Streetcar Maiden, USAAugust 10, 2010 by: Samuel Scheib
Skoda is a legendary firm dating from 1859 that has made weapons, brewing equipment, bridge parts, airplanes, and automobiles (now a separate division owned by Volkswagen). Today the Czech company makes steam turbines and condensers, but the few Americans who are aware of Skoda probably know the company because of its transit products. Eyes popped in 2001 when the Portland Streetcar opened, powered by shiny, sleek, and quiet Skoda T-10 tram cars.
Portland wanted a modern system like those in Istanbul, Prague, Helsinki and so many other Continental cities, but all the railcars used in those places were built in Europe. The Buy America Act says, “All of the components of the [manufactured] product must be of U.S. origin” (661.5), except for buses and other rolling stock “if the cost of components produced in the United States is more than 60 percent of the cost of all components and final assembly takes place in the United States” (661.11).
The German company Siemens Mobility has a plant in California to make light rail vehicles for the American market because of Buy America, but they do not make streetcars. The Gomaco Trolley Company in Iowa makes heritage (reproduction) cars, but no one in the United States was building modern cars. Portland requested, and FTA granted a waiver for non-availability and like so many Czech exports before—composer Antonin Dvorak, Pilsner Urquell beer, Semtex plastic explosives—Skoda came to America.
Twenty miles outside Portland in Clackamas, Oregon, Chandra Brown, vice president of Oregon Iron Works was surprised by the news. “I heard there were no modern streetcars being built in the United States and I thought this was ridiculous. Streetcars were invented here. I thought: we could build this.” In 2005 Oregon Iron Works decided to look into it.
Oregon Iron Works is a diverse company, building boats, bridges, space launch complexes, and hydroelectric machinery, among other things, but is always looking for new opportunities, the next generation of products. Renewable energy is a new product market and wave energy devices, for instance, are one product OIW is looking into; streetcar too fits into that green revolution in manufacturing.
It can be difficult for a foreign manufacturer to break into the American transit market; because of Buy America the transition is most effective with a U.S. manufacturing plant like Siemens’ noted above or Canadian New Flyer’s bus factory in Minnesota. By teaming up with an established American company, Skoda could eliminate headaches, expenses, and a steep learning curve. For their part, OIW had the capabilities to build a streetcar, but not to design one.
Through a new subsidiary called United Streetcar, OIW inked a deal with Skoda whereby the Czech company licensed its already well-known—“beloved” is Chandra Brown’s word for it—streetcar design to United Streetcar but the Americans would use the Skoda-built propulsion system. This way the streetcar meets Buy America and Skoda Electric sells more units.
Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was on hand for the unveiling of the first car in Portland on July 1, 2009, a red and blue number that is indistinguishable to the average passenger from the wholly Czech-made predecessors (testing continued until October when the car went in active service). In fact, it is quite different because of the supply chain. The first car was a prototype, an imperfect word because it was delivered and used rather than relegated to a showroom somewhere. But it was an experiment.
The frame, the boggie, the bodies, and the roof were made by United Streetcar, and they handle final assembly as well. The propulsion system comes from the Czech Republic, but because of Buy America “most of the [other] components had to be replaced with American-made components so we were really building a new industry,” Ms. Brown says. “Those products were not here. This is a whole new product line for tons of other companies across the U.S.” In the past, seats might have come from European companies, but that would not work now. United Streetcar had to find American suppliers to send seats, windshield wipers, headlight covers, handrails, etc.
The rise of United Streetcar means the U.S. market will be seeing more modern streetcars. “People are so excited to see a [modern] streetcar built in the U.S.” says Ms. Brown. “We have cities coming out to see the factory in addition to going to Portland to see them in operation.” Portland is expanding its streetcar service with an Eastside loop in the works. United Streetcar has an order for six cars for that portion and is building seven units for the Westside loop. They also won an RFP for seven streetcars for Tucson, “and we are looking to Charlotte, Miami, and others for selling cars.”
The maiden voyage of that first modern American streetcar is a homecoming of sorts. Unlike the automobile, the streetcar is an American invention. The prodigal son returns and as the market expands, we can expect modern streetcars to be coming home to places it has never been before.