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New Electric Railway Journal – Autumn 1994

Veterans From Down Under

Van Wilkins

Searching for ways to snare tourist dollars, a number of U.S. cities have built heritage trolley lines to recall the past. Some of these operations boast a unique brand of car, which comes from afar but nevertheless has a bit of American flavor.

A new maintenance facility was built to house the Seattle Waterfront trolley at the north end along the Alaskan Way.

Platte Valley Trolley lacks overhead wire, so Gomaco's 1978 towed a trailer with a diesel engine and generator while in service there.

Melbourne W-2 cars in New Orleans and Dallas.


The late Major General Sir Roben Risson, who served as Chairman of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board from 1949 to 1970, was convinced that trams were superior to motor buses and fought for their preservation. As elsewhere, transit and traffic experts, including one American firm fresh from a success in Brisbane, thought they knew better and recommended abandonment of the trams in this Australian city. Sir Roben, however, had seen to it that track and cars were maintained in first-class condition, making abandonment of the system difficult to justify. He was successful, and Melbourne is the only city in Australia that preserved its tramway system.

The cars have become, as one Australian writer put it, icons of the city; fiercely protected by the citizens if they seem threatened. The quality of maintenance also meant that cars still in good condition after a half century of service were available when American cities began looking for rolling stock suitable for tourist-oriented, heritage streetcar lines.

A Search for Nostalgia

In the United States pre-PCC streetcars had become virtually extinct outside of museums. Only Perley Thomas’ durable products survived in New Orleans. West of Philadelphia the Red Arrow Lines still ran ten 1931 Brill suburban cars, along with Dr. Conway’s Bullets and a few even older Brill products, but strictly speaking these were not streetcars.

Except in the mind of the fan community, the Red Arrow cars never achieved the status of tourist attractions, but those in service in New Orleans certainly did. They had been preserved because of a vigorous defense by local residents, but the Crescent City’s Establishment gradually came to realize that visitors were riding them just for the unique experience.

Soon other cities began to rue the day they had celebrated the last runs of their trolleys and sought ways to duplicate the New Orleans phenomenon. But aside from those few preserved in museums, there were no old cars left; all had been scrapped. There were, however, still a few places overseas where such cars operated in quantity, including Lisbon and Porto in Portugal, Milan, and Melbourne.

Resource Melbourne

Gales Creek Enterprises of Oregon began importing cars to serve a market in cities that wanted to create a streetcar line for tourists. Their imports include twenty-nine Melbourne W2-class and two similar W5-class cars, and in five cities W2 cars are in regular transit use. In Seattle they are the sole equipment; elsewhere they form part of heritage fleets. Other W2s are in museums and theme parks.

Australians, fearing the loss of a unique resource, banned further exports. Intent on preserving history, they overlooked the economic factor. Storage costs forced Gales Creek to scrap in Australia sixteen cars it had already purchased. The firm later secured an export license for six additional cars, but the only available W2s are in such poor condition that restoration is impractical. Instead, the two W5s have recently been imported, and Gales Creek is attempting to secure four more.

Unfortunately, there is strong opposition in Australia, and the firm has yet to secure permission to remove any more cars from the country; Gales Creek official Paul Class, recounting continuing legal problems there, told The New Electric Railway Journal that he is convinced that there are “preservationists who would rather see cars destroyed than exported.”

What is this car that arouses such strong feelings? In the 1920s and 1930s M&MTB had acquired over 550 very durable cars of a spartan drop-center design. There were several classes, with 406 W2s built in the 1920s the largest. The later W5 class and its -variations numbered 130. Most were built in M&MTB shops, with others constructed locally by private firms. All W2s have been retired, but over 100 W5s are still in Melbourne. Recently authorities announced that fifty will be refurbished for circulator service in the downtown area. Post-World War II classes will be used on longer routes to the suburbs. The rest of the W5s will be stored for use as replacements or sources of parts. Class notes that given the conditions of storage, the latter is their likely fate.

A typical W2 is 48 feet long, nine feet wide, weighs between sixteen and 17.5 tons, is equipped for double-end operation, and can accommodate fifty-two seated and 93 standing passengers. Riders board and leave using two or three doors in the center section. A single fixed step is mounted on the outside of the car. The sections above the trucks—“saloon” is the Australian term—are entered by a second step. The center entrance requires a two-person crew. (Data are for Melbourne; cars in the U.S. have been modified to suit local needs.) A chocolate-and-cream paint scheme was first used, with green-and-cream adopted later. Variations of both have been applied in the U.S.

