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New Orleans Joys

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The New Electric Railway Journal – Fall 1996

New Orleans Joys

By Mac Sebree

Perley-Thomas car 904 glides along the "Neutral Ground" on St. Charles.

A streetcar turns at the foot of Canal Street in 1958.

Two cars proceed along St. Charles in a 1976 view.

Rebuilt Perley-Thomas car 934 on South Carrolton near the line's carbarn.

Map of current and potential streetcar lines. The Canal connection in the lower panel is complete. The rest of the Canal line is under construction.

Back from a museum, car 450 shown on the Riverfront line.

Heavy activity at the outer end of the St. Charles line.

A classic view of the Canal line before it was abandoned in 1964. By 2004 cars should be running here again.


They say the Blues began in New Orleans-the Dixieland Blues that is...created by the great jazz musicians who got their start parading the deceased to the above-ground cemeteries which dot the Crescent City’s sea-level landscape. On the way back the musicians struck up the “joys”—upbeat music to celebrate the passing of an ordeal.

Well, that's just about the story of New Orleans streetcars: struck down by a bad case of conventional transit wisdom following World War II until only the St. Charles line was left. Much of the great New Orleans Public Service Inc. olive-green fleet of Perley Thomas cars was replaced by trolley coaches and diesel buses. The 1947–1964 era was a time of gloom and doom. It was the Blues for sure.

At least the true believers-railbuffs, preservationists, cultivators of New Orleans culture and even transit riders wanting a dependable and convenient method of getting around felt that way. When the Canal Street cars gave way to buses on May 31, 1964 the mournful sound of the Blues could be heard far and wide. Only St. Charles was left-could its end be far away?

As it happened, May 31, 1964 was the turning point. To still the rising clamor of opposition NOPSI made a deal: if it could convert Canal to buses it would rehabilitate the historic St. Charles line’s 35 vintage 1923–24 Perley A. Thomas cars and keep them going along the manicured neutral ground. This it did, but the makeover of the cars was less than pure: rounded rubber-mounted sash from old trolley coaches replaced the authentic architecture of the cars doors and upper windows and a few other corners were cut.

To make certain that the 5-foot 2-1/2-inch-gauge St. Charles line would not be again threatened the New Orleans preservation community succeeded in getting the line listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was a good idea; after all the St. Charles line began in 1835 as the steam-powered New Orleans & Carrollton Railroad and was electrified in 1893. What could be more historic than that?

Nothing—and the deed was done. And today the trumpets of joy are sounding. For it appears that Canal Street will get its streetcars back as will a few other streets for good measure. The present-day operators of the St. Charles cars and all those buses are determined to bring the streetcar back big time and they just may succeed.

Historic landmark or not, the time came when the St. Charles line and its seven cent fare (collected by a conductor on the back platform) and the rest of the Crescent City’s sprawling transit system proved too much of a burden for NOPSI and it was taken over in 1983 by the Regional Transit Authority, created by the Louisiana legislature in 1979. Soon on the agenda was a $47 million rehabilitation of the St. Charles line helped along by federal funding. A 13.2-mile track reconstruction program was completed in 1990. The Carrollton Station and Shops was renewed for $10.4 million; the facility dates to the 1884 World Industrial and Cotton Centennial and has been a streetcar shop since the 1893 electrification of the line. The crowning touch was the complete rebuilding (for $12 million) of all the Perley A. Thomas cars, done in-house thanks to inspired local talent and new and rebuilt shop machinery which would by-and-by prove equal to the task of building streetcars from scratch.

The cars were dismantled, new body and truck bolsters installed, vestibules reinforced, wood corner posts and floor beams replaced by aluminum and steel, seats rebuilt retaining much of the original cherry, mechanical and electrical components rebuilt or replaced traction motors rebuilt-and the hokey-pokey trolley-coach sash replaced by honest-to-God rectangular gothic streetcar architecture.

Of course the traditional olive-green color scheme was kept, but enhanced by the original design of front dash lining-out, now put on with tape rather than the original hand-painting-a small concession to costs.

These days the St. Charles line with its 5- to 6-minute peak and 8-minute base headways is as much of a transit superstar as ever. Sometimes the cars carry standing loads at midnight. One slightly sour note is the fact that the City of New Orleans—always financially deprived—seldom trims the shrubbery along the St. Charles rails or waters the grass.

Another RTA contribution to the city’s streetcar rebuild was the Riverfront line opened in 1988 utilizing 1.5 miles of waterfront railroad tracks from Esplanade to Julia Street, among other things linking the old French Quarter with the World Trade Center at the foot of Canal Street.

Three Perley A. Thomas cars previously retired from the fleet were brought back to run on the riverfront along with three ex-Melbourne center-entrance cars, all painted red and selected for their ability to load wheelchair-bound riders. Since old railroad tracks were used the line is standard gauge. After its ridership grew to an unheard-of 5,000 daily the line was double-tracked. Total cost of the project was about $14 million, including electrification and rolling stock.

