Portland's streetcar named Škoda
Czech-made trams ride the rails in the City of Roses
By Iva Skochová
Staff Writer, The Prague Post
February 21st, 2007
Aside from the thriving beer-drinking culture, Prague and Portland, Oregon, have something else in common. When stumbling out of a pub in either city, you can hop onto a Czech-made tram to take you home.
Yet the experience is utterly different. The trams in Portland are new, smell nice and are packed primarily with hipsters, not pensioners. The well-oiled public relations machine of the City of Portland has managed to make riding a tram — or, as they say, trolley or streetcar — seem enjoyable while making people believe they are doing something positive for the environment.
“Portland is very eco-friendly,” said Karyn Forsythe, a Portland resident, to explain why Portlanders like their streetcar.
The city, which has been successfully using Czech trolleys made by Škoda Transportation in the downtown area for six years, again chose Škoda Feb. 9 to supply a prototype for more streetcars.
“The prototype will be delivered to Portland in the fall of 2008,” said Radka Pistoriusová, spokeswoman for Škoda Transportation, a company headquartered in Plzeň, west Bohemia. She added that another tender would determine how many trams the city would buy.
Škoda Transportation, a company that primarily made train locomotives until the fall of communism, when the demand for locomotives plummeted, is re-establishing itself as a premier manufacturer of trams, light-rail trains and subway cars.
“Trams are the new flagship of Škoda Transportation,” Pistoriusová said. “By winning a tender in the United States, Škoda is tapping into a potentially lucrative market that remained elusive to this point. [Trams] currently account for some 50 percent to 60 percent of our production.”
Škoda Transportation sees the opportunity as a major breakthrough, although only part of the order will actually get manufactured in the Czech Republic. The rest will be produced in Oregon by a U.S. company, Oregon Iron Works (OIW), which will get a license to make Škoda trams based on Czech know-how.
“Partnership with an American manufacturer will enable us to establish our position on the U.S. market,” says Tomáš Krsek, general manager of Škoda Transportation.
Portland Streetcar Inc., the public benefit corporation responsible for Portland’s tram, must adhere to the strict federal “Buy America” law, which forces select companies to manufacture at least 60 percent of the trams on American soil. Therefore, foreign producers, in this case Škoda, only get a reduced cut.
All of the “engine gear will be made in Plzeň,” Pistoriusová said. “The design will be based on the trams already running in Portland.”
Škoda already made seven trams for Portland in 2001. Another three are currently operating in Tacoma, Washington.
“Streetcars are becoming very popular in the U.S.,” said Kay Dannen, community relations manager for Portland Streetcar. “Currently, we know of at least 80 cities across the U.S. either studying, designing or constructing a streetcar system.”
The return of the streetcar
Like other cities in the United States, Portland had an extensive urban rail system by the beginning of the 20th century. After World War I, however, streetcars began to feel the pinch from the automobile. National City Lines, a holding company composed of General Motors, Firestone Tire and Standard Oil of California, acquired most streetcar systems throughout the United States and dismantled them in order to force the growth of bus and car transportation. In Portland, the last streetcars were retired in 1950.
In the past two decades, cities like Portland have been trying to revive the downtown areas and motivate people to come back from the suburbs to live in the city. According to a recent report by the Office of Transportation and Portland Streetcar, public transportation — especially the streetcar — is at the core of the effort.
“It services two very popular neighborhoods, as well as the Portland State University campus,” said Matthew Stock, a Portland resident who rides the streetcar to and from work every day.
The streetcar helped create the city’s trendiest neighborhood, the Pearl District. The area, gritty and industrial just 10 years ago, now boasts contemporary art galleries, chic boutiques and the city’s hottest restaurants.
“Since 1997, over $2.2 billion have been invested within two blocks of the streetcar alignment,” Dannen said. “7,248 new housing units, 4.6 million square feet [427,354 square meters] of office, institutional, retail and hotel construction has been put up.”
‘A welcome treat’
Since Portland has managed to successfully bring people to live downtown, it will continue to motivate them to use public transportation. Luckily for Škoda, it will need more trams.
“Our ridership has grown from 3,700 [per] average weekday in 2001 to 9,000 [per] average weekday in 2006,” Dannen said.
The biggest complaint they get from customers is that the trolleys operate slowly.
Janet Schober, who works in downtown Portland, said she uses the trolley mostly for convenience. “I think I can actually walk more quickly than waiting for the next trolley and then riding and stopping at about seven stops in between my origination and destination. But, if it’s raining, a ride is a welcome treat.”
The tram’s not only convenient, but the ride’s free downtown. By creating a “fareless square,” the city hopes to reduce short inner-city auto trips, parking demand, congestion and pollution. Yet another set of aspects that Prague and Portland share.
i love the first line about what we have in common