Streetcars on the Canal Street line.
|Locale||New Orleans, Louisiana|
|Open||September 1835 (steam locomotives and horsecars)
February 1893 (electric streetcars/trams)
|Operator(s)||New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA)|
|Minimum curve radius||28 ft (8.534 m) in yard,
50 ft (15.240 m) elsewhere
|Route length||22.3 mi (35.9 km)|
Streetcars in New Orleans, Louisiana have been an integral part of the city's public transportation network since the first half of the 19th century. The longest of New Orleans' streetcar lines, the St. Charles Avenue line, is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world. Today, the streetcars are operated by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA).
There are currently five operating streetcar lines in New Orleans: The St. Charles Avenue Line, the Riverfront Line, the Canal Street Line (which has two branches), and the Loyola Avenue Line and Rampart/St. Claude Line (which are operated as one through-routed line). The St. Charles Avenue Line is the only line that has operated continuously throughout New Orleans' streetcar history (though service was interrupted after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and resumed only in part in December 2006, as noted below). All other lines were replaced by bus service in the period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. Preservationists were unable to save the streetcars on Canal Street, but were able to convince the city government to protect the St. Charles Avenue Line by granting it historic landmark status. In the later 20th century, trends began to favor rail transit again. A short Riverfront Line started service in 1988, and service returned to Canal Street in 2004, 40 years after it had been shut down.
The wide destruction wrought on the city by Hurricane Katrina and subsequent floods from the levee breaches in August 2005 knocked all the streetcar lines out of operation and damaged many of the streetcars. Service on a portion of the Canal Street line was restored in December of that year, with the remainder of the line and the Riverfront line returning to service in early 2006. On December 23, 2007, the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) extended service from Napoleon Avenue to the end of historic St. Charles Avenue (the "Riverbend"). On June 22, 2008 service was restored to the end of the line at South Carrollton Avenue & South Claiborne Avenue.
The definitive history of New Orleans streetcars is found in Louis Hennick and Harper Charlton, The Streetcars of New Orleans, Pelican Press, which is the source for this summary of New Orleans streetcar history.
The earliest public transportation within the city of New Orleans, and between the city and its suburbs up and down the Mississippi River and out to Lake Pontchartrain, was provided beginning in 1831. Those first operations included inter-city and suburban railroad lines, and horse-drawn (or mule-drawn) omnibus lines. (An omnibus is essentially a smaller form of a stagecoach.) The first lines of city rail service were created by the New Orleans and Carrollton Railroad, which in 1835 opened three lines. In the first week of January, the company opened its Poydras-Magazine horse-drawn line on its namesake streets, the first true street railway line in the city. Then a horse-drawn line to the suburb of Lafayette, which was centered on Jackson Avenue, opened on January 13. The third was a steam-powered line along present-day St. Charles Avenue, then called Nayades, connecting the city with the suburb of Carrollton, and terminating near the present-day intersection of St. Charles Avenue and Carrollton Avenue. Due to the objections of property owners along Magazine Street, the Poydras-Magazine line ceased operation in March or April 1836, about the time that a new La Course Street line was opened along that street (now named Race Street). That line ended in the 1840s, but the Lafayette and Carrollton lines continued, eventually becoming the Jackson and St. Charles streetcar lines.
As the area upriver (uptown) from the city began to be built up, additional lines were created by the New Orleans and Carrollton. On February 4, 1850, lines were opened on Louisiana and Napoleon Avenues. Like the Jackson line, these were horse- or mule-drawn cars, operating from Nayades Avenue to the river along their namesake streets. The Louisiana line was lightly patronized, and was discontinued in 1878. The Napoleon line continued into the next century.
Up until about 1860, omnibus lines provided the only public transit outside the area serviced by the New Orleans and Carrollton RR. The need was felt for a true citywide street railway service. Toward this end, the New Orleans City RR was chartered on June 15, 1860. The first line, Rampart and Esplanade (later called simply Esplanade), opened June 1, 1861, followed in quick succession by the Magazine, Camp and Prytania (later called Prytania), Canal, Rampart and Dauphine (later Dauphine), and finally Bayou Bridge and City Park. Despite the beginnings of war, the company opened and continued service on its new lines. A few other efforts were attempted during the Civil War, but progress resumed soon after the war's end.
In 1866, several additional street railway companies made their appearance in New Orleans. The first was the Magazine Street Railroad Co., which soon merged with the second, the Crescent City Railroad Co. The St. Charles Street Railroad Co. was next, followed in 1867 by the Canal and Claiborne Streets Railroad Co. and in 1868 by the Orleans Railroad Co. The horsecar lines of these companies covered different parts of the city, overlapping in some areas. The City RR even operated a steam railroad to Lake Ponchartrain, the West End line, which eventually became part of the city streetcar system.
