U.S. Streetcar Systems- Louisiana
Began Operation: 1893
St. Charles Line- 7 mi.
Canal Line- 4.7 mi.
Riverfront Line- 2 mi
Stops: stops every two blocks
Organization: Transit Agency
Schedule: 24 hrs. daily
photos: John Smatlak, except as noted
In addition to being a world renown tourist destination, New Orleans also operates one of the country’s largest Vintage Trolley systems. The system consists of a surviving “legacy” line from the city’s original streetcar network, a new line serving riverfront tourist destinations, and the reconstruction of another of its most famous legacy lines.
In the summer of 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated portions of the City, also rendering its fleet of newly-built replica trolleys inoperable. Fortunately, the 35 original heritage cars survived relatively unscathed, and this group of cars has been used to incrementally return all of the lines to operation. In 2008, rebuilding of the damaged replica car fleet began, and RTA plans to continue to increase service levels as demand and resources allow.
Fares are standardized with the RTA bus system; $1.25 base fare with transfers costing an additional 25 cents. Multi-day tourist passes are also sold through various outlets. The following sections present the history of the three lines, although information regarding service levels represents conditions pre-Katrina.
St. Charles Line
History: New Orleans’ St. Charles Streetcar Line is the world’s oldest continuously operated electric railway line. Electric operation began in 1893, when streetcars took over after 20 years of horsecar operation. In 1922, operation of all New Orleans streetcar lines was taken over by New Orleans Public Service Inc., or NOPSI for short. In 1923, the current streetcars, designed and built by the Perley Thomas Car Company of High Point, North Carolina, were introduced. Beginning in the 1930s, streetcar service in the Crescent City followed the national trend of gradually diminishing service, with rubber-tired vehicles coming into favor as replacements. With the closing of the Canal St. Line in 1964, the St. Charles Line became New Orleans sole surviving streetcar line, and 11 of the cars were sold off, many ending up in railway museums around the country.
In 1973, the St. Charles Line and the remaining fleet of 35 Perley Thomas cars received national recognition when they were named to the National Register of Historic Places. In 1983, the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) completed the buyout of NOPSI, one of the last urban transit systems in the US to be transferred from private to public ownership. Between 1988 and 1992, RTA completed a $47 million renovation of the St. Charles Line, including a complete rebuilding of all 35 streetcars and the Carrollton maintenance facility.
Route: The line extends approximately 7 miles, the majority of which is in a center median on St. Charles Ave., with about 10 blocks of street running in mixed traffic to connect with Canal St. in the Central Business District. There are a total of 52 stops. All of the center median track is covered with grass flush with the top of the rails. Known locally as “neutral ground”, the resulting right-of-way is quite attractive, and is frequented by joggers and other pedestrians (most of whom know to walk or jog against the flow of streetcar traffic). Combined with the tree-lined streets and an abundance of extraordinary historic homes and other buildings, this is truly one of the most interesting streetcar rides in North America. Cross streets are frequent, however, and the streetcar operators have to be constantly vigilant for motorists turning across the tracks.
Operation: The St. Charles Line is operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on headways varying from 6 minutes during rush hours to 1 hour during the late night and early morning. Service is provided exclusively by the fleet of 35 1920’s era Perley Thomas cars. The 35 car fleet is not ADA compliant, having been grandfathered in by special legislative action that permitted its continued use as part of the historic St. Charles streetcar line. As a result, RTA can not add more 1920’s era cars to this fleet.
Although the streetcars are now more than 75 years old, one should not assume that the St. Charles Line is a “museum” type operation. Quite the opposite is true- it’s a real transit operation, hauling some 20,000 daily commuters and visitors. To endure the constant start /stop workout these cars receive every day, they must be in kept in top shape, a task which falls to the maintenance facility at Carrollton Station. Built in 1893, Carrollton harkens back to the days when streetcars were king of city transportation. The restored carbarn and attached shop have an incredible range of capabilities, doing everything from fabricating new seats in the woodshop, to rewinding traction motors, to building entire new cars! The facility received further upgrades as part of the project to assemble the 23 new Canal St. streetcars.
