AskDefine | Define interurban

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  1. Of, pertaining to, involving or joining two or more urban centres

Extensive Definition

In Australia, "interurban" is a general term for intercity rail.
An Interurban, also called a radial railway in parts of Canada, was a type of passenger railroad that enjoyed widespread popularity at the turn of the twentieth century in North America. Interurbans were often extensions of streetcar lines running between urban areas or from urban to rural areas. The lines were mainly electrified in an era when steam railroads had not yet adopted electricity to any large degree. Most could not survive following the widespread adoption of the automobile. Those that remained survived as commuter railroads or as freight short lines.

North America

The first interurbans were constructed in the 1880s, following the successful development of the electric traction by Frank Sprague. By 1900 just over of track had been laid and mileage peaked in 1916 with over 15,500 miles. From approximately the end of the First World War the industry was in decline, accelerated by the growth of the private automobile. The Great Depression of the 1930s drove most into closure and only a couple survived beyond the 1960s.
To minimize cost of construction, an interurban typically ran along public right-of-way, either next to a public highway in rural areas, or within city streets in urban areas. It was somewhat less common for interurbans to have lengthy stretches of private right-of-way. Occasionally interurbans were operated along mainline steam railroads. Fares were cheaper than steam railroads and service was more frequent but typically slower. Due to the characteristics of the electric motor, interurbans could operate on steeper grades, going where steam engines could not.
With the demise of the interurban, many routes were taken over by intercity bus services. Most local intercity services have since been discontinued; buses now typically run express between cities. A few interurbans, built to rather high standards, have survived, as have several that still operate only freight service, but the vast majority are long abandoned.

Definition of "Interurban"

Real-world lines fit on a continuum between wholly urban street railways and full-fledged railroads. George W. Hilton and John F. Due, in The Electric Interurban Railways in America, define an interurban as a system which shares most or all of four characteristics:
  • Electric power
  • Passenger service as primary emphasis
  • Heavier, faster equipment than urban streetcars
  • Operated on street trackage in cities but on roadside tracks or private rights-of-way in rural areas
The definition of "interurban" is necessarily blurry. Some streetcar systems evolved into partly interurban systems with extensions or acquisitions, while other interurban lines became, effectively, light rail systems with no street running whatsoever, or became primarily freight-hauling railroads with a progressive loss of passenger service.
Another distinction is made between "interurban" and "suburban". A suburban system is oriented toward a particular city center in a single urban area, serving primarily commuters who live in the suburbs of a city. An interurban is more like a regular railroad local train service, moving people from one city center to another with no single center. However, unlike a local train, the interurban serves a smaller region and has more frequent service, and is oriented to passenger rather than freight service, although some small-load freight service was common, especially in the days before trucks (lorries).

Interurban technology

In general, interurbans operated with technology somewhere between that of a streetcar line and a full-scale railroad. The vast majority of interurbans were electrified, utilizing simply strung overhead wire, or, on heavily trafficked high speed lines, the more complicated wiring system known as catenary. In either case, power was transferred from the wire to the locomotive (in the case of an interurban freight line) or interurban passenger car by way of a trolley pole or pantograph. A few systems, usually in heavily populated urban areas, transferred electricity to the trains by way of a third rail running parallel to, and outside of, the rails holding and guiding the train. Power was transferred to the train using a "shoe" attached to the locomotive or car. Engineers working for Michigan United Railways devised a shoe with steel cutters which could remove ice from the tracks.


Most interurban railways in North America were electrified using low-voltage direct current systems popular with street railways. This enabled interurbans to use urban street railway systems with ease. However, these systems had difficulty in maintaining voltage over long distances. Thus, interurbans developed the practice of generating power at higher voltages and stepping down power to the 600 volts needed to power the cars at substations spaced out along the line. By 1905, 600 volts had become the industry-wide standard.
The interurbans also had to develop their own powerhouses for electricity as there were few commercial power companies in existence at the time. Some of these power houses produced high-voltage AC power that would be stepped-down and converted to DC at the substations. Because of this choice, many interurban railway companies became electric companies.
Most power was distributed to the cars using overhead trolley wires or pantographs. Some companies preferred outside third rail. Third rail was cheaper to maintain and improved conductivity, but it was more expensive to construct as it did not mitigate the construction of transmission lines and poles. Third rail was also more dangerous to trespassers and animals. Also, in the winter, third rails were difficult to keep clear of ice.
In 1904, a single-phase alternating current system became available and was distributed by Westinghouse and General Electric. But the system soon proved expensive to maintain and operate, and it increased wear and tear on equipment and track. It was a short-lived experiment and none were installed after 1910.
Another experiment in electrification came in 1907 with high-voltage DC (1200 volts). This system was allowed for easy conversion from other DC systems and was cheaper to maintain. But it was developed so late that few railways adopted it.


