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An interurban car from the Philadelphia & Western Railroad, which survived long in the interurban business
An interurban car from the Philadelphia & Western Railroad, which survived long in the interurban business

The Interurban (or radial railway in Europe and Canada) is a type of electric railway, with streetcar-like electric self-propelled rail cars which run within and between cities or towns.[1] They were very prevalent in North America between 1900 and 1925 and were used primarily for passenger travel between cities and their surrounding suburban and rural communities. The concept spread to countries such as Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy and Poland. Interurban as a term encompassed the companies, their infrastructure, their cars that ran on the rails, and their service. In the United States, the early 1900s interurban was a valuable economic institution. Most roads between towns and many town streets were unpaved. Transportation and haulage was by horse-drawn carriages and carts. The interurban provided reliable transportation, particularly in winter weather, between the town and countryside. In 1915, 15,500 miles (24,900 km) of interurban railways were operating in the United States and, for a few years, interurban railways, including the numerous manufacturers of cars and equipment, were the fifth-largest industry in the country. By 1930, most interurbans in North America were gone with a few surviving into the 1950s.

Kusttram, The Belgian Coast Tram, is a European interurban.
Kusttram, The Belgian Coast Tram, is a European interurban.
Aigle–Sépey–Diablerets railway line in Switzerland.

Outside of the US large networks of high-speed electric tramways have been built in countries across the world that survive today. Notable systems exist in the Low Countries, Poland and Japan, where populations are densely packed around large conurbations such as the Randstad, Upper Silesia, Greater Tokyo Area and Keihanshin. Switzerland, particularly, has a large network of mountain narrow gauge interurban lines.

In addition, many tram-train lines are being built, especially in France and Germany but also elsewhere in the world. These can be regarded as interurbans since they run on the streets, like trams, when in cities, while out of them they either share existing railway lines or put lines abandoned by the railway companies to a new use.

The Keihan Keishin Line is a Japanese interurban.
The Keihan Keishin Line is a Japanese interurban.


A map showing the Detroit United Railway's network in 1904. Interurban routes link street railroads in Detroit, Port Huron, and Windsor.
A map showing the Detroit United Railway's network in 1904. Interurban routes link street railroads in Detroit, Port Huron, and Windsor.

The term "interurban" was coined by Charles L. Henry, a state senator in Indiana. The Latin, inter urbes, means "between cities".[2] The interurban fit on a continuum between urban street railways and full-fledged railroads. George W. Hilton and John F. Due identified four characteristics of an interurban:[3]

The definition of "interurban" is necessarily blurry. Some town streetcar lines evolved into interurban systems by extending streetcar track from town into the countryside to link adjacent towns together and sometimes by the acquisition of a nearby interurban system. There was a large amount of consolidation of lines following initial construction. Other interurban lines effectively became light rail systems with no street running whatsoever, or they became primarily freight-hauling railroads because of a progressive loss of their initial passenger service over the years.[citation needed]

In 1905, the United States Census Bureau defined an interurban as "a street railway having more than half its trackage outside municipal limits." It drew a distinction between "interurban" and "suburban" railroads. A suburban system was oriented toward a city center in a single urban area and served commuter traffic. A regular railroad moved riders from one city center to another city center and also moved a substantial amount of freight. The typical interurban similarly served more than one city, but it served a smaller region and made more frequent stops, and it was oriented to passenger rather than freight service.[4]



See also: History of trams

Postcard of electric trolley-powered streetcars in Richmond, Virginia, in 1923, two generations after Frank J. Sprague successfully demonstrated his new system on the hills in 1888. The intersection shown is at 8th & Broad Streets.
Postcard of electric trolley-powered streetcars in Richmond, Virginia, in 1923, two generations after Frank J. Sprague successfully demonstrated his new system on the hills in 1888. The intersection shown is at 8th & Broad Streets.

The development of interurbans in the late nineteenth century resulted from the convergence of two trends: improvements in electric traction, and an untapped demand for transportation in rural areas, particularly in the Midwestern United States. The 1880s saw the first successful deployments of electric traction in streetcar systems. Most of these built on the pioneering work of Frank J. Sprague, who developed an improved method for mounting an electric traction motor and using a trolley pole for pickup. Sprague's work led to widespread acceptance of electric traction for streetcar operations and end of horse-drawn trams.[5]

The late nineteenth-century United States witnessed a boom in agriculture which lasted through the First World War, but transportation in rural areas was inadequate. Conventional steam railroads made limited stops, mostly in towns. These were supplemented by horse and buggies and steamboats, both of which were slow and the latter of which was restricted to navigable rivers.[6] The increased capacity and profitability of the city street railroads offered the possibility of extending them into the countryside to reach new markets, even linking to other towns. The first interurban to emerge in the United States was the Newark and Granville Street Railway in Ohio, which opened in 1889. It was not a major success, but others followed.[7] The development of the automobile was then in its infancy, and to many investors interurbans appeared to be the future of local transportation.[8]


