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A History of Trolleys, Light Rails, Street Cars and Subways


Trolleys are a form of mass transportation that can be powered by an electrical rail or overhead wires, but the first trolleys were actually pulled by horses. Horse-drawn trolleys existed until the end of the 19th century and the discovery of the electric current. After that, trolleys were powered by electricity, which enabled them to move faster and carry more people. Electric trolleys also improved the quality of life, keeping animals and their droppings off of city streets.

Trolleys operate on a set of tracks made specifically for streetcars, which makes them similar to trains. Trolleys were used for local and intercity transportation. Power reaches the trolleys through overhead wires, called catenaries, or through a pantograph. Residential neighborhoods sprung up around trolley stops because it was convenient to live near public transportation when not everyone had access to private forms of transportation. Trolleys were a key element of urbanization.

Trolleys were a great equalizer and were available to the rich and poor. Even though some auto companies tried to dissuade the public from riding trolleys and pushed for their removal. The electric motor that trolleys use for power makes them one of the most energy-efficient forms of public transportation. Some experts have suggested putting an electric current in the middle of roads to power electric cars instead of batteries, which can be rather heavy and need to be regularly charged.

Light Rail

The light rail is the much faster heir to the original trolley and is an energy-efficient form of public transportation. Light rail systems are faster than trolleys and reduce pressure on highways. The light rail is less costly to operate than a normal train, which, in comparison, is called the "heavy rail", because it has a smaller motor. The light rail first appeared in the 1930s. Highway crowding has led to a renaissance of the light rail in China, Africa, and some areas of the United States.


Subways are similar to the light rail, except they run underground, through tunnels. Subways take a lot of electricity to power, yet they're ideal for transporting people through highly populated cities that are plagued by traffic jams. Subways are actually seven times more expensive than the light rail to operate. While AC power transmits the electricity to the subway system, the subway itself is powered by DC power.

Trolley and Streetcar History

American cities would not have fully entered the modern era without streetcars. Traditional modes of transportation in the 1800s were slow and depended on animals, which meant that only the wealthy could afford to ride instead of walk. Streetcars were the first form of internal transportation for the masses. They ran on electricity and were very efficient. Streetcars became less popular when auto companies promoted buses as a superior and more flexible form of urban transportation.

Trolley Museums

Trolley museums are a throwback to the halcyon days of comfortable public transportation in the open air. Cities and villages alike had trolleys for transportation with the city limits and to other towns.

  • National Capital Trolley Museum - The National Capital Trolley Museum is, as its name suggests, located in the US capital of Washington DC. The museum's collection has many Washington D.C. streetcars as well as street cars from national and international cities.
  • Pennsylvania Trolley Museum - The Pennsylvania Trolley Museum has documented the history and facts about the state's trolley system. Visitors can enjoy examining trolley models and the associated photo archives.
  • Shoreline Trolley Museum - The Shoreline Trolley Museum boasts the longest-running suburban trolley system in the United States.
  • Trolley Museum of New York - The Trolley Museum of New York has been open for almost 80 years. Visitors can ride the trolley to a scenic picnic spot on the Hudson River while learning about the history of trolleys in New York.
  • Rock Hill Trolley Museum - The Rock Hill Trolley Museum was the first trolley museum to open in Pennsylvania. The museum documents the source and car number of every trolley it collects.
  • Electric City Trolley Museum - The Electric City Trolley Museum is famous for its trolley trips that start at the Steamtown National Historic Site and take passengers through the calm valleys of Lackawanna County.
  • Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum - The Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum displays the history of the trolley line that used to connect Shelburne Falls with the neighboring town of Colrain.
  • Fort Smith Trolley Museum - The Fort Smith Trolley Museum is a charming local museum that was started when the village rescued one of its old trolley cars to preserve it.
  • Connecticut Trolley Museum - The Connecticut Trolley Museum is packed with interesting exhibits, and all visitors get unlimited trolley rides.
  • Fox River Trolley Museum - The Fox River Trolley Line existed for more than a century. Now, the museum is giving new generations the experience.

Streetcar Museums

Streetcar museums play an important role in preserving the heritage of the hallmark of 19th century urban public transportation. Street cars, or trams, were aboveground light trains that ferried passengers long distances. San Francisco and Boston still have streetcar systems that operate today. For those who haven't ridden a street car, street car museums offer a chance to take a step (or a ride!) into the past.

  • Baltimore Streetcar Museum - The Baltimore Streetcar Museum is run entirely by volunteers and is dedicated to preserving the legacy of Baltimore's defunct streetcar public transportation system.
  • Minnesota Streetcar Museum - The Minnesota Streetcar Museum operates two electric streetcar lines in Minneapolis and Excelsior. The museum itself holds an impressive collection of streetcars and manuscripts documenting the history of streetcars in Minnesota.
  • North Jersey Electric Railway Historical Society - The NJERHS owns eight historic streetcars that were once operational in New Jersey. The Society plays an important role in restoring streetcars from neighboring states such as Pennsylvania.
  • Oregon Electric Railway Historical Society - The OERHS maintains a fabulous exhibition of streetcar trains and equipment from all over the world. Visitors can look up the trains by car number.
  • San Diego Electric Railway Association - SDERA runs a streetcar museum out of the National City Depot, which was originally owned by the Santa Fe Railroad. The museum is focused on San Diego's historic streetcar system, but there is also plenty of information for railroad history buffs.
  • Yokohama Streetcar Museum - The Yokohama Streetcar Museum was remodeled in 2017 and is one of the foremost streetcar museums in Japan, with photographs, maps and model streetcars on display.
  • National Streetcar Museum at Lowell - The National Streetcar Museum at Lowell is affiliated with the Seashore Trolley Museum. Visitors can browse the exhibits about how streetcars improved urban transportation, then ride a real street car from New Orleans.
  • Halton County Radial Railway - The HCRR runs historic streetcars on a 2.5 mile stretch of track. Its first acquisition was a Toronto Transit Commission streetcar that the museum saved from being scrapped. Now, volunteers are responsible for the exhibits' preservation and administration.
  • Strathcona Streetcar Barn and Museum - The museum is operated by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society. Not only does the museum display streetcars from Edmonton's storied past, but it also collects streetcars from other public transportation systems.
  • Sydney Tramway Museum - The Sydney Tramway Museum is the largest streetcar museum in Australia. The exhibition features a century's worth of Sydney's streetcars along with trams from other Australian cities.
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