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Mistake Alert: Loop Trolley Proposal Looking Backward Rather Than Forward

July 10, 2009 Planning & Design, Public Transit 21 Comments

It is no secret I love streetcars.  I’ve ridden old & new systems in seven North American cities  (New Orleans, Memphis, Little Rock, San Francisco, Toronto, Seattle & Portland).  While these systems have much in common with each other the main difference is the vehicles used. They vary from vintage to reproduction vintage to completely modern.

European cities  largely kept their streetcar systems intact over the years but have continually upgraded their vehicles to the newest designs over the years. Toronto’s system has lines dating to the 19th Century.  Every so often vehicles have been replaced with newer designs.  Their current vehicles date to the late 1970s:

July 2006
Toronto July 2006

But Toronto’s vehicles have the same problem as vintage vintage reproduction vehicles: access.  Stepping up into them is not friendly to wheelchairs, strollers, bikes, small kids or just a person carrying luggage or packages. The Loop Trolley folks want that vintage look rather than providing the best transportation for the 21st Century.  They are looking backward rather than forward.

They are looking at a system like they have in Little Rock AR:

Little Rock March 2006

Little Rock’s vehicles are new but have a vintage look & feel.

Interior of Little Rock streetcar March 2006

Filming a period movie?  Great, use these.  Investing tens of millions in a modern transportation system that will last into the second half of the 21st Century?  Wrong choice!  The Loop Trolley folks are stuck in 1904.  The World’s Fair is over guys.  So what is the right choice?

Modern “low-floor” vehicles such as the above in Portland.  The same type was used in Seattle.

The vehicle’s low-floor center design with wide doors make entry/exit easy for everyone.  Stroller & packages?  No problem.

The interiors are bright, modern and comfortable.  The type you’d feel comfortable wearing shorts and a t-shirt rather than wearing a dress and carrying a parasol.  We must look forward.  But the Loop Trolley advisory board feels the vintage look is more appropriate.

Helsinki (click image to view source in new tab/window)
Helsinki Finland (click image to view source in new tab/window)

But in Helsinki Finland, founded in 1550, the old & modern blend beautifully.  We must build our new transportation systems and architecture of the current times.  Building a streetcar line to connect areas together is the right direction.  The system should be expandable to parts beyond the Loop & Forest Park.  Looking back to the glory days of 1904 is not going to help us in 2030.  Judy Garland, the star of Meet me in St. Louis.  has been dead for four decades.

To make the reproduction cars accessible they’d have a ramp like our buses do.  As a frequent wheelchair user I can tell you I would not use such a system.  It works most of the time but it would set me apart from everyone else.  The ramp would take time to extend & retract –holding up traffic in the meantime.  Why not just build an accessible system with low-floor vehicles?

The name “trolley” doesn’t matter much.  Could be streetcar or tram.  Seattle started out using trolley for their modern vehicles — the line was going to be the South Lake Union Trolley.  That is until someone realized it would be called SLUT, for short.  So it opened as the South Lake Union Streetcar instead.  So the trolley name is fine but not the reproduction vehicle.

The trick is the modern low-floor vehicles cost roughly three times the price of a reproduction vehicle. I don’t have figures to know how much of the estimated $50 million cost would be for the purchase of vehicles.

For more info on track options and other issues presented at the Loop Trolley open house last Wednesday check out, “Public Gets First Look at Loop Trolley Details, Feedback Solicited On Track Options” at STLUrbanWorkshop.com.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "21 comments" on this Article:

  1. Mark Groth says:

    I guess St. Louis Urban Trolley is out of the question too. I agree they should go with the best design available at the most reasonable price.

  2. In the know says:

    The new Loop Trolley will be using new cars that are FULLY ADA ACCESSABLE. This is the first new line in 50 years. As other new line are created there will be other cars used as well. This is a well thought out project and I wish you could see past your personal opinion.

    [slp — No argument the reproduction cars would meet the minimum ADA requirements. But I’m not looking for minimum, I’m looking for better. I’m looking for the ability of two friends out with two strollers and a 5-year old being able to quickly & easily get on/off the vehicle.]

  3. Brian S. says:

    The historic replicas just look gimmicky to me, like something out of Disneyland.

    I’d much rather go with the modern option.

    Is there a cost savings involved with going with one option over the other, or do they each cost about the same?

    [slp — The modern low-floor are more expensive but they also carry more passengers.]

