Tram takeoff

8 2001 Aktuality English
obálka čísla

    Czech firms cashing in as cities look to bring back era and clang of streetcars By Leah Bower
    Until the weekend of July 28, many residents of Portland, Oregon, might not have been able to place the Czech Republic on a map.
    "We're a long way from the type of multicultural, multilingual environment Europeans take for granted," chuckled city Transportation Commissioner Charles Hales.
    But residents not only got a recent dose of Czech culture, they also got a permanent reminder of the country's engineering prowess.
    Portland has just put five sleek Czech-made trams into service in its downtown district as part of a $52.8 million (2.1 billion Kc) public transportation program. The city brought out Czech performers on stilts, traditional music and even an appearance from the country's current ambassador to the United States, Alexandr Vondra, for a parade celebrating the trams' launch.
    Riders on the air-conditioned trams -- who numbered 50,000 in the first three days -- can even look at historical pictures of the bygone era of streetcars in Portland, Plzen (Pilsen) and Brno.
    The Portland streetcars are part of a resurgence of interest in trams as a solution to urban transportation problems.
    Companies such as Prague-based Inekon -- which inked deals with Portland and Tacoma, Washington, in cooperation with Skoda Dopravni technika -- are working to cash in on it.
    "We are talking with other cities coming back to mass-transit systems," said Josef Husek, general director of Inekon Group, who attended the Portland parade. "Our successful supply to Portland and Tacoma is a big help."
    The two U.S. deals are worth a combined $70 million. Inekon also has bid on a contract to refurbish tram cars in Philadelphia and has signed recent deals in Bulgaria, Russia, Ostrava, Plzen and Olomouc to upgrade old equipment.
    Decades ago, trams were the public transportation vehicle of choice in cities around the globe. But as suburbs began to pop up and disposable income grew, riders began opting for their own cars.
    As congestion increased, many urban planners blamed trams, perhaps unfairly, for making the problem worse. So when the networks needed refurbishment -- or rebuilding, as with many bombed European cities after World War II -- many cities chose to abandon tram systems.
    Investment was pumped into expanding roads, or on newer, cheaper forms of public transportation, such as buses.
    But buses developed a stigma, "partially irrational," said Hales. "In the mythology of urban America, buses are what poor people ride and trains are what the middle class takes to work."
    In the past 15 years, as bus ridership has failed to take off and road congestion continues, there's been a renaissance in trams and light-rail systems.
    In the past decade, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Denver, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Jersey City, St. Louis, Houston, Minneapolis and Monterrey, Mexico, have added new tram or light-rail lines, according to the England-based LightRail Transit Association.
    "The number goes up every year," said Michael Taplin, the organization's chairman. "Everyone is wrestling with increased congestion and pollution on our roads."
    Czech manufacturers used to crank out more than 1,000 tram cars each year, supplying countries throughout the former Soviet bloc, but annual production dropped to mere dozens in the post-1989 era.
    Today, 90 percent of the world's trams are made by three major manufacturers: Germany's Siemens, Bombardier in Canada and French company Alstom.
    Czech players such as Inekon and Skoda are relatively small. But they offer something the big companies don't -- craftsmanship.
    "Maybe they aren't using the latest and fanciest manufacturing processes or equipment, but there is a lot of work done by hand," said Taplin, who has visited the Skoda tram plant in Plzen. "When you ride [the Inekon trams], it becomes apparent that this is a well-built machine."
    Durability important Portland officials agree. The city sent a delegation to Plzen before deciding to include the piece of Czech industry in its downtown transportation project.
    Hales told Portland newspapers that the reputation of the "thousands of Skoda cars that have been working in Eastern Europe and Russia for years" helped sell city officials on the idea.
    "The old cars were 40 years old, and they were back to be refurbished for another 30 to 40 years of service," he told the Portland Oregonian. "In the other factories, we saw robotic welders and automated equipment, but at Skoda, we saw cars being made by hand, using giant but old equipment.
    "We said, ,Would you rather have a streetcar made by someone also making a 300-mph [480-kph] train, or would you have it built by someone who makes cars to run forever?"
    The resurgence of trams, Hales said, is being helped by the revitalization of inner cities, which is luring residents back from the suburbs.
    Though the trend is a boon for cities, which find investment coming back to their once-warehouse-filled cores, they find the roads can't handle the traffic. Simply building new roads doesn't always solve the problem.
    "You cannot build your way out of congestion," Hales said. "If you build enough freeway ramps, what you have left is a nightmare landscape. You've destroyed the village in order to get to it."
    Many U.S. planners are addressing the situation by looking to European development patterns, such as tram systems, which have the added benefit of being a clean form of transportation.
    "You should not have a landscape subservient to the automobile," Hales said. "Create or model your city around the transit rider."

Leah Bower's e-mail address is
lbower@praguepost.cz


Vydavatelem Českého dialogu je Mezinárodní český klub

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