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This article describes the mass transit vehicle. For other usages, see Birney .

A Birney or Birney Safety Car is a small light streetcar intended to be an economical means of providing frequent service at a lower infrastructure and labor cost than conventional streetcars.


The Birney car was the joint 1915 invention of Charles O. Birney, and Joseph M. Bosenbury (who was issued the patents in 1917 & 1919, and assigned half to Birney; see Brill page 140). Birney was an engineer with the firm of Stone & Webster, an operator of a number of trolley systems in the United States of Americamarker in the early part of the 20th century.

The vehicle was a return to single-truck (single-bogie) streetcars. They were small and light, about a third the weight of conventional cars, of rugged standardized construction, mass produced and inexpensively built. Twin motors gave them nimble acceleration. The largest producer of Birney Safety Cars was the American Car Company, a subsidiary of J. G. Brill.


Birney safety car, typical interior
They were designed to operate with only a motorman, saving the cost of the conductor. The advent of World War I made single-person operation additionally attractive as it addressed the wartime labor shortage. When labor was available, the Birneys could be operated at more frequent intervals, prompting the slogan "A Car in Sight at all Times." This latter attraction was one of the street railway industry's first attempts to deal directly with automobile competition.


Thousands of the cars were purchased from their inception to a few years after the end of the war. They began to fall from favor because of the features that made them attractive initially. Their light weight could be a problem in snow that a heavier car could easily plough through, and ride was compromised or even derailment possible on poor track or from the efforts of determined youth. The limited passenger capacity rendered them unsuitable for busy routes and rush hour service, and the public began to deride them as flimsy.

The streetcar companies also found that the safety features of the Birney, such as the use of interlocked doors to prevent the car from starting if a door was open or a passenger was stuck, could be incorporated in larger cars and that the public was not as disturbed by the absence of the conductor as the companies had feared.

Continued use

Their initial rise and fall notwithstanding, the Birney car was useful and durable, and many were shipped to other countries, especially those in smaller cities and towns, where they served for additional decades. For example the city of Halifaxmarker, Nova Scotiamarker, Canadamarker, bought up Birneys from other systems across North America to build an "all Birney fleet" and keep its streetcar system going in the difficult years of the Great Depression and World War Two, finally retiring its last car in 1949.

A number of Birney cars remain in use today in North America at trolley museum and heritage streetcar operations.

In Australia, seven of the eight Birney cars imported there have survived in operating condition: five are at Bendigo Tramways, one at the Australian Electric Transport Museum in St Kilda, South Australiamarker, and one at the Hawthorn Tram Depot in Melbournemarker. Thus Australia has a high proportion of the world's surviving Birney cars.

In New Zealandmarker, Birney Safety cars were imported for use by the provincial centres of New Plymouthmarker in the North Island and Invercargillmarker in the South Island, reputedly the world's most southerly tramway system. A New Plymouthmarker Birney is preserved by the Wanganui Tramways Trust, in Wanganuimarker and an Invercargill Birney is preserved by the Tramway Historical Society at the Ferrymead Heritage Parkmarker, located at Ferrymead in Christchurchmarker.

In the United Statesmarker, the Gomaco Trolley Company has built at least eighteen replicas of the less-common double-truck Birney car design since 1999, which it fitted with truck from ex-Milanmarker, Italymarker Peter Witt streetcars. These have been supplied to Tampa, Florida, Charlotte, North Carolina, Little Rock, Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee. Gomaco also restored an original single-truck Birney car body in 2002-3 for the Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District in Fresno, Californiamarker; this was intended for static display in a local park.

See also


  • History of the J. G. Brill Company by Debra Brill (2001, Indiana University Press, Bloomington) ISBN 0-253-33949-9 (She is a great-great-great-granddaughter of company founder John George Brill). (Birney safety cars pages 140-145, 162)

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