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Trams return to El Paso

Rebuilt PCC 1506 moves into position for the opening ceremony on 9 November. Image courtesy of R. Ramirez

Streetcar service returned to the Texan city of El Paso (US) on 9 November after a 44-year absence.

The border city on the Rio Grande river has been part of the United States since 1848. It has a population of 684 000 and enjoys a desert climate with over 300 days of sunshine each year. Central El Paso is the most historic neighbourhood, important to the city’s economy, and home to 130 000 people while at the southern end are the river bridges linking to Mexico.

There was once a 103km (64-mile) network of electric tramways, but operator El Paso Electric was sold to National City Lines in 1943 which replaced the trams by buses by 1947, apart from the international line to Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, which lasted until 1973 (a rump in El Paso survived until May 1974). This was worked by a fleet of 20 ex-San Diego St Louis-built 1937 PCC cars that were acquired in 1950. After closure some of the trams were dumped in the open near the airport, where they sat until 2015.

In 2012 the city decided it wanted to create a tramway loop to carry passengers through the centre, to be worked by rebuilt PCCs from the desert. Final approval for the 7.7km (4.8-mile) project came in July 2014, with an allocation of USD97m from the Texas Department of Transportation. In 2015 Brookville Equipment Corporation was awarded an USD18.8m contract to refurbish and modernise six cars.

Construction began on 7 December 2017 by Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority, with project management by Atkins. The last rails were laid in March 2018, with the overhead completed shortly afterwards. Unlike the former cars, which ran under trolley wire, the Sun Metro PCCs use pantographs and feature a wheelchair lift at the centre door to comply with ADA regulations. Other innovations include air conditioning, bicycle racks and passenger Wi-Fi.

The first rebuilt PCC (1506) arrived by road from Brookville on 19 March 2018 for testing; 1504/11/2/4/5 followed. The six cars carry three different liveries: blue/green with a white roof and red stripes representing the 1970s (1506/12), blue/green and white with a dark green stripe representing the 1960s (1504/14) and orange, green and white (NCL ‘fruit salad’) representing the 1950s (1511/5).

Pre-revenue service started on 10 October and there was an opening ceremony at Cleveland Square in central El Paso with Mayor Dee Margo at 11.00 on 9 November featuring one car in each livery (1506/04/15). From 17.00 free rides were offered all weekend, plus Friday-Sunday to 6 January. At other times the flat fare is USD1.50.

Trams take 45 minutes for a round trip on the figure-of-eight loop, and four cars permit a 15-minute service.

A detailed article on the return of the El Paso streetcar is to appear in our March 2019 issue.