Interurban Station and Superior Street, Toledo, Ohio
Interurban Station and Superior Street, Toledo, Ohio
1911 map showing interurban services across the Midwest and Southern Ontario
1911 map showing interurban services across the Midwest and Southern Ontario

From 1900 to 1916, large networks of interurban lines was constructed across the United States, particularly in the states of Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Iowa, Utah, and California.[9] In 1900, 2,107 miles (3,391 km) of interurban track existed, but by 1916, this had increased to 15,580 miles (25,070 km), a seven-fold expansion.[10] At one point in time beginning in 1901, it was possible to travel from Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, to Little Falls, New York, exclusively by interurban.[11] During this expansion, in the regions where they operated, particularly in Ohio and Indiana, "...they almost destroyed the local passenger service of the steam railroad."[12] To show how exceptionally busy the interurbans radiating from Indianapolis were in 1926, the immense Indianapolis Traction Terminal (nine roof covered tracks and loading platforms) scheduled 500 trains in and out daily and moved 7 million passengers that year.[13] At their peak the interurbans were the fifth-largest industry in the United States.[14][15]

A preserved Hanshin Electric Railway Type 601 car
A preserved Hanshin Electric Railway Type 601 car

In Belgium, a sprawling, nation-wide system of narrow-gauge vicinal tramways have been built by the NMVB / SNCV to provide transport to smaller towns across the country with the first section opening in 1885. These lines were either electrically operated or run with diesel tramcars, included numerous street-running sections, and inter-operated with local tram networks in the larger cities. Similar to Belgium, a large network of interurbans was constructed in the Netherlands in the early 1900s called streektramlijnen.

Milan interurban network by the early 1930s.
Milan interurban network by the early 1930s.

A large network of interurbans started developing around Milan in the late 1800s, which started as horse[16] and later steam trams.[17] These initial interurban lines were gradually upgraded with electric traction in the early 1900s with some assistance from Thomas Edison.[18] By the 1930s a vast network of interurbans connected Milan with surrounding towns.

The first interurban railway in Japan is the Hanshin Electric Railway, built to compete with mainline steam trains on the Osaka to Kobe corridor and completed in 1905. As laws of that time did not allow parallel railways to be built, the line was legally defined as a tramway and included street running at the two ends, but was based on American interurbans and operated with large tramcars on mostly private right-of-way. In the same year, the Keihin Express Railway, or Keikyu, completed a section of what is today part of the Keikyū Main Line between Shinagawa, Tokyo and Kanagawa, Yokohama. This line competes with mainline Japanese National Railways on this busy corridor. Predecessors of the Meitetsu opened their first interurban lines in 1912, what today form parts of the Meitetsu Inuyama Line and Tsushima Line. In 1913, the first section of what will become the Keiō Line opened connecting Chōfu to just outside Shinjuku with street running on what is today the Kōshū Kaidō or National Route 20.[19] Kyushu Electric Railroad, predecessor to Nishitetsu opened its first interurban line in 1914 serving Kitakyushu and surrounding areas, taking heavy inspiration from Hanshin Electric Railway.

In the first half of the 20th century, an extensive interurban network covered Northern England, centered on South Lancashire and West Yorkshire.[20] At that time, it was possible to travel entirely by tram from Liverpool Pier Head to the village of Summit, outside Rochdale, a distance of 52 miles (84 km), and with a short 7 miles (11 km) bus journey across the Pennines, to connect to another interurban network that linked Huddersfield, Halifax and Leeds.[21]

Diverging fortunes

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Decline in North America

The last day of electric operation on the Sacramento Northern Railway, February 1965. At left is the California Zephyr.
The last day of electric operation on the Sacramento Northern Railway, February 1965. At left is the California Zephyr.

See also: General Motors streetcar conspiracy

The fortunes of the industry in The US and Canada declined during World War I, particularly into the early 1920s. In 1919 President Woodrow Wilson created the Federal Electric Railways Commission to investigate the financial problems of the industry. The commission submitted its final report to the President in 1920. The commission's report focused on financial management problems and external economic pressures on the industry, and recommended against introducing public financing for the interurban industry.[22] One of the commission's consultants, however, published an independent report stating that private ownership of electric railways had been a failure, and only public ownership would keep the interurbans in business.[23]

Many interurbans had been hastily constructed without realistic projections of income and expenses.[citation needed] They were initially financed by issuing stock and selling bonds.[citation needed] The sale of these financial instruments was often local with salesmen going door to door aggressively pushing this new and exciting "it can't fail" form of transportation.[citation needed] But many of those interurbans did fail, and often quickly.[citation needed] They had poor cash flow from the outset and struggled to raise essential further capital. Interurbans were very vulnerable to acts of nature damaging track and bridges, particularly in the Midwestern United States where flooding was common. Receivership was a common fate when the interurban company could not pay its payroll and other debts, so state courts took over and allowed continued operation while suspending the company's obligation to pay interest on its bonds. In addition, the interurban honeymoon period with the municipalities of 1895–1910 was over. The large and heavy interurbans, some weighing as much as 65 tons, caused damage to city streets which led to endless disputes over who should bear the repair costs. The rise of automobile traffic in the middle 1920s aggravated those trends. As the interurban companies struggled financially they faced rising competition from cars and trucks on newly paved streets and highways, while municipalities sought to alleviate traffic congestion by removing interurbans from city streets. Some companies exited the passenger business altogether to focus on freight, while others sought to buttress their finances by selling surplus electricity in local communities. Several interurbans which attempted to exit the rail business altogether ran afoul of state commissions which required that trains remain running "for the public good," even at a loss.[24][page needed]

