A Pullman Company electric interurban unit heading west toward Michigan City on the South Shore Line in 1980. Photo by Drew Jacksich.
By Drew Jacksich from San Jose, CA, The Republic of California - WB Springville, IN Aug 1980xRP, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17929040
The last day of electric operation on the Sacramento Northern Railway, February 1965. At left is the California Zephyr. Photo by Drew Jacksich.
By Drew Jacksich from San Jose, CA, The Republic of California - 654 with zephyr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17932298
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."
Definition of "interurban"
The term "interurban" was coined by Charles L. Henry, a state senator in Indiana. The Latin, inter urbes, means "between cities". 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:
1.) Electric power for propulsion.
2.) Passenger service as the primary business.
3.) Equipment heavier and faster than urban streetcars.
4.) 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.
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.
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.
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. 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. The development of the automobile was then in its infancy, and to many investors interurbans appeared to be future of local transportation.
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. 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. 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." 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. At their peak the interurbans were the fifth-largest industry in the United States.
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.
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 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. 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.
Interurban 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. Several systems survived into the 1950s, including the Baltimore and Annapolis Railroad (passenger service ended 1950), Lehigh Valley Transit Company (1951), West Penn Railways (1952), and the Illinois Terminal Railroad (1958).
Only four lines serving commuters in three major cities lasted into the 1960s: the North Shore Line and the South Shore Line in Chicago, the Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Company, and the Long Beach Line in Long Beach and Los Angeles (the last remaining part of the Pacific Electric system). The Long Beach Line was cut in 1961, the North Shore Line in 1963, and the Philadelphia Suburban's route 103 in 1966.
The South Shore Line is now owned by the state of Indiana and uses mainline-sized electric multiple units, although one section of street running in Michigan City, Indiana, remains. SEPTA operates three former Philadelphia Suburban lines: the Norristown High Speed Line as an interurban heavy rail line, and Route 101 and 102 as light rail lines.
Some former interurban lines retained freight service for up to several decades after the discontinuance of passenger service. Most were converted to diesel operation, although the Sacramento Northern Railway retained electric freight until 1965. Several museums and heritage railways, including the Western Railway Museum and Seashore Trolley Museum, operate restored equipment on former interurban lines. Several former interurban rights of way have been reused for modern light rail lines, including the LACMTA Blue Line and Expo Line and one section of the Baltimore Light Rail.
Right of way
Interurbans typically ran along or on a public right-of-way. In towns, interurbans ran in the street, sharing track with existing street railroads. While street running limited acquisition costs, it also required sharp turns and made interurban operations susceptible to traffic congestion. Unlike conventional railroads, it was rare for an interurban to construct long unencumbered stretches of private right-of-way. The torque characteristics of electric operation allowed interurbans to operate on steeper grades than conventional steam locomotives.
Compared to conventional steam railroad trackage, interurban rail was light and ballasted lightly, if it all. Most interurbans were built to standard gauge (4 ft 8 1⁄2 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 standard, 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 1⁄2 in (1,588 mm). In Los Angeles, the Pacific Electric Railway, using standard 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1⁄2 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.
Most interurban railways in North America were constructed using the same low-voltage 500 to 600 V DC trolley power in use by the street railways to which they connected. 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. 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. Others designs collected 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.
From 1890 to 1910, roughly, interurban cars were made of wood and often were very large, weighing up to 40 short tons (35.7 long tons; 36.3 t) and measuring as long as 60 feet (18.29 m). These featured the classic arch-window look with truss-rods and cow-catchers. Three of the best known early companies were Jewett, Niles, and Kuhlman, all of Ohio. By 1910, most new interurban cars were constructed of steel, weighing up to 60 tons (53.6 long tons; 54.4 t). As competition increased in the 1920s interurban companies and manufacturers were attempted to reduce car weight and wind resistance in order to reduce power consumption. The trucks were improved 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. Car design peaked in the early 1930s with the Red Devil cars of the Cincinnati and Lake Erie Railroad.
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.
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. Interurbans offered more frequent service than steam railroads, with headways of up to one hour or even half an hour. 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).
Many interurbans did substantial freight business. In 1926, the Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton Railway moved 57,000 tons (50,893 long tons; 51,710 t) of freight per month. By 1929, this had risen to 83,000 tons (74,107 long tons; 75,296 t) per month. During the 1920s freight revenue helped offset the loss of passenger business to automobiles. 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. Interurban freight in the Midwest was so extensive that Indianapolis constructed a very large freight handling warehouse which all of Indianapolis' seven interurban companies used.
Numerous museums and societies have preserved equipment:
California State Railroad Museum
Connecticut Trolley Museum
East Troy Electric Railroad Museum
Electric City Trolley Museum
Halton County Radial Railway
Illinois Railway Museum
Museum of Transportation
Orange Empire Railway Museum
Oregon Electric Railway Museum
Rockhill Trolley Museum
Seashore Trolley Museum
Shore Line Trolley Museum
Western Railway Museum
A pre-1910, all-wood heavy interurban car of the Fort Wayne & Wabash Valley Traction Company, preserved at the Illinois Railway Museum.
By Frank Hicks, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42290023
An interurban tram from the Philadelphia & Western Railroad, which survived long in the interurban business.
By Voogd075 from nl, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1938203
Text: wikipedia.org. Images: Public Domain; http://www.commons.wikimedia.org (unless otherwise specified) and 17 U.S. Code § 107 fair use. References: Lewis, Robert G. The Handbook of American Railroads. New York: Simmons-Boardman Publishing Corporation, 1951, 2nd Edition 1956. Site Map Contact webmaster HERE.
Purchases through our Merchant Links and Store help to defray the costs of operating the non-profit Classic Streamliners website, and at no additional cost to you. All of the staff at Classic Streamliners are unpaid volunteers who have all devoted thousands of hours of their own time to bring the site into fruition. We would like to sincerely thank all those who have already helped support this worthy cause. For more information click HERE.