When and why did Pittsburgh stop using street cars? | Pittsburgh City Paper

When and why did Pittsburgh stop using street cars?

Question submitted by: Joseph Forbes, South Side



Street-car service in Pittsburgh ended not with a bang but with a transfer -- usually to a bus, and over the course of decades.




At its height, local trolley service was operated by the Pittsburgh Railways Company, which was formed at the turn of the century from the consolidation of nearly 200 smaller car lines.


By the Port Authority's count, at its peak in World War I, the Pittsburgh Railways Company operated 99 trolley lines along more than 600 miles of track. Some trolleys were "interurban" lines that joined Pittsburgh to such far-flung metropoli as Washington, Pa., and Charleroi.


But even then, there were complaints about trolleys. There were, in fact, serious talks about installing a subway Downtown in the early 1900s, when the center city was already crisscrossed by street car tracks. The problem was that the trolleys ran alongside cars and trucks, and thus didn't do as much to ease street congestion as they might have. You may have heard similar complaints about the phalanx of buses that occupy Downtown streets at rush hour today. It's hard to imagine anyone objecting to the presence of a trolley that way -- they don't belch out noxious fumes, for one thing -- but then none of us have been stuck behind a trolley in decades.


And as history has shown, people prefer to belch out their own noxious emissions. Automobile usage began supplanting the trolley not long after the end of the First World War.


"Some routes were so unprofitable that they were abandoned in the 1920s," reports Touring Pittsburgh by Trolley, a nostalgic look at trolley service. Many other lines shut down in a system-wide reorganization in 1951, either disbanded entirely or scaled back, with buses operating "feeder routes" to shortened trolley routes -- a kind of hub-and-spoke system like US Airways used to have.


The system didn't help Pittsburgh Railways much more than it helped the airline: Pittsburgh Railways spent much of its existence in and out of bankruptcy too, having never fully recovered from a 1917 accident that left 21 passengers dead. (They never recovered either, obviously.) In 1959, trolley routes serving the West End and outlying communities like Neville Island and Carnegie were shut down. Others shut down one by one, sometimes under lamentable circumstances. Touring Pittsburgh tells the sad story of the Glassport route, which closed before its scheduled termination date when a storm knocked down all the power wires overhead.


What really did in the trolleys, though, was a force greater than mere Nature: suburban sprawl. In 1947, as Port Authority history shows, nearly three-quarters of Allegheny County residents lived "close to urban population centers accessible by trolley lines." That was about to change, just as the Port Authority was taking over operations from Pittsburgh Railways and a score of long-struggling private bus companies. "The suburban housing and shopping-center boom of the 1950s and 1960s compelled the Authority to add and extend service," the Port Authority's history notes. "For the first time, transit service was provided to areas which had been sparsely populated and rural in character."


The trolley lines could have been extended, perhaps. But as Touring Pittsburgh author Harold Smith observes with a minimum of rancor (for a trolley fan), "PAT was bus-minded to a fault. Between 1964 and 1967, it ended trolley service on all North Side and East End lines. By the early 1970s, only the present South [Hills] and the 53-Carrick line remained."


In fairness to the Authority, laying track costs money, and besides -- what many drivers wanted, and still want, from mass transit is for it to get the hell out of the way. Trolleys couldn't do that: They rode along at street level just like buses, and didn't have any flexibility to change their routes.


In one sense, though, the trolleys have never stopped running in Pittsburgh. Today, the "T" runs alongside the right-of-way once used by Pittsburgh's streetcars and interurban trolleys. There's talk of extending that rail service to the North Side, and from there someday all the way out to Carnegie and beyond. At that rate, in a century or two, rail service here could be right back where we started. Which is pretty slow, even for an old trolley.