The streetcars are replica cars, built to look like the cars of days gone by but as Jones says, “I’ve never seen an old car that had this much great wood and brass in it. Gomaco really does a great job.” The cars are vintage streetcars made by Gomaco Trolley Company with electronics by Lakeland Engineering. Jones explains, “…the trucks and wheel assemblies, the motor and controllers are all from a supplier in Milan, Italy and were about 75 years old when they were retired.” Ellis continues, “They’ve been rebuilt several times with the wars and everything. We bring everything home and rebuild it.”
I happened to ask Jones about the striking bright yellow and red color scheme. “We stole the Tampa colors but with [their] permission,” he explains. “Our street cars were green and white here. Travis brought the Tampa car through here years ago, left it for a few days here on Main Street and everyone fell in love with the yellow color — it’s very visible.”
The colors aren’t the only thing they got from another agency. Sitting in the corner of his office is a vintage farebox. “Memphis gave us those to put on our streetcar,” he says. “We have GFI on the bus but we didn’t want to put GFI on the streetcar, they’re modern-looking and they take up a lot of room.”
He explains, “My maintenance manager, Barry Beaver, his twin brother was maintenance manager of Memphis, so we had a little connection there. They shipped us over about 20 of their old ones sitting around.” He adds, “That one will probably end up on a streetcar, I may lose that.”
FALLING INTO PLACE
“Everyone’s been very enthusiastic, not a negative word has been said about the streetcar since we’ve opened,” says Jones smiling. While sitting there in his office, he and Wineland digress for a few moments as they share stories with each other about previous non-supporters they have recently seen getting on and riding the streetcar. Jones finishes their divergence and emphasizes, “The people who were grumpy about it, you catch them riding it.”
After it started operation, there were 200,000 riders the first year and Jones says CAT is expecting about the same for this year. He explains that they haven’t done any studies yet, “I didn’t see any point in doing [a market study] last year because it was so new and we were having so many… one time riders. … let’s wait until the second year and do a little demographics of who are these folks …”
He shared a story of one of his recent trips on a streetcar, “There are a couple of old guys — older than me — in their overalls and I just went up and I asked them, so where you guys from? ‘We’re farmers from Humnoke, Arkansas. It’s just a rainy day and we had heard about this and we’ve come to ride the streetcar. Too wet to farm.’” He and Wineland share other stories about people they have talked to that have not been downtown for a long time that come just to check out the streetcars.
As we were driving past the Peabody Hotel, Jones and Wineland told me about some of the more unusual riders. The Peabody Hotel had bought the naming rights to the stop near the hotel as part of the corporate sponsorship program. In the lobby of the hotel, there are ducks that swim around in a pond. “For the opening of the platform down here we had the ducks ride the street car and they boarded down here on a little red carpet ramp,” Jones says. He adds laughing, “They were good riders but not housebroken.”
For another marketing endeavor, Wineland told me about the local humane society’s calendar, “You pay X dollars and you get to have individuals or companies, so we bought a page.” Jones adds, “We put a note out to staff to bring their dogs in if they can sit off-leash — sit and stay. I want a picture of just the dogs on the streetcar or the dogs hanging their heads out the window.”
“I said I may be out of town that day.” Betty murmurs with a laugh.
Virginia Fry, River Rail manager, chimes in, “I’m going to bring my cat.”
“Yeah, once.” Jones says smiling wryly, “You can do anything once.”
Back to being serious for a moment, Jones explains, “The $140 million in development, the streetcar is a factor in most of those but certainly not anywhere near the prime reason. It’s two to three cars in a day so we don’t have illusions about the fact that we’re bringing subway type numbers in business.” Wineland adds, “Almost any time you see reference to us now in anything, anything the cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock will publish have the streetcar on it. Come to Central Arkansas and see the streetcar.”