The good times still roll in The Big Easy
New Orleans RTA and Veolia Transportation maintain the history and tradition of the green painted streetcars and the Red Ladies
By Valerie Michaels
The battering winds of Hurricane Katrina that thrashed New Orleans in 2005 and the flood waters that ravaged the city in her aftermath came dangerously close to destroying a 176-year-old American transportation icon: the New Orleans streetcars.
The New Orleans streetcar lines enjoy the same historic significance as the cable cars of San Francisco as unique passenger transportation solutions for major cities, but with one major exception. In operation since the presidency of Andrew Jackson in 1835, the familiar green painted streetcars on St. Charles Avenue have continually transported passengers, earning its historic status as the oldest continuously running streetcar railway system in the world. Other than the two-year hiatus after Katrina, this record still stands.
A New Orleans icon
Maintaining the streetcar’s unique and functional role in the New Orleans community meant major repairs and refurbishing following Katrina. The damage to the streetcar line varied with each of the three lines. The St. Charles Line Perley Thomas green painted streetcars weathered the storm fairly free of damage, but the electrical wiring and cable infrastructure did not survive. The reverse happened on the Canal and Riverfront Lines where wind, rain and flooding damaged all but one of the 31 Red Ladies, while the wiring and infrastructure remained intact.
The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority immediately set to rebuilding its damaged property, infrastructure and equipment, knowing it needed to get the streetcars back into service quickly since they were such an important symbol of the city’s recovery. The agency received FEMA funding to get the streetcar lines up and running.
Preserved in the National Register
Recovering any transit system from a natural disaster is a difficult enough. Recovering a transit system with operations listed in the National Register of Historic Places is nearly impossible.
The National Register of Historic Places has protected the St. Charles Avenue streetcars since 1973. Preserving this important status is a matter of precisely maintaining the cars according to their original design. The job requires craftsmen with experience in operating machinery and tools from the early 1900s to refurbish and maintain the historic streetcars out of the Carrollton Station facility.
In this easily identified New Orleans landmark, artisans and craftsmen hand-build the green streetcars and use machinery according to century-old specifications. Carrollton Station workers offer a glimpse back in time as they hand tool, saw, paint, replace seat backs and safety devices as part of regular maintenance and upkeep for the streetcars.
A dedicated group of senior craftsmen with an average of 20 years of service to their credit comprise the RTA-Veolia team. To ensure their unique and necessary skills pass on to a new generation, Veolia, RTA and senior technicians are working with a local community college in a unique streetcar trade program to train future craftsmen.
Road to recovery
The St. Charles Avenue Line was back in service two years after Katrina. The Canal and Riverfront Red Ladies regained full service in 2010. Today all the streetcar lines are transporting passengers traveling to and from work, seeing historic sites or just taking a relaxing ride in a streetcar around The Big Easy on a beautiful day.
Through the summer the RTA and Veolia began construction on a new streetcar line from Union Passenger Terminal along Loyola Avenue to Canal Street with an anticipated completion date of summer 2012. This project is a result of a TIGER grant to the RTA from the U.S. Department of Transportation to create an intermodal system from streetcar to train station. The RTA has also secured funding to expand its French Quarter streetcar line.
The success of the New Orleans streetcar system is making waves across the country as other cities consider reviving streetcars as a viable solution for inner-city transportation. BR