Streetcar comeback … makes a comeback!

Cincinnati streetcar, provided by CAF, under live power testing in 2015. Photo via Dilemma-X.

Cincinnati streetcar, provided by CAF, under live power testing in 2015. Photo via Dilemma-X.

For a while, eager naysayers and rail transit critics said the return of streetcars to American streets — the modern-day streetcar renaissance — was over. They brandished problems with various streetcar projects, including the political cancellation of a line in Arlington, Virginia, missteps with Washington, DC’s new streetcar project, troubles with rolling stock procurements in Oklahoma City, and political cancellation of the planned streetcar starter line in Providence, Rhode Island.

But out of the gloom, new streetcar projects are succeeding, with more on the way. Those vehicle procurement problems have been resolved, and Oklahoma City’s project continues to proceed. Here’s a list of what seem to be currently the major projects in the mix:

Seattle — First Hill Streetcar, an expansion of the original streetcar system that began with the South Lake Union line, opened January 23rd. The 2.5-mile-long project was installed at a cost of $134 million.

New Orleans — The Regional Transportation Authority’s 1.6-mile North Ramparts-St. Claude Streetcar Line Project, budgeted at $40-41 million, is nearing completion, with opening expected this summer or early fall.

El Paso — The city’s 4.8-mile heritage streetcar line project, budgeted at $97 million, is now under way, with the legacy fleet of stored historic PCC cars now being renovated and restored by Brookville Equipment Corp.

Oklahoma City — A 4.6-mile, $129-million streetcar starter line project continues to proceed, with rolling stock supplier designated as Brookville Equipment Corp.

Milwaukee — The city’s 2.1-mile, $124-million downtown streetcar starter line project is now well under way.

Detroit — The 3.3-mile, $140-million M-1 streetcar project, mainly routed on the city’s iconic Woodward Avenue, continues to move ahead.

Kansas City — The 2.2-mile-long, $102-million project is nearing completion, and expected to open in a few months.

Cincinnati — The city’s 1.8-mile, $148-million core area streetcar project (see photo at top of post) is nearing completion, and expected to open this fall.

Washington, DC — Officials are now hoping the problem-plagued, long-delayed 2.2-mile H St.-Benning Rd. streetcar project, costing approximately $200 million so far, will at last be completed and able to open within a few weeks.

Tucson — The city’s 3.9-mile Sun Link streetcar starter line, opened in 2014 at an investment cost of about $199 million, continues to exceed its ridership projections.

Atlanta — The 2.7-mile-long Peachtree district streetcar starter line, completed at a budget of $93 million, also opened in 2014. ■

Cincinnati hosts APTA streetcar events

John Schneider, Cincinnati's "Mr. Streetcar" and a co-principal of Urban Rail Today. (Photo: L. Henry.)

John Schneider, Cincinnati’s “Mr. Streetcar” and a co-principal of Urban Rail Today, addresses APTA Streetcar Committee meeting on Dec. 15th. Photo: L. Henry.

Cincinnati, Ohio — Roughly a hundred streetcar planning and development professionals — including Urban Rail Today co-principal Lyndon Henry — converged here in mid-December to attend a business meeting and technical tours sponsored by the Streetcar Subcommittee of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). The main meetings spanned two days (15-16 December 2014), covering topics ranging from technical issues to the nuts-and-bolts of Cincinnati’s long political saga, navigating through public referendums and electoral permutations to finally secure the streetcar project now fully under construction. A highlight of the meetings was a presentation by John Schneider, Cincinnati’s “Mr. Streetcar” (see photo at top of this post), who chronicled and explained Cincinnati’s convoluted path to a rail transit system. (John is also a co-principal of Urban Rail Today.)

But special tours were also a major highlight of the APTA event, including a Dec. 14th tour of Cincinnati’s “subway-that-never-ran”, the remnants of subway tunnels beneath the center of the CBD. Built after World War I and into the 1920s, but eventually abandoned when city leaders scuttled the project, the subway is a creepy, sad, but fascinating artifact of urban industrial archaeology, with ghostly stairways, waiting platforms, and ticket kiosks constructed for passengers that would never come, and stringers ready for tracks that were never laid and trains that never ran. (Municipal bonds were not finally paid off till the 1960s — a kind of object lesson in the drawbacks of lack of perseverance and excessive misplaced frugality.)