Technical: Although the cars have been completely rebuilt and have had numerous modifications made over the years, they look, feel and operate in a fashion true to their original design. Modifications include installation of roller bearings, installation of an inverter to power the farebox and for AC lighting, aluminum roof covering in place of the original canvas, and also aluminum window sash and doors in place of the original wood. All cars are equipped with two trolley poles. Overhead wire on the line is direct suspension, powered at 600 volts dc with primarily bracket arm construction using center poles.
In 1988, New Orleans opened a new streetcar line along the banks of the Mississippi River. The first phase connected together the then-new commercial developments in the Warehouse District to developments along the Riverfront and the French Quarter. The line utilized a 1.5 mile section of the existing Public Belt Line railroad, incorporating a single track with a passing siding in the middle. Unlike the St. Charles Line, this new route was standard gauge.
Overwhelming public response to the new line (5,000 riders per day instead of the projected 2,000) generated expansion plans which were phased in beginning in 1990. The line was extended another half mile, a second track was added, and three wheelchair- accessible Melbourne streetcars were added to the line. The expanded line thus connected the French Quarter with the city’s convention center and cruise ship terminal, with stops at major hotels, the aquarium and riverfront parks along the way.
In 1997, the line received yet another overhaul, being converted to the 5′ 2-1/2″ broad gauge standard of the St. Charles Line, thus permitting direct use of the Carrolton maintenance facility. The service was also re-equipped with a fleet of seven new cars built at Carrollton. The new cars were built to the classic Perley Thomas pattern so familiar to New Orleans, but featured modern running gear and controls from CKD (Tatra) in the Czech Republic. The Melbourne cars formerly used on the line were subsequently resold to Memphis for their own vintage trolley operation. The Riverfront Line cars were originally operated with a two-person crew; an RTA operator, and a uniformed tour guide provided by New Orleans Tours who handled fare collection and assisted passengers. With the advent of the new replica cars, the operation was changed to the one-man crew found elsewhere in the city.
The Riverfront Line utilizes a traditional railroad right-of-way, and features short, low-level concrete platforms with modern steel canopies and informational signage. ADA access is provided with car-borne wheelchair lifts from Ricon. The double track line is still paralleled by an active freight track. Direct-suspension trolley wire is hung from steel poles utilizing bracket arm construction. The poles are topped with lights that also provide nighttime illumination.
Canal St. Line
Canal Street was one of the greatest of all “streetcar thoroughfares” in North America, at one time having as many as six tracks through the heart of downtown, and had four tracks even after World War II. Converted to a bus route in 1964, its return to streetcar operation was accomplished in phases beginning in 1999 with the opening of a six-block section of Canal St, connecting the St. Charles and Riverfront Lines. In 2004, forty years after abandonment of the original line, service began on the 3.6 mile line between the Riverfront and a terminal at Cemeteries, plus a new 0.9 mile branch on Carrollton Avenue to City Park. The $153 million dollar project included a fleet of 23 new replica streetcars. The new cars retained the classic lines of the St. Charles streetcar fleet while adding modern improvements like air conditioning, ADA access and modern control and braking equipment.
The new lines have stops located every two blocks. The Canal portion uses a median alignment for its entire length, with the Downtown section in a paved track bed and the outer portion in a classic New Orleans grass trackway (or “neutral ground” in local parlance). The City Park Branch is located in a traffic lane on either side of the landscaped street median, with a median terminal at the Park. As seen in the photo below, the pipe used to build the unique trolley wire support poles were donated by a local oil company as part of their philanthropic outreach. and incorporate light fixtures that illuminate the trackway at night.
|Car-borne wheelchair lift in action|
|Scenes along Canal in the Downtown area|
|Scenes along Canal in the Downtown area|
|Night scene near Bourbon Street||
The Canal project included construction of these connecting tracks
to the planned Desire Line
Scenes along the Canal "neutral ground" right-of-way. As
seen, some of the stations have shelters.
