Streetcars may make tiny comeback on historic St. Charles line

Published 10:48 pm Saturday, September 9, 2006

The St. Charles streetcar line — the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world — may once again be rumbling along at least a small strip of the avenue by the end of the year.

Workers are repairing the system that supports the overhead electrical lines that power the streetcars.

“We’re hoping that if things go smoothly we’ll have cars running along the stretch of St. Charles from Canal Street to Lee Circle,” said Rosalind Blanco Cook, Regional Transit Authority spokeswoman. “The rest of the line won’t be ready before the end of 2007.”

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The streetcars, which had been carrying passengers through the streets of New Orleans since 1835, have been shut down since Hurricane Katrina wrecked the city Aug. 29, 2005.

Since the system is on the National Register of Historic Places, officials had to get special permission to move the old green streetcars to the Canal Street and Riverfront lines after the hurricane.

The storm destroyed most of the streetcar power system along St. Charles Avenue, but the cars themselves survived. The new red streetcars, which ran on the other lines, were wiped out except for a single car in the post-Katrina flooding that hit a storage barn.

The initial opening of the St. Charles line, which will only cover nine blocks, will not stress the system, but reopening the entire line would unless some of the newer cars can be returned to service.

“We’re hoping to get some of the Canal Street cars done before then, but we’re still waiting for FEMA money,” Cook said.

The cars, built in the 1920s, are maintained by the RTA. The new cars were built by the agency under the supervision of Elmer von Dullen, an expert in streetcar construction and maintenance.

Unlike the St. Charles cars that are only cooled by lowering the large windows along the side, the new cars are operated by computer and are air-conditioned and handicapped accessible. It took 142 days to build each car, von Dullen said, and it will probably take that long to rebuild them.

The RTA resumed collecting the $1.25 basic fare on buses and streetcars in August for the first times since Hurricane Katrina. The fare was suspended when a scaled-down system was started in October.

Currently, the RTA employs about 700 workers and operates 28 bus routes, two streetcar lines and its door-to-door service for disabled riders. Before the storm, the agency had 1,357 employees and ran 46 bus routes and a three streetcar routes.

The agency had already budgeted money to rework the St. Charles power system before the hurricane, Cook said.

“The price has risen somewhat, and there is more to do now,” she said. “And we would not have shut down the whole system, we’d have done it on a block by block basis.”