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Streetcars prepare for resurgence in U.S., Canada

Streetcars prepare for resurgence in U.S., Canada

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Streetcar manufacturers are readying stock for a resurgence in North America, including Siemens, Bombardier, Alstom and Kinkisharyo. Here's a look at what's going on across the continent.

You could argue that the streetcar (or "trolley" or "tram," depending on where you are as you read this) was the last form of public transportation to hit its stride before the rise of the private car took place, stealing residents away to the newly-created suburbs for good.

First introduced in the 19th century as a horse-drawn affair, later improved through the use of steam, then electric, power, the streetcar disappeared in the 1950s nearly as quickly as it appeared more than a century before. Why build fixed infrastructure like rails and wires when a city bus can go virtually anywhere?

Certain cities have retained their streetcars, of course. New Orleans and San Francisco still runs their grand old versions, and more modern examples can be seen in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. But they're not as ubiquitous as they used to be, relegated to certain neighborhoods, usually the ones they helped create.

A recent report in Progressive Railroading notes that at least 80 U.S. and Canadian cities are exploring or planning streetcar systems, in a stark reversal to the last 60 years of decline. (We covered Atlanta's moves on SmartPlanet last year; ditto Washington D.C. and Charlotte.)

That spells business opportunity for manufacturers like Siemens, Alstom and Bombardier, all of which are used to building trains, not trams, for the continent.

A quick rundown of recent goings-on, summarized from Julie Sneider's detailed report:

  • Atlanta wants a custom version of the Siemens S70 light rail platform, in use in Salt Lake City and San Diego.
  • Toronto is awaiting delivery of 204 Bombardier Flexity light-rail vehicles to replace its existing streetcar fleet, which was built in the 1970s and 1980s. Note of interest: Bombardier is finalizing a low, wide streetcar platform specifically for use in North America.
  • Kinkisharyo International has finished tests for its ameriTRAM streetcar in Charlotte and Dallas; it will be shown off in other cities this year, including New Orleans.
  • Portland, Ore.-based United Streetcar has vehicles in place in its hometown, of course, but is also working to supply Tucson, Ariz. with a hot-weather model for its planned expansion. Under development: a wireless model.
  • German firm Vossloh plans to introduce its TramLink vehicle in the U.S. market if it can find a suitor.
  • France's Alstom is not yet ready to introduce a complete system but is operating in an advisory role and is offering components -- batteries, wires -- on the continent.
  • Meanwhile, cities with sufficient rolling stock -- Philly, SF, New Orleans -- are renovating them through Brookville Equipment Corp.

The question is what the impact of increased streetcar ridership will be on cities themselves. Will it help reinforce the cultural border between city and suburb, public transit and private car? A transit system is a nice start, but too many urban neighborhoods already served by such systems lack other kinds of infrastructure -- grocery stores, community centers, restaurants -- that help justify the decision to not purchase a car.

Streetcar builders see potential in North American market [Progressive Railroading]

Diagram: United Streetcar

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure