Trolleys and interurbans were once common throughout the country and could be found in cities both large and small. An interesting and unique part of railroading history, interurbans (also known as the classic trolley) were fondly remembered, particularly by those lines which served local towns and communities. Unfortunately for the trolley, while it offered flexibility and affordable fares it was mostly a money-losing operation as it was slower than traditional railroads, usually only served a local area, could never make a profit hauling passengers like railroads and lost out to more efficient modes of transportation as they became available. Today, though, interurban railroads are making a comeback (known as light rail transit or LRT) as folks look for alternatives to increasingly crowded highways.
Classic trolleys and interurbans have their roots dating back to the beginning of electrified railroad lines in the 1870s when Gramme and Siemens developed the first reliable and successful motors and dynamos. Over the next decade experimental electric locomotives (or "motors") cropped up around the country. However, it wasn't until Frank Sprague developed an electric motorcar in 1886 for the New York Elevated Railway whereby the motor(s) were situated within the axle, along with the trolley pole and multiple-unit control that the common trolley was born.
Another important developer of interurban railroads was Sidney Howe Short who invented a double-reduction and gearless motor along with learning that overhead catenary was usually the best means of obtaining power for motorcars (i.e., trolleys). Short also invented the contact "shoe". By the time main line electric applications were introduced in 1895 on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad interurban technology was quite advanced. In 1885 there were only 48 miles of interurban railroads in the United States but by the end of the 19th century in 1899 this number had jumped to over 2,000 miles. At the peak of trolley and interurban operations across the country the mileage had topped out at over 15,000 miles.
While this number may seem small most interurban railroads only served a local region, city or community and did not span more than a few miles in length. Interurbans became an extremely popular mode of transportation due to their reliability, ease of use and cheap fares. They operated over their own, dedicated rights-of-way although these were typically located next to or along traditional, heavy railroads or within public streets/roads (the classic portrait of a trolley is, of course, a motorcar traveling down the center of a city street).
For power most interurbans used overhead catenary (energized electric lines attached to line-side poles), which was usually rated at about 600 volts. Although some interurban railroads used third-rail for power this was the exception. To produce the electricity for the operations interurbans either constructed their own substations or purchased the power outright.
While most interurbans were small, local operations this was not always the case. Some, which were able to subsidize their passenger operations with freight were able to grow quite large (in comparison to most other interurban railroads). Some of these systems include the Chicago South Shore & South Bend Railroad, Illinois Terminal Railroad, Pacific Electric Railway and Iowa Traction (as it is known today). Since these railroads were able to produce profits through freight service in conjunction with passenger operations they were able to outlive many of their brethren.
Trolleys and interurbans were most successful from the late 19th century through the 1930s and can best be characterized by the "Dot Com" boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, they flourished for a moment and then died out. Being regional and local in nature trolleys and interurbans simply could not compete with the automobile once it debuted in the early 20th century and then was aided by the development of better highways and roads. By the 1950s most interurban railroads were out of business due to high capital costs and low ridership, although some were able to hang on until the early 1960s.
Those able to survive did so only after recognizing that passenger service was a money-losing operation that must be scrapped and concentrated solely on freight traffic. Of course, to do so the system had to be large enough to offer enough such service to be profitable, such as was the case with the Illinois Central and Chicago South Shore.
Notable Interurban Railroads
Notable Car Designs
For more information about interurban railroads not listed above please click here. Finally, for a state-by-state history of interurbans please click here. While the classic trolleys and interurbans are mostly a thing of the past they are not entirely gone. SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) operates a section of original interurban lines in Philadelphia and the Chicago South Shore's operations remain in use, operated by the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD). And that is not all, as highways become more cramped and overcrowded small, true trolley lines are beginning to pop up in cities across the country, even small ones!
However, the more common form of interurbans today are known as light rail transit, or LRT, routes. Using LRVs (light rail vehicles) or some other new motorcar powered by overhead catenary or third-rail these systems are becoming increasingly popular due to the reason mentioned above. LRTs are not true commuter railroads, like the Long Island Rail Road, Metrolink or New Jersey Transit as they do not operate traditional locomotives and commuter cars, only light motorcars (sometimes with coaches) hence the term "light rail". For more reading on commuter lines, which are quite similar to trolleys and interurbans please click here. It's rather interesting that the classic trolley is making a comeback. Aside from wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of the highway we apparently just like trolleys. As one regional transportation authority has noted: "There is no real reason why folks like steel rails over rubber tires but they do, it is a simple fact of life."