Many financially weak interurbans did not survive the prosperous 1920s, and most others went bankrupt during the Great Depression. A few struggling lines tried combining to form much larger systems in an attempt to gain operating efficiency and a broader customer base. This occurred in Ohio in year 1930 with the long Cincinnati & Lake Erie Railroad (C&LE), and in Indiana with the very widespread Indiana Railroad. Both had limited success up to 1937–1938 primarily from growing revenues earned from freight.[25] The 130-mile (210 km) long Sacramento Northern Railway stopped carrying passengers in 1940 but continued hauling freight using heavy electric locomotives into the 1960s.[26]

Oliver Jensen, author of American Heritage History of Railroads in America, commented that "...the automobile doomed the interurban whose private tax paying tracks could never compete with the highways that a generous government provided for the motorist."[27][page needed] William D. Middleton in the opening of his classic 270 page book "The Interurban Era" said: "Evolved from the urban streetcar, the Interurban appeared shortly before the dawn of the 20th century, grew to a vast network of over 18,000 miles in two decades of excellent growth, and then all but vanished after barely three decades of usefulness."[28]

Interurban business increased for the survivors during World War II due to fuel oil rationing and large wartime employment. When the war ended in 1945, riders went back to their automobiles, and most of these lines were finally abandoned.[29] Several systems struggled into the 1950s, including the Baltimore and Annapolis Railroad (passenger service ended 1950), Lehigh Valley Transit Company (1951), West Penn Railways (1952), and the Illinois Terminal Railroad (1958). The West Penn was the largest interurban to operate in the east at 339 miles and had provided Pittsburgh area coal country towns hourly transportation since 1888.[30]

By the 1960s there were only five remaining interurban lines serving commuters in three major metropolitan areas: the North Shore Line and the South Shore Line in Chicago, the Philadelphia Suburban Transportation Company, the New York, Susquehanna and Western Railway in northern New Jersey and the Long Beach Line in Long Beach and Los Angeles (the last remaining part of the Pacific Electric system). The Long Beach Line was cut in 1961, the North Shore Line in 1963; the Philadelphia Suburban's route 103 and the NYS&W in New Jersey both ended passenger service in 1966.[31] The South Shore Line was left as the only survivor. Some former interurban lines retained freight service for up to several decades after the discontinuance of passenger service. Most were converted to diesel operation, although the Sacramento Northern Railway retained electric freight until 1965.[32]

Consolidation in Europe

NMVB interurbans at Oostende in 1982, on the surviving Belgian Coast Tram line. A more recent photo can be seen at top.
NMVB interurbans at Oostende in 1982, on the surviving Belgian Coast Tram line. A more recent photo can be seen at top.

After World War II many interurbans outside of the US also started to be cut back. In Belgium, as intercity transport shifted to cars and buses, the large sections of the vicinal tramways were gradually shut down by the 1980s. At their peak in 1945, the mileage of vicinal tramways reached 4,811 kilometres and exceeded the length of the national railway network.

A NZH 'Blue Tram' at Katwijk
A NZH 'Blue Tram' at Katwijk

Sprawling tram networks in the Netherlands have been extended to neighbouring cities. The vast majority of these interurban lines were not electrified and operated with steam and sometimes petrol or diesel tramcars. Many did not survive the 1920s and 30s for the same reasons American interurbans went bust, but those that did were put back into service during the war years, or at least the remaining parts not yet demolished. One of the largest systems, nicknamed the Blue Tram, was run by the Noord-Zuid-Hollandsche Stoomtramweg-Maatschappij and survived until 1961. Another, the RTM (Rotterdamse Tramweg Maatschappij), which ran in the river delta south-west of Rotterdam, survived until early January 1966 and its demise sparked the rail-related heritage movement in the Netherlands in earnest with the founding of the Tramweg Stichting (Tramway Foundation). Many systems such as the Hague tramway and the Rotterdam tramway also included long interurban extensions which were operated with larger, higher-speed cars. In close parallel to North America, many interurban systems were abandoned from the 1950s after tram companies switched to buses. Instigated by the oil crisis in the 1970s, the remaining interurban tramways have enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance in the form of the Sneltram, a modern light rail system that uses high floor, metro-style vehicles and could interoperate into metro networks. Various other interurbans in Europe were folded into local municipal tramway or light rail systems. Switzerland retained many of its interurban lines which now operate as tramways, local railways, S-Bahn, or tram-trains. Milan's vast interurban network was progressively closed in the 1970s but parts of it were reused as the outer parts of the Milan Metro.