Cars pass on Canal
View of the ladder tracks leading into the carbarn
The carbarn and the adjacent storage tracks
Sand Car 29 inside the barn
|Night scene on Canal||
Some of the stations have shelters, this
one does not
|Rolling along Canal|
Plaque on one of the line poles
acknowledging their source
The single-track terminal at
City Park Branch
Along North Carrollton Avenue, the City
Park branch shares traffic lanes on either side of the roadway
|Views at the City Park terminus|
|Leaving the terminal inbound||Heading onto North Carrollton|
News and Updates
January 2001: Work on the new Canal St. line is proceeding. In addition to contracts for track specialwork and expansion of the Carrollton barn, NORTA is preparing to enter into agreements for fabrication of key subassemblies for its new fleet of 23 Canal St. Perley Thomas replica cars. Bids have been advertised for structural components as well as trucks, motors and control. The current schedule calls for the first new car to be completed in January 2002, with the 23rd car complete in January of 2004. Assembly is taking place at Carrollton. The new cars will feature PCC-derivative trucks and modern chopper control.
June 2001: The contract to supply the trucks, motors, control and other electrical apparatus for the 23 new Canal St. replica cars has been awarded to Brookville Locomotive.
July 2001: An official groundbreaking ceremony for construction of the new Canal Streetcar project took place on Friday July 20. NORTA was expected to award a contract during the next week for the first construction segment, from Salcedo to Baronne streets, with construction starting by late August.
Quoting directly from the New Orleans Times-Picayune article, “Among those taking part in Friday’s ceremony were U.S. Sen. John Breaux, D-La., who helped secure federal money for the project; Robert Patrick, regional administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, which is supplying 80 percent of the money; Taylor Energy Co. President Patrick Taylor, who donated $1.2 million worth of oilfield pipes, or “Taylor poles,” to support the electric lines that will power the cars; and Leland Lewis, chairman of the Greater New Orleans Hotel-Motel Association, which reached agreement with the RTA on a plan to impose a 1 percent tax on hotel rooms to provide much of the required local match for the project.” Source: New Orleans Times-Picayune
July 2001: The NORTA voted to approve a $19.5-million construction contract on July 24 for the first segment of the Canal Street project. The job went to Boh Bros. Construction Co., for the 1.5-mile portion between Baronne and Salcedo streets. Source: Rail Transit On Line
December 2001: As of November 30th, five replica Canal cars are now in assembly on the shop floor at Carrollton barn, with a 6th car due to start the following week. In addition, the first set of new trucks and propulsion equipment was expected to be ready for inspection at Brookville Locomotive in January. Source: Elmer Von Dullen NORTA
January 2002: On December 18, NORTA awarded a $13.2-million contract to a local firm, Construction South Inc., for a facility to store and maintain the fleet of 24 replica streetcars for the new Canal Streetcar line. The 29,000-sq.–ft. carbarn will be erected behind the RTA’s existing A. Philip Randolph operations center. The work, due for completion in the first quarter of 2003, will include renovating and restoring a 1926 bus garage still standing on the site. In addition to the Canal Streetcars, the Riverfront fleet will reportedly be based here. There will also be space for 13 additional trolleys needed to operate the future Desire corridor. Meanwhile, track installation is underway in the neutral ground (median) of Canal Street between Baronne and Salcedo streets, and work on the next segment between Salcedo and City Park Avenue will start shortly. Source: Rail Transit On Line
June 2002: NORTA staff report that the first test run over the St. Charles Line of a partially complete Canal St. replica car was successfully conducted in late May. Also, NORTA has added a nice map detailing the line construction to its website. In addition, the June edition of Rail Transit On Line carries the following progress report on the Canal St. project.
A $14.1-million trackwork contract for the 0.91-mile (1.46 km) City Park branch of the Canal Street trolley project was awarded by the RTA on May 28 to Boh Bros. Construction Co. Work on the spur, along North Carrollton Avenue, is set to begin by Aug. 1. It was the last of five major contracts and gives Boh Bros. the job of laying track on all three line segments. Meanwhile, progress in being made on the other two sectors. The 1.5 miles (2.4 km) between Baronne and Salcedo streets is about 15 percent complete and the section from Salcedo to City Park Avenue at the Cemeteries is around five percent finished after being delayed by complications encountered during the relocation of a water line. Work is also progressing on a 29,000-sq.-ft. (2,694 meters sq.) maintenance building at the existing A. Philip Randolph Operations Facility, with approximately 10 percent of the job now complete. Ten of the 23 new replica heritage streetcars to be built at the RTA’s Carrollton Barn are under construction and the first is expected to be unveiled in mid-June. A production schedule has been set of around one per month for the next two years. The first phase of the Canal Street line, including an existing segment from the Mississippi River to Salcedo Street, is expected to open for revenue service in autumn 2003, 39 years after buses replaced the original streetcars. The entire route should be fully operational by the spring of 2004. Source: Rail Transit On Line
August 2002: NORTA has added some pictures of the new Canal St. replica cars to the photo gallery on its website.
