DJC Oregon: Local firm establishes itself as streetcar manufacturer

by Sam Bennett, DJC Oregon June 3, 2009

For Chandra Brown and United Streetcar LLC, it was important to be the first and important to be the best.

Brown, vice president of Oregon Iron Works, the parent company of United Streetcar LLC, led the recent effort by her Clackamas-based company to win a $26 million contract to build seven streetcars for the city of Tucson. That deal, which follows one that United Streetcar made to build six streetcars for the city of Portland, cements her company’s status as the first U.S.-based modern streetcar manufacturer.

To date, streetcars sold in the U.S., like the ones already used in Portland, are made by overseas firms such as the Czech-based company Skoda. Though the streetcars for Tucson will be based on a Skoda design, Brown said her firm will improve on what is already rolling around town.

“We think our cars will be better,” said Brown, president of United Streetcar LLC. “The overall construction is of higher quality.”

In addition to being better built, she said it’s important that these streetcars are the first to be built in the U.S.

“We had to have leadership and believe in the vision,” she said, in regard to being the first. Brown said she saw an opening a few years ago. “There were no modern streetcars in the U.S.,” she said. “I said, ‘My company could build it.’ It’s a fabrication project, and we’re a fabricator at heart.”

Brown said the Oregon Iron Works name was not appropriate for a company that builds streetcars, since streetcars are not made of iron. So, the company formed the United Streetcar LLC, which she said could eventually spin off into its own company.

Oregon Iron Works, a 65-year-old company, has taken on a wide range of fabrication projects, including emergency bulkheads for dams, unmanned seaplanes for the U.S. Navy for surveillance and reconnaissance, barge fabrication and storage for nuclear plants.

Brown said the company had the skilled workforce needed to make the transition to streetcar fabrication.

“We were already so diverse,” she said. “We were doing a space launch project one day, and a boat the next day. It’s not necessarily a huge switch. It wasn’t a huge leap at all.”

Jim Glock, director of the city of Tucson’s Department of Transportation, said United Streetcar LLC was the only fully American-based company to bid for the streetcar project. German-based Siemens and the French company CAF also bid for the streetcar project.

“Their product was heads and shoulders above other candidates,” Glock said of United Streetcar LLC. He said the selection was based on price, quality and ability to meet specifications. The German and French competition, he said, proposed modified light-rail cars, whereas United Streetcar’s proposal was for streetcars built as streetcars from the ground up.

“One of the challenges (United Streetcar LLC representatives) had to overcome was their lack of experience, but they were able to satisfy our selection team,” Glock said. He described the selection as an “extraordinarily grueling process” that involved sending an official from the city of Tucson to tour the OIW and United Streetcar LLC plant. “They came back satisfied that United Streetcar could deliver,” he said.

Brown said United Streetcar LLC has a licensing agreement with Skoda to use its streetcar prototype, so that United Streetcar LLC “doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

The contracts for Portland and Tucson will be filled over a 2½- to 3-year period. To fill the orders for the streetcars, she said the company may look into expanding its Clackamas plant.

As for future work, she said, “We plan on competing for any streetcar projects around the U.S.”

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