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New Orleans Prepares for the Past
   

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The New Electric Railway Journal – Spring 1992

New Orleans Prepares for the Past

Van Wilkins

The United States government considers twelve years to be the useful lifespan of a forty-foot transit bus, although some older models with proper maintenance have remained serviceable after twenty years. A PCC car generally requires a major overhaul after perhaps twenty-five or thirty years. Consider then, the thirty-five streetcars on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. They are now approaching seventy years of age.

Crowded cars are typical on St. Charles during the rush; the line carries over ten percent of total Regional Transit Authority ridership.

At the Carrolton-Claiborne terminal, car 937 flanks the not-yet-rebuilt 903.

One of the busiest points on the St. Charles line is at Carondelet and Canal. In this picture, homebound riders crowd aboard the car as others exit.

The Brill 76-E2 trucks each carry a single 65-hp motor. Roller bearings were added in the early 1960s.

A new body bolster which will replace a badly deteriorated one dating to 1923. One of the new, stronger platform knees is visible.

Seats, once made of cherry, are now made of mahogany in Carrolton's complete carpenter shop.

Looking over the motorman's shoulder as he cuts power and coasts to the stop ahead.

Melbourne interiors are spartan to the extreme but provide accommodations for wheelchair-bound riders.

The essence of a New Orleans trolley ride.

Car 450 on the Riverfront line. The line is now doubletracked throughout and continues to grow as it expands in length.

An ageless scene repeated many times in almost seven decades: two Perley-Thomas graduates pass on Carrolton near the barn.

What would a heritage line be without a Melbourne car? This is 454, one of three on the Riverfront line.

For over 150 years, streetcars have passed stately Lee Circle.

The other line: 450 on Riverfront, in approximately the same condition as when it was operated on Canal.

 
Legacy and Honors

The cars are only one remarkable aspect of the operation. Much has been written about the St. Charles line. Opened in 1835, it was the second urban railway to be built in the United States, and today is said to be the oldest street railway in continuous operation anywhere in the world. In 1973 the line was placed in the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1984 was declared a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. Except for a few blocks in the downtown area, the entire line is located in neutral ground in the center of St. Charles and Carrollton Avenues.

Neutral ground is not ordinary private right-of-way with exposed ties and ballast. Rather, soil is built up nearly to the level of the rails and covered with sod, so that the cars are actually running in a lawn. The sod, combined with trees and bushes separating the tracks from adjoining traffic lanes, gives an unexpectedly clean and quiet ride, despite spur gears and the lack of resilient wheels or other manner of noise-dampening technique.

The line serves predominantly well-to-do residential areas, as well as Loyola and Tulane Universities and Audubon Park. Fear on the part of residents that if the streetcars were abandoned the park-like neutral ground would be paved over for autos was a major factor in the preservation of rail service.

A Surfeit of LRT

New Orleans once had perhaps the closest thing to what is now called light rail of any American city. when the rail system was at its height, a total of ninety mile—some forty percent of its trackage—was in neutral ground, separated from other traffic. Much of it is now covered with concrete; St Charles residents’ fears were well founded.

And this neutral ground was not limited to the suburbs. Canal Street through the heart of downtown at one time had as many as six tracks at some points, and there were four tracks even after World War II. These were paved, but all other vehicles were excluded. In 1964 only two rail lines were left, and the city and New Orleans Public Service Inc. (NOPSI) wanted both of them abandoned. There was some opposition, and in a compromise the Canal service was discontinued, although service was retained on St Charles.

The rails were removed from Canal (except for a single block needed to allow the St Charles cars to loop), trees planted, and two lanes preserved for exclusive use of buses. With normal auto traffic maintained on either side, this arrangement facilitating transit through the downtown is unique within the United States today.

Neutral ground does not mean high speed. About forty minutes is required to traverse the St Charles line from end to end, resulting in an average speed including stops of just under ten miles per hour. This low speed despite the private right of way is due in part to operation on narrow streets in downtown, which can also disrupt headways, and to numerous cross streets. The cars themselves are also not noted for acceleration or speed. Top speed is about twenty-seven mph, but because of the stops every two blocks, much running is performed at lower speeds.

