Saturday, January 15, 2011

Streetcars of New Orleans


A classic St. Charles Ave. streetcar turns around on New Orleans' Canal Street.
For the tourist who is an unreconstructed rail buff, the streetcars of New Orleans are a powerful attraction, and of course I just had to ride them during my recent two-day visit to the Big Easy.

Actually, I had time to patronize just one of the three lines -- the oldest, the 7 1/2-mile-long St. Charles Avenue line, which has existed since 1835. One morning I rode it for several miles west from Canal Street along the Garden District all the way to Tulane University, and was struck by the fact that native New Orleanians, not just tourists, ride the line heavily. That should not be surprising, for each ride costs just $1.25, and seniors and PWDs get a discount. (In Chicago, the regular fare is $2.25.)

The St. Charles line has an interesting history. Originally steam locomotives pulled the cars, but when those who lived along the street finally had their fill of smoke and cinders, horses and mules were employed as motive power. That's backwards. Usually early streetcar lines began with horses and later moved to steam.

In 1893 the line was electrified.

Rail buffs notice instantly that the distance between rails is 5 feet 2 1/2 inches, not the conventional 4 feet 8 1/2 inches of American railroading. Supposedly broad-gauge tracks give a better, stabler ride with less rocking.  One of the other two lines, the Riverfront line, was originally built in 1988 to the 4 feet 8 1/2 inch standard, but was regauged in 1997 to broad gauge so that its cars could run on the other two lines to the storage barns.

The colorful red cars on the Canal St. and Riverfront lines are fairly new or recent rebuilds, but the classic green Perley Thomas streetcars on the St. Charles run date back to 1923 and 1924.

When Hurricane Katrina wrecked the city in 2005, all the lines were badly damaged and the red cars were ruined by floodwaters. The green cars, however, had been stored on high ground and escaped damage. Not until late 2008 were all three lines fully restored to service.

New Orleans clearly loves its streetcars. The Lady Friend and I noticed that the motormen and motorwomen, like service people everywhere in the city, are unfailingly kind to everyone, locals and tourists, and are quick to give directions when asked. That, in our experience, rarely happens in Chicago or New York.

That shouldn't be surprising. New Orleans still has not completely recovered from Katrina, and its people know that the best way to attract tourists again is to make them feel welcome and perhaps valued for something more than their money.

They sure did me.

FEBRUARY 7: The New York Times' transit blog reports that New Orleans plans to expand its streetcar lines in a big way.

The motorman's view down St. Charles Street in the Garden District.

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