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When Siemens USA received the go-ahead in 2011 from the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) to deliver four S70 electric streetcars worth about $17 million, the North American streetcar market was smaller than it is today. But Atlanta officials saw the need to revitalize a community divided by interstate highways for the previous half-century and opted for a transit mode some considered quaint and outdated.
Consisting of a 2.7-mile downtown route that connects major attractions and includes 12 stops, the Atlanta streetcar line marked Siemens’ entry into the emerging North American market. The four new streetcars entered service in early 2013, and as the regional system around Atlanta grows, the streetcars can be converted to meet the rising demand for light-rail transit, says Robin Stimson, Siemens' vice president of rolling stock.
"Slower-speed streetcars connecting urban centers are becoming more popular," Stimson says, adding that he recently returned from Charlotte, N.C., where city officials are seeking to replace its three replica trolleys with modern streetcars. "Streetcars have a different story than light rail or subways, and they have an advanced drive system that makes for smoother acceleration and deceleration."
Siemens, Brookville Equipment Corp. (which also is working on streetcar projects in Milwaukee and Dallas) and Switzerland's Stadler Rail (which operates streetcars in Europe) submitted proposals to Charlotte city leaders. The contract is expected to be awarded in July.
Siemens is among the manufacturers that have developed hybrid energy storage systems for streetcars and light-rail vehicles to accommodate braking energy, storage and operation without the need for overhead wires — significantly broadening options for routes under bridges and in other areas where wires are impractical or impossible.
That latest technology is just one of many factors driving cities from Seattle to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and from Detroit to El Paso, Texas, to pursue streetcar systems.
So is the prevalence of millennials who live and work in downtown areas and seek convenient transportation options other than car or bus. City planners, too, are recognizing the economic development opportunities that streetcars can provide.
"Like many other countries around the world, the U.S. saw a dismantling of its light-rail and streetcar systems during the last century, as automobiles became more affordable and the preferred choice of the riding public," said Scott Sherin, vice president of marketing and strategy in North America for Alstom Transport, in an email. "However, with increased population density, significantly longer commutes and traffic congestion, community leaders and the public have begun to prioritize more livable and walkable communities instead of highways."
One result: Streetcars and light-rail systems are "making a comeback in the U.S. and Canada, as well as around the world," he said, noting that Alstom entered the North American streetcar market in 2014 with the Citadis Spirit. The manufacturer expects to deliver 34 Citadis Spirit vehicles to Ottawa, Ontario, for entry into service by 2018.
"Streetcars are definitely one of the ways to relieve congestion in our bigger cities," adds Andre Thibault, head of mass transit platforms for Bombardier Transportation, which is providing streetcars in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta.
Key in the streetcar renaissance are major design initiatives, such as on-board energy storage systems, lower floors for easier access and customizable designs.
In July 2014, Siemens set a Guinness World Record for the longest distance traveled by a battery-powered light-rail vehicle tram from one charge in 24 hours: 15.28 miles, on the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System’s Green Line. The S70 light-rail vehicle was more than 80 percent powered by solar energy, and Siemens’ S70 streetcar utilizes the S70 super-short, light-rail vehicle platform.
That accomplishment eventually led to the introduction of the company's Sitras HES hybrid energy storage system for streetcars.
"Though there has been a lot of hype, we've been cautious promoting it," Stimson says about the concept of energy storage, now standard on some manufacturers' vehicles.
In Dallas, Brookville pioneered its own version of an onboard energy storage system to power the Liberty Modern Streetcar over the historical 1-mile, off-wire Houston Street Viaduct. The company received the 2015 Technical Innovation of the Year honor at the ninth annual Global Light Rail Awards in London for the system, which uses a redundant lithium ion battery.
Going wireless was the only option in Dallas, says Joel McNeil, Brookville’s vice president of business development.
"Not too long ago, the technology just wasn’t there for streetcars," he says, adding that on-board energy storage was introduced in the rail industry in the mid-1990s. "Now, this is the trend that every city is interested in."
The streetcars of old featured high floors, which hindered ingress and egress, and limited accessibility. Today’s streetcars typically incorporate low floors regulated by standards set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act. Eliminating steps for easy-on/easy-off rider traffic, making for expedited boarding and disembarking of passengers with strollers, wheelchairs and bicycles.
The replacement of less reliable stub axles on trucks with more robust through axles, thus requiring the addition of ramps at either end of the car, helped clear the way for a greater variety of low-floor options, Thibault says. Bombardier was the first to experiment with low-floor options, he adds.
Modern design doesn't preclude a nod to the look and feel of the streetcar from days gone by. Brookville is in the process of an $18.8 million overhaul, restoration and modernization project of six Presidents Conference Committee (PCC) streetcars in El Paso built in 1937. The contract is part of the 4.8-mile El Paso Streetcar Project, which will return the city’s PCC vehicles to service for the first time since 1974.
Two cars will be refinished in El Paso's original 1950s color scheme of green, orange and white; another two will mimic their look from the 1960s with blue and white; and the final two will reflect the colors from the late 1960s and early 1970s with light blue, red and white.
"By retaining the charms of yesteryear while also integrating the latest technologies for passenger accessibility and convenience, we are hopeful these restored streetcars will serve as a reminder of El Paso’s unique history and become iconic symbols of its future," says McNeil.
While some cities such as El Paso have opted for the vintage look, the trend is toward new and modern streetcars, manufacturers say.
“Each city is looking for its own features,” Thibault says, adding that color schemes inside and out, logos and signage, and even seat style convey branding messages critical to user engagement.
Additionally, Bombardier’s Flexity streetcars in Edmonton will employ GPS-driven audio and visual announcements, as well as recent technology to boast traffic control functions. For example, streetcar drivers will be able to control streetlight signals when approaching intersections, making routes more predictable.
"Cities are looking for an aesthetic design that has the flexibility to either become a positive iconic symbol for their city or one that can blend into the environment," said Alstom's Sherin.
Cities also are seeking a little help on the system funding front. In the United States, Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants have helped drive streetcar development, builders note.
While a city might opt for 25 light-rail vehicles, streetcar orders often top out at about eight. Delivery time, depending on the manufacturer, can run from 15 months up to three years — and that doesn’t include the months and years of discussion at the local level, where politics play a major role in determining the future of streetcars in a particular city.
"We find that officials are taking the time to educate themselves on these technologies and understand the differences, so they can offer the right solutions for their city," said Sherin, adding that many cities are looking at both streetcar and light-rail options. "The reality is that these technologies are converging. Traditionally, streetcars were used as urban circulators to move people around downtown areas, while light rail was used as a commuter service to bring people from the suburbs into the city and back out."
Some city officials opt to start with a smaller, lower-cost step — the urban circulator, Sherin said — but recognize that eventually, they "will need to connect that circulator system with a future extension beyond the city limits."
They also need to navigate the waters of local politics.
"It's not our place to be out there saying, 'This is what you should be doing,'" Stimson says. "We're actually customizing technology to meet local needs."
And keeping tabs on what is shaping up to be an exciting market.
"It's been exciting to see interest grow in the number of cities pursuing streetcars," Brookville's McNeil adds. "We're positioning ourselves for when these cities are ready."
Michael Popke is a Madison, Wis.-based freelance writer. Email comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.