Distinguished Graduates

The cars that are now running were part of an order built at the Perley A. Thomas Car Works of High Point, North Carolina in 1923 and 1924. They were numbered 900–972, and were nearly identical to an order numbered 800–899 purchased in 1922. That order was split between Perley Thomas (twenty-four cars) and J.G. Brill (seventy-six cars), although Mr. Thomas was the designer. The cars closely resembled fifty cars that were also designed by Mr. Thomas and built by the Southern Car Company at High Point in 1915 for the system. With the decision to retain rail service on St. Charles, NOPSI substantially refurbished thirty-five cars for the line. This included substitution of roller bearings in the trucks, replacement of deteriorated wooden doors and upper sash windows, new floors, installation of aluminum vestibule posts and an aluminum “skin” over the existing canvas-covered wooden roofs, and a new ventilation system with louvres in the letter boards in place of the eight original roof-mounted ventilators.

This was done at a time when substantial numbers of used PCC cars were available. NOPSI had been a member of the committee supporting the development of the PCC, but did not order any. In the late 1950s it did consider purchase of used PCCs from Washington, Dallas or St. Louis. Ease of maintenance of the 900-series cars may have been the deciding factor in their retention.

New Orleans was the last major city in the country where both electric power and transit were provided by the sarne company. When in 1983 NOPSI relinquished to the Regional Transit Authority responsibility for public transit in New Orleans, it was apparent that the sixty-year-old cars, their maintenance facility at Carrollton Station, and much of the route’s trackage were in need of major rebuilding. (There are no “car barns” or “bus garages” in New Orleans—all are “stations.”)

Reforging the Link

After federal and local funds were obtained, six and one-half miles of double track were reconstructed. Carrollton Station, which dated from 1893, was rebuilt into a completely modern barn and shop facility, capable of undertaking the task of using modern materials to restore to like-new condition what Mr. Thomas had built at High Point. RTA at one point had proposed scrapping the thirty-five cars and replacing them with newly built replicas from an out-of-state manufacturer. Pressure from those wanting to keep the work in Louisiana and from local historical groups finally convinced RTA and a doubtful UMTA that the work could be done at Carrollton and at less cost.

Car 937, the victim of a wreck, was selected as the prototype for the program, and was completely disassembled. The vestibules and platforms were removed, along with all wiring, piping, windows and seats.

The 1960s flooring was ripped out, so that only the roof and sides remained. All metal was thoroughly cleaned, inspected and primed. (For 937 this was done at Carrollton; cars are now being sent out to be sand-blasted and primed.) The steel body bolsters were found to be badly deteriorated, so new ones were fabricated. The side sills and side plates, which carry the load in these cars, were in good condition. Cross braces were replaced as needed.

When the aluminum roof had been installed in the 1960s, the original iron carlines, which give shape to the roof, had been left in place, along with the wood they supported. Still sound, this roof structure was retained in the current rebuilding. The Hale & Kilburn seat pedestals and hardware were cleaned and repaired, and where required, new wooden seats were fabricated in Carrollton’s complete carpenter shop. In the 1920s cherry was the preferred material, but is far too expensive to use for seats today. Instead, Brazilian or Honduran mahogany has proved a satisfactory substitute.

Rebuilding the platforms presented special problems. In the 1960 rebuild, hollow aluminum shapes were substituted for the wooden vestibule posts. However, these were not strong enough to meet UMTA requirements, so they have been replaced with solid aluminum. For the same reason, new and stronger platform knees that attach the platforms to the body were designed and installed. New dashers of aluminum were fabricated. The original anticlimbers have been retained.

The wooden upper sash windows (“gothics” in New Orleans terminology) and the doors had been replaced in the 1960s with metal, but carried glazing with rounded corners set in rubber grommets. This had been the most obvious deviation from the car’s original appearance. New gothics and doors of aluminum have been fabricated to restore the original square corners. Glazing in the new gothics is acrylic, but tempered glass is used in operator and passenger windows. The 1960s flooring has been replaced with ¾-inch marine plywood, covered with tongue-and-groove oak.

The Brill 76-E2 trucks have been rebuilt, with self-lubricating Nylatron (molybdenum-impregnated nylon) used in high-friction areas, such as center and side bearings and truck pedestals. Each truck carries a single rebuilt GE 263 65-horsepower motor. Drive is produced through spur gears. The Timken roller bearings installed in the 1960s have been retained. The basic technology, including the “wheelbarrow” motor mounting, is essentially the same as that devised by Frank Sprague in Richmond a century ago.

As a preliminary to the rebuilding program, new K68 controllers were already in use. The first group was not satisfactory, and a fire in a car resulted, but the problem has now been corrected. All wiring and piping are new. One interesting change is the addition of an auxiliary power supply, providing twelve volts for the buzzers and interior lights, instead of the previous 600 volts. The ventilation system that was installed in the 1960s remains unchanged, while the absence of any roof-mounted ventilators and the Timken roller bearings are the only obvious variations from the original 1920s appearance.

