What is a Trolley Car?

Mary McMahon

A trolley car is a vehicle which is used primarily for passenger transport in an urban area. Trolleys run on rails which are inset into the street, connecting to overhead electric lines for a source of power. They may also be known as streetcars or trams, depending on the region. Trolleys are technically part of the family of rail technology known as light rail. They may be referred to as trains when they are run on tracks which are separated from the roadway.

Trolley car lines are a common sight in San Francisco, including outside The Fairmont Hotel in the Nob Hill district.
Trolley car lines are a common sight in San Francisco, including outside The Fairmont Hotel in the Nob Hill district.

The development of the trolley car dates to the 1800s, when many cities began seeking out modes of public transportation. Public transport was designed in part to reduce congestion by providing people with a way to get around without private vehicles, and it was also used to make transport more accessible to people of low income, by providing them with a cheap means of transportation. Many cities began installing a variety of street cars, and the trolley car design quickly became popular.

By keeping the electrical wires overhead, operators could reduce the risk to the general public by making it hard for people to come into contact with the electrical wires, while still providing trolleys with a source of cheap, accessible power which also happened to be nonpolluting. The term “trolley” appears to have originated in reference to the device which connected with the overhead wires, and seems to originate in the United States. The related term “trolley bus” refers to a bus which powers itself with overhead wires, but which runs with tires on the pavement, rather than on tracks like a true trolley car.

Over time, the trolley car system became less popular because it was viewed as a congestion liability. More cars, trucks, and buses on the streets competed with trolley cars for space, and many cities began turning to dedicated light rail systems which ran on their own separate tracks, or to buses as a means of transportation. Eventually, the tendency to block traffic actually came to be viewed as a benefit which could be used to control congestion, and some cities reinstalled the trolley systems they had ripped out.

Several organizations refurbish and preserve historic trolley cars. These are put into service in cities around the world as objects of historical interest. In addition, cities utilize newly built modern trolley cars on their trolley lines. Fares to ride a trolley vary, depending on the region, and it is often possible to ride with a transit pass.

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Discussion Comments


I have a 1927 trolley car that I made into a small house here in lowry city, mo.


@Almita - I have to disagree, not having a driver can be dangerous. Yes, it eliminates human error -- but it also eliminates a driver that can see weapons or when dangerous people get on board.

Luckily, there aren't very many trolleys that are fully automated yet. All the trolley cars in my city have drivers. I think all trolleys should have drivers – it's just safer that way.

I think that the trolleys do help a lot with rush hour traffic. People still look angry whenever the trolley crosses the road but it probably prevents a lot of car wrecks by forcing people to slow down.


@minthybear19 - The city I live in has a trolley, but it only moves along the water line. It's an old one that they fixed up and modernized. It's pretty awesome to ride on and it moves pretty fast. Since it avoids all of the traffic by the water, it's actually faster than driving along the road next to it.

It will literally take you clear across the city edge in fifteen minutes. That's great compared to the hour or two I had to sit in rush hour traffic. It's also a lot cleaner than the bus ever was and a little cheaper.


@minthybear19 - I'm not sure why smaller cities don't use trolley cars too. They are fast and efficient -- plus they don't require a driver. There's no human error involved, like bus drivers turning too sharply.

I think they are better than buses in my opinion. They can run anytime -- even on the weekends -- which really helps out people that have to travel all of the time. In my area, the buses run on the weekends -- but it's only for a few hours at a time. Why bother? We should switch to using trolley cars where ever we can.


Trolley cars are something I always see in the movies and wish that there were more of around. I live in a fairly remote area and the only cities around are flat. The bus system in this area is really good, but trolley cars would probably work better.

The problem with the buses is that when rush hour hits, it's hard to get home with out a very long and stuffy bus ride. I know that trolley cars are less dynamic and have to follows their wired paths, but bus routes go right through the worst traffic areas. Maybe a little congestion would be good for rush hour.

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