Light Rail Transit Association - UK Development Group 





Since when is going back in time necessarily a backward step? Streetcars in a modern city? Have Portlanders lost their senses? (1). This series of questions appeared first in newspapers around Portland (Oregon) and coincided with the opening of that city's new tram service.

More than a century ago, Portland's very first tram lines were laid out so as to open up large tracts of vacant land for residential development. Just over half a century later, lobbyists from the auto industry convinced not only themselves but also local officials that streets should belong to cars, and cars alone. Although this policy was certainly very thorough in its application, urban streets in particular were gradually becoming inhospitable to all users. For instance, drivers became frustrated whilst negotiating heavy traffic whilst pedestrians, brave enough to venture onto narrow stretches of bleak concrete, often found themselves marooned adjacent to cars and trucks. It was this scenario that convinced planners in Portland that something needed to be done.


The MAX light rail line of 1986 from Banfield into Portland had been highly successful in bringing suburban commuters and shoppers into the new transit malls in the CBD. So confident were TRI-MET, the operators of MAX, that there was no hesitation in extending it another 29-km to Hillsboro in 1998. Known as the WESTSIDE MAX LINE, it proved their judgement correct because it was equally as successful as the earlier line to Banfield (2). All this new interurban patronage created its own problem in Portland and, if nothing else, highlighted a need for a new attractive tram service to act as a local distributor. This new facility is now bringing life back into Portland because passengers can now reach central destinations that were not close to the light rail service (3)(4).


As cumbersome as trams are conceived to be by Portlander's, they have amply demonstrated a preference for them. It had become well known that no matter how stylish, passengers would not use a bus merely to ride through down town areas without the need to reach a particular destination. Somewhat surprisingly, many are known to use the CBD rail services just as much for the ride as the destination. One known difficulty in attracting passengers to bus services was the public uncertainty of knowing a bus's route against a background of an apparent ease in diverting it.

In softening the environmental consequences of traffic and transit intrusion in Portland a programme of planting trees was undertaken. This sparked off some controversy with a fear that cars might run into them. Another point of view though has welcomed the trees suggesting they act as a protective shield against careless motorists.


Although experience with vintage trolleys operating partly over MAX's tracks had been a success and proved a "magnet" to riders, PORTLAND STREETCAR INC. (a city government subsidiary distinct from TRI-MET) decided that in this particular case, the base service should be provided by a modern tram design, a design that was readily available from Skoda. A rough comparison was that the Skoda cars were about 2/3 the size of MAX's LRVs and correspondingly cheaper to build and operate. On the operational side, its modern running gear made it particularly suitable for sharing traffic lanes which enhanced its role of urban circulator.

Altogether, Portland has spent USD56.9m to restart its trams using money from both Federal and local sources. The actual operation of the service is expected to cost USD2.4m per year, money which will come mainly from the local transit authority, parking meter revenues and corporate sponsorship of individual cars. For the technically minded readers, the order was for 5 Skoda built bidirectional air-conditioned type "10T" cars derived from the type "03T" ASTRA, a design already in service elsewhere. The cars are 4 axle, double articulated, 20.13m long, with a 350mm high floor and weigh 28 tonnes. Motive power is provided by 4x90-kw asynchronous motors (5).


Although the city of Portland saw no war, it might just as well have been blitzed because, in the 40's buildings were levelled and former street car tracks pulled up to make room for cars. The City Commissioner (Charlie Hales) is now hoping that the city's restoration will follow the new Skoda trams. Although lacking MAX's speed they will nevertheless connect neighbourhoods, and very successfully too. Most American cities still suffer from the mistakes of the past 50 years where freeway construction destroyed communities and suburbanisation vandalised the countryside. Over the past few decades though, Portland has reversed its decline with thoughtful approaches to planning and transportation and in so doing has made itself the envy of the country. With the introduction of the tram (from 20th July 2001) other major cities will look to Portland to study the effectiveness of this "European" idea upon the American landscape. Initial patronage has so far been very promising with almost 51 000 riders over a 2 day period (July 20, 21 & 22) and with a small fleet of just 5 trams.


America as a whole is now looking with envy at Portland, not only because it has benefited from interurban light rail but now an urban tramway as well. This has permitted many streets to be transformed into linear parks filled with sidewalk cafes. This inevitably provokes the question as to whether Britain's haste in scrapping its few American style interurban tramways and urban tram services many years ago was ill conceived.

One particularly unfortunate example came from Lincolnshire where one can only guess what a pleasant way of life would be available for shoppers and pedestrians in and around Grimsby if the urban and interurban trams there had experienced modernisation and development over the last 50 or so years.


  1. THE OREGONIAN (USA) - Sunrise Edition - July 20th 2001.
  2. Ridership of the new Westside MAX extension in Portland has exceeded forecast by 22%, 5 years ahead of predictions - RAPID TRANSIT REVIEW (IRJ) page 33 - August 2001.
  3. The streetcar is designed to act as a local distributor in the city centre and to promote transit-orientated development RAILWAY GAZETTE INTERNATIONAL page 563 - July 2001.
  4. The normal Saturday service needs 4 vehicles, (3 new Skoda trams and one vintage trolley car) - TRAMWAYS & URBAN TRANSIT page 346 - September 2001.
  5. Milan Sramek in RAILWAY GAZETTE INTERNATIONAL page 224 - April 2001.
  6. PORTLAND-on-RHINE, Portland's streetcar open for business - news story by Steffen Silvis - July 31st 2001.
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