Electric Interurban & Suburban Railway General Information


The electric interurban railway was a short-lived and mostly forgotten system of mass transit that sprung into existence in the last decade of the 19th century. After explosive growth in the 1890s and 1900s, the industry was almost completely decimated by 1930. Its relative obscurity is not due to its lack of importance or extent, for there were thousands of miles of tracks in many states funded by a significant amount of speculative investment, but because of the industry's complete and swift collapse.

CG&P On Kellogg Avenue Near Coney Island

This CG&P track on Kellogg Avenue near Lunken Airport is a typical example of side-of-the-road running. This photo also shows just how poor the condition of the roads could be. From the University of Cincinnati Library Digital Resource Commons, Street Construction and Improvements collection.

Shortly after the invention of reliable traction motors and the subsequent electrification of local street railway systems starting in 1888, entrepreneurial individuals began applying the technology to longer haul routes to serve territory that was lacking meaningful transportation. It must be reiterated that in the late 19th and early 20th century, paved roads of any sort were limited to cities and a few wealthy suburbs. The best hope for rural transportation in the absence of steam railroads was a gravel road, though in the vast majority of cases they were just dirt. In summer the roads would be rutted and dusty, and in the winter and spring they could be impassible due to mud or washouts. Folks living in towns with a railroad station could get around to some degree, but fares were high and the schedule was very infrequent. Many small towns that built spurs off of mainline railroads found themselves stuck with once daily trains that made anything but long distance travel hugely impractical. Some of the narrow gauge railroads built in the 1870s helped a little bit, but schedules were still relatively infrequent.


The interurban changed everything. The small electrically powered cars could accelerate much more quickly than long lumbering steam trains, and they could tackle steep grades and tight turns, so they could make many more frequent stops and still maintain a reasonable schedule (reasonable at the time being around 25 mph). This flexibility allowed farmers living along the tracks, or merchants in small towns the ability to get on or off just about anywhere, rather than at stations spaced several miles apart. Also, most interurbans scheduled cars every hour, with a few extra runs during busy periods. This much improved frequency, with many more stops, decent speed, and somewhat lower fares than mainline railroads (about 1/2 to 2/3 the cost for the same distance) allowed many more people to travel who couldn't before. It was finally possible for a farmer's wife or the small town family to take a trip into the big city for shopping, a baseball game, or an evening at the theater without having to spend the night in a hotel. Merchants and salesmen could travel between many more towns than before, and deliveries of express freight and milk could be made in a few hours rather than overnight. Express service at freight rates was a common advertising slogan throughout the industry.


In many ways the interurban was a network that filled the gap in service and territory between that of the large steam railroads and the local street railway. While they operated similar equipment to streetcars, they were generally longer and heavier, though they were still restricted to certain clearances necessary to operate on local street railway tracks. They were products of the investment and speculation of both the railroad and streetcar industries, but they still tended to be rather poorly funded affairs. Thus, most could not afford to secure their own entrance into the downtown of many cities, requiring trackage rights over the local street railway. Once out in the country however, they generally operated either at the side of the road or on their own private right-of-way, which was often happily donated by the adjacent farmers for the promise of better transportation and improved land value. Some short line, narrow gauge, and commuter railroads from the 1870s were absorbed into larger interurban networks or upgraded to electric operation around the turn of the 20th century. Others became mainline or branch steam railroads, but those short lines that didn't manage to upgrade simply faded away, unable to compete with electric traction or later automobiles.


The interurban's primary focus was on passenger service and intercity operation. There were a number of suburban streetcar lines that took on interurban-like characteristics, but they generally still used the slower streetcars, were focused on shorter-haul suburban service, and didn't carry any freight. While freight was not the primary concern of the interurbans, it was still important. A few interurbans that developed their freight business aggressively managed to survive as dieselized branch lines to larger railroads. The ones that had virtually no freight operations were some of the most vulnerable and earliest to abandon. Most got about a third of their revenue from hauling less-than-carload (LCL) freight, express, mail, and especially milk in the baggage compartments of their combined cars. It was not unusual for an interurban to have some freight trailers, but the combined freight and passenger cars were the most common, with some self-contained electric freight cars called box motors.