For more information, history, maps, and photos, see:

Cincinnati’s Abandoned Subway — history and photos

Zach Fein (Cincinnati architect and photographer) — excellent modern photos

Cincinnati’s Abandoned Subway — link to PBS documentary available on

APTA tour group walking through darkness of Cincinnati's never-finished subway on morning of Dec. 14th. (Photo: L. Henry.)

APTA tour group walking through darkness of Cincinnati’s never-finished subway on morning of Dec. 14th. Photo: L. Henry.

Most of Cincinnati’s modern streetcar starter line project is now under construction, and particular features were inspected via another APTA Streetcar Committee tour on Dec. 16th. It’s a roughly 1.8-mile route, end to end, with about 3.6 miles of track and 17 stations. As the map below illustrates, the route has a sort of elongated “Figure 8” configuration, forming a long, narrow loop with tracks for each direction on parallel streets — no double track.

Map of Cincinnati's Phase 1 streetcar project, the first phase of hopefully a much larger urban rail system for the city. Map: City of Cincinnati.

Map of Cincinnati’s Phase 1 streetcar project, the first phase of hopefully a much larger urban rail system for the city. Map: City of Cincinnati.

In the middle segment where the alignment runs east-west for a short distance, the bottom (southern) track is routed in the median of Central Parkway, and the upper (northern) track along 12th St. Central Pkwy. was constructed atop the site of an old canal, and it was this canal that got drained and converted into the ill-fated subway that never opened.

Cincinnati’s famous Over-the-Rhine (OTR) district is the area above (i.e., north of) Central Pkwy. The district once was home to a substantial population of German immigrants who dubbed the old canal the “Rhine”. The area declined over the many decades since the subway debacle and the rustbelt decline of Cincinnati, but the neighborhoods adjacent and near to the streetcar line are experiencing quite a revival.

Streetcar rolling stock is being supplied by the Spanish railcar manufacturer CAF through their U.S. subsidiary CAF USA. Five cars for the starter line will be the first 100% lowfloor streetcars deployed in America (see simulation graphic below). Each will be 23.6 meters (77.4 feet) long, with four doors per side, 32 seats, and a total capacity of 154 passengers. Up to 6 bicycles can also be accommodated in the car.

CAF Urbos 3 streetcar for Cincinnati. Top: Interior. Bottom: Exterior. Graphic: CAF.

CAF Urbos 3 streetcar for Cincinnati. Top: Interior. Bottom: Exterior. Graphic: CAF.

CAF’s Urbos 3 car is actually a fully robust light rail transit (LRT) car adapted for streetcar application. The cars are double-ended (i.e., bidirectional) with a maximum speed capability of 70 km/h (about 43 mph).

As illustrated in the photo below, the streetcar project is being constructed predominantly with curbside tracks and stations that simply protrude outward from the sidewalks.

Members of APTA Streetcar Committee inspect streetcar station-stop under construction on Walnut St. in Cincinnati CBD. Photo: L. Henry.

Members of APTA Streetcar Committee inspect streetcar station-stop under construction on Walnut St. in Cincinnati CBD. Photo: L. Henry.

The photo below shows a completed section of track next to a station in the OTR district. The track diverges slightly toward the station platform, in part to minimize clearance needed for the platform edge and to maximize clearance with respect to the parking lane.

Completed section of streetcar track veers slightly toward station platform. Photo: L. Henry.

Completed section of streetcar track veers slightly toward station platform. Photo: L. Henry.

The use of recycled cobblestones to embed some sections of the track is shown in the photo below. This kind of treatment (if other motor vehicle lanes are left smooth) may tend to dissuade motorists from excessive running in the streetcar lane, giving it a bit of the quality of a semi-dedicated lane…

Section of streetcar track embedded in cobblestone paving. Photo: L. Henry.

Section of streetcar track embedded in cobblestone paving. Photo: L. Henry.

The system’s initial carbarn (storage-maintenance-operations facility) is under construction at the north end of the current route, at Henry St. The photo below, looking south, shows the main building and part of the storage yard. While the system will start with just five cars, the facility has space for 13. The revenue track wraps around on Henry St., on the carbarn’s north side (i.e., behind the camera in the photo below) to effectively reverse direction and head southbound.

