Is it back to the future for Indianapolis transit?: Cars killed vast 'interurban' system decades ago, but 21st century congestion could spur its revival in some form

July 10, 2006

A century ago, central Indiana had an electric rail network that dwarfed even the most ambitious rapid-transit schemes of today's urban planners.

The "interurban" was a vast system that would easily cost tens of billions of dollars to duplicate. By 1920, hundreds of miles of track radiated from Indianapolis. Some crossed state lines, to Dayton, Ohio, and the Chicago area.

Today, all that's left of the electric railroads are tree-covered rail beds or the crumbling piers of bridges, such as those along White River north of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Old rails that were paved over occasionally re-emerge in potholes.

One historian estimated that Indiana had 1,300 miles of electric railway in 1909. At the time, a Ford car cost almost $1,000-or about double what the average worker earned in a year.

The name "interurban" has been attributed to Charles Lewis Henry, an Anderson businessman who formed Union Traction Co. in 1898. But the vehicles date back even further, to trolley-like carriages that rode on rails and were pulled by mules or horses.

Some historians say the first electric-powered vehicles predated Henry's Union Traction Co., with the first route from Marion to Jonesboro by the Marion Electric Railway.

About a dozen interurban lines connected at the Indianapolis Traction Terminal, built in 1904 near the Indiana Statehouse at Market and Illinois streets, where a Hilton hotel now stands.

It was once one of the busiest interurban stations in the world, with 100,000 cars and more than 1 million passengers a year, according to Robert Reed, author of Central Indiana Interurban. It was not uncommon for 500 train cars to arrive and depart from the Indianapolis terminal each day.

Lines such as the Indianapolis and Greenfield Rapid Transit Co. connected Greenfield with bustling neighborhoods such as Irvington.

And the interurban was a cheap ride.

"For little more than 5 or 10 cents, a passenger could journey to Anderson, Franklin, Martinsville, Richmond or Muncie and all of the tiny hamlets along the way," Reed writes.

Extinction begins

But as the 1930s neared, the interurban began to face competition that would be its undoing.

Reed opines that the early buses of the day delivered the "initial killing blow," since they weren't saddled with the high cost of maintaining miles of track and overhead electric lines.

Many of the lines were consolidated in 1930 under the Indiana Railroad Co. At its largest in 1931, it had more than 850 miles of track and operations in 11 cities.

"From this pinnacle, the mighty Midwestern rail system began a near-decadelong roller coaster ride," writes George K. Bradley, authority of Indiana Railroad: The Magic Interurban.

In 1932, the Indianapolis-Greenfield line was abandoned as its East Washington Street crossing was increasingly lined with cars. Two years later, the Anderson-Marion line closed. By the mid-1930s, the Indiana Railroad was down to 575 miles, plus streetcar operations in a handful of cities.

Indiana Railroad fought back by introducing high-speed service-some of its interurban cars easily topped 80 mph. But massive road building by the state during the 1920s and 1930s gave people even more incentive to drive.

General Electric, which supplied much of the power equipment for the electric railroad, in 1933 asked a court to put the railroad in receivership, claiming it was owed $210,000. Management was booted.

By 1938, the writing was on the wall that passenger service was doomed. Many of the interurbans in Ohio and Michigan had already gone extinct.

Bradley cites a Plainfield newspaper account that said Hoosiers had grown apathetic about the interurbans and would be satisfied with the bus, though some appealed for rail's survival.

"Ironically enough, it is reported that most of the people who attended the Greencastle hearing traveled in automobiles and did not patronize the traction line they are attempting to save," the newspaper said.

In 1940, the 72-mile Indianapolis-Terre Haute rail line was discontinued and replaced by bus.

"The auto had been seen as a threat," Bradley wrote, "but never on the vast scale that emerged during the 1930s."

The family auto was convenient, he continued: "One could come and go as he pleased-when he wanted to go-without consulting a schedule or waiting for the interurban car."

In February 1940, Indiana Railroad finally petitioned regulators to abandon all its rail operations and replace them with its own fleet of trucks and buses.

The last regularly scheduled interurban, Muncie-bound Train 36, departed Indianapolis at 11:40 p.m. on Jan. 18, 1941, according to Bradley's book.

The following year, a Chicago machine tool maker, Wesson Co., bought Indiana Railroad. In 1950, the railroad was sold to Indiana and Southeastern Trailways, whose owners previously bought the bus operation of Southeastern Railroad Co. In the early 1970s, the ghost of Indiana Railroad became Southeastern Trailways.

Rebirth-sort of

It wasn't until the beginning of the 21st century that a tracked transit vehicle started regular service in Indianapolis-albeit one that serves a microcosm of the city.

In 2003, Clarian Health Partners began operating a 1.4-mile "peoplemover" that rides on an elevated concrete track between Methodist Hospital and Indiana University/Riley Hospital for Children.

The $40 million, privately funded system consists of two trains that run in opposite directions down a track system shadowing Senate Avenue and continuing west on 11th Street and Walnut Street.

Each Swiss-made train carries up to 81 passengers. It can move at up to 28 mph, but passengers might not want to go that fast-the train has a jittery, side-to-side sway that engineers are still trying to smooth out.

In its own way, the monorail-like train does reduce traffic congestion-eliminating the need for laboratory samples to be driven between the hospitals or for employees and patients to drive between facilities, for example.

And the system is poised for its place "as a potential transfer station for future transportation systems developed by the city of Indianapolis," Clarian officials have said.

Streetcars dominated downtown in 1906, gradually replacing horse-drawn wagons on this stretch of Washington Street. Rail eventually extended hundreds of miles from the city.
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