In North America
n terms, an electric train
connecting major cities
with the surrounding towns.
At the turn of the century (20th), these were being built all across the United States and Canada. Large wooden or steel railcars would thunder across the countryside carrying passengers, mail, and even cargo, at speeds over 70mph.
This was in the days before air mail, or even extensive paved roads allowing the use of trucks and buses (also a technology in its infancy).
The concept behind the interurban is quite clever, as it allowed for a fully integrated transportation network. The interurbans could run into cities and other built-up areas by running along the city's streetcar tracks. They could also share tracks with the existing rail network.
Construction of interurbans also served to bring many modern conveniences to the outlying rural towns and small cities. In addition to passenger, mail and cargo service, the railroad companies also saw an opportunity to use the catenary and railroad infrastructure to supply electricity and telephone service. In many situations the companies would also begin operating local bus and streetcar companies.
Unfortunately, after the Second World War, competition from diesel passenger trains, buses, and the ever-growing number of privately owned cars saw business drop off sharply for the electric railroads. This, combined with the high costs of maintaining the tracks and catenary, saw the companies going out of business or absorbed by freight companies and local authorities in the 1940s and 50s.
Probably the only remaining interurban railroad is the South Shore Line in Chicago. Other famous but now defunct interurban companies include Pacific Electric and the Montreal and Southern Counties Railway. Remnants of these lines, often merely just the roadbeds along the right of way, can be seen throughout rural Canada and the US.
I have had the pleasure of riding on several restored interurbans running along a stretch of the old Toronto Suburban Railway at the excellent Halton County Radial Railway museum, which is dedicated to the preservation and operation of North American electric trains. The sheer size and speed of these railcars, many of which are approaching 80 years old, is astonishing. They featured comfortable seats, toilets, and a fast, fairly smooth ride.
The interurbans and radial railways are a mostly forgotten part of our countries' history, and also of railroad history.
sources: Halton Country Radial Railway site: www.hcry.org
Electric Lines in Souther Ontario site: www.trainweb.org/elso/