Of all the surviving trolley systems in eastern North America, Cleveland is the one to which I’ve devoted the least attention, in terms of railfanning and collecting. I began to rectify that situation with a two-day outing this month, an enjoyable experience which has me regretting not spending more time exploring the system much sooner.
Light rail was my principal focus, in the form of Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority’s Blue and Green lines, historically known as the Shaker Heights Rapid Transit system. Diverging from this venerable light rail operation (embodying the LRT concept decades before it acquired the name), I also was keenly interested in riding RTA’s HealthLine. The 24-hour bus rapid transit route opened in 2008 along the busy Euclid Corridor using massive articulated buses — equipped with real streetcar gongs — serving high-platform stations in and along the street. Finally, there was the system’s lone heavy rail line, the Airport-Louis Stokes (Windermere) Red Line, to ride, along with a busy urban bus network.
I’ve nothing against Cleveland — quite the opposite, in fact. As I have described elsewhere on the blog, there are many historical transit connections between Cleveland and my native Rochester, mainly in that streetcars designed and built in Cleveland were mainstays of Rochester’s fleet over the years. However, Cleveland’s PCC era ended well before I was old enough to drive. Given that and the fact that the system has no remaining street trackage (its last true streetcar lines were abandoned in 1954), Cleveland historically held much less interest for me than, say, the streetcar lines in Toronto and Philadelphia, Pittsburgh’s quirky light rail system (where I rode the last PCC car in 1999), Boston’s venerable Green Line and Mattapan-Ashmont PCCs, or the since-departed Newark City Subway PCCs.
Indeed, my first visit to Cleveland, in 2000, was a rushed day trip from Rochester. My focus that day was not RTA rapid transit but the Trolleyville USA museum in suburban Olmsted Township, which has since closed. On that trip I managed to work in an Airport-Tower City ride on the Red Line and a few stops on the Waterfront Line portion of the light rail system. And that was it.
While I have yet to ride the entire Waterfront Line, and I didn’t quite ride the HealthLine from end to end this month, I spent quite a bit of time riding and photographing the Blue and Green lines, despite occasionally long off-peak headways on the outer segments east of Shaker Square, where the two lines diverge. The fruits of my labors may be seen in this Flickr gallery from my visit.
- The Blue and Green line cars really do seem to live up to their name as rapid transit vehicles — even in the outer sections, running in the medians of broad suburban boulevards with numerous grade crossings. Despite their age, the 1980-81 Breda LRVs which were in service were clean and in seemingly good repair, and their acceleration impressive. In contrast with the renovated silver cars, there seemed to be many other cars languishing in the yards wearing older paint schemes.
- At many of the off-street stations renovated three decades ago as part of the line’s comprehensive upgrade, the 1980s-era canopies and stairways were in decidedly poor repair, with rust and crumbling concrete in abundance. In fairness, however, repairs and upgrades were clearly in evidence at several, stations, notably Woodhill (now Buckeye-Woodhill), whose renovation is described here.
- Leafy Shaker Square, with its surrounding shops and eateries, is a pleasant place to spend time railfanning. The inbound station building actually houses a restaurant, Michael’s Diner, whose broad expanse of glass offers a great vantage point from which to enjoy lunch and passing LRVs.
- From Shaker Square, it is easy and convenient to head east on foot along the two lines for some decent photo opportunities, especially along the Blue Line. Vintage station buildings at several stops on both routes make for essential photo ops, notably at Coventry (Green Line) and Lynnfield (Blue). The Blue Line, in particular, still has the feel of an early-to-mid 20th Century suburban trolley route, and the Bredas sound very much like streetcars as they clang through intersections amid well-manicured lawns, mock-Colonial homes and vintage apartment blocks.
- A note of praise for the Shaker route drivers: Many embodied a friendly, neighborly character, offering helpful advice to riders (especially apparent visitors) and updates about impending route closures due to grade-crossing work on the Blue Line. To that end, I found most people I encountered in and around Cleveland friendly and polite. It may be a big city, but there is a certain Midwestern charm to the place that I really enjoy.
- The rapid transit system’s hub, Tower City, is a mixed-use complex dominated by the 52-floor Terminal Tower. The shopping center above the transit station is a convenient place for railfans (like any other tourists) to break for food and shopping, as well as for transferring between rail, bus and HealthLine.
- As a light rail enthusiast, I naturally found the Red Line less interesting, but it’s also a good deal less interesting than heavy rail systems elsewhere. It’s essentially an outdoor line, save for the short Tower City segment, and photo opportunities are fairly limited and uninteresting at most stations. That, coupled with 20-minute headways at most times (and the ho-hum Tokyu Car fleet), offer little to most enthusiasts save for the hardcore heavy rail fan.
- The HealthLine was well worth a visit. On a Friday afternoon I was able to stand on Euclid Avenue and watch its silver buses pass every few minutes, with an interesting range of photo ops available downtown. The line becomes less photogenic in the long, often depressed stretches of Euclid Avenue beyond the central core, and I confess to riding only as far as East 83rd Street. (N.B., Thus I missed the interesting University Circle neighborhood, as a reader notes below. Next time, I hope.) The vehicles themselves are intrinsically interesting, especially their distinctive gongs — quite a contrast with the ersatz rubber-tired “trolleys” also seen along Euclid, whose fake bells are a tinny imitation of the real thing. From a transit perspective, it’s worth noting that many HealthLine buses seemed full to standing even off-peak. It’s not hard to see how this route might ultimately merit an upgrade to rail transit when funds permit — a Euclid subway might be well down the road, but I think light rail, with some type of grade separation, could certainly work here.
- I didn’t spend much time riding the RTA’s other bus routes, but those of you who enjoy big city systems would enjoy Cleveland. There’s not much fleet diversity — NABIs and New Flyers rule the roost — but the sheer amount of bus traffic around Public Square, with the HealthLine thrown in, makes it a must-see for transit enthusiasts. The 19th Century Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument on the square is worth a visit, and includes a museum inside the monument building.
All very interesting, of course, but it was hard for me as a history buff not to regret not being around for the days when massive interurbans and Peter Witt cars squealed around the square, let alone the waning days of PCC cars on ‘the Rapid,’ when cars in a motley assortment of paint schemes bounced over the tracks out of the tower.
My final word? Cleveland rocks.
For more on Cleveland and its transit system, see:
- Greater Cleveland RTA homepage.
- Jon Bell’s Shaker Heights Rapid Transit page.
- Dave’s Rail Pix Shaker Heights page.
- Wikipedia RTA Rapid Transit page.
- Tower City Center homepage.
- Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument homepage.