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Portland's New/Old Trolleys

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The New Electric Railway Journal – Spring 1992

Portland’s New/Old Trolleys

Steve Morgan

Following a decade of planning and two years of construction, "Vintage Trolley" service was inaugurated in the city of Portland on November 29, 1991 using newly-built, old-style streetcars on a section of the city's light rail line. This service, which is officially referred to by that name (Portland Vintage Trolley), follows the light rail line from its downtown Portland terminal all the way to the Lloyd Center shopping center, a distance of 2.3 miles, and at the latter point a short, single-track terminal spur off the main line has been built (on N.E. 11th Avenue) specifically for use by the tourist trolleys.

Car 511, inbound on Halladay Street, passes an outbound Max train at Seventh Avenue on November 15th.

Another deadhead move from Ruby Junction: 511 passes the inbound platform on the 122nd Street station on Burnside Street.

A K-35 replica controller hides Cineston innards on each end of the streetcar.

The vintage-style interior of car 511, complete with reversible rattan seats.

Gomaco car 514, the second car to be delivered, heads east along Banfield during testing on November 21st.

511 leaves the deck of the Steel Bridge and prepares to descend into downtown Portland on November 6th, the third day of motorman training.

511 enters the new vintage trolley carbarn, located on Holladay Street under I-5 at N.E. First Avenue on November 12th.

This is car 511, gliding east on Yamhill Street at Fifth Avenue on November 7th.

Gomaco 511 is southbound on First Avenue downtown at Stark Street on November 22nd.

Brill-built 503 is one of two surviving original "Council Crest" cars, although it now sports ex-Melbourne trucks.

Gomaco 514 and 511 rest inside the vintage carbarn on November 4th.

Portland is the only city in the western hemisphere with a light rail line that crosses a downtown drawbridge.

During the short period in which 511 had to be based at the Ruby Junction MAX carhouse, the vintage car had to be deadheaded downtown.


The service, which will operate year-round on weekends, is intended to attract shoppers and tourists to the central business district and to nearby Lloyd Center, the metropolitan area’s largest shopping center. In view of this principal objective, operation of Vintage Trolley service is being funded entirely from business taxes, business sponsorships, and other private monies, plus farebox revenues. City officials are also counting on the streetcars to further their objective of encouraging shoppers and others traveling in the downtown-Lloyd Center area to use transit instead of automobiles. The route passes both the Oregon Convention Center (opened in 1990) and the Memorial Coliseum (home of the Portland Trailblazers basketball team).

The handsomely crafted trolley cars were built by GOMACO, of Ida Grove, Iowa, who previously built new, old style streetcars for a heritage trolley line in Lowell, Massachusetts. The word ‘GOMACO’ is a contraction of the name GOdbersen MAnufacturing COmpany, but GOMACO often refers to itself (somewhat redundantly) as “the Gomaco Trolley Company.” Four cars have been ordered, of which two (511 and 514) had been delivered by the end of November (the first on August 16, 1991; the second on November 5); the third car is expected to arrive in late January and the last a month or two later. The unique streetcars cost about $400,000 each. The forty-foot-long, double-truck, double-end cars are patterned after a J.G. Brill design used in 1903 for Portland’s 501-510 series of streetcar, better known as the “Council Crest” cars, after the famous line on which they normally operated (from 1904 through to its abandonment in 1950). The four new cars are numbered 511 through 514, as a continuation of the original number series, and the duplication even extends to the “See Portland from Council Crest” exhortation that appeared on the ends of all the original cars. Two original Council Crest cars still survive (503 and 506, the latter not restored), and GOMACO was able to use these as models for portions of its Portland design.

The cars’ interior is also like that of the original Council Crest cars, including carved woodwork and rattan-covered, reversible (walk-over) seats. There are seats for forty passengers (or thirty-six comfortably), and room for about thirty standees. Other interesting interior features copied from the original cars include hand-operated doors and pull-down passenger window shades. In the original cars the side windows opened upward into the curved roof of the car. However, in the new cars, the windows drop down, into the sides of the car. This design reduced construction cost, because it was closer to the style of window that GOMACO had built previously for its “Lowell Enclosed” type of streetcar.

