|Return of the (modern) streetcar - Portland leads the way|
Article from the October 2001 edition of Tramways & Urban Transit
|The Grand Opening of the Portland Streetcar on 20 July. Car 001 threads its way through the crowds at 6th Ave/Mill St to depart the Urban Center Plaza northbound stop as the second car in a slow procession along the 3.8-km line.|
American planners and politicians often acknowledge that the motor car and lax planning lie at the heart of their problems, and the far-sighted and politically courageous ones have recognised that good public transport is one of the most powerful weapons in their armoury to tackle the problem. That is why 14 new light rail systems have been built since 1978, and two more are under construction, with many more planned. In this magazine we have often focussed on the north-west city of Portland as coming closest to European norms, for there not only has there been significant investment in high-quality public transport, but politicians have been willing to stick with strict planning zoning, despite all the pressures to the contrary (perhaps the fact that the Oregon vineyards are just down the road helps, for many would argue that wine and civilisation are inextricably linked).
|001 loading at the busy 10th and Yamhill stop across the street from the main library, showing the low platform at stops. Confusingly, the name printed on the passenger shelter indicates sponsorship, not location.|
When MAX was being planned in the 1980s, local businessman Bill Naito persuaded the regional transportation authority Tri-Met to run vintage-style trolleys over the city-centre section, financed not from Tri-Met funds, but from the business community that stood to benefit. A citizen advisory committee, formed in 1990, started looking at options for a Central City Trolley line, separate from MAX, and linking inner-city regeneration zones with the city centre, using newly-built replicas of old-style trams. Those with a good knowledge of local history remembered that much of the area now known as Old Town, with its ornate buildings and criss-crossed by tram tracks, succumbed to the wreckers’ balls in the 1940s to make room for motor traffic on freeways. Ironically this area was derisively called the ‘European part of Portland’.
|Skoda 003 southbound on 11th Ave crossing the MAX light rail tracks at Yamhill St on the first day of revenue service. Visible to the left of the tram are two of the three tracks which curve out of MAX’s 11th Avenue terminal, which is now the city-centre terminus of all trips on the new Airport line.|
Traffic patterns and housing density favoured a line running between the city centre and Northwest Portland as the city’s introduction to the 21st-century streetcar. Factors included population densities running as high as 20 000 residents/square mile and historic heavy transit patronage. And south of the city centre lies Portland State University, with its potential to generate heavy student traffic throughout the day and throughout the week. The north-south routeing through the west end of the city centre was selected as being on 10th and 11th Avenues, and this gives a clue to another feature. Portland Streetcar, as the project was officially renamed in 2000, runs for 3.8 km in each direction, but is often referred to as being a 7.6-km loop, since it follows separate, parallel streets (one or two blocks apart) for virtually its entire length. The reason for this is that the non-segregated street track can mostly be located in the right traffic lane, allowing retention of kerb parking.
Construction of the line started in 1999. As the previous sentence indicates, Portland Streetcar is not a light rail line like MAX (which is mostly on private right-of-way or reservation, and has its own segregated lanes when it runs through the city centre streets), but a tramway, sharing lanes with other traffic over nearly its entire length. For the most part trams will have to obey the same traffic signals as other traffic, and there is no pre-emption. Traffic calming may not have entered the American vocabulary, but the new trams effectively do just that as they run and stop in the street. Track construction costs were kept down by specifying a much shallower track slab than would be required for 49-tonne LRVs: 310-mm deep instead of the conventional 465 mm, using specially-ordered girder rail only 130-mm high in place of the standard 180-mm rail used on US light rail systems. This reduced significantly the amount of relocation of previously-existing underground utility lines needed.
|Siemens SD660 LRV 220 laying over at 11th Ave/Yamhill St on one of two MAX short-turn trips using this facility prior to the opening of the Airport line. In the background Portland Streetcar 003 is passing southbound.|
Portland Streetcar (PS) is a project of the city council, not the transit agency Tri-Met. The city managed its construction, provided most of the funding, and will manage its operation. PS is a division within the city’s Office of Transportation. However city officials wisely decided not to try to create a whole new workforce to run the line, and instead have contracted with Tri-Met to provide the operators and maintenance personnel, taking advantage of the training those people had already received for MAX. 13 operators, three superintendents and two mechanics have been assigned to Tri-Met’s PS unit. City employees are the part-time General Manager (Vicky Diede, who was the CCS/PS project manager throughout the planning and construction), and the full-time Manager of Operations and Safety (originally Mike Carroll, but now Lenore DeLuisa) and Manager of Maintenance (Gary Cooper). PSI provides certain management functions on a part-time basis, including Manager of Community Relations (Kay Dannen) and Chief Operating Officer (Rick Gustafson). Their employer is local consultant Shiels-Obletz-Johnsen, the largest component of PSI, which has managed much of the planning and construction of the system.