Evolution in Japan

Development of Japanese interurbans strayed from their American counterparts from the 1920s, after which motorisation did not develop as quickly as in North America. The second boom of interurbans occurred as late as the 1920s and 30s in Japan, with predecessors of the extensive Kintetsu Railway, Hankyu, Nankai Electric Railway and Odakyu Electric Railway networks starting life during this period. These interurbans, built with straighter tracks, electrified at 1500V and operated using larger tramcars, were built to even higher standards than the Japanese National Railways network at the time. The (former JNR) Hanwa Line was a wartime acquisition from Nankai, operating 'Super Express' trains on the line at an average speed of 81.6 km/h, a national record at the time. The old Sendai station terminus of the Miyagi Electric Railway (the predecessor of the JR Senseki Line) was situated in a short single-track underground tunnel built in 1925; this was the first stretch of underground railway in all of Asia, predating the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line by two years.

A preserved Odakyu 3000 series SE unit, based on the North Shore Line's Electroliners and a one-time world record holder for narrow gauge speed
A preserved Odakyu 3000 series SE unit, based on the North Shore Line's Electroliners and a one-time world record holder for narrow gauge speed
Mikage Station in 1910 (above) and today (below). Note the longer platforms and grade separation. These improvements were typical evolutions of early interurbans in Japan.

After the war, interurbans and other private railway companies were given large amounts of investment and allowed to compete not only with mainline trains but also with each other, in order to rejuvenate the country's railway infrastructure and cater for the post-war baby boom. Lines were reconstructed to allow higher speeds, mainline-sized trains were adopted, street-running sections were rebuilt to elevated or underground rights-of-way, and link lines to growing metro systems were built to allow for through operations. Many of these private railway companies started to construct lines using standards similar to the national rail network, and, like JR commuter routes, are operated as 'metro-style' commuter railways with mainline-sized vehicles and metro-like frequencies of very few minutes. In 1957, the Odakyu Electric Railway introduced the Odakyu 3000 series SE, the first in a line of luxurious tourist Limited Express trains named 'Romancecars'. This series' design was based on the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad's Electroliner units, complete with Jacobs bogies which are rarity in Japan. These units set the narrow-gauge speed record of 145 km/h on its runs to a mountain spa resort.

Nankai Electric Railway Namba Station. Many Japanese private railways still retain their large stub interurban terminals connected to their department store and office developments.

The handful of Japanese National Railways acquisitions of interurban railways – including the Hanwa Line, Senseki Line and the Iida Line – remain outliers on the national network, with short station distances, (in the case of the Iida Line) lower-grade infrastructure, and independent termini (such as Aobadori Station and the upper level of the Tennōji Station).

Keikyu Limited Express trains feature a livery based on the Pacific Electric.
Keikyu Limited Express trains feature a livery based on the Pacific Electric.

Today, trackage of the major sixteen private railways, initially designed as American-style interurban railways, has been upgraded beyond recognition to high capacity urban heavy railways. However, numerous operational characteristics of interurbans are preserved to this day, in the form of inter-operation with city center local railways (in this case, through services to metro lines), wide varieties of stopping patterns (including premium services), and stations that are often in close proximity to each other. Multinational department store chains are still operated by private railway companies that started out as interurbans such as Tokyu, Seibu, Odakyu, Hankyu and Tobu at their city termini; these form only a small part of their extensive business empires, which often include real estate, hotels and resorts, tourist attractions, stadiums and smaller rail subsidiaries in addition to their interurban networks upgraded to high capacity urban railway operations. For example, the Keikyu network has changed unrecognizably from its early days, operating Limited Express services at up to 120 km/h to compete with JR trains, and inter-operating with subway and Keisei Electric Railway trains on through runs extending up to 200 km; the trains retain a red livery based on the Pacific Electric's 'Red Cars', true to the company's interurban roots. The Keiō Line did not fully remove the streetrunning section on the Kōshū Kaidō outside of Shinjuku Station until the 1960s, replacing it with an underground section.[33][34][35]

Similar to passenger railway conditions in early 1900s America, intense competition still exists today between private railways and mainline railways operated by the Japan Railways Group along highly congested corridors is a hallmark of suburban railway operations in Japan. For example, on the Osaka to Kobe corridor, JR West competes intensely with both Hankyu Kobe Line and Hanshin Main Line trains in terms of speed, convenience and comfort.

1000 Series on the Nishitetsu Kitakyushu Line before closing in 2000.
1000 Series on the Nishitetsu Kitakyushu Line before closing in 2000.

However, a number of interurbans in Japan did close down up into the 2000s, with networks in Kitakyushu and Gifu being shut down.[36]


Train on the Linzer Lokalbahn.
Train on the Linzer Lokalbahn.


