Aunique industry is flourishing in Brookville, Pa., an old lumber town about 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. The sounds of buzzing saws are emanating from a modern-looking warehouse on the grounds of the Brookville Equipment Corp. (BEC). Inside, workers are cutting through the body of a streetcar that’s clearly seen better days. Sitting next to it on the factory floor is an old yellow streetcar, polished to look new. It basically is. BEC is in the business of restoring old streetcars, and these days, that’s a booming business.
America is experiencing what U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood calls a “streetcar revival.” Streetcars, also called trolleys or trams, were a common sight in U.S. cities at the beginning of the 20th century. But by the 1960s, they had all but been forgotten, mostly replaced with buses. In 2001, Portland, Ore., revived them by opening a downtown line with brand-new cars. According to BEC transportation sales director Joel McNeil, some 40 cities in the U.S. and Canada are currently exploring or planning new systems. The American Public Transportation Association actually puts that number at more than 80.
Not all of those cities want new trams fresh off the assembly line. A small but growing number are using old-fashioned streetcars as part of their fleet. Retrofitting period streetcars may seem like a frivolous idea, especially with local government budgets so tight. But many city planners disagree. In Philadelphia, where a discontinued streetcar line on Girard Avenue is being brought back to life, officials decided to use restored streetcars “at the request of certain advocacy groups,” according to Byron Comati, director of strategic planning and analysis for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority.
The city contracted with BEC to restore and rehabilitate 18 vintage 1947 Presidential Conference Committee cars. They look just as they did 65 years ago, but now have air conditioning and are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Comati characterizes the streetcars in Philadelphia as comfortable and quaint. “You’re not going to get better service from them, but a different kind of service,” he says.
For Philadelphia, running the overhead cable -- which powers the electric streetcars -- through the streets and under bridges has caused some headaches for its transit agency. And while the vintage trolleys have been modified for wheelchairs, getting the disabled on and off is a slow process that can lead to delays. Still, the impact of bringing old streetcars back to Philadelphia has been overwhelmingly favorable. According to Comati, the line has been instrumental in bringing back to life an old, rundown neighborhood known as Port Richmond.
Behind many of these streetcar projects is the desire to revitalize neighborhoods. When Portland built its line in 2001, the city hoped it would encourage transit-oriented development. The line has done just that. Today, it is credited with leading to $3.5 billion in new construction, 10,000 residential units, and more than 5 million square feet of office and hotel space. Even though it’s still under construction, the New Orleans Streetcar project has already stimulated hotel renovations, new apartment construction and retail projects along Loyola Avenue. The city currently operates three streetcar lines using vintage and replica trolleys, which the city’s transit authority calls “a piece of movable New Orleans history.”
Back at BEC’s facility, work on rehabilitating a typical streetcar can take from 12 to 18 months to finish, according to McNeil. Some of the original trolley cars are in such poor condition that just bits and pieces remain by the time all the work is finished. But the level of detail on the restored cars is exacting, right down to the original paint colors on the exterior and light fixtures on the interior.
Yet BEC can see that restoring old streetcars isn’t the future. Clearly there are a finite number of old cars available for restoration. That’s one reason the company has developed a prototype of a modern streetcar. It plans to bid on new projects under way in Atlanta; Cincinnati; Seattle; Washington, D.C.; and elsewhere.
Still, there is no question that the look and feel of an old-time trolley on a city street has an appeal quite unlike any other when it comes to public transit. When San Francisco shut down its fabled cable cars for major renovation work in 1982, it knew it needed to offer a historic alternative. Vintage trolleys soon started rolling down Market Street with hordes of tourists aboard, and in 2000, they appeared on the waterfront with service to Fisherman’s Wharf.