The line connects NW 23rd Ave in Northwest Portland, a thriving retail district and home to one of the city’s largest hospitals (Good Samaritan), with Portland State University (terminus SW 4th Ave). On the way it runs north-and-south through the west end of the city centre, on 10th and 11th Avenues, where city planners expect the tramway to generate substantial new development. Such development is already evident in the Pearl District and newly-created River District, immediately north of the city centre, where old industrial development and abandoned rail freight yards are giving way to new apartment buildings and condominiums. One of the latter, a seven-storey, 139-unit development due to open this year, is even named Streetcar Lofts. The tramway’s potential to influence development in areas around the fringes of the city centre was the strongest reason for its promotion. Before the 1997 agreement between the city and Hoyt Street Properties the area was zoned for 15 units per acre, but with the tramway confirmed the deal pushed the density up to 131 units/acre.
The line’s steepest grade is 8.65%, in the block of 11th Avenue between the two MAX tracks (the steepest gradient on MAX is 7%). The entire width of this one short section of street had to be regraded to a steeper slope as part of the PS construction, in order to get the crossings of PS and MAX tracks on the level, to avoid uneven wear on the complex and expensive specialwork at these two intersections. The line also features a right-angle crossing with an active freight spur serving the BridgePort brewery, on Northrup Street at 13th Avenue.
Most maintenance will be carried out at a small new depot that has been built at NW 16th Avenue, underneath an elevated section of the I-405 freeway between Northrup and Lovejoy Streets. A single curve at 10th and Morrison connects the tramway with MAX, and this means it will be possible for the trams to reach Tri-Met’s Ruby Junction workshop for exceptional maintenance or repair.
The depot accommodates the seven low-floor trams being purchased from Skoda in the Czech Republic (001-007). The initial batch of five cars, ordered in early 1999, were all delivered in spring 2001, but 006 and 007 are not expected to arrive until July 2002, having been ordered later (in October 2000 and February 2001 respectively). The basic design is known as the Astra, first built as a prototype in 1996/7, but with 27 cars since delivered to Plzen, Ostrava and Olomouc. The Portland cars are the first double-ended variant, and bear the model number 10T. Skoda is better-known for its railway locomotives and trolleybuses, but saw a gap in the market after the introduction of the market economy in the Czech Republic, and the dire effect that had on what was the world’s largest tram builder, Tatra, which quickly lost its way under a welter of reorganisations and management failures. Skoda had a previous history of small-scale tramcar production from 1927-40, but after the war the planned economy decreed that all production should be concentrated at Tatra.
Although Skoda is building the cars, the company is actually only a sub-contractor to Inekon, another Czech company, which holds the contract with Portland. In fact most of the mechanical design work for the Astra was undertaken by Inekon subsidiary Kolejova Doprava, while Skoda concentrated on the electrical design. In order to meet the USA’s tougher standards for crashworthiness, Skoda had to redesign the underframe and add reinforcement around the operators cab. Traction control equipment comes from Elin, braking gear from Knorr and air conditioning is by Thermo King.
|Car 004 ascending Portland’s steepest gradient, 8.65% on 11th Avenue, between the two parallel streets carrying MAX tracks. The white logo shows this car is sponsored by Portland General Electric.|
By any standards it is impressive that the system was able to open just two months after most of the fleet was delivered, and nonetheless avoid any major service disruptions due to vehicle teething troubles. This is due in part to the fact that by avoiding use of any Federal funds, ‘Buy America’ regulations did not come into play, and PS was able to purchase trams built entirely in the Czech Republic, but there was also a concerted effort by project officials to keep to a simple and low-maintenance design.
Each of the seven cars carries a different combination of livery colours, albeit to a common pattern and all sharing a light blue stripe along the top of the skirt (changing to white around the car ends). The city has decided against any exterior advertising, but has recruited one ‘sponsor’ per car from among local businesses and institutions, allowing the sponsor’s name and logo to be applied on the side in modest-sized lettering. By the opening sponsors signed up were 001, Portland State University; 002, Hoyt Street Realty; 003, Powell’s Books; 004, Portland General Electric.