As long ago as 1991 RTA cast a critical eye on Canal Street and began thinking about streetcars. After the 1964 abandonment the downtown portion of the 46-foot-wide neutral ground was paved for buses and the outer grassed in portion traded its streetcar tracks for palm trees. Replacement buses, some of them going beyond the old Cemeteries streetcar terminus gradually lost much of the old streetcar weekday ridership of 25,000. Today the five bus lines on Canal carry about 14,000.

If the streetcars were brought back, analysts predicted that the ridership would rebound nearly to the 23,000 daily riders still loyal to the St. Charles cars. That did it. The planning got serious and in 1997 a down payment on the proposed Canal rail line will begin to take shape.

It’s all connected to a major project to rebuild the Riverfront line to the St. Charles wide gauge and construct seven new cars (six from scratch and one utilizing an old Perley A. Thomas shell) incorporating trucks, motors and controls salvaged from nine PCC cars bought from Philadelphia’s SEPTA. These will replace the unrehabbed Perley A. Thomas and W2-class Melbourne cars. Memphis would like to buy at least two of the Australian cars.

By early summer 1996 Carrollton Shops were humming. Under the direction of Superintendent Elmer H. Von Dullen, the PCC. cars began to yield their components and the shells of the new Perley A. Thomas look-alikes began to rise from the shop floor. By June one was finished (and had taken a test run up to Canal Street), one was in the paint shop, two were shells and three more were piles of steel members.

The red-painted finished car looked just like the P-T cars on Riverfront except for one obvious structural change: on each side near the far end were doors two windows wide. The doors had regulation windows, however, and tucked inside were car-mounted wheelchair lifts. These are Von Dullen’s secret weapon to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. They will make it unnecessary to use obtrusive high platforms and ramps along the Riverfront line-or later along Canal.

It is noteworthy that since St. Charles is a listed building—er, streetcar line—it is grandfathered from the ADA, but by the same token RTA will be prohibited from using the “new” cars on St. Charles in revenue service. In fact, it reportedly took special dispensation to enable RTA to run the new cars as pull-outs/pull-ins from/to Carrollton Station, which will be the base for both lines when the new cars enter service.

Ah, you say...there is no track connection between Riverfront and St. Charles. Not now-but there will be just as soon as the next project is completed. The bus lanes in the center of seven blocks of Canal from the Riverfront line to Baronne Street will be torn up, tracks installed, switches put into place and sometime next year the Riverfront cars will move up and down Canal for their carbarn trips.

Wide-gauging the Riverfront line will be done at the same time under a combination $10.6 million project which already has a partly-secured federal Rail Modernization grant. The design work, under the direction of Edward J. Bayer, manager of planning for the RTA Department of Capital Improvements is done, EIS all in place. There will be a double-track curve from Canal to downriver Riverfront tracks and a restoration of the old arrangement under which the twin Canal tracks briefly paralleled the one St. Charles track which looped in on Carondelet and out on St. Charles with crossovers from one line to the other.

Chances are, construction will start after the end of the 1997 Mardi Gras on February 11 and be finished by December 1. By that time most of the cars should be ready. And soon one-sixth of the future 3.9-mile Canal trunk line will be in place if only for non-revenue use at first. Bayer says the remaining Canal trunk EIS should be in place by January 13, and a final go-ahead decision including a funding strategy could come as early as March.

What’s exciting is that Canal will become a streetcar network, not just a line. Present thinking is to divide the line at Canal & Carrollton with some cars going to the cemeteries and others turning right to City Park. Carbarn sites (all off-route) at Galvez and Poydras, Tulane and Jeff Davis and North Claiborne and St. Louis are under consideration.

The cost of all this will probably exceed $100 million and most of it will have to come from the federal government as a Section 3 “New Start.” Still, RTA planners think that given the potential for expanded ridership they can get the money in manageable chunks and go ahead.

Certainly New Orleans citizens are enthusiastic about it. Public hearings have been held and there has been little opposition to the return of streetcars to Canal Street, the naysayers piping up only when the possibility of modern LRVs is mentioned. True New Orleanians want their Perley A. Thomas cars even if they have to be freshly minted.

Olive green they will be for sure, perhaps numbered in a new 2000 series to celebrate the year they are expected to go into service.

Canal will require 30 cars including spares and they could probably be built at Carrollton but it might be too big a job all at one time so other options are being examined. An intensive service is planned. Canal cars will likely run every three to five minutes in the peak, 10 minutes at other times. Today’s Canal express buses will continue to use the street but the Canal, Lake Vista and Lakeshore local buses will feed the end of the car line just like the old days-and this did not seem to bother veteran riders who attended the hearings.

The new Canal line will need three substations, plus a beefed-up Riverfront sub at Iberville. Interestingly, it is planned to route at least some of the Canal cars to the downriver segment of the Riverfront line interspersed with Riverfront cars. There should be a good tourist traffic to Jackson Square for the Canal cars.