A number of experiments were tried out over the next few decades in an attempt to find a better method than horses or mules for propulsion of streetcars. These included an overhead cable car system (an underground cable, such as was eventually developed in San Francisco, was impossible because of the high water table under New Orleans); a walking beam system; peneumatic propulsion; an ammonia locomotive; a "Thermo-specific" system using super-heated water; and the Lamm Fireless engine. Lamm engines were actually adopted and used for a time on the New Orleans and Carrollton line, which had previously used steam locomotives. That line gradually gave up steam locomotives because of the objections of residents along the line to the smoke, soot, and noise. The area between the town of Carrollton and the City of New Orleans was sparsely populated with large swaths of agricultural land when the line was laid out in the 1830s; by the latter 19th century it was almost completely urbanized. Carrollton was annexed to New Orleans in 1874. Due to this increased urbanization, horsecars were used on the entire line.
Electrical propulsion of streetcars finally won out over all the other experimental methods. Electric powered streetcars made their first appearance in New Orleans on the Carrollton line on February 1, 1893. The line was also extended out Carrollton Avenue and renamed St. Charles.
Other companies followed suit. Over the next few years, almost all the streetcar lines of all six companies were electrified, including the West End steam line; the few lines that remained animal powered, such as the Girod and Poydras, were discontinued. Also, operations of the six companies began to be consolidated at this time, beginning with formation of the New Orleans Traction Co., which took over operation of the New Orleans City and Lake RR (an 1883 renaming of the New Orleans City RR) and the Crescent City RR in 1892. New Orleans Traction became the New Orleans City RR in 1899, the second company to use that name. The Canal and Claiborne company was merged into the New Orleans and Carrollton in 1899. Then in 1902, New Orleans Railways Co. took over operation of all city streetcars, and in 1905 the operating company became New Orleans Railway and Light Co. Final consolidation of ownership as well as operation finally became reality in 1922 with the formation of New Orleans Public Service Incorporated (commonly abbreviated NOPSI, never NOPS).
Labor problems began to occupy the attention of street railway officials as consolidation progressed. At first, each of the street railway companies had its own agreement with its operating personnel. New Orleans Railways tried to maintain those separate agreements, but labor representatives insisted on one agreement for the entire company. They also demanded an increase in pay and recognition of their union, Division 194 of the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees of America. The union struck on September 27, 1902. After about two weeks of strife, a settlement was reached, and in early 1903, the company signed a contract and recognized the union.
In 1902, there were protests when the Louisiana legislature mandated that public transportation must enforce racial segregation. At first this was objected to by both white and black riders as an inconvenience, and by the streetcar companies on grounds of both added expense and the difficulties of determining the racial background of some New Orleanians.
Consolidation of operations under a single company had the advantage of untangling and rationalizing some streetcar lines. As an extreme example, consider the Coliseum line, which had the nickname Snake Line, because it wandered all over uptown New Orleans. Its early name Canal and Coliseum and Upper Magazine gives an idea of the route. Under consolidation, Coliseum was pretty much limited to service on its namesake street, with trackage on upper Magazine Street turned over to the Magazine line, as one might expect. Other efficiencies were instituted, such as reducing the number of streetcar lines operating over long stretches of Canal Street.
There was another strike beginning July 1, 1920. This one was settled around the end of July with a new contract.
In the early 1920s, several extensions and rearrangements of service resulted in the inauguration of the famous Desire line, the Freret line, the Gentilly line, and the St. Claude line.
In 1929, there was a widespread strike by transit workers demanding better pay, which was widely supported by much of the public. Sandwiches on baguettes were given to the "poor boys" on strike, said to be the origin of the local name of "po' boy" sandwiches. There was much rioting and animosity. Several streetcars were burned, and several people were killed. Service was gradually restored, with the strike ending in October.
Buses began to be used in New Orleans transit in 1924. Several streetcar lines were converted to bus over the next 15 years. Beginning after World War II, as in much of the United States, many streetcar lines were replaced with buses, either internal combustion (gasoline/diesel) or electric (trolley bus).
The last four streetcar lines in New Orleans were the S. Claiborne and Napoleon lines, which were converted to motor bus in 1953; the Canal, which was converted in 1964; and the St. Charles, which has continued in operation, and now has historic landmark status.
Racial segregation on streetcars and buses in New Orleans was finally ended peacefully in 1958. Until then, signs separating the races were carried on the backs of the seats in streetcars and buses. These signs could be moved forward or back in the vehicle as passenger loads changed during the operating day. Under court order, the signs were simply removed, and passengers were allowed to sit wherever they pleased.
