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.

15 responses to “Oregonian Discovers Change in Streetcar Schedule”

  1. It took even longer to go from construction-complete and cars delivered to the start of service with previous extensions? And I thought this was an unreasonably long length of time.

    I hadn’t heard about the backup plan to use the Vintage Trolley before, that sure would be interesting.

    I notice every time I go past that the tracks seem a bit less straight and level than the ones on the west side. Generally looks like of crooked, really.

  2. Aren’t there any extra streetcars “laying around” that might be able to be used in the interim?

    The current fleet is pretty well allocated between revenue service and maintenance.

    It took even longer to go from construction-complete and cars delivered to the start of service with previous extensions?

    The current project is about as long as 3 of the 4 previous streetcar projects combined (yes, there were four), and for the first time crosses the river.

    I’m not sure about total construction timelines (the original 1st segment was built in an area where the general public seldom ventured, and mostly before my return to Portland), but the loop project seems to be moving along fairly quickly.

    The traffic disruption on the MLK/Grand corridor was exacerbated by the Burnside/Couch couplet project and the continuing (fabulous, but delayed) MLK/Grand viaduct project, so this may affect perceptions.

    As for “cars delivered”, the original cars were mostly-stock items from the Czech Republic. These new cars, based largely on those designs but with some changes, are domestically made — first contemporary streetcars to be produced in the USA in a long time.

    Regarding Chris’s comments, not only was the streetcar board and the FTA aware of these issues, the streetcar CAC was briefed repeatedly at public meetings (I’m a CAC member) attended by various stakeholders, members of the public, and occasionally the press.

  3. We actually checked around with other cities with Streetcar projects in the pipeline to see if there might be vehicles we could ‘borrow’. There are not.

    The only spare vehicles are Vintage Trolleys, and they are not fully ADA-compatible, so we would use them only with great reluctance.

  4. The vintage trolleys are greatly under-utilized as it is (only a few days per year). Seems like it would be a good PR stunt for the line. Running vintage trolleys along routes they used to operate in the early 20th century. Seems silly to leave the new lines idle, when we have usable trolleys collecting dust two blocks away from the new line. Provided these are only used on the new line, people won’t be as upset about the non-ADA cars, as they would not be used to ADA-compatible service on this route.

  5. Big to do over nuthin…

    All this mess and money over a project that isn’t even necessary.

    Bureaucracy and government dysfunctional together, as usual.

    Nice shiny buses just aren’t good enough for Portland elitists.

  6. Al you should put in to operate Streetcar for a rotation or two. Ridership is hardly an elite demographic, and spring 2011 weekday numbers topped 12K. Only the 4 and 72 posted better numbers. Get on Board!

  7. And you said you didn’t like driving a bus downtown. A streetcar is much easier. Just forward and stop.

  8. I would personally be delighted to ride a streetcar operated by Al, I’d even make the video! :-)

    But I believe the operators contracted for the streetcar come from the pool of experienced TriMet light rail operators. I don’t think you can go right from bus operating to streetcars without going through the whole TriMet rail training process.

  9. That’s right Bob and you also have to be a full time bus operator to even apply.
    I’ve been almost 15 years now at Trimet as a part timer and have no desire to experience full time work there.
    As far as I am concerned that looks like one of the worst jobs that you could actually get.
    Ya they pay is ok I suppose, but the work is HORRIBLE.

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