Could Common Design Standards Bring Back U.S. Transit Manufacturing?

The Portland area is the only place in the country that manufactures streetcars these days. United Streetcar, in the suburb of Clackamas, opened last year to build Portland’s streetcars — and to serve as a lesson, perhaps, that rail transit manufacturing doesn’t all need to happen overseas.

This streetcar was Made in the USA. Could the USA make more? ##http://www.oregonlive.com/business/index.ssf/2009/07/transportation_secretary_watch.html##Doug Beghtel/The Oregonian##
This streetcar was made in the USA. Could the USA make more? ##http://www.oregonlive.com/business/index.ssf/2009/07/transportation_secretary_watch.html##Doug Beghtel/The Oregonian##

Ray LaHood’s deputy, John Porcari, said as much at Rail~volution. His idea for reviving the domestic transit manufacturing industry? Common design standards for transit companies all over the country.

Streetcars are springing up, almost spontaneously, around the country as a great transportation alternative. Make no mistake about it, we are going to use that as an economic development opportunity, and by that I mean we are insistent that this is a Buy America opportunity. These dollars are actually going to stay in America.

This is not about getting final assembly jobs that come and go with each order. This is about capturing the entire value chain so that in all 50 states throughout the country, the transit manufacturing, from streetcars to subways, will be there.

There are a couple ways we’re doing that. One way is common sense writ large: We’re not going to make the mistake we made as a nation with subways and then with light rail, where every transit property orders their own rolling stock and it’s different than everybody else’s. You pay more to buy it, you pay more for parts, you pay more for mid-life overhaul.

We think the right way to do this is have common design standards and let as many American manufacturers as possible compete for every single part, every wheel bearing.

It’s a significant suggestion, especially since political support for transportation often hinges on job creation as much as improving capacity and service. Keeping more transportation-related jobs in the country would strengthen the case for investing in transit. Do you think standardizing rail car designs would help create these types of jobs in the U.S.?

  • Interurbans

    The idea is good but who is going to step up the make this huge investment? Even into the 1970’s The US had four major streetcar, LRV and heavy rail manufactures with all that goes with them. Experience, engineering and the plant to do a first class job. Even at this late date we were making high quality completive rail vehicles for export. But in that era the few US cities that still had streetcars were not ordering replacement cars and were in danger of going out of business themselves. Only Boston and San Francisco were renewing their fleets and a few new Metro Rail systems were buying cars. At the same time the cold war was winding down. By this time all of the transit agencies were now publicly owned and with this efficacy and experience were not high on the list when bidding for new cars. So the orders went to the aircraft and military contract builders with no rail manufacturing experience. The military contractors got the business and the last of the quality US car builders threw in the towel seeing no future in the rail car manufacturing business. The aircraft/helicopter military manufactures that did get the orders. They did not how to build rail cars and the cars that they did build were poorly designed and extremely troublesome. That proved to be the end of US manufacturing of passenger rail vehicles. Overseas rail car manufactures continued to evolve and grow to now there are several advanced quality manufactures around including even China. Thunder Bay Ontario Canada should also be on the list.

    However The United Streetcar “manufacturing” plant in the Portland area is not a manufacture but more of a kit assembler of cars that are really designed and manufactured in the Chez Republic. So we are back to where we started, who is going to build a real streetcar, LRT and metro rail manufacturing plant. If the Presidential administration changes, will all the new start money dry up and will the investment to build a new rail manufacturing plant still going to be profitable and ongoing?

    United Streetcar is a great start. Let’s hope that they will get enough business that others will see an opportunity and want to get into the passenger car manufacturing business and they can all grow and prosper. This will also mean that there will be many more cities with rail transit service that will mean less dependence imported oil, less traffic congestion and pollution.

  • Nat

    Wont happen in Pittsburgh unless USDOT brings significant capital to eliminate the Pennsylvania Trolley Gauge used on all interurban and subway lines. We still have a presence in the area by a manufacturer, but they’ve been a part of Bombardier for some time now. I think they mainly work on the switching and other electrical controllers.

  • jamie kendrick

    Porcari’s suggestion is a good one; as much as I hate to admit it, this is where the federal govt can play a leadership role in defining standards and funding only projects that comply. That said, FTA need not go overboard. FHWA has gone this route with an ever-increasingly complex set of regulations and design standards that fail to recognize the unique characteristics of urban environments.

    Manufacturers (and the design standards) must then produce an aesthetically attractive product that doesn’t look many of the first- and second-generation LRT vehicles, lest we end up w/ a design that looks like a lunchbox on wheels.

  • So, anyone who’s ever ridden a PCC car on the F-Market line in San Francisco (or anywhere else, for that matter) should be completely on board with a common rail design. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PCC_car

    These things were designed by a committee of the then-private streetcar companies, built by several different manufacturers, were constructed from 1929 all the way through the early 1950’s, and are still one of the nicest rides you’ll take on a streetcar today. High-floor, a bit hard to retrofit for ADA, but a damn fine machine for something older than my grandfather.

    Let’s do it- let’s design the best LRV that American ingenuity can come up with (maybe a few different designs- streetcar/LRT, high/low platforms), standardize it, and watch them roll around America’s cities for a century to come.

  • Streetcars

    Interurban your comment is incorrect. The United Streetcar Mfg facility is not a kit assembler. We have toured their shop and they do the actual fabrication there and they have also completely redone the design for US production so no longer the Czech design and over 70% of the car is all from US suppliers.

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