Car 972 was the very last Canal car to switch over to the St. Charles line as dawn broke on May 31, 1964. Still on the roster it will be the very first car to switch back to the new Canal tracks-when the time comes. Once this symbolic act is performed, however, it will have to scamper back to St. Charles since it is not ADA-equipped.

The worst kept secret in New Orleans is that RTA planners don't want to stop at rerailing Canal. There are two likely possibilities:

·Desire. Yes, there might again be a “Streetcar Named Desire”, although its route might not closely resemble the old line, abandoned in 1948. For one thing some residents in the French Quarter seem hostile to the idea of tracks once again on Bourbon and Royal streets and the large loop along Desire and France streets is out. But the line might encircle the Vieux Carre along the Riverfront, Canal and Rampart streets and go out Dauphine to Poland and back on Royal to Elysian Fields. Community support is high and planning has started.

·Tulane Belt. The ultimate reconversion. This project, just in the talking stages, would recreate the old Tulane-St. Charles Belt by putting tracks back down on Tulane turning left on South Carrollton and meeting up with the end of the St. Charles line at South Claiborne. The old Belt was broken when cars were replaced by trolley coaches on January 8, 1951. In turn, all New Orleans trolley coaches had disappeared by 1967.

Is it time to strike up the band, banish the blues and blare out a joylul fanfare for the great New Orleans streetcar renaissance? We will soon know.

Thanks to the quoted RTA officials, Van Wi1kins, William D. Middleton and Fred W Schneider III


The first newly built Perley-Thomas car at Carrolton Station.


Perley Thomas, Meet the PCC

It started with a news item that Philadelphia would have some surplus PCC cars for sale. Elmer H. Von Dullen, veteran superintendent of the RTA rail maintenance division at Carrollton Shops knew that the re-gauged Riverfront streetcar line would need a new fleet of cars and that only the Perley A. Thomas design would do.

Purchased were Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority cars 2147, 2166, 2183, 2737, 2749, 2751, 2779, 2788 and 2791-nine cars all dating to 1947–48. The Carrollton Shops crew began gutting them for components. Using old P-T car 957, which was nothing more than a shell, Von Dullen and his artisans came up with a new Riverfront prototype complete with wheelchair access and renumbered it from 957 to 457. It is the first to use PCC trucks and components.

Next, a P-T car was built from scratch. The metal frame sitting on sawhorses was stitched together using huck bolts and such things as doors and roof members were added. Von Dullen scaled the new metal folding doors from old photos. Numbering of the “new” Riverfront cars will start at 459.

The controls look more or less authentic for Perley A. Thomas cars but aren’t. There's an old-time-looking oak controller cabinet with a brass top and ostentatious rotating underfloor PCC multi-step controller. In point of fact, many streetcars of 1920s vintage had remote control equipment—but not in a big wooden cabinet.

Actually, these contrived controllers look less modern than the K-36JR drum controllers in the real P-T cars but underneath the floor it is another story. The PCC control equipment removed from the Philadelphia cars is housed in a big metal box hung on the underside of the new P-T car.

The reverser key on top of the controller cabinet works microswitches in the underfloor cabinet and the brake handle is a puny little device with a mechanical linkage to the PCC controller. As with the streamlined PCC car, dynamic brakes will pinch the car down to 1½ mph before motor shaft brakes take over and there will be a decided absence of the thump-thump-thump of the air compressor in this all- electric Perley A. Thomas.

The inside frame PCC trucks under the new P-T cars look.. well, rather odd but there is ample precedent in Portland's four wooden PCCs that are replicas of the old Brill Council Crest cars. They have PCC trucks too. In any event, Elmer’s cars are a far cry from the standard Brill 76E-2 design with solid steel 36-inch diameter wheels and single 65-hp motor found on the real P-T cars.

Von Dullen’s “combine” look of the replica car derives from the double-width doors on each side which admit wheelchair passengers. Each car can carry four wheelchairs. It is rather ingenious because the big door with its authentic window detail is hardly noticeable if one squints a little. This is very likely the prototype design for the Canal Street car of the future.

PTA officials are often asked about NOPSI car 453, one of 25 Brill semi-convertible cars dating from 1906 and long stored at Napoleon Shops. Recently, it was moved to Carrollton Shops, and someday hopefully will be rebuilt despite estimates for rehabbing it that rise as high as a million dollars.

And what of the three real but unrehabilitated Perley A. Thomas cars reclaimed from the Riverfront line? These original configuration cars with canvas roofs, wooden doors and window sashes and porcelain platform stanchions look much the way Perley A. Thomas cars did when first delivered to New Orleans from High Point, N.C., in 1923–24. Plans are to overhaul the cars while retaining their original features. Conductor’s stations will be retained and a fare register added. The cars will operate in special event and charter service-pristine in their authenticity.

What goes around, comes around. Was that saying invented here?

G.Mac Sebree is the retired head of the former Interurban Press publishing empire, now a part of the Pentrex firm. Mac is now based in Vancouver, Wash., across the Columbia River from Portland.


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