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Giving streetcars a second life

Gomaco Trolley constructed nine replica Birney cars for the TECO heritage tramway in Tampa, Florida, in 1999-2002, closely resembling the double-truck cars that ran in the city from 1920 until 1946.

On arrival in Ida Grove there are signs of Gomaco everywhere. From simple advertising signage to the sizeable fabrication plant located on the eastern edge of this small town (2014 population, 2153), the size of the area’s dominant employer is certainly evident.

Ida Grove, Iowa, is located around 65km (40 miles) east of the Mississippi River on the eastern edge of the state, and although only a much smaller concern compared to its giant concrete specialist parent organisation, one look inside the Gomaco Trolley manufacturing facility shows the scale of the operation. Indeed, while some may see Gomaco Trolley as more of a ‘hobby’ business for the firm’s owner – first impressions conjure thoughts of a fairground with the short replica trolley operation providing rides to visitors – the quality and professionalism of the firm’s products speak for themselves.

Within the plant various trolleys sit in a state of either new-build manufacture or refurbishment and modernisation, yet despite their appearance, Gomaco Trolley’s key stock in trade is now modern streetcars that have the aesthetic of historic look-alikes based on early 20th Century vehicles. The main difference is that these ‘new’ cars have up-to-date electrical systems, some with air conditioning, and are ADA compliant, although to maintain the historical authenticity many are fitted with trolley poles rather than modern pantographs. Looking at the range and at those delivered, whilst there are a variety of products the most popular cars are those based on 1920s Birney vehicles, or on the World War One products originally built by Brill for Portugal.

A brief history

It was 1982 when Gomaco was awarded its first contract by the US Department of the Interior to build two 15-bench trolleys based on the 1901 Brill car; delivered in 1984, one of which is still in operation in Lowell, Massachusetts (50km/30 miles north of Boston).

Over the next 30 years the business expanded gradually and now has operational examples of its trolleys in 14 locations across the US. Significantly, in 2014 the firm also received its first export order: for an open-style battery-powered car for Taipei, Taiwan, due for delivery this year. However, the firm’s best-known products are replica trolleys for systems such as those in Little Rock, Memphis and Tampa. Memphis uses a variety of Gomaco vehicles, including reconditioned Melbourne streetcars, ex-Portuguese Brill cars, and some replica Birney cars.

In 1992, another major order came for four replica Council Crest trolleys for Portland, Oregon; these are based on Brill examples operating in the city in the 1900s. Whilst externally they look like the originals and with the wooden seats have a similar feel, most of the internal equipment is modern. Two have since been sold to St Louis for its new heritage service, with the other two remaining in the Portland area at the Lake Oswego Museum. With the expansion of the MAX LRT system and modern streetcar operation in Portland itself, these cars could not be operated there.

In 2005 Gomaco Trolley modernised two three-door Peter Witt cars for St Louis. These cars, though originally built in Italy between the wars, were based on the original Cleveland 1914 design. A third car has been rebuilt for use in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Gomaco had invested in 71 such cars for remanufacture, although it is not clear how many remain with the company – the firm’s website states that further Peter Witt cars are available for rebuild.

A further development has been the refurbishment of battery-powered trolleys. TAUT came across the first such car in 2009 when visiting a Farmers Market at The Grove mall in West LA; the double-deck tram was running on a short stretch of track, less than a mile (1.6km) long, linking the various sections of the plaza. The other operation is at The Americana at Brand centre in Glendale, where a single-deck battery streetcar with a non-powered trailer attached was bought from the complex’s opening to shuttle passengers around the retail complex.

Other cars have been built for cities such as Denver, Colorado, and Philadelphia where there is a static display, as there is in Fresno, California. In 2004 a heritage tramway was inaugurated in Charlotte, North Carolina – using three replica Birney streetcars built by Gomaco – but this was suspended in advance of the opening of the LYNX system, which utilised much of the same alignment.

When TAUT visited Charlotte in April 2012 these cars were in storage in the car barn, with a view to reassignment for the new streetcar line in the city’s downtown, the first stage of which is scheduled to open this year. When speaking to TAUT, while operator CATS could not offer a fixed date for the opening of the new line, it did confirm that the three cars would be used for the first stage of the operation with modern streetcars being acquired for stage two in 2017.

Latest developments

From modern steel fabrication to wooden body renovation, Gomaco Trolley appears to possess a broad base of skills with which to manufacture and refurbish streetcars of all kinds. From experience of these replica cars in service in both Little Rock and Tampa, the ride in both cases was excellent. The interiors, including wooden seating, are spartan when compared to modern streetcars, but this only adds to the vehicle’s authenticity, and the relatively short distances cause no discomfort.

One of the latest developments is a former Melbourne trolley (799) that has been rebuilt to a new specification. Although at present it is only used for demonstration purposes, the 14.6m (48ft) car is described as a hybrid capable of operation from both the overhead or from battery power; 60 lithium-ion batteries sit under the centre of the car, capable of recharging via regenerative braking.

It is claimed these batteries can power the car at speeds up to 39km/h (24mph) for up to ten hours, and the car also features modern electromagnetic rail brakes. With superb workmanship, details like the replacement glassfibre roof that has been textured to resemble the original canvas should ensure durability without sacrificing atmosphere.

With no preconceived ideas before TAUT’s mid-2014 visit, we were pleasantly surprised at what we found, confirming the vibrancy and quality of production from the domestic markets; although it is also clear that such operations – alongside those of Brookville and United Streetcar – would struggle to survive without the backing of large engineering businesses behind them. United Streetcar has recently suspended operations due to a reported lack of orders and issues with delivering on the contracts it signed.

Whilst Buy America legislation helps, smaller firms may struggle with the large orders required for major conurbations, and especially in the present economic climate. So can orders for smaller systems – or in the case of Dallas, a small system (orders for two modern low-floor cars with an option for two more) within a larger LRT network – sustain all three manufacturers? TAUT hopes so.

Grateful acknowledgement is due to John Tarr and Jeff Lawhead from Gomaco Trolley for their assistance in the preparation of this article.

This feature originally appeared in Tramways & Urban Transit – March 2015 issue (927).