October 2002: Brookville Equipment had one of their new PCC-style trucks on display inside the Saminco booth at the recent APTA convention in Las Vegas. Saminco is the company supplying the traction motor control package to Brookville for the New Orleans contract.
On a related note Jim Schantz recently posted a pdf file of the Brookville brochure (page 1 / page 2) for the new trucks on the APTA Heritage Trolley site. Also, Saminco has some pictures of Canal replica car 2002 on their website, as well as details on their A300 traction motor controller (pictured below).
March 2003, Progress Continues on New Replica Cars: As of March 11, nine of the new Canal cars are now complete, with six of them sitting in storage under tarps at the end of the Riverfront Line. Numerous internet news groups are also abuzz with conversation about New Orleans building additional cars for other cities. NORTA Board Chairman Jimmy Reiss has expressed a willingness to explore the concept, and so it is possible that additional cities may contact Mr. Reiss to express their interest. On a related note, NORTA would like to replace the seven cars it currently has in service on the Riverfront Line with an additional seven Canal-type cars. If mated with new standard-gauge trucks, the present Riverfront cars could present an excellent opportunity for ready-to-go cars for a start-up or expanding Vintage Trolley operation in another city. Source: NORTA staff
May 2003: Oct. 11 has been set as the opening date of the 3.1-mi. (5 km) Canal Street trolley line between the Mississippi River and the Cemeteries. The one-mile (1.6 km) spur along North Carrollton Avenue is tentatively set for completion by the end of December. However, with the $161-million project now 65 percent finished, the scheduled openings depend on a lack of construction delays caused by inclement weather or other problems. Track installation is still underway at several locations along Canal Street and 11 of the 24 new replica heritage streetcars needed for the line have been assembled by RTA shop
forces at the Carrollton car barn. Source- Rail Transit On Line May 2003
November 2003: A streetcar ran the length of Canal Street under its own power on Oct. 2 for the first time in nearly 40 years. Regional Transit Authority superintendent for vehicle assembly Elmer von Dullen gingerly guided No. 2017, newly minted in the agency’s Carrollton Shops, from Baronne Street to the Cemeteries terminal, testing clearances, track, switches and traction power. The ride, at walking speed, was deemed a complete success. “I used to daily ride the Canal streetcar in the 1950s to work,” von Dullen told The Times-Picayune. “It’s amazing. I never expected the streetcar to return to Canal Street in my lifetime.” Track and wiring were completed about two weeks earlier, although landscaping and other cosmetic work has yet to be finished. The $161-million project to restore trolley service on Canal includes production of 23 replica Perley Thomas streetcars — the originals, now 80 years old, operate on New Orleans’ St. Charles line. A formal dedication ceremony is scheduled for Dec. 6 but revenue service could begin before the end of November. Web site: www.canalstreetcar.com/index.html.
Meanwhile, the Federal Transit Administration on Oct. 9 awarded a $21.6-million grant for the Canal Street project under a $129-million Full Funding Grant Agreement, bringing the FTA contribution so far to nearly $89.6 million. Source- Rail Transit On Line November 2003 Photo from NORTA
August 2004: The May 2004 edition of Rail Transit Online provided the great news about the opening of the Canal St. Line:
More than 150 transit aficionados, history buffs and weekend night owls were on hand shortly after 3 a.m. on Apr. 18 when the first revenue service streetcar in 40 years rolled down Canal Street. Rail enthusiast Alan Drake volunteered to distribute numbers at Salcedo Street, the first stop, to bring order to the scene and prevent a stampede when the car to the City Park Avenue terminal arrived. But the operator ignored the line and pulled up into the middle of crowd, allowing one of his relatives to be the first person on board. The car quickly filled with passengers, including some who had been on the last streetcar on Canal Street in 1964. The service is operated with a fleet of newly-built cars resembling the original Perley-Thomas streetcars that run on the St. Charles line. An estimated 30,000 riders boarded during the first day of service, with 125,000 recorded during the first week. However, a number of problems have caused unexpectedly slow operation, including heavy ridership, motorists blocking intersections, temperamental fareboxes that won’t accept worn dollar bills and operators that are still not totally familiar with the streetcars. The restored route totals 5.5 mi. (8.85 km), including a nearly one-mile (1.6 km) branch along North Carrollton Avenue to Beauregard Circle. A formal dedication ceremony for the new line is scheduled to take place during the Memorial Day weekend because it was on May 31, 1964 that the last streetcar ran on Canal Street. Source- Rail Transit On Line May 2004
The New Orleans page on the APTA Heritage Trolley website also carries some great photos by Jim Schantz.
