Affordable Streetcar: New Orleans

June 5, 2009 27 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Although the New Orleans streetcar system has been in operation since 1835, it contains certain design elements that could reduce the cost of implementing a starter streetcar line in Jacksonville, if replicated.

Streetcars in New Orleans have been an integral part of the city's public transportation network since the first half of the 19th century. The longest of New Orleans' streetcar lines, the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar, is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world, according to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Today, the streetcars are operated by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA).

There are currently three operating streetcar lines in New Orleans: The St. Charles Avenue Line, the Riverfront Line, and the Canal Street Line. The St. Charles Avenue Line is the only line that has operated continuously throughout New Orleans' streetcar history (though service was interrupted after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 and resumed only in part in December 2006, as noted below). All other lines were replaced by bus service in the period from the late 1940s to the early 1960s; preservationists were unable to save the streetcars on Canal Street, but were able to convince the city government to protect the St. Charles Avenue Line by granting it historic landmark status. In the later 20th century, trends began to favor rail transit again. A short Riverfront Line started service in 1988, and service returned to Canal Street in 2004, 40 years after it had been shut down.

The wide destruction wrought on the city by Hurricane Katrina and subsequent floods from the levee breaches in August 2005 knocked all three lines out of operation and damaged many of the streetcars. Service on a portion of the Canal Street line was restored in December of that year, with the remainder of the line and the Riverfront line returning to service in early 2006. On December 23, 2007, the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) extended service from Napoleon Avenue to the end of historic St. Charles Avenue (the “Riverbend”). On June 22, 2008 service was restored to the end of the line at South Carrollton Avenue & South Claiborne Avenue.

The standard fare for all three lines is $1.25, with discounts for senior citizens. Passengers with disabilities and passengers two and under are admitted free. Transfers to other routes are available for $0.25.

The Use of Medians

The proposed JTA streetcar system will have streetcar tracks installed in the same lanes as regular automobile traffic.  On the other hand, the New Orleans streetcar system runs primarily in street medians and railroad right-of-way.  By not sharing lanes with cars, your rail system is not subject to daily automobile traffic conditions.  A system that is not subject to automobile traffic conditions has the ability to move along the route in an efficient and rapid manner, thus making it a more viable transit alternative for choice riders.

Streetcars operating during the December 2008 snow storm.  Image by dsb nola at

Streetcars at Carrollton & Claiborne Avenues, Carrollton section of New Orleans, with unusual appearance of one of the red cars of the Canal/Riverfront lines. Image by Infrogmation at

A streetcar on Carrollton.  Image by

No-Frills Stops

The proposed JTA streetcar system's cost estimates include the construction of stations.  On the other hand, many stops along the New Orleans system consist of nothing more than a sidewalk and a sign.  

A Canal Street streetcar stop.  Image by Infrogmation at

Image by Infrogmation at

St. Charles Avenue Streetcar image by *clairity* at

Heritage Streetcars

As indicated in JTA's preliminary streetcar study, many transit agencies are interested in the modern streetcar made popular by Portland's system.  Modern streetcars cost more than Heritage streetcars.  The New Orleans system continues to successfully operate with heritage streetcars.  Since both can operate on the same track infrastructure, to get started it may be worth our while to take advantage of more affordable railcars to keep our initial costs low.  As the system grows and the community rallies around it, additional investment in modern streetcars can come at a later date.

Inside a streetcar. Image by dsb nola at

The last 19th century Ford Bacon & Davis car, still in work car service on St. Charles Avenue in 2008.
Image by Infrogmation at

Image by Infrogmation at

Limited use of Couplets

JTA's proposed streetcar routes show a dominant use of couplets. Couplets can be described as a one way pair of tracks running parallel to each other on different blocks.  The incorporation of couplets immediately means double tracking significant portions of the line, even though the additional investment may not be warranted.  

The New Orleans system rarely uses couplets and takes advantage of corridors with bi-directional movement.  For Jacksonville, eliminating the excessive use of couplets would allow initial lines to be expanded deeper into neighborhoods, such as Riverside and Springfield, for a lower cost.

A map of New Orleans streetcar routes. St. Charles Avenue (blue), Canal Street (red), Riverfront (green).

Image by dsb nola at

As the desire for local alternative transportation options continues to heat up, being able to prove that rail transit can be implemented for an affordable price will become paramount.

To be able to move forward with affordable systems, JTA, City Hall and the community should begin to think about the incorporation of design elements that can create an efficient system, yet not break the local bank.

With nearly 30,000 riders a day, the New Orleans' streetcar network proves that you can successfully operate a fixed-rail system without all the bells and whistles that can drastically increase implementation costs.

Article by Ennis Davis

Other Affordable Streetcar Articles:

Affordable Streetcar: M-Line Streetcar
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Affordable Streetcar: Seattle's Waterfront Streetcar
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