From their appearance they are obviously not U.S. products, but mechanically and electrically they show much American influence. The standard truck on the car was the M&MTB Number 1, a durable and easily maintained Master Car Builder design. Cars in the U.S. have four General Electric forty-horsepower motors or similar equipment manufactured by Metropolitan Vickers. Controls are GE K35, and brakes are Westinghouse.

Seattle: First in Line

The first city to use the W2s was Seattle. Largely through the efforts of City Council member George Benson, overhead was added to 1.6 miles of a Burlington Northern switching track on Alaskan Way along the waterfront. Service began on May 29, 1982 and was an immediate success. Designated Route 99, it replaced a bus service. On June 23, 1990 a half-mile extension opened to reach the International District Station of the electric trolley bus tunnel, and this provided a connection with the rest of the Seattle Metro transit system. There are two passing sidings on the line.

Initially there were four green and cream cars. Their Melbourne numbers—272, 482, 512, and 518—were retained. Two more, 525 and 605, were added later. At this writing all but 525 have been refurbished and are available for service. Outside steps have been removed and doors on one side closed off; two sliding doors are fitted on the opposite side. Passengers enter and exit via wayside platforms level with the car floor. Ramps from the street allow wheelchair access.

Intended as a tourist attraction, the line proved useful to local residents as well, particularly those using a nearby ferry terminal. Service is normally on a twenty-minute headway from 7:00 A.M. until 6:25 P.M. On Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays cars run from 8:30 A.M. until 11:00 P.M. Ridership during the summer can range up to 45,000 passengers per month, but can be as low as 4500 during the winter.

On to the Crescent City

Businessmen in New Orleans began an effort to create a similar service along the Mississippi riverfront, one connecting Canal Street, the French Quarter, the convention center and other tourist attractions. Federal, local and private funds were obtained, and trolley wire was installed along 1.9 miles of single track on the right-of-way of the city-owned Public Belt Railroad. A local organization, “Bring Our Streetcars Home,” raised funds to return three Perley Thomas cars that had gone to other cities. Unlike the thirty-five cars on St. Charles, these had not received a 1960s rebuild and are in essentially their original 1923 condition. In addition, three W2s were acquired.

The six cars were refurbished by the Regional Transit Authority and painted red, in contrast to the traditional New Orleans Public Service dark green of the St. Charles cars. The fleet was given the collective title “The Ladies in Red” and numbered in the 450-series, with the W2s receiving 452, 454 and 455. Melbourne numbers were 626,478, and 331 respectively.

Opened on August 14, 1988 in time for the Republican Convention, response far exceeded expectations. Daily ridership of perhaps 2000 had been predicted, but soon reached 3000. The single track and initial four cars proved inadequate, and funding for double-tracking and a short extension was obtained. Ridership on the line now varies between 4000 and 5000, lightest on Mondays and gradually increasing through the week. For tourists it is the most convenient way to travel to riverfront attractions. A premium fare is charged, and as in Seattle it has become an integral part of the city transit system, with local residents also finding it useful. There are proposals for extensions.

External steps have been retained, and W2s normally load from the lower section of two-level platforms. The higher portion allows W2s to load persons in wheelchairs by means of a ramp between car and platform. The Perley Thomas cars cannot handle wheelchairs; at least one W2 must always be in service. When the line first opened the W2s had doors on only one side, but double tracking required that doors be available on both sides, so they were restored.

Cars carry a two-person crew. The operator is an RTA employee; the fare collector-guide is paid by a local business group. Service runs 365 days a year from 6:00 A.M. until midnight on weekdays and from 8:00 A.M. until midnight on weekends. Modestly priced passes that are good for one or three days and allow unlimited rides anywhere on the RTA system can be purchased at many downtown hotels.

Then to Texas...

In Dallas, the McKinney Avenue Transit Authority operates W2 369 and four historic cars of U.S. origin on 2.8 miles of exhumed track in an historic district near downtown. The car carries its Melbourne number and is painted red-brown and white, matching most of the fleet’s other cars. Melbourne 1A trucks are also used under a restored Stone & Webster turtleback, and a truck for a Birney was built from Australian parts.

