Goodbye To The Interurban

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The only other commercial interurban line in Canada or the United States is operated between Upper Darby and Norristown, Pennsylvania, by the Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Company. Recently it purchased two high-speed, streamlined, four-section articulated interurban trains from the defunct Chicago North Shore line and placed them in rush-hour service to supplement Dr. Conway’s wind-tunnel-designed Bullet cars, which are now showing their age. The new trains contain a vanishing amenity, a bar-lounge section for suburban commuters. How long this service will last is problematical, especially in view of the impending takeover of the line by a transit authority. Authorities and amenities rarely go together.

The interurban may be nearly gone, but it will not soon be forgotten. Once it was evident that the few remaining lines were disappearing and their cars and other equipment were headed for the scrap heap, a new fraternity arose—trolley-museum enthusiasts, who now number in the thousands. Several museum groups have been formed for the sole purpose of saving representative interurban cars by purchasing them at scrap prices, buying an abandoned right of way, and putting the cars in service again for the entertainment of children who have never ridden an interurban and of their elders in whom nostalgia runs strong.

A dozen such lines are now in service, and more are in the planning stage. The largest, and the first to be formed, is located at Kennebunkport, Maine, where the right of way of a defunct interurban line was purchased all the way to Biddeford, six miles to the north. Although only a mile of track is now in operation, more than eighty trolleys and interurban cars have been acquired, and the line, the Seashore Electric Railway, can eventually build its track right into the streets of Biddeford. Similar lines run at Branford and Warehouse Point, Connecticut, with cars of many varieties.

The real interurban is gone—yet not quite. The highways and freeways that doomed so many interurban lines—simply because it was much cheaper to run a bus over someone else’s roads than to build a railroad with expensive poles and overhead wire—are now so overburdened that in rush hours traffic stagnates. The answer in all urban areas now is clearly rapid transit, the electrically operated rail line that can whisk riders into and out of cities without the long rush-hour delays.

Consider, for instance, Louisville, Kentucky, where sixty-five years ago a rapid-transit system was developed at considerable cost. It took riders from suburban areas into downtown Louisville along seven different routes by interurban lines of the Louisville & Interurban Railroad. Then the automobile and bus came along, and the competition was too much. The interurban lines gave up and were dismantled. The rights of way were sold. Today city planners in Louisville, as in San Francisco, Washington, and most other swollen urban complexes, are planning vast expenditures for rapid-transit lines. What routes will they take? You guessed it: much the same as the interurbans of the past. As Louisville’s city works director says, “I think we’re coming around full-cycle on this thing. It’s a shame that the old interurban lines didn’t survive.”

The big old electric car, dusting through the meadows with its air horn shrieking for the crossings, is only a museum piece. Yet something is coming back, something without the wicker and the inlaid woodwork, something a little too streamlined and shiny perhaps, but something to hearten those who loved the most open road of all, the rails of the interurban.