  4. Jimmy Z says:

    The typical way a system using high-floor rail vehicles (vintage streetcars in Memphis and Tampa, light rail vehicles in Salt Lake City and Denver) complies with ADA access requirements is what’s called a “high block”, essentially a short platform with a wheelchair ramp, that allows a short ramp to be flipped down to bridge the gap between the high-floor vehicle and the high block. Think Metrolink, but with the platform for only one door – everyone else uses the steps inside the vehicle.


    The upside is relatively quick boarding and deboarding of passengers with disabilities. The downside is that each stop needs a high block, which doesn’t do much for a congested urban sidewalk.

    Low-floor vehicles eliminate many of these problems, but they do need to be bigger, and they don’t have the same emotional appeal as vintage vehicles. Both answers can and do work well in daily use. It kinda boils down to what the bigger plan might be – is the propsed 2-mile line all that’s ever going to be built, primarily as a local tourism and development tool (where cute probably counts for more)? Or, is it going to be a part of a much larger commuter system? Where efficiency in moving a lrger number of riders becomes more important?

  5. Steveo says:

    This is clearly not a well thought out project. It’s a vision without any sense of who it really serves and whether to make it functional or a tourist attraction. In the end it’s simply a business venture that some business are hoping the federal government will pay for.

  6. Jeff says:

    I disagree, Steveo. I think this line will be a big lure for businesses along Delmar (particularly the transitional commercial corridor east of Skinker), and will greatly enhance the desirability of the neighborhoods along the route. While a vintage trolley certainly has the potential to be gimmicky, I think Joe Edwards and others involved know better. I remember clearly the onslaught of naysayers when the MetroLink first opened in ’93. “It’ll fail,” “No one will ride it,” “People in St. Louis love their cars…” etc. 16 years later, it has become an intrinsic part of the city, and we can hardly imagine St. Louis without it. I truly think the Loop trolley will prove to be a revered and successful addition to the city. After all, this street was built for streetcars, and re-introducing rail transit will be like pumping blood through its veins.

    As for the vehicles themselves, I am partial to the original PCC cars. They are a little bit vintage and a little bit modern all rolled into one. And of course, they were built right here in the Red Brick Mama.

  7. Travis says:


    I believe the historic cars are the way to go. Part of the appeal of this trolley line is the recreation of the old Delmar trolley.

    I have often found myself in disagreement of the effects of the ADA. I am a disabled man, but I don’t feel that everything needs to be modified to suit me. Some accomodation is fine and then move on! As a historic preservation minded person, I would rather see the streetscape intact than carved up for my seldom use. I have heard on too many occasions that the cost of upgrading is too much for developers and business owners.

    Steve, I understand that you had difficulty with your health in the past couple years, it troubles me to see that you’ve become the ADA and smoking police. Now do what every other person does that doesn’t like accomodations or policy at a business and don’t go.

  8. Richard Pointer says:

    Toronto just approved purchase of about 204 new streetcars with modern, double-door loading.

    Here is a link with a picture. They were having trouble getting funding but they made some in-house capital readjustments and shifted some unneeded station repair work and bought them from Bombardier.


    I think it will take too long to get them up and running but there is a huge project going on “2020” which is extending the subway and streetcar system here. The new cars should be here much before that.

    The improvement these new is that they will be wheelchair accessible, and you can enter and pay your fare at both doors using some sort of technology I haven’t quite been able to find out about. That reduces load times, and it make trolleys run on time. They have been upgrading streetcar lanes to be designated lanes so that times are even faster. I can say, in the cold, you really want the streetcar to come as fast as possible.

    Here is the link for the Toronto 2020 plan:


    Scroll down to see the map with new extensions. The current lines are in grey.

  9. awb says:

    Which kind of ADA accessibility method will these vehicles use? The concrete “high block” that Jimmy Z describes? Or the ramp/lift system like our current buses use?

    If it’s the high blocks, that is easier to accept for me, but I don’t know if people who need to use the high block would prefer it. I remember being at a light rail platform in Denver and feeling bad for the man in the wheelchair on the high block. It was as if he was isolated, on display above the other riders. I thought of how our forefathers punished ne’er-do-wells by putting them in the stocks, leaving them open to public humiliation.

    If it is the ramp/lift system that our buses use, that will slow things down quite a bit, especially if more than one wheelchair user wants to board at the same stop. I was on a bus in Miami when one of these was deployed and it seemed to take forever.

    [slp — It would be the lift, not the high block. Neither are acceptable given the better alternatives available today.]

  10. Ben says:

    What certainty is there that having a fixed track ensures the streetcar service will somehow become permanent? If sustainable funding does not materialize over the long term, wouldn’t the operators simply cut (or entirely suspend) service?

