Preserved interurban car No. 46 (built in 1907) of the Philadelphia & Western Railroad, passing under the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, southbound on the former heritage tram line (1982–95) in Penn's Landing, on Philadelphia's waterfront. Car 46 is in the collection of the Electric City Trolley Museum, shown here in 1990.
(Voogd075, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)



The interurban (or radial railway in Canada) is a type of electric railway, with tram-like electric self-propelled rail cars which run within and between cities or towns. The term "interurban" is usually used in North America, with other terms used outside it. 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, when most roads between towns, many town streets were unpaved, and transportation and haulage was by horse-drawn carriages and carts.

The interurban provided reliable transportation, particularly in winter weather, between towns 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. But due to preference given to automobiles, by 1930, most interurbans in North America had stopped operating. A few survived into the 1950s.

Outside of the US, other countries built large networks of high-speed electric tramways 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, since the early 21st century 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 use lines that were abandoned by the railway companies.


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

(See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)



The term "interurban" was coined by Charles L. Henry, a state senator in Indiana. The Latin, inter urbes, means "between cities". 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:

  • Electric power for propulsion.
  • Passenger service as the primary business.
  • Equipment heavier and faster than urban streetcars.
  • Operation on tracks in city streets, and in rural areas on roadside tracks or private rights-of-way.

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. Following initial construction, there was a large amount of consolidation of lines. 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.

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.


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.

(Printed by Louis Kaufmann & Sons, Baltimore, MD, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)




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.

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 were restricted to navigable rivers. 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. The development of the automobile was then in its infancy, and to many investors interurbans appeared to be the future of local transportation.


1911 map showing interurban services across the Midwest and Southern Ontario. (Internet Archive Book Images, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons)


Interurban Station and Superior Street, Toledo, Ohio. (Harry H. Hamm, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


From 1900 to 1916, large networks of interurban lines were constructed across the United States, particularly in the states of Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Iowa, Utah, and California. 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. 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. 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." 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. At their peak the interurbans were the fifth-largest industry in the United States.


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

(Drew Jacksich from San Jose, CA, The Republic of California, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)


Decline in North America

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. 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.

Many interurbans had been hastily constructed without realistic projections of income and expenses. They were initially financed by issuing stock and selling bonds. 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. But many of those interurbans did fail, and often quickly. 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 private automobile traffic in the middle 1920s aggravated such 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 that 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.

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 and primarily earned growing revenues from freight rather than passengers. The 130-mile (210 km) long Sacramento Northern Railway stopped carrying passengers in 1940 but continued hauling freight into the 1960s by using heavy electric locomotives.

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." William D. Middleton, in the opening of his 1961 book The Interurban Era, wrote: "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."

Interurban business increased 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. 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 with hourly transportation since 1888.

By the 1960s only five remaining interurban lines served 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, California (this was 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.

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.


Detroit, Monroe and Toledo Short Line Railway Car-7085, Monroe, Michigan, 1915.

(Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)



Similar to the United States, in Canada most passenger interurbans 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.


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

(Drew Jacksich from San Jose, CA, The Republic of California, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)


United States

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.

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 A and E lines of the Los Angeles Metro Rail system and one section of the Baltimore Light RailLink system. 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.


Cleveland, Painesville, & Ashtabula Railroad Interurban Car & Crew.

(Ashtabula Archive, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


Infrastructure and design

Right of way

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



Compared to conventional steam railroad trackage, interurban rail was light and ballasted lightly, if at all. Most interurbans in North America were built to standard gauge (4 ft 8+1⁄2 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 re-gauged or outright built lines to 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) narrow gauge for better inter-compatibility 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+1⁄2 in (1,588 mm). In Los Angeles, the Pacific Electric Railway, using standard 1,435 mm (4 ft 8+1⁄2 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.


Overhead lines in Haubstadt, Indiana, circa 1924.

(National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)



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. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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, such as on the Sacramento Northern. A 2400 V DC third-rail system was installed on the Michigan United Railway's Western Division between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids in 1915, but was abandoned because of the electrocution potential safety hazard. Even 5000 V DC was tested.

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.


A pre-1910, all-wood heavy interurban car of the Fort Wayne & Wabash Valley Traction Company, preserved at the Illinois Railway Museum. (Frank Hicks, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)


A preserved box motor from Iowa. (Hicksco2 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)


Trains and equipment

Rolling stock

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. 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). 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 to provide a better ride, acceleration, and top speed but with reduced power consumption. 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. 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.

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.


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

(See page for author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


Passenger trains

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. Interurbans offered more frequent service than steam railroads, with headways of up to one hour or even half an hour. 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).


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. During the 1920s freight revenue helped offset the loss of passenger business to automobiles. 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. 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.


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.
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.

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


Texas Electric Railway Car No. 360 at the Interurban Railway Museum, Plano, Texas, October 2015.

(Michael Barera, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)



Numerous museums, heritage railways and societies have preserved equipment:

  • California State Railroad Museum
  • Connecticut Trolley Museum
  • East Troy Electric Railroad Museum
  • Electric City Trolley Museum
  • Fox River Trolley Museum
  • Fraser Valley Historical Railway Society
  • Halton County Radial Railway
  • Illinois Railway Museum
  • Interurban Railway Museum (Plano, TX)
  • National Museum of Transportation
  • Orange Empire Railway Museum
  • Oregon Electric Railway Museum
  • Pennsylvania Trolley Museum
  • Rockhill Trolley Museum
  • Seashore Trolley Museum
  • Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum
  • Shore Line Trolley Museum
  • Vancouver Downtown Historic Railway
  • Western Railway Museum