Reviving streetcars not possible

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The discovery of the old “streetcar rails” beneath city streets during excavations in 2008 and in recent months has led to speculation that, since the rails are already in place, consideration should be given to restoring at least a partial tram service as a tourist attraction.

Regrettably, the conclusions drawn are unwarranted.

The fact that some of the rails have been unearthed is only a part of the truth.

The reality is that on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 1949, machines and men began working on the rail removal project. The contract was carried out by Concrete Products.

The reason some remain beneath the street today is because the contract with Concrete Products did not demand that all rails be removed.

It specified, “only the tracks from sections of the rail network badly in need of repair be removed.”

The remaining sections were concealed by paving over them with asphalt.

Consequently, a short distance of railing remained on New Gower Street between Adelaide and Queen’s Road and all of Queen’s Road.

Almost all the rails along Military Road and Duckworth were removed. Water Street, west of Patrick Street, has some of the old rail tracks.

A forgotten part of the tram service was the Rawlin’s Cross along Military Road to Barter’s Hill run.

It had been planned to extend this further west to Patrick Street and to connect with the New Gower Street and Hamilton Street service.

This plan was dropped due to the lack of a population to justify it in that section.

The line along New Gower Street from Adelaide to Hamilton Avenue was removed.

In its early history, two rail-lines ran along Water Street from Hutching Street to Holloway Street but these were removed and replaced with a single line of a different style track.

Many people today remember riding the old “electric trollies” which became better known as “streetcars.” The first ones introduced were made of wood and coloured yellow.

These were imported from Canada and travelled at eight miles per hour. They were replaced in 1926 by steel black trams which were faster.

A peculiar thing about them was they did not turn around. When the streetcar reached the end of the line, the conductor would switch the postions to an electric wire above the car running parallel to the street.

He would then take his cash box and move to the back of the car which then became the front.

People who were seated had the choice of flipping over their seats to face the opposite direction or leaving them in position.

The streetcars came to an end on Feb. 15, 1948.

The day was marked by the worst torrential rain storm in years.

It flooded most of the city and caused a mud slide on Southside Road that crashed into a house, claiming the life of a young boy.

The Newfoundland railway in St. John’s was shut down because tons of silt buried the railway tracks.

The streetcars were auctioned off and purchased by Geoff Stirling.

He resold these trams to people who converted them into cabins or storage sheds.

Jack Fitzgerald

St. John’s

Organizations: Concrete Products

Geographic location: New Gower Street, Military Road, Water Street Patrick Street Hamilton Street Hamilton Avenue Hutching Street Holloway Street Canada Southside Road Newfoundland railway

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  • Maggy Carter
    August 09, 2013 - 22:47

    An interesting bit of trivia, none of which supports the preposterous headline -'Reviving streetcars not possible'. In part it might be an errant headline writer, but it is not difficult to see how he/she might have arrived at that conclusion upon reading Fitzgerald's column. The existence of rails beneath the asphalt - or not - is hardly a major, let alone principal, determinant of the feasibility of re-introducing this outmoded mode of transport. Streetcars are enjoying a veritable renaissance in many North American and European cities. Little of this is predicated on hundred year old rails embedded in streets. In most instances they operate as a fully functional, year-round transport for the general population integrated with subways and other public transit. Those aimed at tourists, such as the heritage streetcar line in downtown Vancouver, operate only a few days a week during the tourist season. The impact on car traffic is a major consideration. In Vancouver, trams can operate for the most part in their own dedicated lane. Clearly this is not an option in downtown St. John's. Proponents claim great efficiencies for trams - a bit of an exaggeration, especially in light of the growing fuel efficiency of conventional transport. If we really wanted operating and environmental value, we would look to fuel-celled buses and the like. And while I'm sure it will offend the nostalgists, streetcars with their overhead wires and steel tracks are a form of visual pollution. Again, they are hardly conducive to narrow streets. The bottom line, as far as downtown St. John's is concerned, is that streetcars are best left in the history books and NTV's grainy archives. But that choice is hardly down to a lack of old rails under the streets - any more than it is to retrieving the Stirling-streetcars-come-cottages rusting away in the Newfoundland hinterland.

  • Richard
    August 09, 2013 - 08:25

    I hear Bruce Springsteen would have played here this summer if we had streetcars.