Sunday, December 13, 2020

Electric Streetcars, Trolley Buses, and the move to gas-powered buses in Chicago.

An electric streetcar is tied to tracks drawing power from a pair of wires strung over the street. A trolley bus, also an electric vehicle but run on rubber tires, making it more maneuverable. Still, the buses have to keep its trolley poles in contact with those overhead wires for power.

All the big cities in the U.S. once had electric streetcar systems. When it was time to modernize, many of those transit companies bought trolley busafter all, they already had a heavy investment in electric generating plants. The early gasoline-fueled buses were small and unreliable.

In 1930 the first Chicago trolley buses began running on Diversey Avenue. Other lines followed. Many of them were extensions of existing streetcar routes. Laying of track for through-routing of streetcars was supposed to come later.

That never happened. The Depression came, then World War II. 

In 1947 a new government agency, the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA), bought the Chicago Surface Lines and the ‘L’ and were consolidated as the CTA. The CTA planned to replace streetcars with buses.

At first the CTA converted some of the streetcar lines to trolley buses. The electric bus fleet grew to over 700 vehicles, running on 16 routes. 
The Chicago and Westown changeover from streetcars to buses on Lake Street in Oak Park in April of 1948.

The last Chicago streetcar click-clacked down Vincennes Avenue on June 21, 1958. There are still lasting vestiges of the streetcar system in Chicago. Many of today’s CTA bus routes and route numbers are the same as they were in the days of streetcars. And as for the tracks – a few of the streets had the tracks pulled up, but most were covered with asphalt and are still in the streets under pavement along with the "Chicago Street Paver Bricks." 

Once the streetcars were gone, clinging to electric buses seemed to make little sense. Oil was cheap. The new diesel buses cost less to operate than trolley buses. The Blizzard of 1967 decided the matter. Tied to the wires for power, trolleybuses couldn’t get around all the stalled cars.

The CTA began a determined program to replace all-electric buses with diesel vehicles. The conversion took six years. The final three trolley bus lines, Cicero, Pulaski, and North Avenue, went diesel after March 24, 1973. There was no fanfare. When their last runs were over, the trolley buses simply pulled into the North-Cicero barn, and that was it.
The Last CTA Trolley Bus at Irving Park Road and Pulaski, Saturday, March 24, 1973.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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