Carbarn main building and portion of streetcar storage yard under construction. Photo: L. Henry.

Carbarn main building and portion of streetcar storage yard under construction. Photo: L. Henry.

In the photo below (facing north, toward Henry St.), track workers are performing thermal welds on one of the fan tracks leading into the carbarn. The street just beyond them is Henry St., which streetcars will use to turn from northbound to southbound and thus loop around the carbarn.

Workers performing thermal weld on track leading into carbarn storage yard. Photo: L. Henry.

Workers performing thermal weld on track leading into carbarn storage yard. Photo: L. Henry.

Cincinnati’s streetcar project is clearly not only well on its way, but planners are already scoping out the next extension, reaching further north to the University of Cincinnati. Furthermore, with a system designed for and deploying fully capable LRT rolling stock, an eventual transformation of the basic streetcar system into a faster, high-capacity LRT system is a distinct possibility for the future. ■

Detroit’s M-1 modern streetcar project gets under way

Artist's rendition of how the streetcar operation may look on Woodward Avenue when it's completed. Graphic: M-1 Rail.

Artist’s rendition of how the streetcar operation may look on Woodward Avenue when it’s completed. Graphic: M-1 Rail.

Detroit, Michigan — As tracklaying begins on this city’s key central arterial, Woodward Avenue, the M-1 Rail project at last seems to actually be getting under way.

2_URT_det-lrt-stc-map-prop-rte_M-1-ProjThe 3.3-mile, $136 million project, financed by a combination of government and private sources, would in effect restore a tiny fragment of Detroit’s once-extensive urban streetcar system. The Woodward line carried the heaviest ridership in the system.

At a Sep. 15th ceremony announcing an additional $12.2 million federal grant for the project, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx hailed Detroit’s determination and its urban rail project as a major step forward in helping Detroit get back on its feet (reported in CBS Detroit):

What we saw with this M1 project … was again the strength, determination and mettle of a great city that has a vision not only of a transportation asset that takes people to jobs, but in fact one that brings jobs to the people by revitalizing a critical part of Detroit.

Even Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a conservative Republican, applauded the project as “an opportunity partnership”, affirming that “This is an opportunity to strengthen the city and the state by creating something that is going to bind midtown and downtown together in a fabulous way.”

Following those remarks, M-1 Rail officials announced a list of major sponsors for stations planned along Woodward. These included such well-known corporate names as the Henry Ford Health System, Penske, the Ford Motor Corp., the Chrysler Foundation, JP Morgan Chase & Co., Chevrolet, the BlueCross BlueShield Association, and Quicken Loans. ■

Atlanta: Streetcar testing begins in dead of night

First Siemens streetcar being readied for testing in the dead of night to minimize traffic disruption. Photo via Atlanta Curbed website.

First Siemens streetcar being readied for testing in the dead of night to minimize traffic disruption. Photo via Atlanta Curbed website.

In the wee morning hours of Saturday Aug. 16th, Atlanta’s 2.7-mile modern streetcar line experienced the first actual streetcar rolling over its tracks.

In a test, towed by a large truck, one of the first Siemens S70 streetcars to arrive in the city completed its initial test without power. The test checked clearances at all 12 streetcar stops as well as track alignments throughout Atlanta’s downtown.

Subsequent tests will be conducted with rolling stock under power from the 750-volt overhead contact system (OCS) — in this case, a simple trolley wire.

Opening of the line is targeted for some time later this year. The first three months of public service will be provided free of fares to help build ridership. ■

Thanks to news reports from WXIA-TV and WSB-TV, and summary information from Ed Havens posted on the LRPPro Internet forum.

Tucson Sun Link streetcar opens, meets ridership goal

Tucson's new Sun Link streetcar passes sidewalk cafe during opening day festivities. Photo: Ed Havens.

Tucson’s new Sun Link streetcar passes sidewalk cafe during opening day festivities. Photo: Ed Havens.

With dancing bands, a street festival, and plenty of other hoopla, Tucson’s new Sun Link modern streetcar system made its debut on Friday, 25 July, and by all accounts, the 3.9-mile, $198.8 million line was a huge hit. Over three days of free rides, a total of 60,000 rider-trips was recorded, with 25,000 boarding on Saturday the 26th. Automatic passenger counting (APC) door sensors on the cars tallied all the passengers.

