There probably was never an industry that was such a failure, but yet so fascinating, as the electric interurban railway industry. In the early 1900's, there was great optimism in the industry, as the lines were constructed throughout the countryside, connecting the various towns. But within the next 20 or 30 years, with the development of paved roads and affordable automobiles, the electric interurban railway basically became obsolete. Even if public transportation were continued, a bus could do the job more economically, than to maintain an electric railway for just one car each hour. The only interurban lines to survive beyond the 1930's, were either those which more closely resembled steam railroads, whether having high speed segments using private right of way or having heavier than normal freight traffic, or those lines which were fortunate enough to be located in growing suburban areas.

"The interurbans completely vanished", is what the various railfan books and publications typically would have us believing. It is true, that there were generally no alternative public transportation options introduced, after the Chicago Aurora & Elgin and the North Shore Line shut down. Passengers either began driving instead, or switched to the paralleling Chicago & North Western Railroad.

But for the more typical local interurban lines, many of those companies did not simply abandon the electric railways and disappear. But instead operated replacement bus service. Many railfans of course resent buses, with various conspiracies over the years such as with National City Lines. Interurban railways may be interesting to experience, but in reality became impractical only 20 or 30 years after they were first developed.

What happened to the interurban bus companies? The companies were gradually acquired by Greyhound, which eventually consolidated them into the nationwide Greyhound Lines bus system. In the early days, those interurban bus lines continued to provide local service, as did the interurban railways. But those local services eventually became unprofitable. The real tragedy with interurban transportation, is that almost none of the areas served saw it fit, to create public transit districts to enable preservation of local interurban bus service. And in the 1980's, when deregulation of the intercity bus industry enabled Greyhound to discontinue unprofitable services, residents of smaller towns were left with little choice but to drive.

Greyhound's focus meanwhile moved to longer distance express bus service, travelling on Interstate highways and stopping only at the most important cities. Providing services which would be more appropriately provided by an intercity rail passenger system.

Meanwhile, in most areas of Europe, interurban bus routes continue to connect the various towns. Some bus routes created new, other bus routes having evolved from interurban railways. And a few interurban railways continue to exist. Could such an interurban system work in America? Only if the many communities in a region are able to all work together, and agree that there must be an alternative available to driving.


How the many smaller bus companies and former interurban companies evolved into the nationwide Greyhound Lines bus system.