Most interurbans were built to standard gauge, but there were a fair number of exceptions. Interurbans often used the tracks of existing street railways through city streets, and when those street railways were not built to standard gauge, the interurbans had to use non-standard gauges as well or face the expense of building their own trackage through urban areas. Many municipalities had ordained the use of non-standard gauges so that railroad freight cars could never be switched on the public streets.


  • See [[List of rail gauges#Broad gauge railways, by gauge and country|5 ft 4 in, 5 ft 2in and 5 ft 2in (1638 mm, 1588 mm & 1581 mm)]]

Passenger service

Freight service

Those interurbans carrying freight were typically the last to disappear. The Insull lines focus on freight allowed freight revenues to subsidize money losing passenger operations. Most of the smaller interurbans only carried LCL freight in box motors, while the bigger interurbans carried car load freight. The North Shore was an early adopter of TOFC trains, and the South Shore operated three 800-class "Little Joe" electric locomotives. Not only were these locomotives large for an interurban, they were some of the most powerful and large locomotives ever made for any railroad. Typical interurban freight operations, when not hauled in LCL fashion, were hauled behind box-cab or steeple-cab motors, with a footprint dimension similar to a GE 80-tonner diesel. Some interurbans had an auxiliary battery power system on their locomotives for operation on un-wired spurs.

North America

United States

In the late 1890s, electrified systems called streetcars, which had been developed by Frank Sprague, expanded rapidly. By 1900, just over of track had been laid, and by 1916, at their peak, over were in service. Most of the interurban track that had been laid was located in Ohio and Indiana; both states had of track. In Michigan and Illinois there was another of track which was interconnected. In Texas and in California, thousands of miles of additional track was also laid down by different companies. The first Interurban in Texas was the Denison and Sherman Railway, completed in 1901. In central Virginia, interurban lines connected City Point and Hopewell with Petersburg, and Petersburg with Richmond. Another connected Richmond with Ashland.
In the early 1900s, interurban transportation was very popular in both rural areas and cities. Although slower in speed than steam driven passenger trains, the interurban system made up for speed by increased frequency of service. After 1910, the popularity of the Ford Model T automobile began to diminish the interurban passenger load, and during the 1920s, many interurban systems were declared bankrupt. Many were also bought out in the Great American Streetcar Scandal and deliberately destroyed. As a result of this shift in transportation methods, the small and unprofitable lines were discontinued. By the 1930s, most of the interurbans had disappear, although some of their rail lines were taken over for the use of freight drawn by steam engines. Most were replaced with buses. By the 1960s, very few lines remained; the Pacific Electric Railway in California was abandoned in 1961, and the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad near Chicago in 1963.

Remaining lines

Few historic interurban lines are still operated in their original form, although a number of more recently-constructed transit lines could be considered interurbans by Hilton and Due's standards above.
Other lines that have some characteristics of an interurban include:
Other portions of interurbans remain in service as parts of regular freight-hauling railroads; for instance, portions of the Sacramento Northern Railway were operated by the Union Pacific Railroad. The longest surviving portion of the Sacramento Northern is now owned by the Sierra Northern Railroad. Most of the Tidewater Southern Railway is still operated by the Union Pacific. Another California interurban company, the Central California Traction Company, still operates diesel freight service on its one-time electric line between Stockton and Lodi.