    Precisely that has happened to St. Louis streetcars in the past Also, unused streetcar tracks are a money sink: you can’t run any revenue service on them, yet you still must spend more maintaining the pavement around the tracks, compared to streets w/o tracks.

    Yes, buses are in no way immune to service cuts, as current events have shown, but at least you retain flexibility in how to (re)deploy the service. Although Metro is receiving lots of criticism for cutting/rearranging/tweaking its bus routes to deal with budget cuts, the simple fact is that their bus fleet allowed them this option.

    The same budget cuts on a large streetcar network would have simply resulted in fewer streetcars in service on the same routes.

    [slp — ridership & development around bus lines are lower than streetcars. I fully support building a modern streetcar in St. Louis.]

  11. Brian says:

    Can you imagine walking between the Grand MetroLink station and South Grand? Or heck, even Grand Center? How about between the Busch Stadium station and Soulard? Or even between any Downtown station and the City Museum? But in comparison, it’s a very easy walk from MetroLink to the Loop and the History Museum.

    This is why Delmar Loop should NOT be the first streetcar in St. Louis. God bless Joe Edwards for his accomplishments, but empty trolleys will doom successful streetcar corridors elsewhere in the City. The first line should be built where transit-choice commuters are underserved by MetroLink and you’ll actually have full streetcars.

    Also, if you go with a more underutilized corridor supportive of dramatic increases in density, you’ll actually have a big enough incremental funding source to tap for funding. Portland didn’t put a streetcar on already-vibrant corridors like NW 23rd for a reason.

  12. Dennis says:

    I don’t know about you Steve, but I think if I had to use a wheel chair and I had two or three places along the loop line that I wanted to get to I would rather just get off the Metrolink and then just wheel myself down Delmar rather than trying to deal with getting on and off this old inconvenient design of a street car. Let’s face it, it’s not that far from the Metrolink station to the bustling part of Delmar and those trolleys won’t run every 5 minutes, so think how much time you will waste waiting and getting off and on just to travel maybe a block or two. I looked the one over that is on display by the history museum and it looks to me like after about 3 or 4 years of use it will be falling apart. Well, maybe not that bad but anything old like that is bound to be costly to maintain. I’m with you on getting something more modern. I’m sure part of the 30 million dollar price tag comes from making these old relics ada compliant.
    I also agree with Brian that Delmar is not the first place we should try something like this. Up and down Grand would be a better choice. It would connect the already bustling business section of South Grand with North Grand which is ripe for redevelopment. I like the idea of using streetcars to spur redevelopment. It’s true a bus is more flexible but if I were starting a small business I would feel much better along a streetcar line than a bus line. The streetcar line would just seem more fixed and permanent. Guarenteed customers. Seems like there’s a zillion places that would be better to try this first rather than Delmar loop, but all comes down to the bucks. And if the Loop Trolley Company and tax payers in that area are willing to spend their money on it then more power to them. A couple years ago when East West Gateway was studying what would be the next choice for Metrolink to expand in the city one of the choices was to follow the BNSF track (route Amtrak uses) out of downtown, to the Hill area, then cross back over Kingshighway (near Fyler) and down through the Gravois/Chippewa area and on down to Carondolet Park. Unfortunately they did not choose that alternative, but if they had, I envisioned a trolley line that could connect to it near where it would cross Morganford. Just a little east of there. It could follow the path of an old right of way and serve the Southtown PetsMart, Walgreens ect. cross Chippewa between Shop N Save and the curently empty old Walgreens continuing south to Office Max, Burlington Coat, ect. Somewhere I thought it could cross out onto Kingshighway again and go down Devonshire just like the old Southampton street car did 60 years ago! There is a clear path for all of this. It would cut across the parking lots infront of Office Max ect. but those lots are wide open and underused. The only obstacle would be the building strip to the north of the PetsMart. Anyone interested in forming a Southampton Streetcar Company?

    • Dempsterholland says:

      You are right about the desireability of using the existing railroad right of way through S St Louis.  This was originally in the Eastwest olan but then for some reason got dropped and instead a light rail along Jefferson was substituted. The reason is unclear but I suspect it was partly a theory that a light rail down Jefferson would stimulate development.  Also, the East west plan was funded by the state and limited to the city portioin of the light rail route–exactly what a “regional” agency should not do. Finally, the BNSF told the planners that a large clearence between freight and passanger service was required, and no attempt was apparently made to find options or exceptions to that policy.  All in all, a typical bad decision by the planners of transit in St Louis, where they take the path of least resistence and then wonder why the resulting system doesnt seem to work well. This is all set forth in the Southside transit study whioch nis on a East-West gateway web sit but often hard to find.

