In Defense of Vicinal Design Streetcar Systems

Lately, American developments in electric traction have been focused on two kinds of systems.  Those two kinds of systems are major commuter light rail systems and small streetcar systems in the downtown core of major cities.  Planners and the Federal Transit Administration have been focused on planning and funding these types of systems, but there is another type of streetcar system that smaller cities should consider.

In the early 20th century, the northeastern United States was full of these what would be considered a hybrid of our present two system types.  These systems did have some full in-street running, but mostly they had dedicated lanes or totally separated private right of way.  These systems had some double track sections, but they were primarily single track systems.  A few historical examples are the Bay State Street Railway, the Connecticut Company, the Lehigh Valley Transit, the Reading Street Railway of Pennsylvania, and the Wilkes-Barre Railway also of Pennsylvania.  These all closed down before 1960.  Some more recent examples of European variants are the Charleroi Vicinal in Belgium which closed in the 1980’s and some systems in Switzerland that are still operating.  I am going to term this suburban streetcar system design the Vicinal Design.  The only existing American system that is even close to this design is the Media Sharon Hill lines outside of Philadelphia but not exactly.

It is my belief that these systems still have a place in American transit thinking.  I think these systems would be classified under the modern American term “rapid streetcar”.  If a city were to propose a Vicinal Design system, critics would likely it is unlikely these systems would be able to maintain the necessary headways to be useful.  I counter this by saying with enough passing sidings, I think the headways would be low enough to work.  What’s more, because of the single track nature of the Vicinal Design, it would be relatively cheap to build.  The closest American proposal to a Vicinal Design system that I know of was a 2008 proposal in Reading Pennsylvania that never materialized.

America’s suburban cities and towns need high quality transit too, I think One of the ways forward is Vicinal Design streetcar systems.