Western Trips

Western Trips

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Electric Railroads / The Interurban Railway Museum in Texas

How did the electric interurban railways operate nearly one hundred years ago? How was the power generated over miles and miles of overhead lines? What were some of the great long distance electric railroads in America?  History is known to repeat itself and the electric railroads and the urban railroads in Texas of the early 1900's certainly falls into that classification. There were many electric railroads during the early 1900's. They vanished and now they have reappeared. Their history and later popularity is an interesting story.

The Interurban Museum

texas electric railway signThe people working at the Interurban Railway Museum in Plano Texas, a northern Dallas suburb, have done a terrific job of explaining just how these electric railroads operated before the automobile caused their decline.

The rail museum has an array of exhibits that explain just how these railroads operated. The rail cars, which essentially were streetcars, are only part of the story. The infrastructure to provide direct current electricity to the overhead lines required a lot of manpower and engineering know how.

The passenger station in downtown Plano and its electric transformer remained in use until December 1948. At that date the electric railway stopped operation due to the rise in popularity of automobiles.This same building now houses the Interurban Railway Museum which is on the National Register of Historic Places. The interurban railway museum is located at 901 E. 15th Street in downtown Plano Texas about five blocks east of US Hwy 75. Located just in front of the museum building is a fully restored Texas Electric railway car.

Visiting this well laid out museum is truly a trip into history. The exhibits are very in depth and paint a very interesting picture of what it was like to not only operate the system but also to ride on it. The trains or really long distance streetcars represented the latest thing in early 1900's transportation.

The Texas Electric Railway

Texas Electric Railway streetcar
The Texas Electric Railway operated in north Texas between the years 1916 and 1948.

The railway carried both passengers and freight all the way from Sherman Texas to the north and Waco Texas to the south. The streetcar photo at right is a totally restored street car from the old Texas Electric Railway. This route represented 226 miles of track which made it the longest interurban railroad west of the Mississippi River. The city of Dallas represented the mid point.

This interurban Dallas rail line was first built in 1908 as the Texas Traction Company and later became known as the Texas Electric Railway after a merger took place around 1916. Texas was an ideal state for the creation of the interurban rail companies. It's size alone made the interurban streetcar a popular transportation choice.

Electric Railroads Throughout Texas

The states total track mileage was about 500. Some of the various interurban electric railway companies spread throughout Texas included the Houston North Shore, the Austin Rapid Transit Company, Amarillo Street Railway, the Beaumont Traction Company, the Port Arthur Traction Company, the El Paso Electric Company, the Corpus Christi Improvement Company and others.

Some existing streetcar systems became interurban systems with extensions or acquisitions. Some other interurban lines became what is now called light rail systems running where there are no streets. In effect, these were interurban railroads using electricity rather than steam or diesel or even the earlier mules. Another differentiation is between a suburban system and an interurban system. The former generally serves a specific area or town whereas the interurban is much more like a regular railroad local train service. The difference is power and equipment used.

Operating an Electric Railway

streetcar wheel assembly
Streetcar wheel assembly
So how exactly was electricity supplied to the railway cars or trams? First of all, it should be noted that while electricity is a very good way to operate railways, it does come with huge costs.

The power to weight ratio for electric trains is much better than diesel and gas power in as much as the electric streetcar requires no fuel to be stored onboard.

 Their weight is much less and therefore their acceleration is much better. The early electric railways employed low voltage DC current. The common voltage used for overhead wire streetcars was 600 to 750  volts of power. Per information at this Texas museum, the Texas Electric Railway line running between Sherman Texas and Dallas ran on 600 volts. The portion of the line which ran southward from Dallas to Waco Texas used 1,200 volts. Some of the newer systems found in Europe and Australia now use systems providing 1,500 volts.

streetcar railway conductor
Conductor exhibit
To power the overhead wires with enough direct current electricity, DC converters were spaced along the route. For the 600 volt line the converter stations were placed about eight to ten miles apart.

The 1,200 volt route had stations placed about twice that distance apart. You can easily see from this how much money had to be spent for infrastructure.

While the DC system is rather simple, it does require thick cables and relatively short distances between converter stations because of the high currents required.

The DC converter employed at the relay stations was a large circular rotary converter as shown on the display below right. The diagram of this bipolar converter is shown below left. These converters were in each of the power stations along the railways route. Electric power sources also have the advantage of being environmental friendly expending no exhaust fumes, being relatively quiet and requiring less maintenance than fossil fueled mechanisms. Since any  electrical circuit requires at least two conductors, electrical railway cars use the overhead line as one side of the circuit and the steel rails are the second half.

dc power rotary converter
Scaled down rotary converter
Austria was the site for the first permanent tram service with overhead lines. The year was 1881 and the lines were bipolar employing two U Pipes.

