ST. CHARLES STREETCARS TO RESUME PARTIAL
The Times Picayune, 12/19/2006
By Frank Donze
The first step in the
long road to restoration for the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line is set to
take place Tuesday, as transit officials bring back daily service between
Canal Street and Lee Circle for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.
Scheduled for 10:30 a.m., the ceremonial trip around Robert E. Lee’s statue
marks the completion of the initial phase of a three-part reformation
project expected to last at least another 15 months.
Under plans still being developed, the Regional Transit Authority hopes to
reopen a second leg of the historic St. Charles line, between Lee Circle and
Napoleon Avenue, by next summer. The final segment, which will restore
service from Napoleon to the terminus on Carrollton Avenue, likely won’t be
finished until spring or early summer of 2008, officials said.
“We’re trying to do it right and make it as reliable as possible,” Fred
Basha, the RTA’s capital projects director, said last week. “When we finish,
everything should be in really good shape and much easier to maintain.”
Since New Orleans’ post-Katrina transit service resumed in October 2005, the
RTA has operated buses on St. Charles Avenue, a service that will continue
until the streetcars are ready to roll. The streetcar line, one of New
Orleans’ signature attractions, is listed on the National Register of
35 streetcars saved
The RTA resumed service on a portion
of the Canal Street streetcar line about a year ago. In the spring, the
agency added the Riverfront line and the remainder of the Canal Street line,
including the Carrollton Avenue spur.
The 35 venerable Perley Thomas Car Co. streetcars used on St. Charles Avenue
survived Hurricane Katrina because they were stored on high ground inside
the RTA’s Willow Street facility. The faded green cars are being used on the
Canal and Riverfront lines to temporarily replace the newer, red street cars
destroyed in the flood.
Basha said the St. Charles line — historically the RTA’s busiest route with
more than 3.5 million boardings a year — was long overdue for rehabilitation
even before the August 2005 storm.
Coincidentally, the agency had planned to launch an end-to-end replacement
of the electrical system that drives the streetcars on Sept. 6, 2005, about
a week after Katrina shut down public transit in New Orleans for more than
two months and forced the RTA staff to relocate temporarily to Baton Rouge.
The damage caused by the hurricane, however, transformed what would have
been an inconvenience into a service shutdown.
Instead of closing the streetcar line one section at a time to replace
overhead wires, the RTA now must install an entirely new network to supplant
the one ripped apart by high winds and fallen tree limbs.
Further complicating matters was the
destruction of the electrical substation that supplies the juice to move the
streetcars, as well as the heavy cables that relay the current. The
now-defunct station is on Upperline Street, near the midpoint of the St.
Charles Avenue stretch of the line.
The loss of that facility left the RTA with no way to get power to the
streetcar line, Basha said.
A portable power plant, on loan to the RTA from the Massachusetts Bay
Transit Authority, has been running the Canal Street line and will be used
to drive the Lee Circle extension. The Riverfront line has its own power
The wrecked Uptown substation housed three “rectifiers,” devices that
convert the alternating current electricity that flows into homes and
businesses into the direct current needed to run a streetcar. One rectifier
was used for cars headed Uptown, one for downtown service and the third for
RTA administrators have long recognized that it was never a good idea to
have all three rectifiers in the same location. The pre-Katrina upgrade
included a provision — to be paid for with an $11.8 million federal grant —
to place new stations at three points along the route. Basha said the agency
will stick to that strategy.
The first of the new stations will be placed beneath the Crescent City
Connection at Calliope Street. The second will be located near the old
Upperline station, while the third will go inside the Carrollton Barn at the
intersection of Dublin and Jeannette streets.
The Calliope Street location will allow the RTA to run streetcars to
“What’s more important,” Basha said, “is the additional flexibility this
gives us. If something like this (Katrina) ever happens again and power gets
knocked out, it won’t take the whole line out of service.”
Wires to be strung
But before the RTA can power up, it
must finish stringing a new and improved network of overhead wires and
To prepare for the job, RTA contractors already have replaced more than 150
of the 560 poles that line the route.
Work is under way installing new crossarms on the poles. Once that task is
finished, heavy-duty cables from the electrical stations must be connected
to system. Only then, Basha said, can the “trolley” wires be run along the
The good news is that the rails and crossties, along with the bed beneath
the St. Charles Avenue track, survived Katrina intact. The RTA replaced that
infrastructure in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and recent tests indicate
that streetcars could operate now if a power source were available.
One aspect of the restoration that will have to wait is the landscaping of
the St. Charles neutral ground. Because the work ahead will require
repeatedly moving heavy equipment on and off the median, city officials have
no plans to resod and replant anytime soon.
As for when the line will be back in service, RTA administrators declined to
set hard and fast timetables, saying the process could be slowed by bad
weather, unforeseen glitches and the still-needed approval of some federal
But Basha hopes to get service to Napoleon Avenue up and running before
Labor Day. He said the entire St. Charles line should be running no later
than summer 2008.
“We will do everything possible to speed that up,” he said. “And of course,
we will continue to run buses in the meantime.”