Between Vienna and Baden bei Wien the Badner Bahn, operates a classic interurban passenger service, in addition to some freight services.[37] Some interurban lines survive today a local railways in Upper Austria are such as the Linzer Lokalbahn, Lokalbahn Vöcklamarkt–Attersee and Lokalbahn Lambach–Vorchdorf-Eggenberg. While others operate as extension of a local city tramway such as the Traunseebahn which is now connected to the Gmunden Tramway.


Main article: Vicinal tramway

Today, two surviving interurban networks descending from the vicinal tramways exist in Belgium. The famous Belgian Coast Tram, built in 1885, traverses the entire Belgian coastline and, at a length of 68 km (42 miles), which is the longest tram line in the world. The Charleroi Metro is a never fully completed pre-metro network upgraded and developed from the dense vicinal tramway network around the city.


Similar to United States, most passenger interurbans in Canada were removed by the 1950s. One example of continuous passenger service still exists today, the Toronto Transit Commission 501 Queen streetcar line. The western segment of the 501 Streetcar operates largely on what was the T&YRR Port Credit Radial Line, a radial line that remains intact through the Borough of Etobicoke and up to the border of the neighboring City of Mississauga, unlike other Toronto radial lines which all have been abandoned outside of the Borough of Old Toronto.

Albtalbahnhof in Karlsruhe where the transition between railway running and street running sections of some lines in the Karlsruhe Stadtbahn is located.
Albtalbahnhof in Karlsruhe where the transition between railway running and street running sections of some lines in the Karlsruhe Stadtbahn is located.


In Germany various networks have continued to exist. The most famous example of this is Karlsruhe, revitalized the interurban concept into the Karlsruhe model by renovating two local railways Alb Valley Railway which already had interoperation with local tram trackage and the Hardt Railway. Other examples include:[38]


Milan operates one remaining interurban tramway to Limbiate with another interurban route to Carate Brianza/Giussano suspended since 2011. These two lines were once part of large network of interurbans surrounding Milan that were gradually closed in the 1970s.


Fukui Railway 200 Series train operating on a street running section.
Fukui Railway 200 Series train operating on a street running section.
Keihan 700 Series streetrunning on the Ishiyama Sakamoto Line
Keihan 700 Series streetrunning on the Ishiyama Sakamoto Line

In Japan, the vast majority of the major sixteen private railways have roots as interurban electric railway lines that have taken inspirations from the US. Instead of demolishing their trackage in the 1930s like the United States, many Japanese interurbans companies upgraded their networks to heavy rail standards becoming today's large private railways. To this day, private railway companies in Japan remain as highly influential business empires with diverse business interests, encompassing department stores, property developments and even tourist resorts. Many Japanese private railway companies compete with each other for passengers, operate department stores at their city termini, develop suburban properties adjacent to stations they own, and run special tourist attractions with admission included in package deals with rail tickets; similar to operations of large interurban companies in the US during their heyday.

While most interurbans in Japan have been upgraded beyond recognition to high capacity urban railways, a handful have remained relatively untouched, with street running and using with 'lighter-rail' stock in short consists, retaining a distinct character similar to classic American interurbans to this day. These include:


A Randstadrail Line E 'Sneltram' on the way to Rotterdam from The Hague
A Randstadrail Line E 'Sneltram' on the way to Rotterdam from The Hague

The only surviving interurban line is also the oldest regional tramway in the Netherlands a line from The Hague to Delft. Which opened as horse-tramway in 1866. Nowadays the line operates as Line 1 of The Hague Tramway.[39] Line E, run by Randstadrail, was an interurban line connecting Rotterdam to The Hague and in the past also to Scheveningen. It now interoperates with the Rotterdam Metro.


A large interurban network called the Silesian Interurbans still exists today connecting the urban areas of the Upper Silesia. It is one of the largest interurban networks in Europe.[40]

United States

A Pullman Company electric interurban unit heading west toward Michigan City on the South Shore Line in 1980
A Pullman Company electric interurban unit heading west toward Michigan City on the South Shore Line in 1980

Only three continuously operating passenger interurbans in the US remain with most being abandoned by the 1950s.

The South Shore Line is now owned by the state of Indiana and uses mainline-sized electric multiple units. Its last section of street running, in Michigan City, Indiana, was finally closed in 2022 for conversion to a grade-separated double-track line.[41][42]

SEPTA operates three former Philadelphia Suburban lines: the Norristown High Speed Line as an interurban heavy rail line, and Route 101 and 102 as light rail lines.

In Chicago the Skokie Valley portion of the North Shore Line from Dempster Street to Howard Street was acquired by the Chicago Transit Authority and is now the Yellow Line. The Yellow Line initially operated with third rail from Howard Street to the Skokie Shops and switched to overhead wire for the remainder of the journey to Dempster Street, until 2004 when the overhead wire was replaced with third rail.