The Rollout

On June 24,1991—at a ceremony that was attended by a grandson of Mr. Thomas—car 937 was rolled out of the shops, resplendent in the same dark green with cream window posts and large aluminum numbers and dash trim that it bore when it first arrived in the city sixty-eight years before. Doors, window frames, and gothics are a red-brown. When the author visited Carrollton in August of 1991, a nearly complete car 951 was in the paint spray booth and three others were in various stages of rebuild. The program is scheduled for completion July 1,1995.

And what about cost? Prototype car 937 cost slightly more than $400,000 to complete according to Project Manager Michael H. DeHarde. He expects this will be reduced significantly as experience is gained. A total of $10,200,000 is available for the project.

High-Tech Right-of-Way

Rebuilding the track also presented special problems. In many parts of New Orleans even a hole only a few inches deep will quickly fill with water, so close to the surface is the water table. When originally laid, neutral ground trackage began with a trench, the bottom of which was floored with planks of water cypress. This was covered with ballast. Then oak ties and “T” rails were laid, and the surface was brought nearly up to the level of the rail heads with sod. In rebuilding the track essentially the same plan was followed, but with several changes designed to increase the life of the new track. The bottom and sides of the trench were lined with geotextile fabric to prevent any deterioration and contamination of the ballast. New granite ballast replaced the original limestone. New ties are of tropical hardwood. And finally, welded rail with new fasteners was installed in place of the conventional spikes.

Running cars nearly three quarters of a century old at low speeds does not make this a museum or tourist operation, although it does attract large numbers of visitors. According to RTA the St. Charles line provides over 23,000 rides on a typical weekday—more than ten percent of total system ridership. Saturday ridership is about 15,000 and Sunday nearly 10,000. These figures may seem high, but are explained in part by the fact there is much short distance riding; the same space may be sold several times during the course of a trip. Short headways are normal during daylight hours seven days a week, and the service has been criticized for some bunching of cars. This is one of eight routes in the RTA system providing service twenty-four hours a day. Between midnight and four A.M. service is hourly.

Two Belt Lines

In addition to its long life, there are other unusual aspects of the line’s history. New Orleans for many years had two track gauges. There was mixed gauge operation on Canal, and Carrollton Station served cars of both gauges. Until recently, dual gauge frogs could still be seen in the paving in the vicinity of the station. Today St. Charles is five-foot two-and-one-half-inch gauge, but as originally built it was standard gauge and remained so until 1929. For many years it was part of two unusual routes called the St. Charles and Tulane Belts.

St Charles Belt cars departed Canal Street over St. Charles, continued along Carrollton Avenue past the current terminal at Carrollton and Claiborne Avenues to Tulane Avenue, and returned to Canal via Tulane, completing a twelve-mile clockwise loop. Tulane Belt cars ran the same route in a counter-dock-wise loop. As cars were not reversed in the course of a day, cars which ran the St. Charles Belt one day were assigned to the Tulane Belt the next to equalize wear. Virtually all of this service was on neutral ground.

The Other Line

St. Charles is of course now not the only street car route in the city. In 1986 a grant application was submitted to UMTA jointly by the Riverfront Transit Coalition Group (RTCG), the City of New Orleans, and the RTA. The plan was to establish a 1.5-mile line using existing standard-gauge tracks of the city-owned Public Belt Railroad along the river. It would connect convention facilities, hotels, businesses, tourist-oriented activities, and the old French Quarter. Service began on August 14, 1988 (just in time for the Republican Convention) on a single track with one passing siding.

Total cost was not quite $6,000,000. Half of the original funding came from UMTA and $1.3 million from RTA. What is significant is the involvement of the private sector. The RTCG raised $1.3 million from private sources. An additional $288,000 came from the Downtown Development District.

The line was an immediate success. Ridership of about 2000 per day had been forecast, but a level of 5000 was quickly reached. To meet the demand, an additional $10.1 million has been obtained from UMTA, matched with $4.3 million raised by the RTCG. This allowed the addition of a second track for most of the existing line, a single-track extension of four tenths of a mile, and three more stations. According to RTA, the funds are also to provide a maintenance facility and a museum in what were once the NOPSI Napoleon Shops. At this writing nine stations are open. A tenth will open when other construction in the area has been completed.

When the Canal line was abandoned in 1964, eleven Perley Thomas cars were acquired by museums or other groups. A local group—Bring Our Streetcars Home—funded the return of two cars in 1985. Subsequently two additional Perley Thomas cars have been obtained. Three of the four have been refurbished, painted red with “Riverfront” in large letters on the dashers, and renumbered 450, 451, and 456.

