Monday, December 17, 2012

Streetcars belong (Part 2: Even in the U.S.)

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They're coming. They're actually now being built, not just planned, not just proposed. Streetcar lines are back.

Streetcars are still under the radar for most railroad folks, perhaps understandably, given the fledgling nature of the mode in the U.S. The lines, established and under construction, are small in scope and distance. Ditto the streetcar order sizes, in the single digits.

seattle streetcarBut the growth, the seeding, of U.S. streetcar activity is there. We're seeing it here at Railway Age as we compile our January Passenger Rail Outlook. We're seeing it, too, as we report on and monitor town after city that moves to reinstate, reinstall, resurrect streetcar service across the country, red state or blue state an irrelevant distinction.

During the week of Dec. 10, 2012, it was Kansas City making the commitment (or, if you're a skeptic or cynic, taking the plunge). It's following a host of other cities, including (but not necessarily limited to) Arlington, Va., Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Milwaukee, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Tex., and Anaheim, Calif., committing to building a streetcar line.

That list doesn't include those already building new lines (Tucson, Cincinnati, even Washington, D.C.) during 2012, nor those older (older! But it's all relative, I guess) streetcar champions in the Pacific Northwest—Tacoma, Seattle (shown above), and of course Portland, Ore.—adding or exploring add-ons to their current lines. Portland and Seattle, in particular, are forging ahead in creating streetcar systems, not just a line, and integrating those streetcars into "bigger brother" mode light rail transit.

Also part of a growing list: Streetcar suppliers. I was more than a little encouraged when attending the APTA Annual Meeting in New Orleans more than a year ago (October 2011). The show was littered with bus products that looked "just like light rail," but real light rail (with prototype LRVs well represented) was also visible on the show floor. Suppliers offering streetcar activity, to repeat the metaphor, were under the radar amid the grand displays.

But they were there for those who were looking. Siemens stressed its ability to modify its S70 light rail model to fit streetcar use (Atlanta). United Streetcar was honing its made-in-the-USA message (and subsequently landing Washington, D.C. as a client). Brookville Equipment Corp. declared it could build new and modern streetcars, not just heritage replicas, and drawing business from Dallas.

KinkiSharyo International was also in New Orleans, touting the APTA show as its last stop for its yearlong U.S. demonstration tour of its ameriTRAM hybrid streetcar, and its prototype model on the floor (before making at least one more stop, early in 2012, in Jersey City, N.J.).

Whatever 2013 holds for the railroad industry, streetcars won't be the highly visible, money-moving portion of the industry pie. But it will be a mistake to overlook the segment, for the opportunities are there, and multiplying quickly, to be betterment, indeed, of the industry as a whole.

Douglas John Bowen

Douglas John Bowen is Managing Editor of RAILWAY AGE. He also served as Editor of Intermodal Age from 1989 to 1991, and has held various positions at Inbound Logistics magazine, High Speed Transport News, The Journal of Commerce, and CNN/Money. Bowen began his journalism career at the Asbury Park Press, a New Jersey daily newspaper. A graduate of Rutgers University, Bowen resides in Hoboken, N.J. He served as president of the New Jersey Association of Railroad Passengers (NJ-ARP) from 1987 to 2000 and again from 2004 to 2010, serving on the NJ-ARP board from 1984 until 2012; he remains a member of the statewide organization.