Several former interurban rights of way have been reused for modern light rail lines, including the Los Angeles Metro A and E Lines and one section of the Baltimore Light Rail. Several museums and heritage railways, including the Western Railway Museum and Seashore Trolley Museum, operate restored equipment on former interurban lines. The Iowa Traction Railway still operates freight service today using interurban equipment and infrastructure. The River Line in New Jersey is also considered an interurban.

A BDe 8/8 unit streetrunning in Dietikon on the Bremgarten–Dietikon railway line.
A BDe 8/8 unit streetrunning in Dietikon on the Bremgarten–Dietikon railway line.


Aigle–Ollon–Monthey–Champéry railway line

Switzerland operated a huge number of interurbans which today many have been upgraded into a number of different modes with a few remaining interurban features left. Several still have interurban characteristics such as unprotected alignments next to the road right of ways and/or street running.[43] Today former interurban lines have been upgraded to operate as:

Infrastructure and design

Right of way

Main article: Right-of-way (railroad)

Filmed in 1924, the opening of the Leiden – Scheveningen interurban in the Netherlands

Interurbans typically ran along or on a public right-of-way. In towns, interurbans ran in the street, sharing track with existing street railroads.[44] While street running limited acquisition costs, it also required sharp turns and made interurban operations susceptible to traffic congestion.[citation needed] Unlike conventional railroads, it was rare for an interurban to construct long unencumbered stretches of private right-of-way.[45][page needed] The torque characteristics of electric operation allowed interurbans to operate on steeper grades than conventional steam locomotives.[46]


Main article: Track (rail transport)

Compared to conventional steam railroad trackage, interurban rail was light and ballasted lightly, if at all.[44] Most interurbans in North America were built to standard gauge (4 ft 8+12 in or 1,435 mm), but there were exceptions. In Europe narrow-gauge interurbans were more common. In Japan the national mainlines were built to 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) narrow gauge however due to influence from for US interurban operations the first interurban companies in Japan built trackage to standard gauge. This remains the case today with Keikyu and Hanshin, forerunners of Japan's interurbans, still using standard gauge today. Later companies regauged or outright built lines to 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) narrow gauge for better intercompatibility and consistency with the Japanese mainline standards. Interurbans often used the tracks of existing street railways through city and town streets, and if these street railways were not built to standard, the interurbans had to use the non-standard gauges as well or face the expense of building their own separate trackage through urban areas. Some municipalities deliberately mandated non-standard gauges to prevent freight operations on public streets. In Pennsylvania, many interurbans were constructed using the wide "Pennsylvania trolley gauge" of 5 ft 2+12 in (1,588 mm). In Los Angeles, the Pacific Electric Railway, using standard 1,435 mm (4 ft 8+12 in) gauge track, and the Los Angeles Railway, the city's streetcar system, using 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) narrow gauge, shared dual-gauge track in downtown Los Angeles with one rail common to each.[47]


Overhead lines in Haubstadt, Indiana, circa 1924
Overhead lines in Haubstadt, Indiana, circa 1924

Main article: Railway electrification

Most interurban railways in North America were constructed using the same low-voltage 500 to 600 V DC trolley power in use by the street railways to which they connected.[48] This enabled interurban cars to use the same overhead trolley power on town street car tracks with no electrical change on the cars to accommodate a different voltage. However, higher voltages became necessary to reduce power loss on long-distance transmission lines and routes, though substations were established to boost voltage.[49] In 1905 Westinghouse introduced a 6600 V 25 Hz alternating current (AC) system which a number of railroads adopted. This required fewer substations than DC, but came with higher maintenance costs.[50] The necessary on-board 6600 AC voltage reduction plus AC to DC rectification on each powered car to run DC traction motors added to greater car construction expense plus the operational dangers that such on-board high voltages created.[51]

More common were high-voltage DC systems – usually 1200 V DC, introduced in 1908 by Indianapolis & Louisville Traction Company for their Dixie Flyer and Hoosier Flyer services.[52][failed verification] In the streets, where high-speed service was not feasible, the cars ran at half speed at 600 V or got a voltage changeover device.[citation needed] such as on the Sacramento Northern. A 2400 V DC third-rail system was installed on the Michigan United Railways's Western Division between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids in 1915, but was abandoned because of the electrocution potential safety hazard.[53] Even 5000 V DC was tested.[49]

Most interurban cars and freight locomotives collected current from an overhead trolley wire. The cars contacted this wire through the use of a trolley pole or a pantograph. Other designs collected current from a third rail. Some interurbans used both: in open country, the third rail was used and in town, a trolley pole was raised. An example of this was the Chicago, Aurora, and Elgin Railroad where a trolley pole was used in both Aurora and Elgin, Illinois. Third rail was cheaper to maintain and more conductive, but it was more expensive to construct initially and it did not eliminate the need for AC transformers, AC transmission lines, and AC/DC conversion systems. In addition, third rail posed a serious danger to trespassers and animals and was difficult to keep clear of ice.[citation needed]