In 1887 the St. Catharines and Niagara Central Railway, the first interurban line in the world, started operations. It ran between St. Catharines and Thorold, Ontario, Canada. Not only was this the first interurban line in the world, but it was also one of the first commercially successful implementations of electric streetcars in the world.
In Southern Ontario, intercity streetcar lines were called radial railways, because their routes generally radiated from a central city. The longest routes from Toronto included one running to Lake Simcoe and another to Guelph. A portion of one of these lines is preserved and plays host to a working museum of streetcars and other transit vehicles at the Halton County Radial Railway in Rockwood. A notable feature of Toronto's radial railways was that because the city streetcar tracks of the Toronto Railway Company (later taken over by the Toronto Transportation Commission) were built to a wider gauge (which is still used to this day), radial cars from the outlying areas could not pass the city limits, requiring passengers to change trains.
Some of the closer sections of Toronto's radial railways were assimilated into the city's streetcar network, and with the city's expansion, some communities once linked by radial railway now have relatively central stations on the Toronto subway. On a regional level, GO Transit's commuter railway network is designed on a similar radial principle, though it uses much heavier-capacity mainline trains.
There were also significant radial systems operating from Hamilton, St. Catharines, Windsor, and throughout the Grand River Valley, the last of which may see a revival should Grand River Transit obtain funding to build a light railway between Waterloo, Kitchener, and eventually Cambridge, running partially on the tracks of the former Grand River Railway. Hamilton and the Niagara Region are also investigating the possibility of reviving former interurban railway routes as modern light rail.
In British Columbia, five interurban lines were operated by the British Columbia Electric Railway Company. The private right-of-way of the Central Park line, between Commercial Drive in Vancouver and New Westminster, is now used by the SkyTrain's Expo Line. The Fraser Valley Line became the British Columbia Hydro Railway when BC Electric was nationalized in the 1960s; it was later privatized and is now the Southern Railway of British Columbia, a local shortline freight railway. The BCER also operated interuban trains between Vancouver and Marpole, and between Marpole, Steveston and New Westminster on the Vancouver and Lulu Island Railway, which it leased from Canadian Pacific. This railway is also known as Arbutus Corridor route. Likewise, the Millennium Line of the SkyTrain connects the same communities as the former Burnaby Lake Line; however, the new SkyTrain line does not follow the original right-of-way, which is now the route of Highway 1 through Burnaby. The fifth BCER interurban connected Victoria and Patricia Bay on the Saanich Peninsula. Its right-of-way is commemorated by Interurban Road in Saanich.
In Quebec, the Montreal and Southern Counties Railway operated electric interurban lines from central Montreal across the St. Lawrence Seaway to Longueuil and Granby from 1909 to 1956.


In the first decade of the 20th century, Canadian investors purchased the Mexico City tram operator Compañía de Tranvías de México, and attempted to create an interurban radial-railway system on the Canadian model, beginning work on lines that were intended to reach Toluca and Puebla. Typical US style interurban electric cars built by the St. Louis Car Company were imported for the service. Expenses due to Mexico's difficult terrain and political instability that culminated in the Mexican Revolution combined to end this project although lines were completed as far as La Venta and Tulyehualco and a popular suburban line was built to San Angel and Coyoacán. A portion of the ex-Puebla line operates today as the Xochimilco Light Rail system. Another Mexican system that would have been considered of an interurban type was the Playa Miramar high-speed line in Tampico.
The Mexican state of Yucatan had approximately 1,500 kilometers of interurban tramway network, mostly narrow gauge and either animal powered (mule or horsecars) or gasoline powered.


In Europe, lines that fit the interurban definition were rare historically. A whole large interurban system in continuous service exists however since 1894 at Upper Silesia in Poland connecting cities and towns of this densily populated region (See Silesian Interurbans for more information). More common were either wholly urban, street-running tram systems or light rail systems operating wholly on dedicated rights of way. See tram-train for information about modern European systems running on the streets in cities but on railway lines outside them.

The Netherlands

Holland used to have a "tram-system" that came very close to the American style interurban. The standard gauge NZH trams in the area between The Hague, Leiden and Haarlem were fairly big electric trams running on 1200 volt with in-street running in towns and quite a lot of private right-of-way outside towns. Especially the "Budapester" trams (see picture) resemble American interurban cars. A typical tram was made up by coupling a motorised unit (A400 or A500 series) with one or two trailors (B400/B500). In common with American practice the NZH also had local streetcar lines in The Hague, Leiden and Haarlem sharing some of the track with the interurban routes. Power supply was entirely by overhead wire. Although there was a connection between tram and train tracks in Leiden it was not possible to convey railway cars on NZH track due to differing track and wheel geometry, curve radius and loading gauge.


The Belgian Coast Tram, which has been in service since 1885, is a notable example of interurban tramway which survives to this day. With 70 stations along its 68-kilometre line, connecting the cities and towns along the enitre Belgian (West Flanders) coastline, it is the longest tram line in the world.


