Public transportation is not usually a cause for celebration. But when New Orleans’ clattering Perley Thomas streetcars returned to the historic St. Charles Avenue line on November 10 — more than two years after Hurricane Katrina reduced the route’s network of cables and tracks to a tangled mess — residents turned out in droves to welcome the antique green cars.
For a few giddy hours, locals and tourists alike clambered aboard for free rides, waving to passing cars and pedestrians and mugging for local television news crews covering the event — one more milestone in the city’s protracted post-Katrina recovery.
In a city that revels in its past and guards its traditions like prized family heirlooms, the loss of the St. Charles Avenue streetcar was a blow to the city’s collective psyche. The line has always been more than just a way to get from Point A to Point B (in this case from Canal Street — the border between the French Quarter and the CBD — to the corner of Carrollton and Claiborne Avenues, via the Garden District and Uptown). Rumbling past handsome mansions and majestic oaks, the streetcars have long been a symbol of New Orleans itself: stately, somewhat impractical, and utterly charming.
A Proud History
Originally powered by horses, the St. Charles Avenue streetcars went electric in 1893. Most of the green Perley Thomas cars — which were safely tucked away in an Uptown garage during Katrina — date back to the 1920s, vestiges of a time when these vehicles plied many of New Orleans’ thoroughfares. (Tennessee Williams immortalized the line along Desire Street in A Streetcar Named Desire.)
After World War II, the streetcars were gradually phased out and replaced with buses; the Canal Street line, which stopped running in 1964, was the last to go, leaving only the St. Charles Avenue line intact.
Decades later, the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) began restoring some streetcar service, introducing the Riverfront line — which skirts the French Quarter — in 1988. In 2004, the RTA brought back the Canal Street line, adding a spur to City Park and the New Orleans Museum of Art.
These newer lines weathered Katrina well, but all 24 of their distinctive red cars were destroyed by floodwaters. The green St. Charles cars have been filling in for them since late 2005, and the first of the red cars are scheduled to go back into service in summer 2008.
The St. Charles Avenue line’s restoration is far from complete: for now, the route extends along St. Charles Avenue from Canal Street to Napoleon Avenue, taking passengers Uptown through the Central Business District, the Garden District, and a stretch of the exclusive St. Charles neighborhood.
The RTA hopes to extend service to the corner of St. Charles and Carrollton avenues by the end of 2007; the final Carrollton Avenue stretch is expected to be back in service by spring 2008 (in the meantime, passengers must transfer to a city bus to complete the line).
For years there has been talk of restoring more streetcar lines — perhaps even the famed streetcar named Desire — but with the cash-strapped city still in hurricane recovery mode, those plans have been set aside. For now, New Orleans is happy enough to have its cherished St. Charles Avenue streetcars back on their rightful track, clanking along one hard-won mile at a time.
New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA)
Phone: 504/248-3900; 504/242-2600 automated information
One-way fare on a New Orleans streetcar is $1.25 (exact change); one-day and three-day VisiTour passes are available for $5 and $12, respectively, for unlimited rides on all lines (these passes apply to buses as well). The one-day pass is available from streetcar operators. For information on where to buy three-day passes, schedule information, and RTA system maps, please visit the RTA website.