Trains and equipment

Rolling stock

A pre-1910, all-wood heavy interurban car of the Fort Wayne & Wabash Valley Traction Company, preserved at the Illinois Railway Museum
A pre-1910, all-wood heavy interurban car of the Fort Wayne & Wabash Valley Traction Company, preserved at the Illinois Railway Museum
A preserved box motor from Iowa
A preserved box motor from Iowa

From 1890 to 1910, roughly, interurban cars were made of wood and often were very large, weighing up to 40 short tons (35.7 long tons; 36.3 t) and measuring as long as 60 feet (18.29 m). These featured the classic arch-window look with truss-rods and cow-catchers. Three of the best known early companies were Jewett, Niles, and Kuhlman, all of Ohio.[citation needed] These interurbans required a two men crew, an operator and a conductor. By 1910, most new interurban cars were constructed of steel, weighing up to 60 short tons (53.6 long tons; 54.4 t).[54][verification needed] As competition increased for passengers and costs needed to be reduced in the 1920s, interurban companies and manufacturers attempted to reduce car weight and wind resistance in order to reduce power consumption. The new designs also required only a one-man crew with the operator collecting tickets and making change. The trucks were improved[how?] to provide a better ride, acceleration, and top speed but with reduced power consumption.[55] Into the 1930s, better quality and lighter steel and aluminum use reduced weight, and cars were redesigned to ride lower in order to reduce wind resistance.[citation needed] Car design peaked in the early 1930s with the light weight Cincinnati Car Company-built Red Devil cars of the Cincinnati and Lake Erie Railroad.[56]

In addition to passenger cars, interurban companies acquired freight locomotives and line maintenance equipment. A "box motor" was a powered car exclusive for freight that looked like a passenger interurban without windows and had wide side doors for loading freight. A freight motor was geared for power rather than speed and could pull up to six freight cars depending upon the load and grades. Freight cars for interurbans tended to be smaller than those for steam railroads, and they had to have special extended couplers to prevent car corner contact at the very tight grinding turns at city street corners. Maintenance equipment included "line cars" with roof platforms for the trolley wire repair crew, snow plows and snow sweepers with rotating brushes, a car for weed control and to maintain track and ballast. In order to save money, many companies constructed these in their shops using retired or semi-wrecked passenger cars for the frame and the traction motor mounted trucks.[citation needed]

Passenger trains

The first passenger interurban to Bellefontaine, Ohio on 1 July 1908
The first passenger interurban to Bellefontaine, Ohio on 1 July 1908

Passenger interurban service grew out of horse-drawn rail cars operating on city streets. As these routes electrified and extended outside of towns interurbans began to compete with steam railroads for intercity traffic.[citation needed] Interurbans offered more frequent service than steam railroads, with headways of up to one hour or even half an hour.[57] Interurbans also made more stops, usually 1 mile (1.6 km) apart. As interurban routes tended to be single-track this led to extensive use of passing sidings. Single interurban cars would operate with a motorman and conductor, although in later years one-man operation was common. In open country, the typical interurban proceeded at 40–45 miles per hour (64–72 km/h). In towns with the middle of the street operation, speeds were slow and dictated by local ordinance. The result was that the average speed of a scheduled trip was low, as much as under 20 miles per hour (32 km/h).[citation needed]

Freight trains

Many interurbans did substantial freight business. In 1926, the Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton Railway moved 57,000 short tons (50,893 long tons; 51,710 t) of freight per month. By 1929, this had risen to 83,000 short tons (74,107 long tons; 75,296 t) per month.[58] During the 1920s freight revenue helped offset the loss of passenger business to automobiles.[59] A typical interurban freight train consisted of a powered box motor pulling one to four freight cars. These often operated at night as local ordinances forbade daytime freight operation on city streets.[60] Interurban freight in the Midwest was so extensive that Indianapolis constructed a very large freight handling warehouse which all of Indianapolis' seven interurbans companies used.[61][page needed]

In literature

In Raymond Chandler's short story The Man who liked Dogs, the narrator trails a suspect in the Los Angeles area:

Carolina Street was away off at the edge of the little beach city. The end of it ran into a disused inter-urban right of way, beyond which stretched a waste of Japanese truck farms. There were just two house in the last block ... the rails were rusted in a forest of weeds.[62]

Similarly in Mandarin's Jade:

The Hotel Tremaine was far out of Santa Monica, near the junk yards. An inter-urban right of way split the street in half, and just as I got to the block that would have the number I had looked up, a two-car train came racketing by at forty-five miles an hour, making almost as much noise as a transport plane taking off. I speeded up beside it and passed the block.[63]

In E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, a character rides on interurban systems from New York to Boston.


