THE ST. CHARLES LINE
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Began service in 1835 in the
Carrollton Line of the N.O.
& Carrollton Railroad. Powered
by steam engine, horse, and
mule prior to electrification
in 1893. It is the oldest
continuously operating street
railway line in the world.
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The New Orleans Streetcar Line began, as stated above, in 1835, as a local government-funded, small-scale mode of transportation for the ever-increasing population of New Orleans, what was then the capital of the massive Louisiana Territory. The first line was little more than a dirt path down a small stretch of St. Charles Avenue, and it serviced mule-drawn carts of six to ten people.
With the invention of steam propulsion in the 1860s, the mule-drawn carts gave way to specially-built small engine locomotives, initially in two-car trains. As the technology progressed, so did the streetcars; smaller engines became available, eliminating the need for a seperate locomotive car. The cars back then were longer, to accommodate the locomotive, and could fill about three times as many as their mule-drawn predecessors.
As electricity became more widespread toward the end of the nineteenth century, the streetcars were electrified. The locomotives were scrapped and and the city began experimenting with various electrical implementations, none of which were particularly reliable, and none of them lasted too long. They too were eventually scrapped.
In 1923, the city ordered a fleet of approximately 100 cars from the Perley A. Thomas Company (now a part of Thomas Built Buses, Inc., which itself is operated by Freightliner Group, which in turn is owned by DaimlerChrysler). Those cars ran on a wire-based electricity supply system. Wires ran directly over the top of the entire streetcar route, much like modern cable car lines, which the cars kept in constant contact with via two conducting rods mounted on front and back of each car's roof. Not much has changed, design-wise, since that time.
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The Thomas cars the city put into service in 1923 are still in service today. Each one is approximately 50 feet long and each weighs about six tons. They all run on rails, which prevents straying from the aerial electrical feed. Consumer automobiles drive alongside the streetcars wherever their tracks go, though most of the tracks are on the neutral grounds that seperate traffic directional flow on large streets. ("Neutral ground" is New Orleanian for "median.")
Each car is numbered between 800 and 999.
Apart from the St. Charles Line, the Riverfront Line also is in service. Created in 1997, it is mostly geared towards tourist groups, and doesn't usually traverse public roads. It stays mainly on its own track near the freight tracks that line the banks of the Mississippi River, through the uptown, Garden District, CBD, and French Quarter areas. While the St. Charles Line cars are painted a drab/olive green with a faded yellow trim, the Riverfront Line cars are painted red, with the same faded yellow trim. Each type of car sports alert bells, which are rung at each stop and to warn oncoming vehicles of their presence. (The green cars can be difficult to see at night.) The cars are operated by a single driver, using a simple power-up/power-down method of driving, along with a foot brake that's used in conjunction with a power-down. Each car has driving apparatus at each end of the car, front and back, to make for easy turnarounds. All cars are made of steel on the outside, and are almost entirely made of wood on the inside. Maximum capacity for each car is approximately 50 people.
Since 1979, both lines have been under the care of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority. They maintain a machine shop for manufacturing long-obsolete parts, and have kept the 80-year-old rolling stock in operating condition with minimal problems. The machine shop, along with the western streetcar garage and yard, is located just off Jeanette Street, far uptown.
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Currently, the St. Charles Line operates from the intersection of Carondelet Street and Canal Street, downtown, to the intersection of Carrollton Avenue and Claiborne Avenue, uptown, almost completely via St. Charles Avenue, taking it through downtown, the Garden District, uptown, past Loyola University and Tulane University, and finally up Carrollton Avenue to the barest beginning of the mid-city district. On Canal Street, the St. Charles Line shares tracks with the Riverfront Line for about five blocks, from Cardondelet to South Peters Street and the river.
Both lines are currently under construction, as the city increases both of their lengths. Upon completion of the work in 2005, the Riverfront Line goes from Poydras Street at the river, to Canal Street, which it follows until it gets to City Park, some seven miles north. At an estimated cost of $52 million for the expansion, this will be the largest construction project the city has undertaken since repairing the Riverwalk shopping area (which is coincidentally the eastern terminus for the Riverfront Line) after a runaway freighter collided with it in late 1996.
The fare for either line is $1.25 (exact change required, as any change due will not be given), which will take you to any destination the streetcar goes, other than maintenance areas (which are off-limits to non-RTA personnel).
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The streetcar, while slow, inefficient, noisy, and sometimes backward, could be called a reflection of the city it serves. However, it remains in service and popular -- it serves a growing number of residents and tourists alike all year long; it brings the city a lot of money, and for people without cars, it's a viable means of transportation as long as you budget your time right. Many of the people in the more affulent neighbourhoods (those without cars, at least) refuse to ride the bus because of its crime-ridden reputation, despite the bus being faster and costing the same as a streetcar ride. The streetcar moves over two million riders per year. It operates usually around every 15 or 20 minutes during the day, and approximately every hour overnight. It runs every day and night of the year, except for Mardi Gras day, when it shuts down to allow for the endless procession of parades, marching bands, police, and revelling tourists. (By way of comparison, most businesses in New Orleans shut down on Mardi Gras day, too, just as they would on Easter, or on the 4th of July.)
Given the current expansion efforts, and the fact that it is impossible to build an underground railway system in New Orleans (the city lies 2.5m below sea level; try building a tunnel system under it, I dare you), the streetcar appears ready for the future.
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