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“Don’t it always seem to go – you don’t know what you got, til it’s gone…”

January 23, 2011

Would electrically-powered public transportation seem like some kind of futuristic dream?

Bloomington/Normal, Illinois, had streetcars.  From 1867 to 1936.  The system went electric in 1890.  It served both wealthy and working-class neighborhoods. Imagine that!  The city’s leaders riding with rail-yard workers and shoe-store clerks.

The "Subway" underpass connecting West Beaufort and West Vernon still exists today. Streetcars are gone, though. Photo courtesy McLean County Historical Society via The Pantagraph

Systems like this one were common across the country.  But as wealthy people bought automobiles, ridership naturally declined. GM was eager to speed the process along by buying up streetcar systems.  Conspiracy-oriented people called it a “premeditated” program, though that word makes it sound like a crime and it certainly wasn’t illegal.  It was just business.  In retrospect, very good for GM.

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  1. Chas, PE SE
    January 24, 2011 at 23:02 | #1


    I am a railroad structural engineer, model railroader, and I like trains. But streetcars have several disadvantages. Principally, if there is a blockage — fire in a nearby building, broken rail, dead cow on the track — they are stuck. A bus can go around. Capital expense is much lower for busses (no rails, ties, ROW, overhead wire) Speaking of electricity — if too many streetcars try to use the same power feed, the breakers will pop — not a problem when every vehicle has its own prime mover on-board. And, unless your electrictiy comes from a nuke plant, you’ve only moved the exhaust from the tailpipe to the stack at the power plant.
    That people like streetcars can be estimated by the number of busses that are made to look like them (a switch from the 1950′s PCC streetcars, which looked like busses)

  2. dof
    January 25, 2011 at 14:25 | #2

    Good points Chas. The modern equivalent would be some kind of quiet, zero-emission buses with dedicated traffic lanes. Hadn’t thought of making the buses look more like streetcars but a bit of charm goes a long way in setting the mood.

    Something about noisy, smoke-belching diesel engine buses coarsens the urban environment.

    We are blessed with low-carbon power in Central Illinois; a nuke plant and one of the largest wind farms in the US. Hope there will be more green energy in the future. I still like to see people conserve. Even simple things like throw that aluminum can in the recycle. And it isn’t too far off to think of energy saved as energy produced.

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