Warning: The Fort Collins Streetcar is Adorable

Transit fans be warned: the Fort Collins streetcar is adorable. It’s no kitten, but Car 21 certainly takes you to an era bygone. I wanted to grab an evening post, tighten the top button on my overcoat, and ride into a romanticized time as I leaned against the rattan-backed seat.

The inside of the Fort Collins streetcar.

The interior of Car 21 in all its glory. Yes, the historically accurate ceiling tie reads "Smoking on Two Rear Seats Only".

A sign at the trolley barn for the Fort Collins streetcar.

I'm a big fan of this sign inside the Fort Collins Municipal Railway trolley barn. The icon is quite accurate! The streetcar in this icon is traveling right to left. Doing the opposite would be called "back-poling" and is rightly frowned upon for fear of overhead wire disconnects.

Car 21 of the Fort Collins streetcar.

Car 21 ready to depart the trolley barn. The wooden slats on the front form a safety catcher. When an item trips this mechanism, another set of wooden bars behind it drop low to the tracks to catch the item on the track. As one motorman told me, "It's so you get beat to death rather than run over." Each end has a safety catcher, since we don’t turn the streetcar around.

Fort Collins streetcar on Mountain Avenue.

Car 21 in the barn is neat, but Car 21 driving down Mountain Avenue is neater! I remember being distracted while taking this photo by the compressor noisily working to reach 50 PSI. Air brakes, am I right? The handle on the top right of the seats is used to switch the seat back when the streetcar changes direction of travel.

A few of the interesting technical components:

  • The two strands of lights along the ceiling are wired in series with the headlights. Just like with old Christmas tree lights, when one goes out, you may have to test them all! (The expected value of the number of lights you’ll have to test before finding the defective one is n / 2, where n is the number of lights in series and assuming each light has equal probability of being defective at that moment. Since that assumption is false, the provided equation is useless. #probability)
  • While 600 V DC comes in through the overhead wire, its path to ground is through the undercarriage and into the tracks. Literally: to ground. This is neat enough by itself, but this also means the electrical path from overhead wire to ground goes through the gear (constant 5:1 ratio on the two electric motors on Car 21) teeth. And this was by design. I was blown away when I learned that!
  • The motorman has control to drop water on the tracks when going around turns to prevent the screeching sound that reminds us that steel-wheeled trains are not easy to turn. The original Fort Collins streetcars used grease, but were run in a less environmentally friendly time. To avoid risking the water tanks freezing, we ran the streetcar at full volume yesterday.
  • The streetcar is equipped with a people counter that is incremented by the motorman with the pull of a handle. It rolls over at 100,000 passengers and gives a mechanical chime so sweet it made me never want to use anything electronic ever again. The car has carried over 260,000 riders since it re-opened in 1984.

Learning about the streetcar led me to pay more attention to the dates on the transit history art at the South Transit Center. Below is a depiction of streetcars at the intersection of Mountain and College. The wye-shaped interchange was famous among train buffs at the time and was known as the “Three-Way Meet”. I’m pretty sure there is another tile commemorating Fort Collins’ final streetcar in 1951, but my bus was early on this day and I prioritized not being stranded over trolley art coverage. I’ll look for it this week!

Fort Collins streetcar transit art at the South Transit Center.

Until next time, ride on!

Written on March 27, 2016