 1956, p. 176
  16. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, p. 287
  17. ^ CERA Bulletin: Interurban to Milwaukee, the history of the North Shore Line
  18. ^ Bradley 1991
  19. ^ Rowsome & Maguire 1956, p. 67
  20. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, pp. 53–65
  21. ^ Keenan, appendix: Equipment Roster
  22. ^ Bradley 1991, p. 187
  23. ^ Grant 1980, p. 55
  24. ^ Keenan 2001, p. 3
  25. ^ Middleton 1961, p. 393
  26. ^ Rowsome & Maguire 1956

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]