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Heritage Trolley Site
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Track and Right of Way

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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:

Street running

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 street trackage:

  • 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 alternative routes.

  • 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 blocks.

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.

  • Pedestrian mall. Streetcars can share pedestrian-only spaces with foot traffic quite effectively. The fact that pedestrians know that the trolleys will not deviate from the rails combined with their relatively low speed leaves people comfortable sharing their space with trolleys. This approach is used by the heritage trolley system in Memphis and by tram and light rail lines in many European cities.

Median strip

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.


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