Modeling Streetcar Systems

Streetcars can be a great addition to any layout, whether featured as a major component, or as an element of interest in a larger scene. In this article, we’re going to look at the hallmarks of North American streetcar systems, and how to incorporate them into your layout.


The first electric streetcar system opened in Montgomery, Alabama in 1886. Street railways had actually been in operation for almost 40 years at this point, however most previous incarnations were either horse-drawn, steam powered, or cable drawn.

Streetcars were instrumental in shaping how cities expanded in the early 20th century, and by their peak in the late 1920s, almost every established community of a certain size featured some form of electric street railway. The largest systems were typically those which were constructed in major cities, however some regions featured expansive suburban and rural networks, which connected the street-based systems of neighboring cities with the communities in-between.

There is a fair amount of controversy about what happened in the decades following their peak, including speculation that many systems were strategically downgraded or dismantled to enhance the appeal of motor vehicles and rubber-tired buses. Regardless of the cause, streetcars began to fade from popularity beginning in the 1930s, and by the end of the 1960s, only systems in a few major cities such as New Orleans, Philadelphia, Toronto, and San Francisco remained operational.

In the 1990s however, things began to change. With urban roads becoming increasingly choked with single-passenger vehicles, cities began to look at alternative methods of transportation. The subway and light rail boom of the 1970s and 80s had proven that rail transit was a viable option, but these types of systems had their limitations, being designed for higher-speed transportation focused on bringing commuters from the suburbs into the city. What was needed was a form of transportation which was efficient, clean, and could serve shorter distance routes within a downtown core. This was the beginning of a streetcar renaissance, and today there are no less than 25 streetcar systems operating or under-construction in the United States alone.

Types of Systems

Electric Street Railways

The most common form of streetcar system is the traditional electric street railway. These systems are focused on urban short-distance transportation and will typically follow the street grid, coexisting with other vehicles on the road. They are usually powered by overhead wires, however in certain cities such as Washington DC, they were also able to operate via sunken conduit wires built under the tracks. Most modern streetcar systems are designed as street railways, with either metro or commuter rail systems handling passengers from the wider surrounding regions.

Cable Cars

While San Francisco is known as the home of the Cable Car, these types of systems were actually fairly widespread at the close of the 19th century. In an effort to combat the environmental side-effects of horse-drawn cars, some systems installed cables under the streets which would haul unpowered cars along the line with a pulley system. Instead of having a motorman, these cars would be operated by a grip, who would control braking and speed, while the cable did the majority of the work. Today, the system in San Francisco is the only remaining example in operation, however it continues to play a vital role in the movement of people across the city.

Rural Systems

At the height of streetcar mania in the early 20th century, it wasn’t just large cities which were benefiting from electric rail travel. Rural systems also sprung up in many places, mostly utilizing the same cars and power infrastructure as street railways, but typically following purpose-built rights of way rather than existing roads. While many of these systems linked up with urban street railways, they were usually independently operated, and in some cases they were rural enough to be entirely self-contained, with no direct links to major cities. These types of systems met an earlier demise, with most being abandoned prior to World War Two, as rural roads were paved, and automobiles became more widespread.

Operating Museums

As traditional streetcars began to fade into history, groups of railfans across the country came together to save examples of cars and infrastructure from their respective cities. Non-profit operational museums sprung up from Baltimore, Washington, and Philadelphia, to Illinois, Colorado, and California. Many organizations utilized abandoned railbeds, while some built trolley-style lines from scratch. As streetcars began to return to popularity in the 1990s, most initial downtown operations were staffed with enthusiasts, and were operated using vintage or replica streetcars. Some of these systems continue to operate historic cars in daily service today, while others have since transitioned to becoming modern, low floor light rail lines.

Adding Streetcars to Your Layout

Streetcars as an Element of a Larger Layout

Streetcars are a great addition to an existing layout. If your railroad includes an urban scene, adding an operating streetcar to navigate your city streets is a great way to bring life to areas which would otherwise remain static. This could be as simple as a single-track loop, or as complicated as a fully built out line with stops and a depot.

Even if you don’t feature an entire downtown scene on your layout, incorporating just a single section of streetcar track (possibly disappearing behind buildings or under a bridge) will add depth to your scene, and will create a sense that there is more to the railroad than meets the eye. Operations for a simple setup like this can even be automated with models such as bumper controlled cars from Lionel or MTH, which will reverse direction on their own when they reach the end of the track.

Streetcars as the Theme of a Layout

Streetcar layouts can be a great alternative to a traditional railroad. If you perhaps don’t have the space to build the layout of your dreams, a streetcar system could be a great compromise, as they can fit into just about any space. Unlike models of full-size trains, streetcar models can negotiate much sharper curves (just like their prototypes), which will allow you to create a complicated and interesting track plan in a more compact format. Streetcars also have the added benefit of being more closely integrated with their surroundings, meaning more possibilities for detailed scenes without having to worry about leaving an appropriate space for a railroad right of way.

This isn’t to say of course that streetcar layouts are only suited to small spaces. You could build an entire city with a complicated system featuring multiple lines and car types operating. You could even incorporate some freight operations, as could be seen on certain sections of streetcar lines in their heyday. And if you really wanted to get prototypical, you could even power your system authentically using overhead catenary, rather than the track.

Start your journey into the world of streetcar modeling today at Check out our live inventory of streetcar models in O, HO, and N Scale!