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History of American Electric Railway


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I wonder sometimes if one of the major reasons why the United States did not develop large scale underground metro railway systems is because it had significantly broader urban roads which had space for trams, so while Europe was tunneling its metro system the US was simply building on top of the roads.


The website itself also states that the density of tram networks in the US were unsurpassed by those in Europe and Japan, and notably it also points to the widespread use of interurbans as a replacement/cognate for the suburban railway networks elsewhere, and specifically it also discusses a 1000km route through a mixture of trams and interurban rails.

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@bill937ca, Thanks for sharing!


Since the development of the electric multiple unit in Japan, as well as the appearance of electric railways, from the first electric (streetcars) railways/trains appearing in Japan between 1890/1895 to the first cardan drive/new-performance cars which signaled the point where the Japanese industry started to become a leader in terms of technology, the development of electric traction in Japan has been interwoven with developments in the United States. Sprague, Brill, Peckham, General Electric and Westinghouse, they all have contributed massively to the development of electric traction in Japan, and as such played their part in the development of the Japanese railway system as we know it today.



Once again thanks for sharing, I had originally come across this site a couple of months ago, when researching the 1890 Ueno Industrial Exhibition Sprague type Electric Trains (the first electric trains ever to run in Japan)for an article I'm writing, but it somehow never occurred to me to simply share it. Though it didn't contain the information I was looking for, as American electric traction is my favorite train/railroad related niche outside of Japan (perhaps the only subject to even come close to my interest in Japanese trains (and especially traction), though still not entirely on the same playing field though), it is relevant to my interests anyway.


So, cheers!



19 hours ago, TokyoImperialPalace said:

I wonder sometimes if one of the major reasons why the United States did not develop large scale underground metro railway systems is because it had significantly broader urban roads which had space for trams, so while Europe was tunneling its metro system the US was simply building on top of the roads.


Uhm, no, just no.


Most of the streetcar systems in the United States started popping up between the 1870's and the early 1900's, and were mainly an inner city thing, with quite a number of them starting as horse car systems. Electrification, in particular after the opening of the first practical electric streetcar system, the Richmond Union Passenger Railway which opened in 1888, transformed most of these systems in the 1890's and early 1900's. While the roads they would run on were indeed wider than say a medieval city center in Europe, they weren't all that different from the 18th and 19th century urban centers built around (or in place of) these small medieval clusters which could also be found al around Europe (including in some of the medieval cities mentioned earlier, Paris is an excellent example of this as it both retained a part of it's medieval center, while large parts of the city were reconstructed under Haussmann between 1853 and 1870) during this time period. The electric streetcar was introduced into European countries somewhat later than the US, not surprising as the technology was developed in the US, and peaked somewhat later as well. The reason why the United States had more streetcar and interurban systems than anybody else requires is multifaceted, however, one of the main reasons is that streetcars (and interurbans) peaked early in the US.


There were multiple reasons why the streetcar peaked so early in the United States, one being the fact that the technology had been pretty much invented in the United States by people like Frank J Sprague, the second being that the United States was leading in electric technology at that point in time, with the legendary rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse being a good example of this and third the economic climate, the US was finding itself in a period of economic growth following the conclusion of the Civil War and the onset of the second industrial revolution led to American cities growing exponentially, clogging said cities as the transportation methods of that time weren't capable of handling the increased populations, as well as a good number of people who accumulated an ever increasing share of the wealth generated by said economy, who were more than willing to expand their wealth even further by investing in lucrative businesses, railways were at that point still very lucrative investments, and the same would be true for the streetcar. Electric streetcars were after all a revolutionary change in urban transportation, so investing in this new form of transportation was almost guaranteed to result in a good return on investment. Adding electric streetcars to the already overburdened infrastructure however, predictably led to even more congested roads than before.


It was actually this congestion which prompted the construction of the first subway tunnels in the US, the Boston Tremont Street Subway which opened in September 1897, as well as the first modern subway system (in my opinion at least)[note1], the Interborough Rapid Transit opening in October 1904. In fact it would be the expansion of the New York city subway which would see the end of streetcars in Manhattan, decades prior to the demise of the American streetcar due to private automobile ownership in the 1950's and 1960's. This would be followed by other systems like the Market-Frankford line in Philadelphia, opening in March of 1907. The Hudson & Manhattan Railroad which opened a subway line between 19th street in Manhattan and Hoboken Terminal in New Jersey in February of 1908. The Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company opening their first subway station in September 1908 (Essex Street), the Washington Street tunnel opening as Boston's first 'modern' (for elevated cars as opposed to streetcars) subway in 1908, the Independent Subway System 8th Avenue Line opening in September of 1932, the third subway network to open in NYC (though the first to be operated as a municipal system, it was owned by the City of New York), and finally the State Street Subway, Chicago's first subway tunnel, which also connected to the El.