Fares are the same as on the Tri-Met system, and all tickets, transfers and passes issued by one system will be accepted by the other. As on MAX, PS will use an honour fare system to speed boarding. However the ticket vending machines (which require USD 1.25 in coins) and validators (for stamping pre-purchased tickets), supplied by the Czech company Microelectronika, are located on the cars rather than at stops, as this required fewer machines. Also, the City has agreed that PS will honour Tri-Met’s city centre Fareless Square area, which covers about two-thirds of the PS line, thus giving most passengers a free ride. There is a Portland Streetcar-only annual pass for USD 50, sold at the depot and university, as well as by Tri-Met at their Pioneer Square outlet. But as long as the line generates the sort of attractive, high-density, transit-friendly new development the city desires, officials are not overly concerned about its low 'farebox recovery ratio' (the percentage of operating costs covered by fares). Daily patronage before the opening was projected to be about 4500, but after three weeks 6000-8000 people a day have been riding and even Sunday ridership has hit 5000. No doubt this will drop as the novelty wears off.
After the opening three days of 20-22 July (see our September news), normal PS service is from 06.00 weekdays, 08.00 weekends, until 23.00 (extended to 00.30 on Friday and Saturday nights). Service uses four cars during the daytime on Monday-Friday and three at most other times. The scheduled round-trip running time is generally 50 minutes, with a 10-minute layover, so four cars produces a 15-minute headway and three cars a 20-minute headway. In practice the higher than expected patronage has been eating into the layover periods (all taken at or near the southern terminus). The current operations budget is insufficient to permit scheduling a fifth car, so the plans for a 10- or 12-minute weekday service are on indefinite hold at present.
|Portland’s River District was just a derelict railway freight yard three years ago, but is undergoing an impressive transformation into a residential district since the tramway was approved. The newly-erected colourful towers are intended to resemble American-Indian totem poles. With the Fremont Bridge in the distance, Gomaco Vintage Trolley 514 approaches the neat stop on NW 11th Ave at Johnson St. on 28th July.|
All Vintage Trolley departures on the PS are scheduled on the hour from the southern terminus, and at 25 minutes past the hour from 23rd Avenue/Marshall Street, where no layover is scheduled or allowed, since trams are blocking traffic on a very busy two-lane street when they are at that stop. If an unforeseen event, such as damage to the overhead, forces temporary suspension of the tram operation, the city has an agreement with Tri-Met to provide buses and drivers, on short notice if necessary, to work a replacement service.
|For a few months there are sections of Portland Streetcar which appear to be on private right-of-way, but before long this will be the intersection of 10th Avenue and Northrup Street, looking south towards the city centre. Meanwhile the new apartments are springing up to create the River District. This was a test run on 19th. April with extended bridgeplate and exposed coupler visible on 001.|
On Moody Avenue by RiverPlace this extension will cross the tracks of the Willamette Shore Trolley, the excursion service operated by the Oregon Electric Railway Historical Society, that uses vintage trams powered by generator trailers on the 11.2-km former Southern Pacific rail line to Lake Oswego (see www.trainweb.org/oerhs). There is even a possibility that the PS might be extended over all or part of this line. In June 2001, Tri-Met announced that its budget for 2001/2 included USD 50 000 for a preliminary study of introducing commuter rail service on the Portland-Lake Oswego line, including various options.
Other PS extensions proposed, but yet to be studied, include two routes that would cross lifting bridges to reach the city’s east side from the city centre, one across the 1910 Hawthorne Bridge to Hawthorne Blvd, or (more likely) turning north to serve the Central Eastside Industrial District, the other crossing the Broadway Bridge (1913) to the redeveloping Rose Quarter and then running east along Broadway/Weidler.
|An interior view of a Skoda Astra tram for Portland Streetcar, showing the grey ticket-vending machine, the yellow ticket validators, the steps to the high-floor section, the overhead next-stop signs and temporary display panels with historic photos of Portland and Czech cities.|
For further information visit www.portlandstreetcar.org and www.tri-met.org. The author is grateful to Steve Morgan for considerable assistance with this article, and to ‘The Oregonian’ newspaper for its excellent reports on Portland Streetcar.
All photos by Steve Morgan.
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