The Portland GOMACOs are a unique combination of three different generations of design: a turn-of-the-century body and interior fittings, “mid-century” running gear (PCC trucks and motors), and the more modern additions of Automatic Train Stop and Vetag signal equipment. The new cars have bodies that have been made primarily of wood, like the original cars, but with steel frames. The PCC trucks were assembled from a mixture of parts taken from both Boston (ex-Dallas) air-electric PCCs and Chicago PCC rapid-transit cars. They have air tread brakes, plus magnetic track brakes for emergency stopping. Although the cars have hand controllers that are in line with their vintage appearance, they are the Cineston type and are housed in a wooden K35-replica controller exterior. The cars have a top speed of about forty-five mph and can operate over the whole light rail line, but passenger service will be confined to the downtown-Lloyd center section, probably even for charters. Acceleration is much faster than that of the original Council Crest cars, and the new cars have no trouble at all keeping up with the light-rail cars with which they share the tracks.

The 1903 cars collected current through a single, swiveling trolley pole. The GOMACOs do not, but Tri-Met wanted at least to avoid a full-fledged pantograph, in an effort to retain an older appearance more in harmony with the car’s body style. The result is an unusual device looking somewhat like a traditional bow collector but with a pantograph shoe fitted on top, very similar to the current-collectors once used on cars of Chicago’s Skokie Swift line. Each Portland car has two of these current-collectors, placed back-to-back in the middle of the car roof, and they are raised and lowered by hand, using ropes leading down to retrievers on the cars’ ends.

Vintage Trolley, Inc., a not-for-profit organization of business and local government leaders formed in 1987 to manage the project, owns the four streetcars, but Tri-Met (Portland’s transit agency and operator of the LRT line) maintains and operates them under a contract with VTI. Operation is being, and will continue to be, funded by interest from a city trust fund established in the middle of the 1980s through a Local Improvement District tax of businesses along the route, plus other private contributions and farebox revenues. Tri-Met will be reimbursed for all of its Operating expenses. Four businesses have already agreed to be “car sponsors” by paying $100,000 each ($20,000 a year over a course of five years) for the right to advertise (or sell advertising) on and inside their designated car. In addition, eight other businesses have made donations of $30,000 each as “station sponsors” in exchange for recognition in Vintage Trolley literature and in signage at stops along the route.

Most maintenance will be conducted at a new four-trolley carbarn that has been built along the trolley route adjacent to Coliseum station. The four cars will be housed there, generally going out to the light-rail maintenance facility at Ruby Junction only when in need of major work. The Vintage Trolley project was tied to the Banfield Light Rail project, and the Urban Mass Transportation Administration funded eighty percent of the cost of the cars and the construction of the carbarn and the N.E. 11h Avenue spur. Incidentally, although the new single-track spur on 11h is intended for use only by the vintage-style cars, it is usable by TriMet’s Bombardier LRVs. For clearance testing, an LRV was taken (under power) into the spur for the very first time On November 15; it happened again on November 23 in connection a Vintage Trolley event held on that evening, but it will be an extremely rare occurrence in the future.

As mentioned, the first car (511) arrived in Portland on August 16. It was unloaded on the N.E. 11h Avenue spur for a press conference and then towed to Ruby Junction in the very early hours of the next morning. The first two test runs under power took place in the middle of the night (after all LRT service ended) in early and mid-October. On Friday, November 1, the very first powered trip onto the line in daylight (and during LRV operation on the same tracks) took place, only four weeks before the start of service. Motorman training began on the following Monday. The second car (514) arrived on November 5.

Car 511 was conditionally accepted by Tri-Met in mid-November, and car 514 on November 27, only two days before start of public service!

A limited first passenger service took place on the evening of November 23, when an “Inaugural Run” benefit event was held in which participants paid $100 or $250 each to attend. It was a formal affair, with receptions (featuring gourmet food, wine, music, and art displays) held at several locations along the vintage-trolley route. Participants also received complimentary mementos such as commemorative wine glasses, posters, and umbrellas (complete with the Portland Vintage Trolley logo on them) and free rides on the two trolleys.

Cars 511 and 514 operated back and forth between the two VT terminals all evening, from 6:00 P.M. to midnight, with local celebrities, politicians, and historians taking turns as “celebrity conductors” during the first half of the evening. This benefit event raised nearly $30,000 for the fund being maintained to pay for future operation. Because this single-evening operation was not open to the general public (only those persons willing to make a contribution of $100 or $250), it was in effect a private-charter operation and not the first day of service.

Public service began operation on Friday, November 29, with the regularly scheduled 10:03 A.M. (from the weekday timetable) departure from “Red Lion/Lloyd Center” station, on N.E. 11h Avenue, the only station on the line not shared with light-rail service. The brief ceremony that preceded the first trip featured speeches by U.S. Representative Les AuCoin (D-OR) and a few officials from the Portland area.

