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The New Orleans Streetcars: The comeback (cont.)

By Robert S. Sargent, Jr.
web posted October 25, 2004

Now that the Riverfront Transit Coalition (RTC) had a "Letter of no Prejudice" (a notice to proceed) in their hands, the first thing they needed were four streetcars. In the original design for the project, there had been a commitment (this was before the ADA) to the disabled community to provide handicapped access on half the cars. The original New Orleans streetcars (Perley Thomas cars) could not do that. The only vintage cars that could were Melbourne W-2 cars from Australia, since their lower loading platform could be altered to accommodate the handicapped. The only source in the country for those cars, Gales Creek Enterprises in Portland, agreed to refurbish two of their Melbourne W-2s, and deliver them by the first of August. Then Amdall and his group went to the Willow Street barn in New Orleans, where the St. Charles fleet has been maintained since the 1920s. The head of that barn, Al Townsend, agreed to deliver two fully restored streetcars by the deadline.

Meanwhile, the RTC and the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) had to purchase the abandoned tracks along the riverfront, and get the right-of-way, which normally involves a long drawn out process. But good things were happening. The CSX railroad was also a developing partner in the Hilton Hotel, which is on the riverfront making it a prime player in the riverfront development equation. One phone call later, Amdall had an agreement to buy the abandoned track at a very reasonable price, which secured the right of way. Things were happening. But there was still much to be done.

Amdall: "We had to get permits from about 21 different entities, including the Corp of Engineers, the Levy Board, the Dock Board, the City Planning Commission, the Planning Advisory Commission, it just went on and on. But because we had this politically driven event, the Republican National Convention, everybody took the attitude, ‘Well, we're not going to be the ones to stop it.' Under normal conditions, this project would never have survived."

The tracks still had to be refurbished, and the system had to be electrified by putting in an overhead catenary system, which meant getting strong poles that would get the approval of the Vieux Carre Commission and the State Historical Preservation Office. The RTC selected DMJM, the original engineering consultant firm, to do the design work. Tapered concrete poles were recommended, but didn't pass muster with the historical committees, who said they were too ugly, and didn't fit with the surrounding historical atmosphere. Amdall heard about a very successful oil and gasman named Pat Taylor who might be of some help. When Amdall explained the problem, Taylor told him about some drill pipes that were extremely strong. "Hell, I'll prime ‘em, paint ‘em, they'll look good, and I'll give ‘em to ya!" The RTC got the poles, they looked good and the various commissions approved them. About the middle of May, 1988, construction was underway with three months remaining. The clock was ticking.

Around the first of August, the W-2 cars arrived from Oregon, but they looked bad, really bad. Fortunately, the RTA agreed to restore the cars in addition to the ones they were doing at the Willow Street Barn, and this was accomplished on site in less than two weeks. According to Amdall, it was a "Herculean" achievement.

The rectifier, a big transformer box, arrived around August 10, but when the electricians threw the switch, it didn't work. In Amdall's words: "We found the guy who sent us the box, and he was from Virginia or South Carolina someplace, and he was kind of a country man, and he opens up the box, looks at it, and says, ‘Hey, anybody got a two by four?' Somebody finds a two by four and gives it to him. The guy looks at it, wails back, and hits one of the pieces inside the box. He looks at it, presses a button and nothing happens. He takes the thing and whacks at it again, turns on the switch, and it still doesn't work. By this time, the project manager with RTA is going ballistics, screaming and yelling. The guy says, ‘Calm down, just gimme a minute.' He rares back and hits it again, he hits the button, the lights flash, and it's up and running." He explained that a gravity switch was thrown out of kilter in transit.

The cars were finished and delivered, but they were still laying the catenary line on the morning of the opening. The system had never been operated. Nobody knew if it was going to work. At eleven o'clock, the morning of the opening (think: people moving in slow motion, gorgeous movie music, softly at first, building to a glorious, catch-in-the-throat, heart inspiring climax!), the switches were turned on, the cars rolled out from Esplanade, and everything worked! (Amdall: "It's a charmed story, because at any one of these junctures it could have been a disaster.") It was, and continues to be a phenomenal success. Contrary to the projections of the PhD from Boston, the project has never lost money. According to the American Public Transportation Association, "Daily ridership of perhaps 2000 had been predicted [by our PhD!], but soon reached 3000," and by 1994, "(daily) ridership varied between 4000 and 5000."

But the hurdles weren't over. It wasn't long before Amdall's group, and the RTA, realized that the single track couldn't handle the system. They knew that the Public Belt Railroad had two tracks next to theirs, and the one closest to the river was abandoned. In Amdall's words, "(We went to the railroad and said,) ‘Look, we'll make you a deal. We will rebuild at no expense to you, your trackage, and we will signalize and have warning signs at every grade crossing if you relinquish your right of way to the middle track.'" An agreement was made, but the RTA and the RTC had to convince the feds to commit money for the job. Two representatives of UMTA, including Wilber Hare, came down and met with the New Orleans groups. One of the representatives, a young engineer from Kansas City pointed out that they couldn't rebuild a railroad because that was not part of the project, and would be illegal. The RTC's prime oversight engineer yelled out "That's not a railroad, that's a utility!" Hare went right along, according to Amdall, and said in his Texas accent, "Now you see there son, that's not a railroad, that's a yew-til-ity!!" And they got the financing. (Today it's double track with seven cars and according to Charles Kirkland, the principal planner at the New Orleans Planning Commission, "Mr. Amdall played a large role in the design that eventually double tracked the streetcar to serve the ridership.")

Another thing was going on when the RTA and the RTC were in partnership. Some twenty cars on the St. Charles Line needed complete renovation. The Feds kept telling the New Orleans people that the work had to be farmed out somewhere else, because New Orleans didn't have the resources, but Amdall's group and the RTA convinced the Feds that they could do it. According to Amdall, the success of the Riverfront streetcars, together with the renovation of the St. Charles streetcars, (which demonstrated to the powers-that-be the resources New Orleans had) were the two most influential things that led to the thinking that maybe New Orleans made a mistake when they pulled up the Canal Street line in 1964.

(In August of 1991, the RTA and the RTC had a parting of the ways. The RTA terminated their contract with the Riverfront Transit Coalition, and according to Amdall, "The RTA was always trying to figure out a way they could get their hands on that $200,000 per year pledge, but they could never prove they were losing money, because it never did. That issue was what caused the RTA to cancel our partnership.")

Next week: New Orleans brings back the Canal Street line and thinks about the future.

Robert S. Sargent, Jr. is a senior writer at Enter Stage Right and can be reached at rssjr@citcom.net.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • The New Orleans streetcars: The comeback by Robert S. Sargent Jr. (October 11, 2004)
    Last week Robert S. Sargent, Jr. chronicled the disappearance of New Orleans' streetcars. This week: the story of the fight to bring them back
  • The New Orleans streetcars: The demise by Robert S. Sargent Jr. (October 11, 2004)
    In the first of a four-part series on New Orleans and its streetcars, Robert S. Sargent Jr. investigates what happened to a system that once boasted 225 miles of streetcar tracks
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