Infrastructure was fairly ordinary. Most interurbans were built with a single track with passing sidings at regular intervals. Collisions were avoided by strict adherence to written timetables, as well as regular telephone communication with the dispatching office. Manual block signals were most common, being thrown by the motorman as he passed by. This worked fairly well, but head-on collisions still happened from time to time. Some interurbans built their track to steam railroad standards, and others (particularly in New England) were little more than rural trolley lines, with very slow speeds, tight turns, and heavy grades. In the midwest they tended to fall somewhere in between. Most of the Cincinnati area interurbans had to contend with some fairly steep grades, but since that was less of an impediment with electric propulsion, most didn't bother too much with excessive grading or the easing of tight turns. The real problem was choosing which track gauge to use. Standard gauge allowed easy interchange with steam railroads, but since the Cincinnati Street Railway used broad gauge streetcar tracks, it meant there was no way to reach downtown via the street railway system. Choosing the street railway gauge thus made freight interchange extremely difficult, if not impossible. Both options usually ended up being somewhat moot anyway. Steam railroads (especially in the eastern part of the country where there was already a highly developed network) were regularly hostile to the interurbans, and in many cases they were only compelled to interchange freight cars after lengthy legal battles. Street railway companies could also be very troublesome as well, charging exorbitant rental fees for access to their tracks and power systems. The only reprieve was for interurban companies fortunate enough to be owned by the same syndicate or individuals as the street railway. In many cases the interurbans had to manage on their own, which weakened their abilities significantly.


The typical electrical system was 600 volts DC, the same as most local street railways. This ensured compatibility, and it was also was the most highly developed and reliable. Because of the limits of DC transmission, substations were required every 5-10 miles to feed the running wire, with high voltage AC transmission lines connecting the substations to the central power plant. Each company usually built their own power facilities, and many also started supplying general use electricity to the towns along their route. As the systems became outmoded, they generally shut down their generating facilities and bought the power wholesale from growing utility companies. Eventually, the transmission lines and franchise agreements with local towns made them inviting targets for acquisition by those same utility interests.

CG&P On Kellogg Avenue Near Coney Island

The CL&A was a pioneer in purchasing new lightweight one-man cars. This particular one was manufactured by the Cincinnati Car Company, which also incorporated many of the same techniques into more modern streetcars.

Despite the sale of electricity and various levels of freight handling, passenger service was most important to the interurbans as already touched on before. Many of them, including several of the ones here in Cincinnati, paralleled steam railroad lines and siphoned off a large amount of their local traffic. This was the least profitable service for those steam railroads, but the interurbans did just fine with it at first. Some routes went through areas that were completely unserved by steam railroads, so in many of those towns along the way their construction was heralded with day-long festivities. Nevertheless, the sort of infrequent travel that characterized the interurbans was also the most vulnerable to competition from paved highways, automobiles, and trucks. As highways were improved throughout the late 1910s and 1920s, the interurbans saw their passenger revenues start to drop. Some economized operations by switching to lightweight one-man cars, which saved dramatically on salaries, electricity, and track maintenance. Many also retired their outmoded power plants and began buying electricity wholesale from the power company. This allowed many companies that would have folded in the late 1910s and early 1920s to hang on for about another decade. The companies that had little freight business to fall back on, or that served very sparsely settled areas were the first to go however. Since the industry was never particularly profitable to begin with, it didn't take much of a drop in passenger traffic to send a company into receivership. Many never paid dividends on their stock and were saddled with debt throughout their whole existence.


With the growth of automobile travel, there was increasing pressure in the 1920s and 30s to get the rails off the roads. Towns began to see the tracks in their streets as a nuisance, especially as the traction companies began deferring maintenance of the road around their rails. Out in the country, state and county governments tried to close down some of the interurbans so they could use their right-of-way to widen the adjacent highways. There was also growing investment in electric utilities, and many interurbans were bought out by syndicates and investors whose primary interest was in the electrical infrastructure, not in operating public transportation.


After the Great Depression had taken its toll, virtually nothing remained of the industry. Only a few lines around Chicago and the extensive Pacific Electric in Los Angeles, both more like heavy rapid transit lines, among a few others scattered around the country remained. By the middle of the 1960s even that was gone, and today only the Chicago, South Shore & South Bend remains. That system has been mostly upgraded to heavy rapid transit and electrified freight service, with some of its early interurban character remaining between Michigan City and South Bend. Here in Cincinnati and pretty much everywhere else, all that remains of the once extensive interurban railway system are earthworks, the occasional bridge abutment, and power lines along the overgrown rights-of-way. Today it's difficult to imagine taking an electric traction car from a place like Georgetown, Hillsboro, Blanchester, Lebanon, Hamilton, Harrison, or Aurora, Indiana to downtown Cincinnati, but for at least a short period of time in history many people did. Modern light rail systems are similar in some ways, but they tend to be much more heavily built, and are really more suburban commuter oriented than the interurbans of 100 years ago. Even so, should Cincinnati ever build light rail, it would not be something new and foreign to southwest Ohio, and in fact, if you know where to look, it's pretty easy to see evidence of this once extensive network of clean and reliable public transit.


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