Continuing to Invest in our Local Streetcar Manufacturing Capacity

The good news this morning is that the Federal Transit Administration has awarded $2.4M to TriMet (most of it will eventually flow to Oregon Iron Works) for the purpose of using our prototype streetcar to investigate and develop:

  • A U.S.-made (Rockwell) propulsion system
  • Battery technology that would allow the vehicle to operate for some distance without overhead catenary wires

Can you say “competitive advantage for local jobs”?

20 responses to “Continuing to Invest in our Local Streetcar Manufacturing Capacity”

  1. Battery technology that would allow the vehicle to operate for some distance without overhead catenary wires

    Isn’t that called a bus? Sorry, I laughed when I read this.

  2. Isn’t that called a bus?

    Not really, if it’s still running on rails. There were horse-drawn and self-powered streetcars back in the day, and the Willamette Shore Trolley operates today courtesy of a tow-along generator. But nobody would mistake any of those vehicles for a bus.

    (Nor would anyone mistake a freight train for a truck, however!)

    ((And, of course, before anyone else mentions it, there are exceptions to every rule, such as a few specially-built buses in Europe that can convert between open-road and limited rail operation.))

  3. There are at least two purposes for the limited-range battery operation idea:

    1. In some cities with historic districts, or overhead wire/utility bans, it may be necessary to travel a few blocks without any overhead wires in order maintain the “picturesque” or “monumental” qualities of a given street. There is a small controversy about overhead wires in the Washington, DC streetcar proposal, for example.

    2. This can provide a way to overcome technical challenges with some infrastructure, such as drawbridges. While it is easy to imagine the return of overhead wires to the Hawthorne Bridge for some future streetcar, and we have them on the Steel Bridge already (though not without problems), putting them on a bridge like the Morrison, which has no overhead structure, might best be avoided. A streetcar which could run on a battery for the relatively short distance over the bridge would eliminate the need for wires.

  4. Having to carry big heavy lithium ion batteries around that you keep fully charged all the time (with a certain amount of energy just continually being wasted due to inefficiencies) just to be able to roll a few blocks without wires is kind of sad. They should wait until we can use supercapacitors.

  5. Actually, maybe there’s some hope. Even though it says battery technology up above, It looks like the original article said nothing about batteries, so maybe they won’t use them.

    I can dream…

  6. When considering an electrical power storage device, there are two important parameters to consider:

    1) How much energy can be stored (espcially compared to weight), and

    2) How lossy is the device.

    Batteries optimize for #2–they are designed to maintain their charge for a long period of inactivity; but suck in regards to #1. as all battery technologies are heavy.

    There are many technologies (tank circuits, large capacitors, flywheels) which can outdo any known battery technology on the energy/weight ratio, but suffer from the fact that they are lossy–the energy stored will be depleted and lost if not soon used. For battery applications, these things are inappropriate.

    But for permitting short-distance operation of electric vehicles disconnected from a power supply, they work fine.

  7. Sounds good to me. If it’s just a question of a streetcar running, say, six minutes and/or one mile without power, it would allow bridging of every possible gap in the system. I think it’s kind of a shame MAX can’t do it; it would be nice to get rid of those overhead wires in front of Pioneer Courthouse.

  8. Streetcars that can run for short distances off the wires, on battery power, are becoming commonplace in Western Europe, especially in Germany. They are appearing in France, too, to get through short stretches of historic downtown neighborhoods. I’m glad to see some of the Rockwell grant going to develop some of that technology over here.

  9. I am just so pleased that our federal government, always in tune with what the “people” really need, is once again funding stuff that doesn’t actually help transit riders.

    Oh, did anybody mention that transit across America is falling apart, including right here in Portland?

    I guess nobody has bothered mentioning it to the feds.

    But on a positive note, let’s give three cheers to Trimet for scoring another “world first” to add to it’s list of world renown innovative projects.

    Hip hip hooray, hip hip hooray, hip hip hooray!Way to go Fred!

  10. Chris, I’ve been following this in the CAC minutes on the Portland Streetcar website. The most recent minutes are from January, though. So perhaps you could give us a quick rundown on the state of development at United Streetcar and Rockwell? We know that prototype car 015 is parked and (I guess) gathering dust at the Streetcar shop under 405. When do you think Rockwell will have a prototype propulsion package ready for it?

