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Streetcar firm on busy track

Oregon Iron Works snags new orders as industry rebuilds


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - United Streetcar technician Alvaro Sanchez wires a new car at the companys assembly plant in Clackamas.Oregon Iron Works overcame many challenges to create the first American streetcar manufacturing company in six decades. Now United Streetcar has more than 100 people a day working on new vehicles for Portland, Tucson and Washington, D.C., at the company’s huge Clackamas-area assembly plant near Interstate 205.

About 300 companies across the country also are providing parts, including about 140 in Oregon.

“We’re not only creating jobs here, but supporting jobs in the rest of the state and the country,” says United Streetcar President Kevin Clarke.

Even as production continues, the Clackamas County company is facing another challenge. Construction has just started on a new freeway next to the assembly plant. The Sunrise Corridor will be elevated over the track where streetcars are tested. Bulldozers and dump trucks already are gouging out the path for the ramp.

Clarke is confident disruptions will be minimal, however. He says the company strongly supports the $130 million project to relieve congestion and open up access to industrial land in the area east of I-205, and worked with state transportation officials on the track design.

“It’s going to be tricky coordinating the manufacturing and testing with all the construction going on,” Clarke says. “But we knew the freeway was coming when we built the track, so we designed it to fit under the overpass.”

Other challenges were not as easy to foresee when Oregon Iron Works decided to build streetcars seven years ago, however. Simply copying the streetcars already in use in Portland wasn’t a viable option. They were built by Skoda, a company in the Czech Republic, where manufacturing standards are different. Building a prototype based on the Czech design exposed its flaws. So United Streetcar had to design and engineer its own version.

Streetcars may sound like simple vehicles. They are driven by electric motors and run on fixed rails. But, in fact, building streetcars to existing federal safety standards is difficult. For example, each weighs 30 tons and requires three different braking systems to slow and stop it, including large disc brakes, a magnetic brake that drops onto rails, and a device for dissipating excess heat.

And, even though 60 percent of the parts had to be made in America to meet federal requirements, there were no domestic suppliers specializing in parts. So United Streetcar had to recruit the supply chain before production could begin in earnest. Even then, the companies’ production schedules had to be coordinated to meet United Streetcar’s needs.

Largely as a result of such issues, the company repeatedly missed its Portland Streetcar deadlines. But four cars have now been delivered. The sixth and final one is expected to arrive in late October, about one year late. They cost around $3.5 million each.

“I think we were a little naive,” says Clarke, an electrical engineer who was hired to head the company in January.

Some members of the Portland City Council have repeatedly fumed because of the delays. But Portland Streetcar Director of Operations Rick Gustafson says they were expected. All of the original Czech-made streetcars arrived between four and eight months late, he says.

“It’s not a surprise to us. We certainly had to plan on it,” Gustafson says. “It’s a complicated piece of equipment to put together.”

Gustafson also says some delays were caused by changes requested by Portland Streetcar to United Streetcar’s original design.

But, with all of the challenges to building streetcars for Portland finally met, the company is cranking up production for other cities. The first streetcar for Tucson’s new system was trucked south last week. Streetcars for Washington, D.C., are beginning to move down the assembly lines. And four cable-driven cars are in production that will connect the Oakland Airport to the Bay Area Rapid Transit System.

These other contracts fulfill the larger vision of local, state and federal elected officials who first supported the Portland streetcar system: to revitalize the streetcar manufacturing industry in America.

A new supply chain

America once dominated the international streetcar market. Numerous companies built streetcars that ran through American cities, including Portland. The companies also sold vehicles overseas. But the industry fizzled out when automobiles replaced streetcars as the preferred mode of day-to-day transportation.

Those who planned the first stages of the Portland Streetcar system in the 1990s were not thinking about reviving the American streetcar manufacturing industry. They were more interested in offering Portlanders a new form of alternative transportation that encouraged economic development in the neighborhoods. But they were surprised to learn that the smallest American-made light-rail vehicles were the same size as MAX trains. Modern streetcars were only being made in Europe and Asia, where streetcar systems never disappeared.

“We thought the American ones were too big for moving through the urban environment. When it came time to buy the first streetcars for Portland, we ended up buying them from Skoda,” says Gustafson, a principal with the Shiels Obletz Johnsen consulting firm. He has worked for Portland Streetcar Inc., the nonprofit organization that operates the Portland streetcar system, from the start.

