The clacking old streetcars that traveled up and down St. Charles Avenue for the past 170 years and their shiny new red counterparts on Canal Street will be out of service for months, maybe a year or more, because of Hurricane Katrina.
All 24 of the new cars for the recently completed Canal Street line and six of the seven cars on the shorter Riverfront line were destroyed by the flooding that followed Katrina. The antique St. Charles line cars were safe, but the power system that propels them was wrecked and must be rebuilt.
“We took a major hit,” said Rosalind Blanco Cook, Regional Transit Authority spokeswoman. “We don’t really have an estimate for bringing the lines back.”
The St. Charles streetcar line — the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world — is on the National Register of Historic Places and one of the city’s icons. Streetcars traveling past mansions, universities and parks offer tourists a taste of the city’s past and give residents a reliable commute for $1.25.
The Riverfront line was added in 1988 and the Canal Street line was restored last spring, 40 years after it was abandoned.
The St. Charles cars, built in the 1920s, are maintained by the RTA. The new cars were built by the agency under the supervision of Elmer von Dullen, an expert in streetcar construction and maintenance.
The old streetcars were parked in the Uptown barn and escaped unscathed, but the new cars had been taken to the Canal Street barn.
Five feet of water
“That’s where we all evacuated to as well,” Cook said. “We thought it was safe, and it was until the flood.”
The building took in five feet of water.
“It was really sad,” von Dullen said. “It was very corrosive. All the metal rusted. Even the plastic had white bubbles. If you had a shiny piece of plastic, it blistered the surface.”
Unlike the St. Charles cars, the new cars are operated by computer and are air-conditioned and handicapped accessible. It took 142 days to build each car, von Dullen said, and it will probably take that long to rebuild them.
“We’re going to have to have all the undercarriages replaced,” he said. “We’ll have to go in there and tear out all the old wiring, rip out the paneling, rip floor out, treat for corrosion. Then we have to put the wiring and flooring back. Then the seats and interior paneling. It’s almost like building new ones.”
The bill for repairs is estimated at $1 million per car, Cook said. City officials hope that federal aid will pick up some of the tab. Restoring the power lines for the St. Charles line will be less expensive, but since much of the city is still without electricity, it’s not a high priority.
The St. Charles cars are capable of running on the other lines, Cook said. But because of their historic designation, they are not allowed to.
“We’re going to appeal that because of the special circumstances,” she said. “We’re hopeful we can use them to get the lines going again.”