The Streetcar Builders: Inekon, Skoda, Dopravní Podnik Ostrava … and Oregon Iron Works?

Josef Hušek (center), founder and chairman of Inekon Group

So why are we in the Czech Republic anyway? How did Portland come to source its streetcars here?

A little Cold War history is required. Under Comecon – the economic compact among the Warsaw Pact nations – different countries were assigned responsibility for manufactured goods. What was then Czechoslovakia was responsible for manufacturing streetcars for the whole Soviet block. “Under socialism” (as our host – a decidedly free marketeer – describes it) about 1,000 streetcar vehicles were produced per year, over 24,000 in total. This produced what in the U.S. we would call an industry cluster.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, taking the Warsaw Pact with it, this “guaranteed market” went away. At the same time, Czechoslovakia (which a few years later became the Czech Republic and Slovakia) started the transition to free market capitalism. With the captive market gone, entrepreneurs shifted their gaze west.

Which brings us to the first of the companies we are profiling. Inekon Group was started by and is essentially owned by Josef Hušek, a career foreign service officer under the communist regime. Starting with a $3,000 investment, Josef has built Inekon into a business valued at 194M Czech Crowns, or about $8M. Inekon focuses on exporting Czech engineering and industrial expertise, building streetcars, locomotives, power plants, cement plants and water treatment plants around the world.

An early Inekon partnership was with Skoda, a large Czech industrial firm that made streetcars among many other products (it is also a major auto producer in Eastern Europe). Inekon marketed Skoda’s streetcar expertise to the West (marketing was an unknown discipline in the communist planned economy). Portland’s first seven streetcars were all manufactured by Skoda under this partnership.

Since then, Skoda has been sold to a large multinational corporation and Inekon and Skoda have dissolved their relationship. Inekon is now in partnership with the transit agency in Ostrava, Dopravní Podnik Ostrava (literal translation Transportation Enterprise Ostrava) to build a streetcar vehicle with a similar design to the Skoda car. The new car is called the Trio car and represents an improvement on the Skoda vehicle based on Ostrava’s experience operating the vehicle on their streets (and like Prague, streetcars are everywhere in Ostrava).

Both Portland and Washington D.C. have Trio cars under construction. We learned this week that Inekon has bought out Ostrava’s share of the joint venture and it will now operate it under the name Inekom Tram. The new company will continue to lease space and employees from the transit agency to build the vehicles.

The next chapter in this story shifts to Oregon. As cities around the U.S. (including Portland) begin to apply for Federal transit dollars to help build streetcars, it will be necessary to meet “Buy America” requirements to qualify for this assistance. Under “Buy America”, 60% of the dollar value of the vehicles must be American, or from components that also qualify under the program. Inekon knows that it must have a U.S. partner to exploit the potentially large future U.S. market for streetcars (some 35 U.S. cities now have a streetcar project in some phase of planning or construction).

In the recently passed Federal Transportation bill, Congressman Defazio secured $4.5M of funding to build a prototype U.S. manufactured streetcar vehicle. This funding was partially in response to discussions between Portland Streetcar and Oregon Iron Works (located in Clackamas) about the possibility of local manufacture of streetcar vehicles.

The hoped for result is a partnership between Inekon and Oregon Iron Works, new jobs in the Portland regional economy and a domestic source for future Streetcar vehicle purchases.

5 Comments

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5 Responses to The Streetcar Builders: Inekon, Skoda, Dopravní Podnik Ostrava … and Oregon Iron Works?

  1. Doug Klotz
    November 1, 2005 at 7:41 pm Link

    Chris:

    Why would Portland automatically go with Inekon’s new streetcar manufacturer, when the rest of our fleet are Skodas, Skoda is a major rail manufacturer, and they’re still making matching streetcars? It’ll be obviously less effecient to have 10 cars from one manufacturer and 3 cars from another. Why didn’t we talk to Skoda? Surely the new owner would not turn down orders from one of their first US customers.

    Doug Klotz

  2. Adron
    January 20, 2006 at 12:48 pm Link

    What in the world. I still hear this mess about no street cars built in America. New Orleans had their street cars built, approved for handicap access and everything for half the price of these cars! Why is Portland not looking at that example? Being it is such a progressive city it’s kind of sad to see such a backwards and beaten city such as New Orleans build it’s own streetcars (a 24 car fleet, at less than half the cost per car) and Portland starts bantering over building one prototype?

    I have to say, I’ve lived now in both cities for well over a year. The New Orleans system is vastly superior to Portland’s. I’m not just talking about the fact New Orleans has more mileage, but it also has more service, more conveniance, and it costs about half of what Portland’s does. Maybe it’s the ridiculous land values, maybe it’s the urban growth boundary? Whatever it is Portland really needs to step forward in fixing this situation. The MAX is excellent, but the streetcar in comparison isn’t all that it’s advertised.

    …and I’ve been wanting to know, what happened to the original claim of 7 minute headways between cars? At the current 12 minutes at peak times it’s almost entirely pointless to even wait for a streetcar.

  3. EvergreenTransitFan
    January 20, 2006 at 1:36 pm Link

    Before Katrina, St. Charles was a 24 hour a day line I heard, running every hour in the early hours of the morning. I have seen the proposals of the Bring New Orleans Back commission, and they are pitching a vastly expanded system to encourage economic development. One image in the report included a picture of the Portland Cars, but I suspect that RTA-garage built Von Dullen cars(Currently in use on Canal St) will go on the Desire Line for sure. Desire is not the one from the famous play, as this new line will be in Neutral Ground, just like St. Charles and Canal, while the Desire Line of Old was almost entirely in mixed-traffic.

  4. Chris Smith
    January 20, 2006 at 3:45 pm Link

    Adron,

    There is a distinction between ‘vintage systems’ and ‘modern streetcars’. As you point our there are builders of historic replic cars here in America, and they are used in a number of cities including New Orleans (and in Portland as Vintage Trolleys on weekends).

    But there are no builders of modern European-style vehicles like those used in Portland. Oregon Iron Works will likely be the first.

    As to the headway issue, the original vision was ten minutes. We keep creeping towards it. We opened the line with 15 minute headways and have worked our way down to 12 minutes. It’s a matter of the number of vehicles and operating budget for drivers.

    If we are successful in getting an eastside line up, and run service from PSU to the eastside, also with 12 minute headways, then much of downtown will have 6 minute average headways, where the two lines overlap.

  5. Adron
    October 2, 2006 at 4:42 pm Link

    This is a little late of a post…

    But, the “vintage” cars are merely vintage in the sense of their skin. They are modern in every other sense of the word. Air conditioning, ADA Compatible, and all those other “modern” build requirements.

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