Is it a trolley or a streetcar?

No, this was not a staged “period equipment” display.

These actual scenes took place in Dormont, PA back in the summer of 1963 or ‘64 – almost 60 years ago. This one is a catenary maintenance truck at a grade crossing.  As school was out for the summer, Mom and I went to Dormont to catch the trolley into Pittsburgh. We lived in the area at that time, and in those days before shopping malls on every corner, she was going to town to buy some new dresses. (Guess who got to tag along to the dress shops and watch while she tried each one on? Perhaps a contributing factor in why I like dresses?) This picture was taken at the trolley line’s Dormont stop!

Of course the tracks traversed a corner of Mt. Lebanon, and I seem to remember went on as far as Castle Shannon, resulting in two route numbers being conjoined, in this case “42/38.”  A radio announcer of the era (Rege Cordic of radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh to be exact) invented the term “flying fraction” because of these conjoined route numbers, which existed on several routes. 

You railfans will recognize the body style of the trolleys.  It’s representative of the streetcars which emanated from a design committee formed in 1929 representing the Presidents of various electric street railways. The Electric Railway Presidents’ Conference Committee, or ERPCC, was tasked with producing a new type of streetcar that would help fend off competition from buses and automobiles. The committee conducted extensive research, prepared a detailed research program, built and tested components, made necessary modifications, and produced a high-performance design that was commonly used in the following decades. The cars were popular because of their distinctive streamlined design and smooth acceleration and braking, sometimes quoted as soft ride. The design patents were held by a business called the Transit Research Corporation, who licensed features to various streetcar manufacturers. The trolleys are still known as PCC cars to this very day.

It turned out that the PCC design was very good. The standard car was 46′ long and 100″ wide with later models 46.5′ long and 108″ wide. Chicago, Detroit, Illinois Terminal, Pacific Electric, and San Francisco had longer cars, as long as 50.5.’ Washington, DC, had shorter cars (44′) because of car house clearances. Many railways altered the car in various ways to fit their own needs, but most cars retained a standard appearance.

Pittsburgh Railways (PRCo) took delivery of PCC #100 in June 1936, the fourth order for a PCC car but the first PCC car delivered and the first in revenue service in the world. Production continued in North America until the early 1950s, with 4978 units built; thousands more PCCs and direct descendants were produced in Europe through the 20th century. The cars were very sturdy and many lasted a long time; well into the 1970s the majority of surviving North American streetcar systems used PCC cars, the systems which closed often selling their cars secondhand to the surviving operators.

A handful still remain in service alongside modern vehicles, though most of the PCC cars functional today are operated by museums and heritage railways.

Is one operating near where you live?


2 thoughts on “Is it a trolley or a streetcar?

    1. Duh…I should have remembered to add Tram to the list…from when we visited the UK! Thanks for the update! (And yes, those were fun times – in retrospect. Back then, I didn’t see the advantages…other than the Tram ride, of course!)



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