APTA Streetcar and
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Heritage Trolley Site
Hosted by the Seashore Trolley Museum

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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifies a number of requirements that transit systems need to meet to ease use by people who have different types of disability. Many of the provisions deal with signage and tactile surfaces, all of which can be handled relatively easily. However, the most difficult measure for a heritage trolley system to meet is easing access to cars for the mobility impaired. Classic streetcars always required climbing one or more—often steep—steps to enter the car, and then frequently had another step from the vestibule to the main passenger compartment of the car. No such cars were easily accessible for people in wheelchairs or people who otherwise find climbing stairs difficult.

As ADA requires all new heritage systems—even those using unmodified, vintage cars—to make the cars accessible, choosing an accessibility solution is an important planning step.

Typically heritage trolley systems have used one of three basic approaches, each of which has its advantages and disadvantages, to meet accessibility requirements:

On car lifts

New Orleans and Little Rock have equipped each of heir heritage cars with wheelchair lifts, two per car, with one on each side. In New Orleans, where the cars have an internal step from the front platform to the passenger compartment, the lifts are mounted inside the passenger compartment. Special doors, disguised to look like part of the car’s side from the exterior, are placed next to the lifts. Advantages of this approach include the fact that no special equipment needs to be installed on station platforms and that if a unit on one car malfunctions, the following car can pick up the disabled passenger. The disadvantages include the fact that the lifts are very intrusive in the interior of the car reducing significantly the seating capacity and changing the internal ambience of the car. As well, cycle times for wheelchair lifts can be relatively long, meaning that their use can disrupt operating schedules, particularly on a line with frequent service. 

In the new replica cars being built for Little Rock by Gomaco, the lift has been incorporated into the front door opening in a manner that is not obtrusive. As the cars have no internal step from the platform to the passenger compartment, passengers using these lifts will have direct access to the entire car. How these innovative lifts perform in service remains to be seen. Some seats inside the car fold out of the way to provide space for wheelchairs.

In 2002, the Lowell National Historic Park added on car lifts to their Gomaco cars using a completely hidden installation beneath the platform. To see a photographic description of this approach click here.

Platform elevators

Another means of providing accessibility is to have elevators on station platforms to lift the passengers to the level of the car floor, then to bridge the gap to the car by means of a folding plate mounted on either the lift or carried on the car. The advantage of this approach is that it does not require giving up interior space or changing the interior appearance other than equipping some seats to fold out of the way. The disadvantage is that the lifts require platforms large enough to accommodate them; they are subject to the effects of weather and vandalism; and cycle time can be slow enough to throw a car off schedule.

High blocks and ramps

The third accessibility approach is to place ramps leading to short raised platforms (often called “high blocks”) at car stops. Passengers waiting to board cars can go up the ramp before the car arrives, at which time a bridge plate can be used to reach the car, as with platform elevators. The advantages of this solution is that again no change is required to car interiors; there is no mechanical system to malfunction; and the time required for a passenger to board or alight is the lowest of the three approaches. The primary disadvantage is that the space required on station platforms is relatively large and that the ramps and high blocks are visually intrusive. This approach is used in San Francisco and is being constructed in Tampa.

In the case of either the platform lift or the high blocks and ramps, access is provided to the car’s front platform or vestibule. If another step is required to enter the passenger compartment, then a conforming means needs to be found to allow the passenger to pass this barrier. In Memphis, the solution employed is to narrow ramps into the step spaced so that wheel chairs can pass through them, then to place a small ramp in front of these ramps to bridge the remaining height differential.


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