Photo by Richard Schumacher, Model by John Carty
An Introduction to Modeling Trains Under the Wire
What is an Interurban?
An Interurban railway, also called a radial railway in parts of Canada, was a type of passenger railroad that enjoyed widespread popularity at the turn of the twentieth century in North America. Interurbans often extended city streetcar lines to connect urban areas or to stretch from urban to rural areas. Companies started operations using cars drawn by draft animals. With the advent of practical electrical power, systems converted their lines to the new technology in an era when steam railroads had not yet adopted electricity to any large degree. Many companies also owned electric utilities providing electrical power in the cites in which they operated.
Clean, convenient, and efficient, Interurban lines faded with the advent of the personal automobile. Remnants remain as commuter railroads or as freight short lines.
Types of Interurban Railroads
Several basic types of interurban exist. The first consists of streetcar lines. Operators laid rails right down the middle of streets after obtaining a franchise from the municipality. This created the first effective mass transit in the country. Lines connected residential neighborhoods with commercial districts. As bonus to the cities, the franchise often required the streetcar company to spray the streets during the summer months to keep down the dust resulting from dirt streets.
The second type of company connected local communities. This type of line often resulted from extensions of streetcar lines. These companies operated regularly scheduled transportation between communities. Although tracks ran down streets, companies used private rights of way between towns, which often paralleled steam roads.
A third type of company moved freight. Although passenger lines did provide parcel services within their territory, freight lines specialized in bulk freight just like many steam roads. These roads utilized street running, private rights of way, or both. Such an operation may switch a small area like a wharf. On the other hand many companies created an operation of this type to haul a particular commodity such as coal. Motive power for freight operations consists of “motors.”
The last type of interurban consists of a combination of the above types. Usually larger operations moved both freight and passengers. One of these, the Illinois Traction System or Illinois Terminal, became the only class 1 electric railroad in the United States. From the standpoint of the modeler, an interurban providing common-carrier service provides the most interesting opportunities.
Why Model an Interurban
So the question remains: What can an interurban add to my layout? That depends on the approach taken. As an adjunct to a model of a steam road, an interurban provides contrast. First, by constructing a “mere” loop, the cars provide animated “scenery.” Next, stations could provide additional destinations for operators to provide connections for passengers and express freight. Finally, interurban operations expand the operating potential the layout as a whole. These options stem from adding an interurban to a layout featuring steam road(s).
If you wish to focus on the interurban in your layout, the electric road provide other incentives. As model railroaders, we constantly make compromises in our creations. Selective compression, tight curves, short trains, forced perspective, etc. dominate our attempts to create in limited space. With the interurban railway, however, tight spaces defined the prototype. City buildings create man-made canyons along the streets restricting the minimum radius for street tracks to as little as thirty-five feet (5 inches in HO scale). Also one or two cars often constituted trains. Additionally, most car lengths typically reached no more than 40 feet, with a few as long as 50 feet. These restrictions dovetail nicely into the constraints governing model railroading.
The opportunity to create unique models provides an additional plus to modeling an interurban. Although manufacturers market many excellent models, interurban railroads often created many needed pieces of equipment from older stock on hand. This allows the modeler the impetus to kit bash or scratch build to fill these niches. In addition requirements for the Achievement Program of the NMRA beg to be fulfilled by constructing an interurban layout with its resident equipment.
General Practices of Interurban Railroads
Although every company followed their own policies, some practices may be found in most companies. Schedules for city systems authorized cars on close headways. Sometimes cars followed one another by as little as ten to twenty minutes similar to buses. Interurban schedules reflected those of steam roads. The one difference came from the greater frequency of trains on electric systems. Additionally, loading and unloading occurred at both station platforms and right in the middle of streets. All electric systems provided clean, quiet, and convenient service.
As mentioned earlier, the franchises allowing interurban and streetcar systems to operate on streets often required the companies to spray to control dust. Companies used special cars for this consisting of a water tank and spray apparatus. Additionally, just as steam roads sprayed their rights of way for weeds, electric railroads sprayed not only their own private lines but also the city streets when required by contract.
Tracks in the streets presented special challenges. Vehicular traffic added wear and tear beyond that created by the equipment of the railroad. Such traffic also complicated maintenance, since the lines occupied public space. Rails occupying a portion of public space also created some advantages. Reversing loops sometimes circled a block or blocks. Additionally, some lines consisted entirely of a loop around a particular area, which allowed cars to circulate around, for example, an entire shopping district.
