Apollo News Service: American-made Streetcars: Portland Company Rebuilds Lost Industry

By Jacob Wheeler, Apollo News Service September 8, 2009

United Streetcar, a union company in Portland, Ore., and wholly owned subsidiary of Oregon Iron Works, has built the first American-made streetcar in over half a century, with the help of funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. United Streetcar has a deal in place to build six streetcars for the city and is on the verge of signing a $26 million contract to build seven more for Tucson, Ariz.

The initial streetcar was unveiled on July 1 in a ceremony attended by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who called Portland the transportation, streetcar and livable community capital of the United States. Union workers from Oregon Iron Works flanked LaHood as he lauded the successful partnership between the city and the transit operator, calling it “exactly the kind of synergy we need in the United States of America today.”

“I believe this is the dawn of a new era for public transportation in the United States,” said LaHood. “A new opportunity to claim ‘Made in America.’ It’s a chance to generate good-paying union jobs right here in the region.”

LaHood also announced the allocation of $360,000 in federal money to boost the East Side Loop extension of the Portland streetcar project, which supplements the initial $75 million in federal project funds.

United Streetcar, LLC was formed in 2005 after Chandra Brown, the company’s president and a vice president at parent company Oregon Iron Works, made the startling discovery while talking to friends that modern streetcars were not manufactured in the United States – or at least not by American companies – and hadn’t been for 58 years. Given the variety of complex products that Oregon Iron Works has manufactured since 1944, Brown was sure that the company could handle streetcars as well.

For 65 years Oregon Iron Works has manufactured metals and complex machines, including hydropower equipment, plate fabrications, bridges, aerospace ground equipment, nuclear containment work, specialized boats, and wave energy. United Streetcar’s ultimate goal is to provide modern streetcars to cities nationwide. Portland and Tucson are just the start.

“Knowing the huge success of the Portland streetcar line, we were positive that streetcars were on the brink of exploding into a large and extremely viable market,” said Brown, a 15-year veteran of Oregon Iron Works. “We thought that a separate website and company specific to streetcars would be the best way of reaching out around the country in this new marketplace.”

Brown added that more than 65 U.S. cities are currently looking into implementing streetcars. Portland, though, is leading the way in public transportation.

The streetcar that United Streetcar recently unveiled — and hopes to put into operation this fall — is truly an American-made product. To meet “Buy America” requirements, at least 60 percent of the components had to be domestically produced by American companies. Brown claims that United Streetcar’s product is approximately 70-percent U.S.-made, with components coming from vendors in more than 20 states. The steel streetcar shell was fabricated in Portland; a company in Pennsylvania finished the trucks; a company just down the freeway from Portland provided the fiberglass; and the seats came from Michigan.

“We truly consider the streetcar project the creation of an industry,” said Brown. “It has opened doors for vendors across the nation. Specialized companies who have never had the opportunity to work in the streetcar arena now find themselves with new work in their shops.”

The propulsion system, one of the few foreign-made parts, comes from Skoda in the Czech Republic, with which Oregon Iron Works has an exclusive license agreement. While United Streetcar wanted to manufacture its own vehicles, it didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, explained Brown. So the Portland company evaluated European companies that had experience and credibility in the streetcar fabrication industry, and settled on Skoda.

Portland currently has 10 streetcars in operation, not including United Streetcar’s new prototype. The six new cars will service the Portland East Side Loop extension. Brown said that the city’s next expansion will likely be a seven-mile extension to Lake Oswego, which will necessitate 10 additional cars. Portland’s streetcar plan envisions many extensions of service throughout the city. In a decade, Brown believes, there could be as many as 30-40 cars.

The last streetcar made by an American company and assembled on U.S. soil was completed in 1952 by the St. Louis Car Company, which specialized in PCC (Presidents’ Conference Committee) streetcars — vehicles that were popular in the 1930s but faded after the Second World War when the U.S. stopped expanding its transit networks, says Rick Gustafson, director of Portland Streetcar, Inc. Unlike the PCC cars, United Streetcar’s new models are low-floor vehicles that make it easy for wheelchairs, senior citizens and baby strollers to enter and exit, thus complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act. United Streetcar also provides air conditioning and a heating system, energy efficient lighting, and regenerative braking.

Brown added that Portland residents have wholeheartedly embraced this unique public-private venture. The streetcars boost the city’s reputation as a public transportation pioneer, and they provide good-paying union jobs. Oregon Iron Works employs a total of 400 workers. The shop workers are represented by Ironworkers Local 516, and the electric workers who perform the streetcar’s electrical outfitting are under IBEW Local 48. Those working on streetcars perform dual roles: they may build streetcars one day and then move to another of the parent company’s activities the next day.

“Instead of outsourcing jobs, we are ‘insourcing’ jobs, bringing them back to the States,” Brown said. “This is key to keeping Portland’s manufacturing industry thriving, as well as promoting American-made products.”

Chandra Brown
President, United Streetcar
Vice President, Oregon Iron Works
9700 S.E. Lawnfield Road
Clackamas, Oregon 97015
cbrown (a) unitedstreetcar.com
(503) 653-6300

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