Among those celebrating Tucson’s project was Urban Rail Today co-principal John Schneider, credited with spearheading the new streetcar project in Cincinnati. John was in Tucson for several days to ride and photograph the new streetcar system there.

Tucson’s streetcar starter line has 18 stops and 8 streetcars (manufactured by Oregon Iron Works/United Streetcar of Portland, Oregon), each with a capacity of about 150 passengers. At 10-minute headways, that means an approximately 50% increase in the people-moving capacity of each street lane.

As described by Inside Tucson Business, the nearly 4-mile-long route connects the University of Arizona, Main Gate Square, the Fourth Avenue business district, downtown Tucson, and the Mercado area west of Interstate 10. It’s “the city’s largest, most complex construction project ever,” says the paper, adding that it’s been funded with dollars from the Regional Transportation Authority, other local sources, and federal grants.

Jubilant crowd lines track for photo-op moment as Tucson's first modern streetcar approaches inauguration banner on opening day. Photo: Ed Havens.

Jubilant crowd lines track for photo-op moment as Tucson’s first modern streetcar approaches inauguration banner on opening day. Photo: Ed Havens.

Shellie Ginn, the City of Tucson’s streetcar project manager, highlighted more than $800 million of public and private investment already along the line “that’s occurred basically since we received our federal funding in 2010.” Quoted by Arizona Public Media (the umbrella organization of University of Arizona AM-FM-TV), Ginn continued:

I know that there’s multiple hundreds of millions of dollars of projects that are now going to be coming up soon, so that’s going to be increasing over the $1 billion mark. That’s one of the markers we have for how successful this project is going to be.

The streetcar project seems to be having a perceptible impact on real estate activity, such as student housing complexes that, as the Arizona Public Media article notes, have opened on the east end of downtown over the past year. Furthermore, an increase in retail and entertainment activity seems to be another result, as “new and existing restaurants are harder to get into on weekend evenings without a wait.”

Most riders among the opening-weekend crowds radiated enthusiasm about the new line. ABC TV affiliate KGUN interviewed several.

“It’s just great to see the vibrancy that’s happening in Tucson after graduating here several years ago” enthused Hillary Foose, described as “the first person in line at one of the downtown stops”. “We’ve seen it in Phoenix and we’ve seen what the streetcar will be for Tucson it will mean great things …” she added.

Another rider, Andrew Greeley, told the reporter: “We go downtown to shop and what not, we’ll park somewhere and we’ll just take this. It beats parking.”

Arizona State Senator Steve Farley, widely recognized as the “godfather” of Tucson’s streetcar project since he began campaigning for light rail in the early 2000s as a leader of Tucsonans for Sensible Transportation, was quoted by KGUN as he spoke at the inaugural ceremony and joined a number of streetcar rides. “That’s what’s so exciting…” he said, “when people who have never been on a light-rail or streetcar or anything like that before, it’s amazing the response.”

The first day of fare-paying service, Monday the 28th, was also a whopping success, with 3,500 rider-trips carried. According to State Senator Farley, that figure Monday was almost exactly what planners hoped to achieve after one year of operation. ■

Kansas City streetcar procurement “piggybacks” on Cincinnati’s CAF order

CAF Urbos 3 streetcar for Kansas City. Graphic: CAF.

CAF Urbos 3 streetcar for Kansas City. Simulation: CAF.

Kansas City — By “piggybacking” its order for streetcar rolling stock on Cincinnati’s order, Kansas City has probably saved at least several million dollars in the cost of its streetcar project.

This past October, Kansas City took advantage of the “piggybacking” opportunity and awarded a $22 million contract to CAF USA, a subsidiary of Spain’s Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles S.A., for five streetcars to provide service over its 2.2-mile downtown streetcar starter line, now under construction. (For background, see Kansas City — Another new downtown streetcar project starts to take shape.)

The Urbos 3 streetcars, costing a relatively bargain price of roughly $4.4 million each, will be assembled at CAF’s plant in Elmira, N.Y. The order follows (and is linked to) CAF USA’s contract with Cincinnati, which also involves five streetcars. (Thanks to Railway Age for details.)