September 2005: New Orleans suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Katrina, and it is not known when streetcar operation will resume. Reports indicate that the Carrollton carbarn and the 35 streetcars that are used on the St. Charles line were spared from the extensive flooding that caused so much damage in other parts of the city. The Canal St. carbarn unfortunately received major flooding, and the Canal and Riverfront streetcar fleets have been extensively damaged. As of late September, NORTA was reportedly in discussions with Brookville Equipment to move two of the damaged cars to their Brookville PA facility for evaluation.
December 12 2005: Streetcar operation may soon return to New Orleans, at least on a partial basis. On 12/12/05, St. Charles Line car 930 made a series of test operations on the Canal St. line after being towed there from the Carrolton carbarn. Although the Canal Line’s regular fleet of replica cars were extensively damaged, its infrastructure, along with that of the Riverfront Line, survived in better condition than the St. Charles Line. Testing on the Riverfront Line is also anticipated. In other news, two of the flood damaged cars are now at Brookville Equipment being evaluated.
December 14 2005: The Times Picayune reports that streetcar operation will resume Sunday morning, 12/18/05. Based on the successful testing of one of the St. Charles Line cars earlier in the week, partial streetcar service is slated to begin over parts of the Riverfront and Canal Lines.
March 21, 2006: The Boston MBTA has loaned NORTA a large portable traction power substation to use in the restoration of streetcar service. The unit arrived in New Orleans in early February and has been installed to help power the Canal Streetcar line.
NORTA hopes to restore full service on the Canal Line in the near future using the historic streetcar fleet from the St. Charles Line. Although the St. Charles line itself sustained heavy damage to its traction power / overhead wire system, the streetcar fleet emerged unscathed. The almost new Canal Line replica trolleys may also be repaired locally, using the Carrolton carbarn facility where they were constructed in 2002-03.
Repairs to the St. Charles Line are presently expected to take up to two years. Shortly before hurricane Katrina struck, NORTA was actually preparing to have a contractor begin work on an overhaul of the line’s traction power / overhead wire system. The hurricane damage caused a major scope change in this project, however, and so numerous issues remain unresolved at this time.
May 2, 2006: The portable substation borrowed from the MBTA in Boston was placed in service in early April and streetcars have resumed running the length of Canal Street and out the branch to City Park. Service is being provided using cars from the St. Charles line that were unaffected by the hurricane. Jim Schantz has posted a comprehensive report on the ongoing New Orleans recovery on the APTA Heritage Trolley website.
February 2007: A 1.2-mile stretch of the hurricane-damaged St. Charles Avenue streetcar line from Canal Street to Lee Circle was returned to limited service on Dec. 19. However, only two cars are being used and they operate only between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. on headways of 13 to 26 min. Hurricane Katrina virtually destroyed the overhead traction power system along the historic 100-block route. The system is being rebuilt under a contract signed before Katrina. Regional Transit Authority officials hope to open another segment from Lee Circle to Napoleon Avenue by mid-2007 and to the end of the line at South Carrollton and South Claiborne during the first half of 2008. Source- Rail Transit Online
October 2007: Another stretch of the hurricane damaged St. Charles Avenue streetcar is due to return to service later this month. Streetcars are expected to be running shortly between Canal Street and Napoleon (About half of the line’s pre-Hurricane length).