In Germany, Interurbans that fit the whole definition were uncommon. However, in many instances the definition is almost met.
One of these cases are the many early sondary (connecting) railway lines that were built in the onset of the 20th century. Many of them were street-running in urban and suburban areas while using a dedicated right of way in less populated areas. Those lines were usually operated with mainline stock, however very few were electrified. Most of them have disappeared or were moved onto a full dedicated right of way due to increasing street traffic and safety concerns. One of the few such railway lines still in service is the steam operated narrow-gauge Molli train between Bad Doberan and Kühlungsborn West on the shore of the Baltic Sea in the north-eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern which is street-running inside Bad Doberan and has its own right of way on the rest of the line.
Another not uncommon case are interurban tramways. Germany has numerous areas where several larger cities are clustered together, and there were always places not served by mainline railway lines. Often urban tramways companies jumped at the opportunity and built over-land tramway lines, sometimes linking two existing tramway networks together. Those lines were run with standard tramway cars.
After World War II these Interurban tramways were modernised and now dubbed Stadtbahn. All of them are street-running in city areas and use a dedicated right of way between cities, and all of them are electrified. Rolling stock used is either standard tramway cars or special heavier cars which still qualify for tramway use in street-running lines as regulated in BOStrab. Generally, the stadtbahn systems fit the definition of an interurban once their network leaves city boundaries.
One particularily large effort was the Stadtbahn Rhein-Ruhr which was meant to grow to a length of 300 km (180 miles), spanning over 10 cities of the Ruhrgebiet industial area, building upon already existing interurban and urban tramway lines. Although those plans were later abolished due to exploding costs, 17 stadtbahn lines between Krefeld in the west and Dortmund in the east were finished and today one can travel from Krefeld to Bochum without using a single mainline train. The only link missing is between Bochum and Dortmund.



Influence of US

In Japan, no clear distinction of the interurban from the ordinal heavy rail has not been settled, but most of the major private railway companies, which now play important role in public transportation, had been influenced greatly by the systems of U.S. interurbans, such as motors and controllers of General Electric, Westinghouse Electric, air brakes of Westinghouse Air Brake Company, trucks of J. G. Brill and Company and Baldwin Locomotive Works, just to name some.


The first interurban in Japan was the Hanshin Electric Railway's main line which opened in 1905 between Osaka and Kobe. In the Greater Tokyo area in the same year, the present Keihin Electric Express Railway (Keikyū) extended its main line to the station of Kanagawa in Yokohama, to connect Tokyo. The followers of this earlier period were Keihan Electric Railway's main line between Kyoto and Osaka in 1910, Nagoya Electric Railway (present Nagoya Railroad) in Nagoya to surrounding towns such as Inuyama (present Inuyama Line) and Tsushima (Tsushima Line). The latter had operated throuh to the center of Nagoya via streetcar line, though the former had planned so in Osaka but the administrating authority refused.

Second generation

The second boom of Japanese interurban were in 1920s to 1930s, unlike the counterparts in the US that declined in this period. The difference of the countries is the motorization, in Japan until 1960s private automobile was not common. The operators of this generations built their exclusive tracks with heavier rail (e.g. 100 lb. per feet), less curves and rarely laid tracks on roads.
In Kansai region mostly from Osaka
  • Kobe Line of Hankyū Electric Railway (present Hankyu Corporation)
    competing Hanshin's Main Line in the same region
  • Kobe - Himeji Electric Railway
    western half of the main line of present Sanyo Electric Railway connecting Akashi and Himeji
  • Shin-Keihan Railway
    concurrent to Keihan, later transferred to Hankyū
  • Hanwa Electric Railway
    later merged to the governmental network under wartime condition, presently Hanwa Line
  • Osaka Electric Tramway's main line (present Kintetsu)
    for Nara
  • Nara Electric Railway's line (presently Kintetsu)
    Kyoto and Nara
  • Sangū Kyūkō Electric Railway
    Together with Osaka Electric Tramway line, from Osaka to Ise, exceeding 100km in distance
In Tokyo In other regions


During the Japanese post-war economic miracle (1955-1975), rapid urbanizations increased the traffic and required the capacity expansion. Descendants of interurbans also extend the length of trains. presently, especially in and around Tokyo, companies such as Keikyū, Tōbu, Odakyū operate trains of 200 m length.


  • The Electric Interurban Railways in America
  • The Interurban Era
  • A Trolley Car Treasury: A Century of American Streetcars—Horsecars, Cable Cars, Interurbans, and Trolleys

See also

interurban in German: Überlandstraßenbahn
interurban in Dutch: Interurban
interurban in Japanese: インターアーバン
interurban in Polish: Interurban
interurban in Russian: Междугородный и пригородный трамвай
interurban in Swedish: Interurbanspårväg

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Amtrak, baggage train, burghal, cable railroad, choo-choo, citified, city, civic, cog railroad, cog railway, downtown, el, electric, electric train, elevated, express, express train, flier, freight, freight train, freighter, funicular, goods train, lightning express, limited, local, metro, metropolitan, midtown, milk train, monorail, municipal, oppidan, parliamentary, parliamentary train, passenger train, rack-and-pinion railroad, railroad train, rattler, rolling stock, shuttle, shuttle train, special, streamliner, suburban, subway, town, train, tube, underground, uptown, urban, village, way train
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