Timeless Machines

Trolleys could make a homecoming to Richmond as the city eyes mass transit options
Courtesy of the Shore Line Trolley Museum The Richmond Union Passenger Railway began running in 1888.

Richmond's trolley trek through time may run full circle.

It's been more than 50 years since vintage electric trolleys stopped cruising railways on city streets, and now these mass transit cars are being eyed as part the city’s revitalization.

"It would be the ideal solution," said Jack Berry, executive director of Richmond Renaissance, one of the groups spearheading the redevelopment of downtown. The problem trolleys would solve would be how to get people from the renovated Greater Richmond Convention Center to Shockoe Bottom. The city anticipates a great influx of visitors as a result of its Broad Street redevelopment plan, which also includes a new hotel, as well as new stores, restaurants and expanded performing arts venues.

And if the railcars do return, it would be the ultimate homecoming.

Large-scale trolley travel was pioneered in Richmond in 1888, when inventor Frank J. Sprague launched the Richmond Union Passenger Railway with his Sprague system's industrial motor and matching technology.

Sprague, "The Father of Electric Traction," was born in Connecticut in 1877, graduated from the United States Naval Academy, and worked with Thomas Edison's firm for a brief stint before forming Sprague Electric Railway and Motor Co. in 1884.

And in a grand ceremony on Feb. 2, 1888 – the 75th attempt of such a mass transit system in 60 communities across North America – Sprague gave the word, and the first successful trolley began. It quickly became the envy, and the prototype, for localities across the world.

"He chose Richmond because of its hills," said Viktoria Badger, transportation planner for the city of Richmond. "The trolley is very much a part of our history," she said.

But in 1945, the electric railway service that Sprague spawned left the city, and its remnants and artifacts have since been strewn across the United States.

What is believed to be Sprague's first industrial motor, a prototype probably used for demonstrations and sales pitches to communities aspiring to add the new trolley system, is now part of a Sprague tribute exhibit at the nation's oldest trolley museum, the Shore Line Trolley Museum in East Haven, Conn. The museum has nearly 100 old trolley cars on display.

The motor was donated by Sprague’s family in 1998, said George Boucher, the museum's general manager. "And it still runs," he added.

The museum had received a phone call from the secretary to the Sprague estate in Massachusetts in April 1998, who said that while the family was sifting through and deciding what to sell off and what to trash, they ran across several boxes of papers and a bunch of engines in the back of an old barn.

"A lot of the stuff they were going to throw out," Boucher said. "We got a couple guys, a truck, and got up there as fast as we could."

The museum only runs the motor on special occasions now, but another piece of Richmond’s old trolley system, the No. 1520 car, now operates as part of an active trolley fleet in Charlotte, N.C.

Charlotte is just one of several U.S. cities that have recently rekindled the trolley trend; Memphis is another. "Cities are beginning to bring them back, while others never gave them up, such as New Orleans," Boucher said.

Richmond Renaissance's Berry believes that, ideally, Richmond would have a trolley system similar to Charlotte's, which connects its convention center to an entertainment district.

"We're definitely looking at the possibility of using trolleys...there's a lot of merit to it" Badger said. "It's included in the city's master plan; it's in the planning stages."

She said the city will definitely be adding some sort of downtown circulator to complement Broad Street's redevelopment, which would allow for mass transit between the area of the convention center and Richmond’s entertainment district. However, the vehicle that will perform this service has yet to be decided on, Badger said. If trolleys are selected, they will first select an interim mode of transportation, such as buses, and then replace them with trolleys.

"We want to encourage people to ride these vehicles instead of driving," Badger said. However, implementing rail trolleys would take quite a bit of planning and financing, she said. But Richmond does have a $100,000 enhancement grant from the Virginia Department of Transportation that would allow it to do such a feasibility study.

Berry likes the idea, but is skeptical that it will ever materialize. "I'd love to see it happen, but it's not being worked on by anyone I know," he said.

Berry hopes that if trolleys do make a comeback in Richmond, the city elects to use steel-rail trolleys, and not the rubber-wheel trolleys that faded out of the city scene two years ago, and were more like buses operating under the guise of a vintage vision.

The city's experiment with these trolleys lasted only from 1997 to 1999, as monthly ridership decreased from about 7,000 to 4,000.

"They tended to be political routes," Berry said. He said people stopped riding because there were too many detours and stops on the city's two trolley lines, and that whatever businesses or destinations that wanted a stop could apply pressure on and get one, consequently increasing commute time.

Berry feels that the direct routes offered by rail trolleys would be vital in creating a transportation link that the city will need to accommodate its expected increase in visitors. "We'll definitely need some kind of circulator," he said.

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