November 2007: As planned, streetcars officially returned to St. Charles Ave on November 11. The CanalStreetcar.com website has detailed coverage of the event, including videos and the great photos below. Streetcars now run daily between Canal Street and Napoleon (About half of the line’s pre-Hurricane length).
December 2007: Streetcars returned to the full length of St. Charles Ave on December 23, operating from Canal to Riverbend. Only the final section of the line on South Carrollton now remains out of service. The event drew news coverage in the Times Picayune and the New York Times.
April 2008: An informal group from the APTA Heritage Trolley & Streetcar Subcommittee visited New Orleans in mid-March. During our visit we had the opportunity to meet with NORTA staff and see first hand the efforts underway to return the system to its pre-Katrina mileage. The full system is presently operating, less the outer 1.2 miles of the St. Charles Line beyond Riverbend, where work continues on upgrading the OCS system. Substation work is underway, new trolley wire and feeder cables have been installed the entire length of the line, and steel poles are also being replaced on an as-needed basis over the length of the line.
The St. Charles line is operating on its traditional route, while the Canal and Riverfront Lines are presently through-routed, with additional shuttle cars serving the Convention Center end of the line. The restoration of the 2002 Canal car fleet is underway, with NORTA handling repairs and repainting of the carbodies in-house at the Carrollton Station carbarn. Brookville Equipment will be overhauling the running gear at their facility in Pennsylvania, and new propulsion equipment from Saminco will be installed at Carrollton.
June 2008: With repairs to the traction power system now completed, the full length of the St. Charles streetcar is once again in operation. A ceremony was held on June 22 to commemorate this significant milestone. Click here for a Times Picayune article on the event. At Carrollton Station, work continues on the restoration of the flood damaged fleet of Canal streetcars. RTA employees continue restoration and painting of the carbodies, and contractor Brookville Equipment is installing the new wiring and propulsion equipment, along with the refurbished trucks.
December 2008: On December 5-6 the APTA Heritage Trolley & Streetcar Subcommittee held its 2008 field meeting in New Orleans. On Friday, participants began the day at Carrollton Station where they received a presentation from Brookville Equipment on their ongoing work with NORTA staff on the restoration of the flood-damaged Canal Street replica fleet. This was followed by a tour of the shops, and then streetcar rides on the system. A business meeting was held on Saturday. The first six restored Canal St. replica cars returned to service shortly after our visit, on December 12.
February 2010: Restoration of NORTA’s streetcar fleet is now approaching completion; all 24 of the Canal Street replica cars are back in service, and 3 of the 7 Riverfront Cars are also complete. The cars have been completely refurbished including upgraded control equipment and other important improvements based on lessons learned during their initial time in service.
In other New Orleans streetcar news, the City is getting $45 million under the federal TIGER economic recovery program to build a 1.5-mile streetcar line along Loyola Avenue to Union Passenger Terminal. No new streetcars will have to be purchased because RTA will use surplus cars from the Canal Street and Riverfront lines. Click here for the Times-Picayune article.
July 2010: Mass Transit Magazine has published an article detailing the latest expansion plans for the New Orleans streetcar system. The article details the City’s ambitious three-component program of streetcar projects: UPT/Loyola Avenue Streetcar Loop; French Quarter Streetcar Loop; and Convention Center/Riverfront Streetcar Loop.
August 2011: Construction has started on the new 1.5 mile spur on Loyola Ave. that will link Canal Street with New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal. The Times Picayune ran a detailed article on the start of construction. The RTA secured $45 million to fund this new line from a federal TIGER grant which is awarded to transportation projects that will spur economic growth and create environmental benefits. According to the terms of the grant, the streetcar line will be open for service in mid-2012. An official groundbreaking ceremony was held on June 7, 2011, attended by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, RTA Board members, and many other local officials. Meanwhile, the RTA has authorized a request for proposals on a contract for final design of the French Quarter streetcar loop along North Rampart Street and St. Claude Avenue between Canal Street and Press Street, with a 1.2-mi. (1.93 km) branch on Elysian Fields Avenue connecting with the Riverfront line at Esplanade Avenue. Funding totaling $90 million is already available and officials hope to start construction in late 2012 or early 2013.
Click here for a related article from Architect Magazine.