Let's face it: If Potemkin Villages had rail-transit systems, they'd look like ours. We have a grand total of three "subway stops" Downtown, and two light-rail routes serving the same part of town -- the South Hills. The Port Authority is busily drilling a tunnel under the Allegheny River to connect Downtown with transit stations hardly anyone is going to use.
Which makes it all the more surprising that at one time, Pittsburgh had one of the most extensive trolley systems in the country. And the trolley was its mainstay.
Throughout much of the 20th century, that system was operated by the Pittsburgh Railways Company, which consolidated a number of smaller, localized streetcar lines in operation around town. And the PRC didn't lack for ambition.
Route maps from the first half of the 20th century -- which was when the system was in its heyday -- show more than three dozen routes from one end of town to the other. PRC cars ran along all three river valleys, connecting Sewickley with Glassport, Library with Aspinwall. Some trolleys went even farther afield than that. In the mid-1900s, a series of long-distance "interurban" trolleys went outside Allegheny County to far-flung towns like Beaver Falls and Charleroi. Think of it as a mass-transit Orient Express ... and by "Orient" I mean "Overbrook."
According to Touring Pittsburgh By Trolley, a railfan's guide to the system compiled by Harold A. Smith, Pittsburgh's trolley system maintained a stable of nearly 700 trolleys -- all of the famous PCC style. (When you think of the classic trolley design -- the Platonic ideal of a trolley -- the streamlined shape of a PCC car is what you have in mind.)
The PRC was a privately-operated company, but somehow the powers of the free market failed to work their magic here. As was the case with many privately-run transit systems in the area, the PRC was continually strapped for cash. And perhaps one reason Pittsburgh had such an extensive trolley system was that it was the only kind of rail it could afford: Dreamers were talking of a subway system as early as the 1910s, but it took decades to actually build it.
In any case, the Port Authority took over the county's mass-transit service in the early 1960s. When it seized the PRC's lines, the authority accelerated a process of shutting down non-profitable trolley routes and replacing them with bus service. Buses arguably lack the class of trolleys, but they're much more flexible. Which was important, because out in the sprawling suburbs, developers were building new homes faster than you could lay track to them.
As the Port Authority explains in its own online history, "The suburban housing and shopping-center boom of the 1950s and 1960s compelled the Authority to add and extend service." Whereas trolley customers had previously lived in tightly-concentrated areas near the city, now "transit service was provided to areas which had been sparsely populated and rural in character." In such circumstances, using buses seemed to make more sense.
Trolley lines kept shutting down. The system closed down its outermost lines first, withdrawing into itself like a plant withering in a drought. Only fleeting traces of most trolley lines remains today. Even into the 1960s, almost every major Downtown street was traversed by rails. Now, you're lucky if you can see the old rails peaking through worn asphalt or cobblestone on city streets. Other than that, the only trace of the city's transit services are the route numbers on bus lines, many of which were first used by their rail-bound ancestors.
By the 1970s, Touring Pittsburgh reports, the only lines still in operation were the 53, serving Carrick, and a handful of routes serving the South Hills. These lines still exist, in an altered form. One route of our current light-rail "T" system runs along the old 42 rail line through Beechview; the Overbrook route, meanwhile, runs along the old Castle Shannon lines. The "T" is an ugly hybrid: the sex appeal of a bus combined with the flexibility of rail. But it is the city's last real connection with its trolley-running heritage.
And at least we eventually got our subway system. Sort of.