In 1988 the RTA purchased two Melbourne W-2 cars; the agency bought a third in 1989. These were built in 1924-25 for the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board in Australia. They are center-entrance cars with a low center section and a step up to sections at each end. The low center entrance matches the level of the station platforms and allows easy access for the mobility-impaired, including for those persons who use wheelchairs. The three ex-Melbourne cars are numbered 452, 454, and 455.

Presumably number 453 was skipped because NOPSI car 453 still exists. It is a Brill semi-convertible built by American Car Company in 1906. 453 was kept for use as an instruction car when others of the same class were retired in 1935, and until recent years had been stored indoors at Napoleon Shops. Turned over to a private group as a tourist attraction (the “Desire” car), it is now stored outside and has deteriorated. At the moment no plans exist for its renovation.

A Narragansett-style open car used for many years in Brazil has also been purchased, and renovation is planned. This will be some-thing of an innovation, as open cars were never a fixture in the city. Tried in the 1890s, they proved unpopular, supposedly because of the frequency of sudden rainstorms

The Perley Thomas cars on Riverfront did not get the thorough rebuilding that 937 received. They were refurbished and made mechanically sound, but are essentially the same as when the Canal line was abandoned. The ventilators remain on the canvas roofs, and the gothics and doors are of wood.

Riding Riverfront

Unlike St. Charles, Riverfront cars carry a crew of two, an RTA operator and a “guide” provided by New Orleans Tours under contract with the RTCG, who collects fares and answers questions. This is obviously a visitor-oriented operation, although some local residents find it useful in commuting. Regular RTA fare is eighty cents, but the fare on Riverfront is $1.00; a transfer good on other RTA routes is ten cents.

Also available are passes allowing unlimited riding anywhere in the city for one or three days. These can be purchased at most downtown hotels and at other points. Service is operated from Six A.M. until 12:30 A.M. (7:45 A.M. to 12:30 A.M. Saturdays and Sundays) with headways shortest in the afternoons. Reflecting the tourist-oriented nature of the service, headways are longest early in the week, shortening to as close as six minutes or less on weekend afternoons.

Looking Ahead

With both St. Charles and Riverfront resounding successes, plans are being devised for extending rail service. For the nearer term three projects have priority. RTA has proposed restoration of street car service on Canal as far as City Park Avenue with branches to the Union Passenger Terminal (Amtrak and Greyhound) and to Armstrong Park. Unfortunately, when rail service was abandoned on Canal the neutral ground was narrowed beyond Claiborne Avenue, and there is now insufficient space available for tracks and stations. Restoration of rail service would mean encroaching on existing traffic lanes—an unpopular action politically.

Several blocks away from Canal and parallel to it is an existing railroad right-of-way. A case can be made that once cars leave downtown they should be shifted to this right-of-way to reach City Park Avenue. This plan is said to be less expensive and at the same time would provide better service.

There is a proposal to extend the Riverfront line downriver as far as military installations near the Industrial Canal and upriver to Audubon Park with its world-famous zoo. There seems to be general agreement that an extension as far as a ferry terminal at Jackson Avenue is justified; however, there is controversy over continuing beyond that point. The funds could be better used elsewhere.

Light rail service would be established between downtown and New Orleans International Airport using existing railroad rights-of-way from the airport to Union Passenger Terminal. Support of the project by Jefferson Parish (County) would be required. Unfortunately, there is a perception (with some justification) in Jefferson that the RTA is a creature of the city, and obtaining Parish agreement is a problem.

Replicas of vintage trolleys are visualized for the Riverfront extensions and the restored line on Canal. Modern light rail vehicles are proposed for the airport line. However, the suggestion has been made that perhaps the LRV’s could be dual-mode, allowing diesel propulsion to be used initially for part of this route to save the cost of building overhead.

Over the longer term additional light rail lines are suggested to East New Orleans and along Claiborne Avenue and West End Boulevard. What would probably be commuter rail is proposed from communities on the opposite bank of the Mississippi and from Slidell east of the city and LaPlace to the west.

Of all these proposals, planning has progressed to the point of requesting federal funding only for the relatively inexpensive downriver extension of the Riverfront line. Nothing else is certain. What is certain is that the cars grinding their way along St. Charles have demonstrated that public transit vehicles need not be new and shiny and sleek and expensive in order to attract riders. Mr. Thomas would be proud, for his products could well achieve a full century of service.

Van Wilkins: is a regular contributor to TNERJ, Passenger Train Journal, Bus World, and other transportation magazines.

 

 

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