Tom Trabon came from a typical background for baby boomers when it came to transportation.
After World War II, streetcar systems across the U.S. began to disappear as transit fell out of favor as more people turned to cars as they fled the cities and moved into the suburbs. Kansas City had one of the largest streetcar systems in the county when it was purchased, then dismantled by automobile manufacturers.
However, Trabon is now chair of the Kansas City Streetcar Authority and he’s now on the verge of helping that city rebuild its streetcar system.
“Kansas City is a car town and it has always been a car town,” he said. “Traffic here isn’t terrible, but the demographics of the city are changing and my age bracket — I’m 63 — and the views of those who are 25 years old are a lot different than ours and public transit is very important to them.”
Streetcar systems have seen a resurgence in the past decade as more cities see young professionals bucking the trends of their parents and grandparents by fleeing the suburbs in favor of urban living with access to mass transit. Because of this demand and the economic development potential streetcars bring with them, cities continue to explore and plan systems despite the caustic attitudes toward the systems naysayers have, who claim streetcar — and rail transit for that matter — are outdated machines using 19th century technology that are nothing more than government “boondoggles” and lack the convenience and freedom offered by car usage.
Kansas City has seen its share of opposition to the $102 million 2.2-mile system in its downtown which passed a voter referendum and is moving forward despite efforts of two downtown property owners who have filed a lawsuit claiming the election was inappropriate. The lawsuit was dismissed by one judge and is now in appeal, which has delayed the issuance of bonds, however, Trabon said work is still moving forward and will continue with the plan of starting work by the end of the year.
Technology drives demands
Jacques Drouin, product manager for Bombardier Transportation North America, said while the streetcar market has essentially been filled in Canada with agencies there focusing more on light rail, there’s a large interest for the systems in the U.S.
Besides the technology modern streetcars bring with them, Drouin said cities setting up streetcar lines also are asking manufacturers for low-boarding floors in order to meet ADA compliance and they’re also inquiring more about catenary-less systems.
“There’s of course the old streetcars that are still used by some in the U.S. and Canada, and it’s an image people don’t forget,” Drouin said. “But the new ones are very different and very appealing with low boarding, while 50 or 60 years ago people remember the high boarding … so now it’s a lot easier for people to use, especially handicapped people.”
Often cities getting streetcars don’t have existing rail lines, so Matt Palilla, director of product development for United Streetcar, said that company has worked to make designs easier to prepare for future maintenance.
“We’ve found ways to improve the vehicles so you don’t need extensive tooling for a fleet of 100 vehicles when they may only have seven vehicles,” he said. “That helps make it a little bit easier for the city.”
Drouin said Bombardier’s catenary-less system uses lithium ion batteries and the company recently completed a deal to supply catenary-less streetcars for a project in Nanjing, China, with about 90 percent of the system without catenary lines.
Although lithium ion batteries have gotten a bad rap in recent months due to issues Boeing has had with the units catching fire on their 787 Dreamliner planes, Drouin said Bombardier uses a different type of technology in its lithium ion batteries.
“It’s the safe side of the technology,” he said. “It may contain a little less energy, but it’s safer in its propensity to catch fire as it self-extinguishes itself. We’re confident this is really the way to go.”