Systems rarely owned more cars than required by rush hour, so only a minimum of units occupied storage and barn tracks during peak times. Prior to the start of peak traffic, systems staged cars where needed, such as at a stadium or large factory prior to the end of a game or shift respectively.
One problem facing interurban railroads stemmed from the nature of their market. Passenger service catered to the worker traveling to and from work. This provided excellent density during the week but left the weekends a bit thin. To generate traffic during the weekends interurban railroads built venues. Among these venues were amusement parks and piers (similar to Navy Pier). The railroad companies did necessarily build these attractions themselves but provided a connection and/or location for a local entrepreneur, municipality, or syndicate to finance and construct the amusement. Other types of venues included parks like Landsdown in East St. Louis and Creve Coeur Lake in St. Louis County. The dance hall at Horseshoe Lake near Collinsville, Illinois represents another entertainment venue.
Local Interurban Railroads
A number of streetcar lines operated in St. Louis. The Illinois side of the river boasted several lines as well. The aforementioned Illinois Terminal operated from Peoria and Danville across the Mississippi River via the McKinley Bridge to St. Louis. This railroad holds the record as the longest electric railway system in the United States. Until switching to diesel locomotives in the middle of the century, the Illinois Terminal carried both passengers and freight. It also operated a “steam division” in the Granite City area switching local industries.
The other main interurban system on the east side of the Mississippi River operated under the umbrella of the East St. Louis & Suburban Railway, the “Great East Side Electric Railway System.” This interurban system resembled an octopus stretching from Godfrey to Waterloo, Illinois and from St. Louis, Missouri to Lebanon, Edwardsville, and Freeburg in Illinois. Within this system the St. Louis and Belleville Electric Railway moved coal from mines in Belleville and Freeburg to power plants in East St. Louis. In addition passengers rode trains belonging to the East St. Louis & Belleville Street Railway; East St. Louis, Columbia, and Waterloo Railway; and the East St. Louis and Alton Electric Railway. This company also operated the cars traversing the upper deck of the Eads Bridge. Formed by acquiring independent companies and mergers, the East St. Louis & Suburban sold off lines and abandoned other lines in the thirties leaving only the St. Louis & Belleville Electric, which became the Peabody Short Line.
Infrastructure of Interurban Railroads
Interurban railways ran on relatively light rail and roadbed. Companies laid standard rails down the middle of dirt streets and converted to girder rail, rail with an integrated flange way, imbedded into the pavement when cities began paving streets.
Track imbedded in the pavement required steel spacers to maintain gauge. Single point turnouts served in the streets to help minimize moving parts where abuse from street traffic increased maintenance costs. On private rights of way light rail with ties spaced further apart than on roadbeds of class one steam roads served to guide trains on their way. Interurban systems built roadbed to a lower profile than that used by steam roads, with the notable exception of the East St. Louis & Suburban whose roadbed stood four feet all as protection against washouts and flooding.
Regardless of the location of rights of way, clearances remain close, especially on streets. Overhead wire contributed to additional vertical restrictions, being only twenty to twenty-two feet above the railhead. Power distribution came in several forms. First, overhead wire stands out as the most common and stereotypical. As mentioned above this hung about twenty feet above the railhead. This wire provided power while the rails functioned as the ground. Poles with span wire strung between them or metal poles with arms suspended the overhead wire. Additionally, some systems supported the overhead with centenary, which gets its name from the logarithmic curve the hanging support wire assumes. As common as this method remains, maintaining the wire in the center of the tracks required not only diligent maintenance but also clever mathematics and engineering.
A second manner of powering cars and motors utilized a third rail. Once again, the running rails provided the ground leg. The Chicago Transit Authority remains the most notable example of this kind of power distribution. Although overhead wire remains vulnerable to the elements, third rail power poses greater danger to people and animals. Given this danger of contact, third rail and street tracks do not go together.
The last common method of providing power puts a wire in the street. Streetcars carry a probe that passes through a slot in the street between the rails, where it makes contact with a wire. As in the previous methods, the rails function as the ground leg. The streetcar system in Washington, D.C. utilized this system in some areas while using overhead in others. Cars in D.C. often carried both types of equipment. This method should not be confused with cable cars in which the cable constantly moves and cars grab it in order to travel down the street.
Every railroad uses stations and interurban utilized a variety. Some built their own stations. The Illinois Traction System built dedicated stations in many of the towns they served. These structures often included power substations. The East St. Louis and Suburban built dedicated stations at either end of the line over Eads Bridge. Both systems also utilized flag stops between towns, which often consisted of a simple lean-to. Many interurban companies used existing structures to serve as stations. These stations consisted of little more than a ticket counter in the lobby of a bank or even at the counter of a drug store or dime store.
