Goodbye To The Interurban

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Unlike Insull, many traction operators could not afford to reconstruct their roadbeds, and the quest for speed therefore concentrated on new designs for a fast, light car that could operate smoothly over rough track. In 1929 Dr. Thomas Conway, Jr., led a group of investors who assembled the Cincinnati & Lake Erie Railroad from several failing properties, and immediately ordered twenty radical, high-speed interurban cars in an effort to win back the system’s declining traffic. They made wide use of aluminum and were equipped with the most powerful motors ever installed in cars of comparable size and weight. They were capable of speeds in excess of ninety miles per hour; in the extensive publicity that surrounded their introduction in 1930, one of them was raced against—and ostensibly defeated—an airplane.

The same year Dr. Conway acquired control of another interurban, the Philadelphia & Western, which was also badly in need of new equipment. The Conway management, setting out to construct an even better car than their Cincinnati & Lake Erie lightweight, launched an intensive research program. In a wind tunnel at the University of Michigan, Professor Felix W. Pawlowski determined that a streamlined car body could be constructed which at speeds over sixty miles per hour would save forty per cent or more of the energy required to move conventional equipment. The ten all-aluminum Bullet cars which were the result of this study could make ninety-two miles per hour.

Almost every interurban was built with an eye toward the passenger trade, but most of them found freight traffic a profitable sideline. Steep grades and the sharp curves common in city streets ruled out the use of standard freight cars on many of the lines, and the interurbans designed and built their own cars for hauling light freight. The service was fast, especially by modern standards, and Indiana interurban people boasted that they could deliver shipments anywhere within seventy-five miles of Indianapolis on the same day the goods were ordered. In 1902 interurban lines took in about two million dollars for hauling such commodities as newspapers, mail, milk, and express. By 1922, their freight operations were bringing in forty-five million dollars a year. Interurbans were “piggybacking” truck trailers on flatcars years before the steam railroads enthusiastically adopted the idea. Insull’s North Shore Line was the pioneer, in 1926.

No one realized it at the time, of course, but the interurban was doomed almost from the beginning. The villain was the automobile, which had already been invented before the interurban’s heyday. Few traction men took it seriously at first; and a few interurbans even found a source of extra revenue in the automobile. In 1905 the general superintendent of the Lake Shore Electric Railway, noting the frequency with which farmers were hauling in disabled cars from the highway that paralleled the railway all the way from Cleveland to Toledo, established an “automobile ambulance” service. It employed a specially equipped flatcar drawn by a freight locomotive. The service, which cost fifteen dollars and up, was said to be “much less embarrassing than having to resort to the horse to get back to town.” For a few years around the end of the twenties the Pacific Northwest Traction Company did a lively business hauling trucks, buses, and automobiles around gaps in the uncompleted Pacific Highway north of Seattle.

But gradually the auto began to win out. A few of the weaker interurbans failed soon after World War I, and by the end of the twenties the whole traction network was beginning to crumble as hard-surfaced highways and mass-produced cars spread across the land. Bold, depression-induced interurban consolidations such as the Indiana Railroad System and Ohio’s Cincinnati & Lake Erie served only to delay the inevitable; both were gone by World War II. A few lines survived into the war years and enjoyed a brief revival of the bonanza traffic they had once known. Henry Huntington’s vast Pacific Electric network, for example, which went into the war virtually intact, handled more passengers in 1945 (109 million of them) than at any other time in its history. But by 1961 the last of its many passenger routes had switched to buses.

The earliest interurban of all, the Portland-Oregon City line, came close to being the last; it survived until early in 1958, having served the Willamette Valley for sixty-five years. Samuel Insull’s Chicago lines had become commuter carriers of major importance, but once the wartime traffic had ceased and new roads and freeways made commuting by private automobile as fast as taking the interurbans, the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin and the North Shore line folded up. Of the three Insull interurbans, only the South Shore line continues in operation. The line loses over $500,ooo a year on its passenger business, but freight-hauling is so profitable that it offsets the loss. Now major railroads are making efforts to buy control of the South Shore, and once this is accomplished, there will almost certainly be attempts to cut down, and then eliminate, passenger service; the road will probably end up as a dieselized branch of a larger railroad line.