Add to this the elevated railways in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, as well as Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia, which by the turn of the century had either been, or were in the process of being, electrified and running electric multiple units [note2], and I think you can make a good case for the United States actually playing a much larger role in terms of rapid transit development than Europe did, at least in the first half of the 20th century.


this is also borne out by the fact that most of the technology still in use on rapid transit systems, as well as electric railways in general, were developed in the United States, a short selection of which shows:


- The nose suspension drive, the first practical drive system for electric trains (Frank Sprague, ~1885, first implemented on the Richmond Union Passenger Railway in 1888)

- Multiple unit control (Sprague, 1895, first implemented on the South Side Elevated Railway (Chicago) in 1897)

- Dynamic braking (Sprague prior to 1888)

- Regenerative braking (Sprague 1890's)

- Indirect (low voltage) main controllers (Westinghouse unit switch type controllers (e.g. ABF), General Electric MK type controllers)

- Camshaft operated indirect controllers (General Electric PC series electro pneumatic camshaft controllers(~1914))

- Automatic air-brakes for electric motor cars (Westinghouse M valve (1904?))

- Direct air-brakes with an emergency valve (Westinghouse SME ~1907)

- the WN-drive (Westinghouse, developed in the 1930's, first used for the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Electroliners in 1941, with the NYCTA R10 and R12 contracts being the first rapid transit cars to be using a WN-Drive)

- Electro Pneumatic direct air-brake with emergency valve (Westinghouse SMEE)

- Combined air/dynamic braking (SMEE-D, HSC-D. SMEE-D was first used on the NYCTA R10 and R12 contracts (with all R10~R42 contracts being known as SMEE cars)


etc etc.


In fact US technology was so dominant in the field of electric multiple units, that it influenced the development of electric railways around the world, including Europe.

There's a pretty good reason, why the first steel cars for the Paris Métro, the M2~M4 classes, were known as the Sprague (from Frank J Sprague, the father of electric traction)- Thomson (Thomson-Houston Electrical Company, merged with the Edison General Electric Company in 1892, forming the well current General Electric) trains (or simply rame Sprague in short) trains in Paris.


This position however started to change in the late 1920's, ending with the near collapse of the American rail based passenger system between the late 1940's and the 1960's. Though I will not claim to be an expert in the political and social changes which shaped mid century America, though I do find it a fascinating subject, but in terms of transit policies and public perception things started to change around the time of the Great Depression starting in 1929, and accelerating to it's ultimate conclusion in the late 1940's and 1950's.


Transit/railway systems, most of which still being privately owned during this time, bore the brunt of this change, with most already feeling the pressure of increased private automobile ownership during the 1920's and 1930's, and the rough years of the great depression, leading to less income and therefore less investment in the systems. Add to this the maturation of the transit bus, which could be (and was) built by automotive manufacturers, and supported by the oil companies and tire manufacturers, and the promotion of said buses as a more cost effective alternative to rail based transport. An outgrowth of this being the infamous National City Lines, a transit holding company operating between 1936 and 1978, which was partially funded by General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone Tires and Phillips Petroleum. They would be acquiring a host ailing streetcar companies, with most of these having their streetcar lines converted to bus routes within a couple of years.


The US involvement in WW2 would further strain the system, with increased usage of the railroad systems (railroads in general contributed extensively to the US, and therefore allied victory in WW2, but were shafted pretty horribly after the war ended) with barely any room for maintenance, difficulty in keeping older rolling stock in service because the production of new equipment had pretty much been halted (while at the same time the car manufacturers and aircraft manufacturers had their infrastructure shored up in order to built tens of thousands of tanks and transport aircraft for the war effort, which helped kick start both industries after the war ended), leading to their systems being overburdened, overused and in bad need of repair after the war ended and the economy recovered.


Those repairs however, would never really happen, with the end of the war and the economy recovering private automobile sales, aided by the investments made during the war, skyrocketed during the late 1940's and early 1950's. The same was true for air travel, with thousands of surplus C47's, C46's, C54's R4D's etc, being sold at auction, flooding the aviation market with relatively cheap and modern aircraft, combined with increased government investment in navigation aids and airports due to the start of the cold war. Research into heavy bombers and transport aircraft during the war, coupled with retrieved German wartime research into aerodynamics and jet engines led to companies like Douglas, Lockheed and Boeing (at that point still more successful as a manufacturer of heavy bombers) emerging into the post-war world with a definitive edge in their respective field, which would give them a head start (especially Boeing, having designed and built the B-47 and B-52 turbojet powered bombers in the first decade after the war) in the design and construction of the first successful jetliners in the late 1950's, which would upset the balance even further.


The interstate act of 1956 more or less sounded the death knell for rail based passenger transportation in the United States, and can be seen as one of the primary reasons for the transformation into a car centric society still which is still alive and kicking today. Not only did the interstate act help doom the railways, it also permanently changed society, but also the social and economic structure of the American city.

With more and more suburbs being build, all designed around private automobile ownership, and more and more people migrating from the city centers towards these suburbs, the resulting decline of the American inner city with only the poorest and most destitute people remaining, led to a negative feedback loop due to which these cities would eventually fall into a deep, downward spiral.