The key component that makes all of this work was the development of the pantograph, or extension for the streetcar, which connects the car to the power source (overhead lines). The pantograph makes contact with the wire and transfers power from the wire to the traction unit. The pantograph typically makes contact with the help of springs.

Since the earlier days there have been great advancements made in electrical technology and today's electric rail systems are much more efficient thanks in part to the development of semiconductors.

Electric Railways Around the U.S.

rotary converter diagram
One of the most well known electric railway systems was the Pacific Electric Railway or sometimes remembered as the Red Car System. The system operated in and around the Los Angeles California area. Similar to the Texas Electric Railway, the Red Car route ran over long distances and connected several communities around a larger metropolis. In the year 1925, the Pacific Electric Railway was considered the world's largest. Cities were connected throughout four different counties including Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside. Passenger service was also combined with frequent freight hauling. These interurban streetcars were powered by 1,200 volt lines. Los Angeles also had "Yellow Cars" which were used to connect the central part of the city with closer in and more densely populated communities.

San Francisco was also an area quite active with electromotive railways and continues to be today with it's vintage streetcars still in large use. The transportation needs in San Francisco were somewhat different than in both north Texas and Los Angeles. Cable cars were the first answer to the steep hills and of course are still popular and in use today. Urban electrified streetcars in San Francisco proper today are one of the primary means by which commuters get to work. These electric streetcars also take thousands of tourists annually to Fishermans Wharf. San Francisco is no doubt one of the best mass transit cities in the U.S.

san francisco streetcar
Electric street car
Just as in the case of Dallas and San Francisco, the entire Bay Area is home to a modern electric railway system that connects much of the metropolitan area. The California Bay Area is home to BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) which is the number one commuter method outside of the automobile.

 The natural geography of northern California limits highway construction to a degree so an electric mass transit system that can take you to downtown San Francisco from most outlying communities helped make the entire area grow. The BART system is powered by a third electrified rail which eliminates the overhead line problem. The train reaches San Francisco from Oakland via a tunnel under the Bay. It's a very efficient system that was built in the 1960's and has grown it's route substantially. The public domain photo below shows the interior of a modern BART car.

interior of BART light rail car
BART car interior
Dallas Texas now has a modern light rail system called DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit). This electric railroad system currently has about 72 miles of track and is adding additional mileage regularly. The DART system uses an overhead wire power source.

The routes are divided by the Red Line, Blue Line and Green Line with others on the way. Daily ridership is estimated at well over 75,000 people.

There are also branch lines that connect to downtown Fort Worth as well as to the DFW Airport. The two downtown areas of Dallas and Fort Worth had not been connected with rail service since the 1930's with the exception of Amtrak's daily Texas Eagle service which is part of Amtrak's Chicago to San Antonio route.

In 1996 DART entered an agreement with the Fort Worth Transit Authority creating the TRE which now connects the two cities. The TRE is estimated to have a daily ridership of over 10,000 people. As the Dallas and Fort Worth Texas region continues to grow, expect the further expansion of it's electric light rail system.

electric rail car
North Texas Traction Company Car Number 25
Museums to Add to Your Trip Planner

In addition to the Interurban Rail Museum in Plano Texas north of Dallas, there are two other electric railway museums (among many others in the country) which make excellent weekend or vacation side trips.

The Seal Beach California Red Car Museum is located aboard Car number 1734. This is a fully restored Pacific Electric Railway Red Car. The exhibit is located at the corner of Main and Electric. Seal Beach is in the westernmost corner of Orange County. Major highways in Seal Beach are Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) on the coast connecting the beach cities, the San Diego Freeway (I-405) connecting with all other major freeways in Southern California, and the Garden Grove Freeway (SR22).

There is also the Orange Empire Railway Museum located in Perris California. This railway museum was established in 1956 at the Pinacate Station as the Orange Empire Trolley Museum. The address is 2201 South A Street. Perris is located in Riverside County.

If in downtown Fort Worth Texas, stop by at the Intermodal Transportation Center and view a 100 year old electric trolley car on permanent display outside. This was the North Texas Traction Company car Number 25 which connected Dallas to Fort Worth in the first part of the 1900's.

(Photos of BART interior and electric converter are in the public domain. Other photos are from author's private collection. Article is copyright Western Trips)

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