News of the lack of American-made streetcars caught the attention of officials at Oregon Iron Works, a Clackamas-area fabrication and manufacturing firm. Founded in 1994, it specializes in designing and building complex parts and machines for the marine, aerospace, nuclear and renewable energy industries in steel, stainless, aluminum, titanium or other exotic materials.

“Streetcars were a logical product because they involve a lot of specialized work,” Gustafson says.

But Portland Streetcar didn’t have the money to order any additional streetcars. That’s when U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Springfield) stepped in, Gustafson says. He secured a $4 million earmark for TriMet to order a prototype streetcar. Oregon Iron Works won the bid in 2006, then partnered with Portland Streetcar’s existing supplier to replicate its vehicle.

“We learned a lot about streetcars trying to follow their plans,” Clarke says. “Mostly we learned that so much of them are handcrafted that they aren’t economically feasible to build in America.”

The prototype also was revised with a $2.4 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration. It went for a contract with Rockwell Automation, an American company, to build the propulsion system that runs the electric motors. The goal was to have as much of the prototype and future streetcars made in this country as possible.

The prototype streetcar debuted in South Waterfront on July 1, 2009, at an event attended by local, state and federal officials. It was the first modern streetcar built in America since one was completed for the San Francisco Municipal Railway in 1952. A few months earlier, Portland awarded United Streetcar a $19.5 million contract to build six more streetcars for the planned eastside extension of the streetcar system. The Oregon Legislature approved funding from the state lottery.

United Streetcar spent around $20 million acquiring, converting and equipping a warehouse for its first manufacturing plant. Two assembly lines were created, and an outside track was built to test completed streetcars. It has a triangular shape to allow for the footings of ODOT’s Sunrise Corridor overpass.

United Streetcar officials knew they could not simply duplicate the prototype streetcar. So the company set about designing its own version — one that meets a variety of safety standards from multiple federal agencies.

“They’re the same standards applied to heavy-rail trains,” Clarke says.

A supply chain also had to be created. Some of the local companies recruited by United Streetcar include: Mills Innovation, which builds lightweight interior parts; Columbia Body Manufacturing, which paints the streetcars; and Advanced Metal and Wire, which makes brackets and light steel parts.

As this was happening, Portland Streetcar requested that the company use a different propulsion system. The nonprofit specified one from Elin EBG Traction, even though the change required more engineering. Because of the cost, Portland Streetcar cut its order from six to five additional streetcars. An option was created to buy another streetcar at a discount in the future.

Following Portland’s lead

United Streetcar’s contract called for the company to deliver its first streetcar to Portland by July 2012. That did not happen, however, largely because of unexpected complications. The opening of the eastside extension was pushed back to September. At that time, only the prototype had joined the Portland Streetcar ranks.

But the company persevered. Its second streetcar — the first of its own design — went into service on June 11, 2013. It was followed by the third one and the fourth one, which began service on Aug. 15. The fifth streetcar is scheduled to be delivered at the end of September. The sixth one is set for the end of October.

Gustafson says some nonsafety related problems with the streetcars have subsequently been identified and fixed.

Some members of Portland’s City Council have complained about the delays and called for the city to recover additional costs it incurred. The extra costs potentially involve paying more than expected for inspectors who are always assigned to the manufacturing plants on such projects. Most of those funds came from the federal government. Gustafson says such negotiations are typical at the end of many large contracts, especially when the terms were changed after they were approved.

But Gustafson does not question the original decision to contract with United Streetcar. He says governments need to make such commitments to revive American’s manufacturing base.

“We need to have a partnership-oriented approach to manufacturing, not a regulatory one,” Gustafson says.

It looks like the bet is paying off. Tucson signed a $26 million contract with United Streetcar in June 2010 for seven streetcars on the Sun Link streetcar line scheduled to open later this year. City officials there drove the first one around the test track in July. It was then loaded onto a large flatbed truck and driven to Tucson earlier this week.

The District of Columbia’s Department of Transportation ordered two streetcars in April 2012. The order was expanded to three in August. They will be used on the DC Streetcar’s H Street/Benning Road line, which is nearing completion.

And United Streetcar also has snagged an order for four modern cable cars. The cars use the same basic body but are pulled along by cables under the roadway, like San Francisco cable cars.

The company also is being considered by some of the about 50 other American cities planning or building streetcar systems, most following Portland’s lead.