In 1974, the Amalgamated won a representation election and formed Local Division 1560 in New Orleans. Negotiations between the union and NOPSI were unsuccessful, and a strike followed. In December 1974, a contract was signed between NOPSI and Local 1560, but the strike was not completely settled until the following March.
Streetcars in New Orleans
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, it became apparent that private operation of the New Orleans transit system could not continue. Creation of a public body that could receive tax money and qualify for federal funding was necessary. The Louisiana legislature created the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) in 1979, and in 1983, RTA took over ownership and operation of the system.
In 1988, a new Riverfront line was created, using private right of way along the river levee. This was the first new streetcar line in New Orleans since 1926. Then in 2004, the Canal line was restored to rail operation. See the Current Lines and Future Network Expansion sections below.
The area through which the St. Charles Avenue Line traveled fared comparatively well in Hurricane Katrina's devastating impact on New Orleans at the end of August 2005, with moderate flooding only of the two ends of the line at Claiborne Avenue and at Canal Street. However, wind damage and falling trees took out many sections of trolley wire along St. Charles Avenue, and vehicles parked on the neutral ground (traffic medians) over the inactive tracks degraded parts of the right-of-way. At the start of October 2005, as this part of town started being repopulated, bus service began running on the St. Charles line.
The section running from Canal Street to Lee Circle via Carondelet Street and St. Charles Street in the Central Business District was restored December 19, 2006 at 10:30 a.m. Central time. Service from Lee Circle to Napoleon Avenue in uptown New Orleans was restored November 10, 2007 at 2:00 p.m. RTA restored streetcar service on the rest of St. Charles Ave. on December 23, 2007. Service along the remainder of the line on Carrollton Ave. to Claiborne Avenue resumed June 22, 2008. The time was needed to repair the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina and to perform other maintenance and upgrades to the lines that had been scheduled before the hurricane. Leaving the line shut down and the electrical system unpowered allowed the upgrades to be performed more safely and easily.
Perhaps more serious was the effect on the system's rolling stock. The vintage green streetcars rode out the storm in the sealed barn in a portion of Old Carrollton that didn't flood, and were undamaged. However, the newer red cars (with the exception of one which was in Carrollton for repair work at the time) were in a different barn that unfortunately did flood, and all of them were rendered inoperable; early estimates were that each car would cost between $800,000 and $1,000,000 to restore. In December 2006, RTA received a $46 million grant to help pay for the car restoration efforts. The first restored cars were to be placed in service early in 2009.
Service on the Canal Street Line was restored in December 2005, with several historic St. Charles line green cars transferred to serve there while the flood-damaged red cars were being repaired. The eventual reopening of all lines was made a major priority for the city as it rebuilt.
Brookville Equipment Corporation (BEC) of Pennsylvania was awarded the contract to provide the components to rebuild 31 New Orleans' streetcars to help the city bring its transportation infrastructure closer to full capacity. The streetcars were submerged in over five feet of water while parked in their car barn, and all electrical components affected by the flooding had to be replaced. BEC's engineering and drafting departments immediately began work on this three-year project to return these New Orleans icons to service. The trucks for the cars were remanufactured by BEC with upgraded Saminco drives and TMV control systems. Painting, body work, and final assembly of the restored streetcars was carried out by RTA craftsmen at Carrollton Station Shops. As of March 2009, sufficient red cars had been repaired to take over all service on the Canal Street and Riverfront lines. As of June 2009, the last three Canal Street cars were scheduled for repair. The seven Riverfront cars were worked on next; they began to return to service in early 2010.
Original plans for the French Quarter Rail Expansion called for the line to extend to Press Street, and to have a branch extending from St. Claude via Elysian Fields Avenue to connect with the Riverfront line at the foot of Elysian Fields and Esplanade Avenues, but those extensions have not been funded. A future extension is projected down St. Claude Avenue past Press Street to Poland Avenue, next to the Industrial Canal. This would require crossing the Norfolk Southern Railroad at Press Street, which the railroad opposes on safety grounds.
The St. Charles Avenue Line has traditionally used streetcars of the type that were common all over the United States in the early parts of the 20th century. Most of the streetcars running on this line are Perley Thomas cars dating from the 1920s. The one exception is an 1890s vintage streetcar that is still in running condition; it is used for maintenance and special purposes. Unlike most North American cities with streetcar systems, New Orleans never adopted PCC cars in the 1930s or 1940s, and never traded in older streetcars for modern light rail vehicles in the later 20th century. New Orleanians also continue to prefer use of the term streetcar, rather than trolley, tram, or light rail.
