Oregonian Discovers Change in Streetcar Schedule

The story that the Streetcar Loop won’t start operation until September of 2012 has been bouncing around the internet today like ‘breaking news’, but it’s anything but.

Back on New Year’s day I answered a question on this very blog with:

“The Streetcar Loop will likely open in late 2012. The arrival of the vehicles will be the gating factor.”

And the notice to FTA that we wanted to peg September 2012 as the start of service occurred back in the spring. But apparently our friends at the O just noticed…

So what happened?

Well, first of all let me note that all aspects of the project other than the vehicles are on time and on budget.

I would also note that the opening date for every segment of the Streetcar that has involved new vehicles has been driven by the vehicle delivery. It’s kind of axiomatic at this point. The only thing different is that because we’re getting Federal funds we need to provide an opening date much earlier in the project lifecycle than did with the locally-funded legs that preceded this. And that earlier estimate turned out to be wrong.

You will recall that a few years ago, the Federal Government provided a grant via TriMet to help create a prototype American Streetcar vehicle and Oregon Ironworks was the winning bidder. That vehicle is an adaptation of a Skoda design that OIW licensed.

In the testing and certification process for that vehicle, it became clear that the Skoda propulsion system was having challenges meeting U.S. design and safety standards for passenger rail vehicles.

BTW – the propulsion system refers not to the motors and wheels that move the vehicle, but rather to the electronics that deliver power to those motors and control speed and do things like make sure the wheels don’t move when the doors are open. It’s a complicated piece of control electronics.

While this was an issue for the prototype, the greater concern for the City and the board of Portland Streetcar, Inc (on which I serve – the non-profit PSI builds and operates the streetcar system under contract to the City of Portland) was that the six vehicles on order for the Loop expansion were using the same Skoda propulsion system.

OIW proposed that they partner with Rockwell to develop an American-made propulsion system. While we welcome more domestic content in the vehicle, and in fact are pursuing a Rockwell system in the prototype vehicle, the Streetcar Board and City project managers felt it was too risky to rely on a new vendor (Rockwell makes lots of transportation electronics but had never done a Streetcar system before) for opening the Loop on time. We asked OIW to consider using the system from Elin, which is in the other ten vehicles in Portland’s streetcar fleet.

You can imagine that this involved a negotiation. On the one hand, OIW was asking to change the spec for the vehicles already ordered – which would generally be their cost to absorb. But we were asking for a specific system that we knew and trusted – potentially a change order on our dime. The net result was that both parties ate some of the costs – and a delay was introduced into the schedule to switch propulsion systems.

The City of Tuscon, which has seven cars on order form OIW, also opted for the Elin propulsion system.

From my perspective as a non-profit board member, the overriding priority was to deliver a system to the public with safe and reliable vehicles, and to set an opening date that the public could rely on. And that’s exactly where we’re at today. Surprise.

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