The community railway

In the early twentieth century, parallel railway systems stretched out from North America’s cities.

There were the “Class 1” railways. It was an era of railway acquisitions, to build and extend networks. It was also still an era of construction, doubling single-track lines, tripling or quadrupling certain heavily-used routes, extending services. Canadian Pacific, Grand Trunk, Canadian Northern ran alongside the New York Central, the Pennsylvania, the Rock Island, the Nickel Plate, the Wabash and many more in the United States.

But, also radiating out from our towns and cities, were other lines. These didn’t run Pullman cars and heavy coaches behind smart, polished steam engines on rails laid on finely-graded ballast.

No, they were almost street-car-like in their appearance, running Brill cars in single or multiple-unit trains regularly, on lightly-graded track under wire.

Built cheaply, these were the interurbans. They were designed to run frequently.

In America’s midwest states — Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois and the like — interurbans like the Charles City ran freight services as well as passenger.

Right around the start of World War I, you could board an interurban in Boston, MA and — aside from a very small few mile gap in upstate New York — travel by interurban all the way to Madison, WI. (It would have taken you a fair bit of time, and many changes of line, but the systems by that point had grown together into a network no less rich than the Class 1s operated at the time.)

These were transportation for the masses.

They are something we should be looking into again today.

Today some of our cities do have “commuter rail” feeding the urban core. But our smaller centres, which once had half-hourly or hourly service by interurban and several trains a day stopping on at the local Class 1 station, generally have nothing.

It would, for instance, be a natural pattern for Stratford, Ont. to connect to Kitchener … to London … and so on, with interurbans radiating out from it.

Fortunately, light rail systems like this are easy to build. They originally were built using picks and shovels, but today light construction grading equipment would be sufficient.

Running them alongside existing highways would make sense (a rail line beside a road is a common sight in Wales, for instance). Existing telephone poles and hydro poles could be used to support the single wire for power. Lighter rail — like that used in sidings at dead factories, or (if new) for LRT systems — is all that’s required.

Equipment could begin by buying up used trams and street-cars until more purpose-built gear could be provided.

Connecting communities to other communities doesn’t need to be done on a for-profit basis. It’s a natural co-op, not-for-profit society or other shared structure that’s geared toward paying the costs of maintenance and operation rather than seeking profits. (It also ensures predatory companies can’t come along and buy up the system to shut it down … which is what happened to many of the original interurbans.)

Los Angeles, you know, wasn’t built as it is by the freeway and the car (unlike Houston and Phoenix): it was built as it is thanks to interurbans. So, too, the fan of towns along Long Island Sound up to Connecticut, along Long Island, on the Jersey Shores and up the Hudson away from New York. All rail communities.

I’m talking about this today because I’m thinking of the Maritimes in Canada. They had one inter-city bus company. It’s shutting down. There are no rail alternatives.

You don’t need to be isolated (for each of us, the day comes when we can’t drive any more, irrespective of being able to afford to do so, or if there’s a supply problem of fuel, parts, etc.). All it takes is the willingness to start building from where you live.

The interurbans weren’t built with hundreds of kilometres’ journeys in mind. Much like regional transit systems today, mine connected to yours connected to someone else’s community system.

In other words, we can do this. All it takes is the will — and the readiness to see that we’re going to have to do it, corporations or governments won’t.

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