Via a Twitter message link from John Schneider, here’s a look at CAF’s Urbos 3 streetcar running in Spain:

Hopefully, within a few years we’ll see a very similar model running on the streets of Cincinnati and Kansas City.

Cincinnati: “Our city confirmed its will to continue along path to a balanced transportation system”

Cincinnati: Simulation of streetcar running downtown. Graphic: City of Cincinnati.

Cincinnati: Simulation of streetcar running downtown. Graphic: City of Cincinnati.

By John Schneider

This commentary has been adapted from a December 19th statement by the author to supporters of the campaign to continue Cincinnati’s streetcar project, immediately after the favorable vote by the City Council.

With the City Council’s vote on December 19th to resume Cincinnati’s streetcar project, our city confirmed its will to continue along the path to a balanced transportation system. Our path has been up and down with lots of twists and turns and leaps of faith that took us to unknown places. But we soldiered-on, and now the path is wider, flatter, and clearly marked for others to follow, not only in Cincinnati but in other cities that want to gain more citizens and become more competitive.

There are so many people to thank, but first and foremost, I want to thank former Mayor Mark Mallory, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, and City Manager Milton Dohoney. Even though we reached our goal on December 19th, we wouldn’t have even been in the game were it not for their leadership of the Cincinnati Streetcar over many years. Their support cost them dearly, and we should be forever grateful.

And to our long-time champions on City Council — Chris Seelbach, Yvette Simpson and Wendell Young whose eloquence and persistence following the election, working with PG Sittenfeld, brought their colleagues, Vice Mayor David Mann and Councilmember Kevin Flynn, along to enable us to continue along our path.

Immediately after the December 19th vote, Mayor John Cranley was very gracious in offering his congratulations to me and to others. I hope this period of divisiveness now passes and that we can all join with him and Christopher Smitherman, Charlie Winburn, and Amy Murray to foster the city we all want to have.

Were it not for Ryan Messer, who parachuted-in to lead this effort in early November, we would not have succeeded. The kind of leader who emerges every ten years or so here, he brought new energy to our movement. Early-on, he recruited our attorney, Paul DeMarco, who used his contacts at the highest level of our nation’s government to bring about the results we achieved, to assure the Feds we knew where we were going. Early-on, without a hint of hesitation, Karen Blatt volunteered our spiffy campaign office, and Ryan hired Scott Allison to execute the flawless campaign to gather signatures. Others including Jean-Francois Flechet, Sean Lee, Rob Richardson, Jr, Margy Waller and Brad and Karen Hughes did whatever had to be done and were the wisest advisors and best team-players anyone could have.

There are so many others that contributed so much to this effort that I cannot mention them all but they are all strongly appreciated. Suffice it to say that this effort could not have been sustained over all these years without all the people who have been involved.

Eric Avner of the Haile Foundation raised $9,000,000 in a little over 48 hours, enough to make City Council comfortable that the cost of operating the streetcar was assured for the first ten years. This was the keystone of the plan to save the streetcar.

There were many memorable moments in this campaign. One I’ll never forget was the December 10th meeting at First Lutheran Church near 12th and Race, where 450 people showed up to sign-out their petitions. Chris Heckman and Kristen Myers are members of the congregation, and they quickly arranged for the church to open its doors twice to us. I’m certain this set the tone for the whole campaign.

John Schneider photo

John Schneider, Cincinnati’s “Mr. Streetcar”. Photo:

Speaking of the campaign, we now have 11,000 Cincinnatians’ names and addresses for our efforts going forward. The planning and execution of the signature-gathering was orchestrated with great precision by The Strategy Group and its able leader, Ian James, who made a critical judgment that the number and intensity of our volunteers was more than adequate to gather the signatures. We wouldn’t need paid signature-gatherers. Plus, it gave us all an opportunity to tell the streetcar’s story in the way we know it. And by the way, we registered a bunch of streetcar supporters to vote in the process.

Our thanks go well beyond Cincinnati to the many people in many cities who have been watching our project intently, including especially Portland’s mayor, Charlie Hales and his wife Nancy, who have joined us on many of our trips there over the years. When he was in the private sector, Charlie helped plan the Cincinnati Streetcar, and he has been a guiding light for me. We’re not finished with the Portland trips. They have an early spring there.