Public service will operate year-round, weekends-only, plus some, but not all, major holidays (at least Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving). This year it operated daily through December 29 (except Christmas day), and in future years daily operation during the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is expected to be repeated. Daily operation during the first week of the annual Rose Festival (for example, the first week of June) is also very likely. Daily operation during the summer is a possibility, but nothing has been decided on that yet; it will depend on the popularity of the service and a determination as to whether or not sufficient funding is available.

Hours of operation are 10:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. on weekdays (when operated) and 10:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. on weekends. The service is initially running only half-hourly, using both of the two cars delivered so far. This was the headway every day during the daily operation in December, except from December 8 through 13, when car 514 was temporarily out of service following a breakdown. The remaining two cars were expected to arrive during the winter, and after all four have been accepted for service the normal headway will be fifteen minutes (using three cars, with the fourth as a spare), with the trips by the old-style cars being inserted in-between light rail car trips running on the same headway.

Conductors are employed to collect fares and answer questions about the cars and the service. They are attired in traditional conductor uniforms. They are mostly either members of the Oregon Electric Railway Historical Society (which will receive monies from VTI for streetcar restoration at the Trolley Park museum in lieu of wages for those people) or retired Amalgamated Transit Union members (who receive a wage of $6.00 per hour). The motormen come from within the ranks of Tri-Met’s light-rail operators.

No fares were charged during the first month of service, thanks to sponsorship by Meier & Frank, a major Portland department store chain, but effective January 4 a $1.00 contribution is being requested (but ostensibly still not required-at least that was still the plan as of this writing in late December). Because Vintage Trolley service is being funded by a private, non-profit organization, there is no fares integration with the Tri-Met bus and light-rail service. Unlike MAX, VT service is not free within Tri-Met’s downtown “Fareless Square,” and Tri-Met passes, tickets, and transfers are not valid on it.

During the first month of service, which, in addition to being free, also fell during the busiest shopping period of the year, the vintage cars were packed with riders on all weekend trips and carried full seated loads and some standees on most weekday trips, despite the fact that the weather was rainy on most days during that month.

Meanwhile, Portland has two other vintage-streetcar projects in operation or in the works. The first is the “Willamette Shore Trolley” service, the operation of 1913-built San Antonio car 300 with a generator trailer on the very scenic, six-mile, former Southern Pacific line from Portland to Lake Oswego.

This began in July 1990 (after a successful trial service with a different car in the Autumn of 1987) and runs on weekends from March through December and daily except Mondays from Memorial Day until mid-September. A second streetcar, Blackpool 731 (a single-deck, illuminated riverboat-replica tram) will enter service for the 1992 season.

The other is the Central City Trolley project, a City of Portland proposal for a network of up to two or three newly built lines in, around, and perhaps across the river from downtown Portland served exclusively by vintage-style streetcars, with the goal of attracting tourists (and local people to use transit) and encouraging development in older or underdeveloped areas of the “central city” (the city center and the area within a mile of it). A federal grant of $900,000 to design and engineer the proposed first route of this system was designated in a HUD (the Department of Housing & Urban Development) bill signed by President Bush around the beginning of November; this will be matched by an equal amount from the City of Portland, and the $1.8 million project should begin late next summer if all goes well. The first route would be 2.3 miles long, running from near Union Station (the northern end of downtown) south along the western edge of the central business core (crossing the light-rail line at right angles), east along Columbia Street, and south again to the North Macadam district and the northern terminus of the Willamette Shore Trolley. It would require the purchase of five streetcars, probably of the same general type as 511-4. And all of this is in addition to the far more important news that Portland's second light rail line, the Westside Line to Beaverton and probably Hillsboro, is now assured of funding and will definitely proceed to the construction stage by early 1993. Federal funding in the amount of $515 million has been designated for this project in the recently-enacted Surface Transportation Act. (Furthermore, the City of Roses now also stands a fairly good chance of seeing a return of trolley buses to its streets by the end of the decade.)

Although it will certainly never rival San Francisco, Portland appears to be on its way to becoming a mecca for streetcar and light-rail enthusiasts and advocates—something that most lifelong Portland residents such as myself would never have imagined fifteen years ago.

Author Steve Morgan is a Portland-based writer on electric rail and trolley bus subjects.


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