Companies operating interurban systems watched every penny. With little margin and small budgets, survival depended on creative use of resources. Companies reused virtually everything. Nothing was thrown away. In the days when horses and mules pulled cars, even the animal wastes could be sold. Cinders from powerhouses provided ballast for the tracks. Additionally, retired cars found new employment as maintenance of way equipment, freight motors, or even cabooses. These practices provided the infrastructure of interurban railways considerable character.
A variety of equipment plied the rails of interurban systems. Passenger equipment took a variety of forms. Streetcars varied considerably in size and styling. Early cars rode on four wheels and featured either open, closed, or convertible bodies of about twenty-five to thirty feet in length. Longer cars riding on two four-wheel trucks replaced these and featured windows, which could be left open or closed as dictated by the weather. Competition in the Thirties resulted in the President’s Car Committee designing a streamlined car body. Called “PCC Cars,” the introduction of these streetcars sported Art Deco styling giving systems a modern look. Any of these types of cars could be coupled together to run, although in practice only similar cars were put together.
Interurban equipment also varied. Passenger motors handled similarly to streetcars, except for being heavier. Some motors strictly carried passengers, while others contained a baggage compartment for baggage and express freight. These motors also pulled trailers, which were simply cars less traction motors. Trailers functioned in a manner much like passenger cars on steam roads and could be classed as coach, baggage, sleeper, or even parlor cars. Sleeper and parlor tickets required extra fares just like on the steam roads. Although lighter and shorter, these cars sported similar appearances to passenger cars of the same period. In the years following World War II, some companies, including the Illinois Terminal, purchased streamlined sets as well as individual cars. The number of passengers continued to decline starting in the twenties and, despite innovations, resulted in the demise of most interurban passenger systems.
Interurban railroads used many kinds of freight equipment. Some companies like the Illinois Terminal and Pacific Electric used standard freight cars of all kinds. Most interurban systems, however, used specialized equipment, which sported a number of distinctive features. First radial ends allowed freight cars to navigate tighter curves than straight ends. Additionally, equipment rarely exceeded forty feet in length. Swing couplers as opposed to fixed draft gear also assisted the navigation of city streets. Builders applied these features to most classes of cars: box, flat, hopper, and gondola. As noted above companies built cabooses from whatever was available.
In a similar manner maintenance of way cars usually began life as something else. Old streetcars and motors bought a new lease on life as line cars used to maintain the overhead. Aged flats carried supplies including rails, ties, and trucks as well as damaged cars. Additionally, shops installed derricks on flats or modified motors. Also, old streetcars entered the shops to be reborn as snow sweepers. Finally, tool and crew cars invested the bodies of old streetcars and boxcars. Imagination provided the only limit to what the interurban companies could create.
To create an interurban system in miniature requires material and equipment. In HO scale, which I model, Bowser markets an extensive line of products. They
carry both PCC and Brill streetcars as well as kits to repower older models. In addition Bowser carries a line of interurban motors. For the model looking to build his own models from scratch, they also sell motors, power trucks, and trolley poles.
Orr sells a complete line of girder rail for installation on the modeler’s city streets. Also, Bachman markets both PCC and Brill Streetcars. In contrast Precision Scale Models provides a line of trolley poles, trucks, springs, and castings. Alpine Scale Models sells wire and line poles but has discontinued quite a number of castings for hanging wire. Finally, Light Rail Products also markets kits for both streetcars and freight motors as well as wire and parts for cars and poles. Kits for cars and motors as well as brass cars many be found through Funero & Camerlengo, LaBelle Woodworking, and MTS Imports.
An interested modeler can find many books and other resources. Carsten’s publishes both the “Traction Planbook” and “Traction Handbook.” For prototype photographs, Morning Sun Publishing produces numerous books on the Illinois Terminal in particular and traction systems in general. Historical Societies such as the Illinois Tractions Society produce magazines containing excellent articles and photographs in addition to their websites. The website Trolleyville.com provides an excellent supply of links, articles, and photographs. Also, the website of the National Model Railroad Association contains a variety of information including the standards and recommended practices. Finally, local libraries maintain a variety of resources in their collections including newspaper articles, histories, photograph collections, as well as maps.
Interurban and streetcar systems provide a fascinating glimpse at a bygone era. From a modeling standpoint they also provide a variety of modeling opportunities. Enjoy.