Numerous museums, heritage railways and societies have preserved equipment:

See also


  1. ^ "Before Interstates, America Got Around on Interurbans". 6 October 2021. Retrieved 3 March 2023.
  2. ^ Middleton 1961, p. 13
  3. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, p. 9
  4. ^ Bureau of the Census 1905, p. 5
  5. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, pp. 6–7
  6. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, pp. 7–8
  7. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, pp. 8–9
  8. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, p. 12
  9. ^ Rowsome & Maguire 1956, pp. 119–140
  10. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, p. 186
  11. ^ Dippel, Beth. "Interurbans’ meteoric rise, then fall", Sheboygan Press, November 4, 2016.
  12. ^ Bruce 1952, pp. 407–408
  13. ^ Rowsome & Maguire 1956, p. 138; 179
  14. ^ Patch, David (27 May 2007). "Toledo was hub of interurban 100 years ago". Toledo Blade. Archived from the original on 29 April 2015. Retrieved 5 July 2015.
  15. ^ Hilton, George W.; Due, John Fitzgerald (1960). The Electric Interurban Railways in America. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0-8047-4014-2. OCLC 237973.
  16. ^

    Cornolò (1980)

    — p. 23
  17. ^

    Cornolò (1980)

    — pp. 30-31
  18. ^

    Cornolò (1980)

    — pp. 76-77
  19. ^ 京王電鉄株式会社 (2016). 『京王ハンドブック2016』 (in Japanese). 京王電鉄広報部.
  20. ^ Royle, Edward (2016). Modern Britain Third Edition: A Social History 1750–2011. A&C Black. pp. 20–21. ISBN 978-1-84966-570-4.
  21. ^ Randall, D. (1954). "In the Shadow of the Pennines". Transport World. p. 154.
  22. ^ Proceedings of the Federal Electric Railways Commission; together with Final Report of the Commission to the President (Report). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Federal Electric Railways Commission. 1920.
  23. ^ Wilcox, Delos F. (1921). Analysis of the Electric Railway Problem (PDF). New York: Delos F. Wilcox. pp. x–xi. OCLC 1039534127.
  24. ^ Hilton.
  25. ^ Keenan 2001, p. 4
  26. ^ Rowsome & Maguire 1956, p. 176
  27. ^ Jensen 1993
  28. ^ Middleton, Wm. D., p6, "The Interurban Era," Kalmbach Publishing, Wisconsin,1961.
  29. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, p. 287
  30. ^ Hilton and Due p178
  31. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, p. ix
  32. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, p. 400
  33. ^ "【懐かしの私鉄写真】都内に存在した京王と東急の併用軌道". 乗りものニュース (in Japanese). Retrieved 5 March 2022.
  34. ^ "地下化直前の京王線新宿付近(1) - モハメイドペーパーの 何が出てくるか?". モハメイドペーパーの 何が出てくるか?. Retrieved 5 March 2022.
  35. ^ "懐かしの新宿近辺写真". Retrieved 5 March 2022.
  36. ^ "名古屋鉄道美濃町/田神線跡を訪ねて". Retrieved 13 February 2022.
  37. ^ Tussen stad en land, H.van 't Hoogerhuijs and M. Moerland, De Alk, Alkmaar, 2012, ISBN 9 78-90-6013-334-7.
  38. ^ Tussen stad en land, de Alk, Alkmaar, 2012, ISBN 978 90 6013 334 7
  39. ^ Tussen Stad en Land, H.v.'t Hoogerhuijs and M. Moerland, de Alk, Alkmaar, 2012, ISBN 978 90 6013 334 7
  40. ^ Tram Atlas Poland, by Robert Schwandl, 2017. ISBN 978 3 936573 50 3.
  41. ^ "Double-track construction set to end South Shore street running".
  42. ^ "South Shore Street Running Ends This Weekend". 24 February 2022.
  43. ^ Tussen stad en land, H.van 't Hoogerhuijs and M. Moerland, De Alk, 2012, ISBN 978-90-6013-334-7.
  44. ^ a b Middleton 1961, p. 21
  45. ^ Bradley 1991
  46. ^ Rowsome & Maguire 1956, p. 67
  47. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, pp. 51–52
  48. ^ Hilton & Due 1960, pp. 53–65
  49. ^ a b Middleton 1961, p. 425
  50. ^ Grant 2016, pp. 5–6
  51. ^ Hilton
  52. ^ Middleton 1961, p. 155
  53. ^ Middleton 1961, p. 162
  54. ^ Keenan, appendix: Equipment Roster
  55. ^ Design of the aluminum body, compact GE traction motored trucks "Red Devils": Keenan, Jack (1974). Cincinnati & Lake Erie Railroad: Ohio's Great Interurban System. San Marino, CA: Golden West Books. ISBN 0-8709-5055-X.
  56. ^ Bradley 1991, p. 187
  57. ^ Grant 1980, p. 55
  58. ^ Keenan 2001, p. 3
  59. ^ Middleton 1961, p. 393
  60. ^ Keenan 2001, pp. 86–87
  61. ^ Rowsome & Maguire 1956
  62. ^ Raymond Chandler, Killer in the Rain, Penguin 1964, p. 67-68. Originally published in Black Mask in March 1936.
  63. ^ Raymond Chandler, Killer in the Rain, Penguin 1964, p. 231.


Further reading