With the tax base shifting, and most people now living and working in areas designed around cars, less and less money was being spend on public transport, and the money that was being spend was mostly spend on converting rail based systems into buses, rapid transit projects were mostly shelved or postponed indefinitely. And with more and more people growing up with cars as the de-facto standard of transportation, hailed as a symbol of freedom and wealth, public perception of rail based transport as outdated, dirty and unsafe completed the cycle, as the representatives they elected weren't interested in rail based transit either.


More than a decade without any form of rail based public transit, and the oil crisis would change things a little, with a small number of rapid transit systems being built in the 1970's and 1980's, including the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART, 1972), Washington Metro (1976), the Atlanta Metropolitan Rapid Transit Authority rapid transit system (MARTA, 1979), Baltimore Metro (1983) and Miami Metrolink (1984). The 1990's would of course see the opening of systems like the LA Metro Rail in 1990, with the first heavy rail line, the red line, opening in 1993. However, it is still a far cry from situation as it was 100 years ago, with sprawling electric railroad systems in almost every corner of the US, from the East coast to the West, from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico, almost all lost to the ages.


So no, the United States didn't focus on streetcars because of the wider roads, and it's not like the US didn't built subway systems because of this (they most certainly did, as I mentioned), while European countries did (most of them didn't, at least not until after the war). The American passenger railway system, and with it the manufacturing sector, simply collapsed (was allowed to collapse to be frank) due to societal changes following WW2, with passenger railroads of any kind vanishing from the public conscious, with the exception of a few remaining systems which managed to survive by the skin of their teeth, and as such became a symbol of outdated technology and lack of freedom for a majority of Americans. As such investments in rail based transit technology, including new rapid transit systems, dried up and coupled with the declining social and economical situation of the American cities during the period which followed this led to existing systems no longer getting the income they needed to function and falling into disrepair, the NYC subway of the 1970's and 1980's is a prime example of this (if you ever want a good example of a transit system pushed to the absolute brink of destruction, yet which somehow manages to keep "functioning" despite it all... the NYC city subway during this period was simply something else), which led to a further deterioration of public perception of public transport which further strengthened the negative feedback loop.


This may have also led to impractical, unrealistic and sometimes seemingly fraudulent gadgetbahn style proposals, like the (Hype(r))Loop, personal rapid transit and various other proposals, gaining traction or sometimes even approval in lieu of actual rail based transit solutions, as rail is still seen as an outdated form of transportation by a lot of people (or even worse, the S word) while personal transportation is not. Though this may just be the grumblings of a (relatively) young person (30's is still young right? right?..) uninterested in the vision of futurism sold by those who propose, or admire such proposals😉.



while Europe was tunneling its metro system the US was simply building on top of the roads.


They really weren't though, most European cities relied on streetcar systems to the same extend as American cities, some even more so, in the first half of the 20th century. In fact, there wouldn't be all that many rapid transit systems built prior to the decline of the American (electric) railway industry, and hence the end of American dominance in this field, in the 1950's and 1960's: the London Underground (1863/1890), Budapest Földalatti (1896), Paris Métro (1900), Berliner U-Bahn (1902), Hamburg Hochbahn (1911), the Madrid Metroo (1919) and the Barcelona Metro (1924), with only the London and Paris subway systems coming even close to the massive size of the NYC Subway (IRT, BMT and IND systems) in this period.


Even today there quite a large number of European cities for which the streetcar network is their primary urban public transportation system, including a number of capital cities (and including some which also still operate a streetcar network to this day).




[note1], while London, of course, built the first underground railway, the Metropolitan Railway in 1863 this was of course a steam hauled railway with all the disadvantages associated with it. As such the steam hauled underground railway never caught on, and though it is of course historically highly significant, it would be a stretch to consider it modern in any sense of the word. To add to this, the only technology it really introduced was the use of the cut and cover method of tunneling. The same can be said for the City and South London Railway which opened the first deep-bore underground line. Though they did use electric power (4th rail) for propulsion, they would be relying on electric locomotives rather than multiple units. The Földalatti, the first subway line to be built on the European continent used motor cars with no MU capability and a overhead power supply, the Tremont Street Subway was built for streetcars, and the Paris Métro used wooden two axle cars when it opened in 1900.

In contrast, the IRT was the first to use electric multiple units from the start (the composites), with power being supplied via 3rd rail and fitted with Westinghouse automatic air brakes. This combined with the infrastructure itself, including things like for example block signaling, a relatively high operating speed as well as normally sized tunnels, is enough for me to consider the NYC subway the first truly modern subway system.


[note2] Though the Elevated railroads weren't subway systems in the purest sense of the word, they were operating on grade separated track for the most part, and they would also play a large part in the development of the electric multiple unit, as well as being an important link between streetcars and the larger commuter and other mainline EMUs. Adding to this, once electrified the rolling stock they used was similar, or even nearly identical (and in some cases exactly the same) to the rapid transit stock introduced during the same time period. As such, in my humble opinion, I personally think that the elevated railroads played larger role in the emergence of the rapid transit systems as we know them today, than some of the other early subway systems.

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