In the Carrollton neighborhood, the RTA has a streetcar barn, called Carrollton Station, where the streetcars of the city's lines are stored and maintained. The block wide complex consists of two buildings: an older carbarn at Dante and Jeannette Streets and a newer barn at Willow and Dublin Streets. The shop there has become adept at duplicating any part needed for the vintage cars.
With the addition of the new Riverfront and Canal lines, more vehicles were needed for the system. The RTA's shops built two groups of modern cars as near duplicates of the older cars in appearance. One group of seven cars was built for the Riverfront line in 1997, and another group for the restored Canal Street line in 1999 (one car) and 2002-2003 (23 cars). The trucks for the 2002-2003 cars were manufactured by Brookville Equipment Corporation. These new cars can be distinguished from the older vehicles by their bright red color; unlike the older cars, they are ADA-compliant, and the Canal Street cars are air conditioned.
Before Hurricane Katrina, the historic cars ran exclusively on the St. Charles Avenue Line, and the newer cars on the other two lines. However, in the wake of hurricane damage to the St. Charles line tracks and overhead wires, and to almost all of the new red cars, the older cars were run on Canal Street and Riverfront until the new cars could be repaired. Using whatever worked wherever it could be run continued for several years. By 2010 enough restored streetcars were back in service to again confine the historic Perley Thomas cars to the St. Charles line.
|Image||Model||Manufacturer||Constructed||In Service||Number built/in service||Seating Capacity|
|900 Series||Perley A. Thomas Car Works
High Point, North Carolina
|1923-1924||1923-present||73/35 in current operation||52|
900 Series Replicas
|New Orleans Regional Transit Authority||1997||1997-present||7/7 in current operation||40|
900 Series Replicas
|New Orleans Regional Transit Authority||1999, 2002-2003||1999-present||24/24 in current operation||40|
In the mid 19th to early 20th century, the city had dozens of lines, including:
453: The last of the 25 Brill semi-convertible cars. It was on display at the French Market and later at the Mint, but exposure to the weather caused its deterioration. It is known in posed pictures as the Streetcar Named Desire, although there is no evidence that this class of streetcar ever ran on the Desire line. It is currently stored inoperative at Carrollton Station, but it could be restored for operation.
919 and 924: These two Perley Thomas cars, originally twins to the 35 900-series cars running on the St. Charles line, were sold in 1964 when the Canal line was discontinued. They were bought back by RTA in 1985 and refurbished for service on the Riverfront line, beginning August 14, 1988. They were given Riverfront car numbers 451 and 450, respectively. They were again retired in 1997 when the Riverfront line was re-equipped with new cars 457-463. They are currently stored inoperative at Carrollton Station, but they could be restored for operation.
957: When the Canal line was discontinued in 1964, this car was sold to the Trinity Valley Railroad Club in Weatherford, Texas, west of Fort Worth. Then it was sold to the Spaghetti Warehouse Company, then to McKinney Avenue Transit Authority in Dallas, Texas, and finally it was purchased by New Orleans RTA in 1986. It was stored until 1997, when it was rebuilt with a wheelchair lift and modern controls, becoming the first of the new 457-463 series cars for the re-equipment of the Riverfront line.
952: This Perley Thomas car was sold in 1964 when the Canal line was discontinued, and was bought back by RTA in 1990 and refurbished for service on the Riverfront line. As number 456, it served Riverfront until 1997. After its second retirement, it was rebuilt in the same manner as the 35 St. Charles line cars, given its original number, and sent on long-term loan to the San Francisco Municipal Railway, where it operates regularly on that city's F-Market & Warves line as part of the Heritage Fleet.
913: This car was sold to the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Orange County, California in 1964 when the Canal line was discontinued. Later, it was sold to San Francisco Municipal Railway to augment service there by car 952. So far, it has not been refurbished for service, but is stored for future use.
832: At Pennsylvania Trolley Museum at Washington, Pennsylvania.
836: At Connecticut Trolley Museum at Warehouse Point, Connecticut.
850: At Shore Line Trolley Museum at Branford, Connecticut.
These are the last three 800-series cars in existence. All were built by Perley Thomas in 1922. The museums have restored all three to like-new condition, and operate them on museum property.
918: Now at North Carolina Transportation Museum, Spencer, NC, intended for cosmetic restoration. For a time, it was stored at Thomas Built Buses, the current name of its builder, Perley Thomas Car Co.
959: Now numbered 953 and painted in a unique livery, it is operated at Chattanooga Choo Choo as a courtesy shuttle service.