Most of all, we should all thank our spouses, families, employers and co-workers for tolerating our absences over the past days and nights. They were soldiers in this too.

I hope that in this new year everyone will continue to work harder than ever to bring more diverse transportation choices to our city, Cincinnati, or to whatever city where you live.

Ed Tennyson: Streetcars use streets more efficiently

lrn_tor-lrt-stc-Rte504-dntn-bdg-pax-20120810-0255-x1_lhToronto streetcar downtown in August 2012. Photo: L. Henry

A recent Toronto poll found that opinions of metro-area respondents were almost evenly split on a plan to ban motor vehicles and allow only streetcars to operate on King Street (one of the downtown’s major thoroughfares) during morning peak hours, with 40% favoring the idea and 43% opposing it. While the plan had overwhelming support in the inner-city, the metro area’s more affluent, conservative suburbs (e.g., Scarborough) tended to oppose it. (Suburban voters have also tended to support conservative Mayor Rob Ford, who promotes policies similar to those of the USA’s Tea Party.)

The poll elicited the following observations and comments from Edson L. Tennyson, a renowned transportation engineer and consultant to the Light Rail Now Project. Ed is widely respected within the North American public transportation industry, having served as manager of several major transit agencies as well as Transportation Engineer for the City of Philadelphia and Deputy Director of Transportation for the State of Pennsylvania.

Without facts the people responding to that poll do not know what they are talking about. Since King Street is in the Old City, what business is it of Scarborough?

Let us look at the facts. A lane of autos waiting at traffic signals can move only 900 passengers per hour, not enough to keep a city busy or healthy. I do not know the streetcar headway, but with 56,700 weekday passengers, it sounds like 4,500 one-way in the peak hour, 5 times auto capacity. With 90 people per 4-axle car, that would require a 1.2-minute headway, 50 cars per hour. With articulated cars, a 1.8-minute headway could handle it.

The point is, who wants to allow 900 [Mayor Rob] Ford supporters to block the movement of 4,500 people per hour? Polls will not move anyone, but those 800 automobiles with 900 people will block 4,500. That is stupid, uneconomical, and grossly unproductive. When gridlock gets bad, transit speed falls to three (3) miles per hour. A streetcar costing $235 per hour will cost $78 per mile at three miles per hour; but at 6 miles per hour, which might be possible with no autos, the streetcar cost falls to $39 per mile, a saving of 50 percent for farepayers and taxpayers. If the media had the integrity and equity to explain it that way, I am sure the polls would change drastically in favor of streetcars.

[Misguided] politicians like Mayor Ford were running the U.S. Congress in 1959 when they banned streetcars from the District of Columbia [i.e., Washington, DC]. They did it to speed auto travel, but it did not work that way. It sped auto travel, all right — away from the city instead if into it.

Back then, Washington’s streetcars were almost as busy as Toronto’s streetcars. They made a profit to subsidize bus service, but they annoyed motorists. Traffic engineers wanted the streetcar lanes for auto left turns, a very low-volume use. Traffic engineers were trained at the Eno Foundation, then subsidized by General Motors. They were required to teach the need to eliminate streetcars.

The last [Washington] streetcar ran in 1962. Buying new buses escalated fares drastically and drove away most riders. Many downtown department stores went out of business. People with good jobs moved out of the city to escape auto congestion caused by automobiles, not streetcars.

From 1948 to 1975, transit use in Washington fell by 72%. The population fell from 750,000 to 590,000. By 1990 the City had so much debt it could not function. Congress had to bail it out, castrating City Council.

By then, MetroRail [rapid transit] was growing large enough to replace the streetcars and greatly reduce bus dependence. Transit increased almost 300% from 1975 to now. The Mayor just announced a tax cut as the city has too much money. The population is growing with higher-income people.

When MetroRail was planned they took a close look at Toronto to get it right. They did. [URT note: Washington, DC’s Department of Transportation has projects under way to re-introduce streetcar service to the city, thus supplementing the Metrorail rapid transit system.]

[This article has been slightly edited from the version first published on the Light Rail Now blog. Thanks to Light Rail Now for their kind permission to re-publish it.]