Types of track right-of-way
One of the attractions of street railway
technology, and with its modern incarnation as light rail, is that the track
routing can be adapted to widely differing urban and topographical conditions.
The cars can negotiate relatively small radius curves and can handle fairly
steep grades. Thus the tracks can be snaked through or around obstacles as
needed with a minimum of expensive reconstruction or reprofiling.
The following are a number of types of track
placement typically found in heritage trolley systems:
City streetcars classically ran along the
central lanes of urban streets—hence the name “streetcar.” In the early days,
before automobiles, they only had to contend with horses, horse drawn wagons,
and pedestrians, so there were no major delays associated with operating in the
street. Later, as automobiles became more popular, growing congestion slowed
streetcar service, and motorists came to dislike the rather slow and unmovable
trolleys—a factor that contributed to their discontinuance. Nonetheless, miles
of street trackage, not segregated from auto traffic, can be found today on
surviving streetcar/light rail systems in Philadelphia, Toronto, San Francisco,
New Orleans, and Boston and on the newly constructed downtown streetcar system
in Portland. Heritage lines in Dallas, Memphis, Galveston, and Tucson also
operate, at least in part, in mixed traffic.
The following are typical variations of
Mixed traffic. This is the classic streetcar configuration in
which the cars share lanes with traffic. The tracks are classically laid in
the centermost lanes, as placing them close to parked cars or curbing tends to
lead to delays from double parked vehicles, cars entering and leaving parking
places, trucks unloading merchandise, etc. Even with tracks in the center of
the street autos and streetcars get in one another’s way, left turning autos
delay streetcars, and boarding and alighting from trolleys can subject
passengers to an unpleasant encounter with auto traffic, unless stations or
raised safety platforms are provided at stops.
However, this configuration remains viable especially if auto traffic is not
heavy. Any steps taken to discourage auto use of streets with tracks directly
in the pavement can help speed trolley service and increase its reliability.
Possible measures include limiting left turns, signage to encourage motorists
to stay off the tracks, and traffic patterns that encourage motorists to use
Restricted lanes. The simplest step
to avoid the potential problems of mixed traffic operations is to restrict
lanes for streetcars only by the means of signage and lines painted on the
street surface to guide autos away from the tracks. This approach is easily
employed where traffic is light enough to be handled by lanes away from the
tracks and where streets are wide enough to provide alternate lanes.
Separated/raised lanes with
differentiated paving. The next higher measure to discourage auto use of
lanes with streetcar track is to pave the area around the rails with a
somewhat rougher surface, such as paving blocks. Motorists will tend to avoid
the rougher surface, particularly if it is also marked as a restricted lane,
but both motorists and emergency vehicles can use the track lanes if needed to
swing around a stopped truck or other obstacle. Portland, Oregon has been most
effective in marking the downtown streets shared by light rail and heritage
trolleys by such paving and motorists tend to obey the restrictions.
Reserved track in Portland designated by rough textured paving
In Amsterdam, a further enhancement to this tactic has been to raise the
reserved lanes carrying the track by about six inches to provide a visual
indication to motorists that they are to stay off the track. However, the
curbing along the edge of the raised section is sloped at about a 45 degree
angle so that traffic or emergency vehicles can climb onto the reservation in
order to pass an obstacle. This approach has been very successful in Europe
and has been copied with equally
satisfactory results in Toronto, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.
Raised track in Amsterdam, with
curb that road vehicles can traverse if needed.
If a median strip separated from traffic is
available it can make an ideal location for streetcar tracks and the line can be
made visually unobtrusive by completely surrounding the tracks with grass. The
St. Charles line in New Orleans is famous for its use of a central reservation,
or “neutral ground” in New Orleans terminology, for the tracks that pass through
some of the most desirable residential neighborhoods in the city. Such lines
once crisscrossed the entire city. Re-creation of the Canal line, construction
of which began in 2001, again placed tracks in a grassed neutral ground.
Where necessary, the track area in the reservation can be paved so that buses
and/or emergency vehicles can also use the space. This approach is used on the
downtown portion of the Canal Street line.
Railroad right of way
Existing railroad rights-of-way through a
downtown area can very easily be converted for streetcar use, as has been
done in a number of cities. Though such routings are less historically authentic
than street running, they provide an easy and low cost way of bringing streetcars into a district and may have fewer delays from automobile traffic.
Private right of way
New right of way, outside of street
boundaries, can be created if vacant land exists or land is cleared by
redevelopment. Unused land in urban centers is less common, but if it is
available track can be constructed relatively inexpensively. If track is planned
as part of a new development, the costs might be borne by the developer whose
product will be served by the line.