  13. Dennis says:

    But like I said, East West Gateway did not choose that alternative, so my Southampton Trolley will never have anything to connect to.

  14. GMichaud says:

    I agree there may be a better first choice for streetcars than the loop, however I think the loop will successful. I do like the newer cars, if cost is a factor then it becomes a problem. No doubt this is hard enough to get off the ground at current prices.
    What about the environmental footprint? And if it can carry more passengers? That is certainly a factor, especially if the cars can be kept full.

    What would it cost to design and build cars that have an historic sense, while at the same time serving the public more fully with a low entrance? I can’t believe building a few experimental trolley cars would be that difficult, or even expensive. There are tons of old auto metal workers around who could handle the body work and the mechanicals.

    Surely there are other paths that could work. It seems capitalism is a timid system though, not much innovation.

  15. currency says:

    i made the mistake of reminding him about this fact

  16. Jimmy Z says:

    Dennis – the ADA and its requirements is something no public agency can, or should, avoid. They’ve been in effect for over a decade, and a public entity, more than anyone else, shouldn’t be discriminating against ANY of its citizens. And GM, yes, anything is possible – the second-generation, natural gas-hybrid buses on Denver’s 16th Street Mall were designed and built locally. Unfortunately, the original bidder was unable to deliver, so the agency ended up finishing them themselves, using their in-house resources. I think New Orleans did the same thing, when they refurbished their historic streetcars before Katrina hit. The real challenge is simply aesthetics – it’s not really possible to have a historic appearance with a low floor – no historic vehicles had low floors, they’re a more-recent innovation. While you could, in theory, drop the floor in the middle of a larger historic vehicle, you’d have to decide how to handle the windows – do you leave them where they are (for an accurate historic look), which would be difficult to see out of, or do you drop the window sills to match the floor level, and destroy the linear, historic, appearance?

    Finally to get into technical stuff, all of the low-floor streetscars I’m aware of (like the ones in Portland) have three sections, high-floor front and rear sections, over the wheels and drive components (“trucks”), with the low-floor section in the middle, essentially suspended between the front and back, creating an articulated vehicle. (It appears the Finnish vehicle takes this a step further, using five sections, with the same concept: high-low-high-low-high.) Historic vehicles, in contrast, are almost always single units, over one or two trucks, depending on vehicle length. And low floor does not equal handicapped accessible – even a 4″-6″ step up is a problem. The two alternatives are a low “mini” platform (as shown in the last Helsinki photo) at each stop (a “low” block?) or a quick-deploying ramp inside the vehicle. Denver’s low-floor Mall shuttles use a simple ±3′ x ±3′ ramp that flips over 180 degrees, compared to the typical complex ramp found on most high-floor buses, where the front steps turn into an elevator and take minutes, not seconds, to deploy. With the Loop proposal, I’d go with either historic high-floor vehicles and high blocks OR with “modern” low-floor vehicles. I would not recommend retrofitting historic high-floor vehicles with stair lifts – their use would compromise operation of the system and would create significant traffic conflicts, since the streetcar won’t be able to pull out of traffic while the lift is deployed and stowed.

  17. GMichaud says:

    I disagree that it is not possible to have a historic look (if that is preferred) over a low floor design streetcar. Design is fluid and solves problems. Design is not a rigid, inelastic process. Certainly the spirit of history and classical forms can be used to create a new streetcar ( a new art).
    Certainly if a chassis could be purchased, buildings cars would be really no more difficult and complex than building a building, and not a large one at that. (The process is very similar)(A grassroots streetcar)

    Newer, more efficient technologies are also a factor. Streetsblog http://www.streetsblog.org/ just had a posting about Steves article (July 10) where they say (the modern low step) “also sends the message that this mode is not simply some quaint artifact, but a step into the future”

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  20. Dempsterholland says:

    You are right about the desireability of using the existing railroad right of way through S St Louis.  This was originally in the Eastwest olan but then for some reason got dropped and instead a light rail along Jefferson was substituted. The reason is unclear but I suspect it was partly a theory that a light rail down Jefferson would stimulate development.  Also, the East west plan was funded by the state and limited to the city portioin of the light rail route–exactly what a “regional” agency should not do. Finally, the BNSF told the planners that a large clearence between freight and passanger service was required, and no attempt was apparently made to find options or exceptions to that policy.  All in all, a typical bad decision by the planners of transit in St Louis, where they take the path of least resistence and then wonder why the resulting system doesnt seem to work well. This is all set forth in the Southside transit study whioch nis on a East-West gateway web sit but often hard to find.


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