    So can you fill us in?

    Also, the Eastside Loop Newsletter on the website, dated March 2010, indicates a projected Loop startup in the spring of 2012, thus about 2 years from now. A drive along Grand and MLK, north and south of the Burnside Bridge, shows steady progress on getting the rails in, so I guess it’s safe to assume that — like the other MAX and Streetcar projects, this one will be ready on schedule.

    So given that Rockwell seems to be just getting started on its critical part of the system, is there reason to think we’ll have those cars on schedule, fully-tested enough for service by Spring 2012?

    And we know Tucson will also be waiting…and no doubt other cities will take their time ordering more, till everyone sees how these first two batches of cars make out in service.

  11. Mike,

    While we’re excited to have Rockwell for the prototype, I haven’t yet seen a schedule for that effort. And we will NOT be using Rockwell in the initial set of cars for the Loop, it won’t be available in time.

    The propulsion for the vehicles on order will be either Elin (used in our current fleet) or Skoda. That decision is still pending, and the decision process probably means we won’t have vehicles ready for service until fall 2012, rather than spring.

  12. Are there any interesting technical differences between the Elin and Skoda systems? Are there some sort of model numbers so I can Google The Heck out of it or datasheets on these I can look at?

    And by interesting, I mean just about anything.

  13. I don’t know what’s online. The primary decision criteria will be based on using a system we’re familiar with versus one we haven’t used in Portland before. The amount of vendor support will also be important.

  14. Rockwell. A defense contractor.

    The control system will be over-engineered, complex, require a battalion of PhD’s to maintain, and — oh, by the way — expensive.

    What’s not to like?

  15. Rockwell does many other things besides defense contracts, such as semiconductors.

    Chances are that the Internet connection you’re using to gripe about Rockwell being a defense contractor has a chip or two designed and fabbed by Rockwell somewhere along the way.

  16. Bob –

    I know streetcars from the old days have significant mechanical differences from those today, but back the 20s and 30s, a bunch of Portland streetcars operated over the Burnside Bridge, which is a drawbridge with no overhead structure. I’m just curious if anyone knows how they did it.

    Does anyone?

  17. Tim –

    That is a very good question! It was one of the project consultants during the Streetcar System Plan process that told me about the problem with the Morrison bridge vs. the Hawthorne, and that self-powered streetcars were a solution.

    But you raise the obvious question that didn’t pop into my mind at the time: What’s special about the Morrison bridge which precludes overhead wires where they are possible on the Burnside?

    Pure conjecture on my part: The Morrison is also an on/off route for interstate highways. Perhaps there are higher clearance requirements which would put the wires up out of reach? Just a thought.

    I looked in Richard Thompson’s book, “Portland’s Streetcars” and there is a photo on page 106 of the bridge, showing a streetcar and in-street platforms at around 2nd. But the exposure is too washed out to see what’s going on with the bridge.

    (Another question: Does anyone know what the stairwells under the bridge were once used for? Some kind of pedestrian undercrossing? Transit platform access? You can see them when you stand in the Mercy Corps parking lot (the former Saturday Market site) and look up.)

  18. Bob,
    You are quite correct. The stairs under Burnside bridge were for a pedestrian access. One of the drawbacks of the old streetcar system in Portland is that the stops/ stations were in the middle of the road…so passengers had to cross traffic or use tunnels to get to the curb…

  19. people had a different concept of how a street worked then, it wasnt odd to them to stand in the middle of the street waiting for a streetcar, its only since when we redefined our streets as traffic thoroughfares that this has become seen as an absurd idea. i kind of think streetcars are better in the center lanes vs. side lanes where bicycles naturally want to ride. i understand in seattle they regret placing the streetcar tracks on westlake in the side lanes for this very reason.

    i have to believe the underpass is a vestige of both the center lane streetcars common throughout the system combined with the then-new idea of turning streets like Burnside into traffic thoroughfares with the primary objective of moving as many motor cars as fast as possible down a street. there was a big anti-jaywalking/traffic safety campaign in the 1920s which would have aligned with the bridge opening and would likely explain the underpasses to cross such a short distance.

    there is a great book on this that i highly recommend…
    fighting traffic

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