Impetus for the operation and continuing support comes from local businessmen, who find the service brings customers they would not otherwise have. Cars run seven days a week. Funds are being sought for extensions to stations on the light rail line now being built by the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority. MATA would thus become an independent feeder service.

... And Tennessee

In Memphis, Tennessee two W2s—cars 234 and 417—were acquired for restoration and use on a completely new 2.5-mile downtown circulator which opened for service on April 29, 1993 (TNERJ, Summer 1993).

The Memphis Area Transit Authority at first provided service with single-truck cars of a J. G. Brill 1912 design obtained from Porto. Again, patronage far exceeded forecasts, ranging from about 2500 riders daily to as many as 6000 on Saturdays, and the small cars are seriously overcrowded.

There was some political opposition to the use of double-truck cars on the grounds that they were too large and not in character. But more capacity was urgently needed, and MATA recently placed in service M&MTB 353, which had been completely rebuilt by Gomaco. Car 234 was traded to the Iowa builder in partial payment The rebuilt car, numbered 1978 by Gomaco, had been on loan to the Platte Valley Trolley at Denver, where it aided in carrying crowds between Mile High Stadium and a parking lot

Add San Jose and San Francisco

The new light rail line in Santa Clara County; California includes a transit mall running through downtown San Jose. Six historic trolley cars have been restored by the private San Jose Trolley Company and leased to the Santa Clara County Transit District for service on the mall. M&MTB 531 has proved especially useful during inclement weather, as it is completely enclosed. Much of the restoration was by volunteers with funds from private sources. The car is finished in chocolate brown and cream and retains its Melbourne number. W2 403 is also present, but in derelict condition, its trucks and some other parts used in other restorations. Because of funding problems, the transit authority has had to reduce service, and the restored cars were cut back to use on weekends.

The San Francisco Municipal Railway has M&MTB 496 and 586 as part of its historic collection. M&MTB 648 was on loan from the California Railway Museum several years ago, but was returned on arrival of car 496. Car 586 has not been restored. The Historic Trolley Festival on surface tracks on Market Street has been an on-and-off proposition. Regular service is to be restored in 1995 using PCCs, and presumably the historic fleet could see more use. Acquisition of ten W2s was suggested for the service at one point, but none were available.

Plus Ironworld and Portland

While not in public transit service, a pair of W2s moves crowds regularly at Ironworld, a Chisholm, Minnesota festival and theme park This is an area once famous for open pit iron ore mining, and M&MTB cars 601 and 606 provide a tour along the edge of the pit and transportation within the park.

Gales Creek Enterprises also operates the heritage Willamette Shore Trolley at Portland, Oregon, on a former freight line, using a towed generator for power. Initially, the two W2 cars were considered for use as “dinner trolleys” on this line. This proposal has now been dropped, and the pair of cars will presumably be available for purchase. They are mounted on Taylor trucks that are originally from Boston, and which were obtained from Seashore Trolley Museum in exchange for the trucks on which they arrived from Melbourne.

One additional W2 car, 503, is housed at the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin. While Paul Class has imported a total of twenty-nine was, at this writing only twenty-five cars could be accounted for by the author and others. Presumably, rebuilding of four by purchasers was not feasible and they have been used as sources of parts for rebuilding other was or in other restorations.

Gomaco’s Role

Gomaco is restoring W2 545 at this writing. Four others (234, 539, 540, and 553) now at their plant are also candidates for restoration. Gomaco strips the cars down to the frame and then rebuilds them, including new siding, roof and interior ceiling. Wiring, piping and other equipment are also rebuilt or replaced. The resulting like-new car should be good for fifteen to twenty years of service. Gomaco has also extended the wheelbase of a truck from a W2 for use under a new single truck car of early twentieth-century pattern.

Like their Perley Thomas contemporaries now in use in New Orleans and the 1912 Brill-design Porto single-truck cars servicing Memphis, the was have demonstrated that under the right conditions expensive technology and modern design are not required to induce Americans to use urban rail transit It is a pity that there are no more available.

Managing Editor Van Wilkins is also a regular contributor to Passenger Train Journal, Bus World and other transportation-oriented publications.


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