Friday, December 28, 2012

Back on track

Kansas City Public Service streetcar No. 778 – a PCC-type – on the Country Club car line in Brookside.

For the last post of 2012 let's digress a bit to celebrate the return of streetcars to Kansas City in 2015, a dream made real by the recent special election, and to dream a little further ...

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Out on the coast today Bay Area residents and visitors are marking the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco Municipal Railway, better known as Muni, the nation's first publicly owned transit system. In observance, rides today on all modes of Muni travel – diesel and trolley buses, light rail, streetcars and cable cars – are free.

And I can hear you saying, Yeah, so what? Well, I'll get to that. For now I'll just say that San Francisco seems to be a place where a mayor could never use the term "touristy frou-frou" and get away with it. (If you're drawing a blank on that, ask someone who's been around for the entire light-rail struggle in Kansas City. Or just Google it.)

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The other day while wandering through my hard drive I encountered a nearly forgotten document tucked away in a folder labeled "odds & ends." It was a copy of a 2007 Star article, written by Kevin Collison, headlined "Old KC Streetcars Could Find Rail Use."

This was a few months after voters finally approved one of Clay Chastain's schemes for light rail. Collison was reporting on a panel discussion of how to get things going, but the real focus of the piece was on a guy in Pennsylvania, Ed Metka, who had 10 old streetcars parked on his land in the Allegheny Mountains. These same streetcars once ran on rails right here, in the extensive, bi-state system run by the Kansas City Public Service Company. Here's the money quote from the article:

"Metka said the Kansas City cars are restorable and could be brought back to life for about $1.5 million each, about half the cost of a new car. That price tag would include installing air conditioning and a lift to make them handicapped accessible."

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Those Allegheny/Kansas City streetcars were of a style known as PCCs, after the Presidents' Conference Committee, a group of urban railway leaders charged with improving streetcar design in the 1930s. 

The streetcar on display outside Union Station – No. 551 – is a PCC car that ran in Kansas City from 1947 until the demise of the system in 1957. After decades of service in other cities and a stint as a museum piece, 551 came home, its partial restoration sponsored by the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance.

In June 2009 I posted on this blog about that relic (later included in Paris of the Plains: Kansas City from Doughboys to Expressways). Here's an excerpt:

"Streamlined ... that 1930s term for all things sleek. A design featuring flowing lines, described by copywriters of the time as 'symbolic of contemporary life.'

"Like a falling drop of water. The smooth gliding of the fish.

"There were streamlined pianos and streamlined passenger trains. Teakettles, vacuum cleaners, autos, flashlights, bicycles, refrigerators, golf clubs, beds, milk bottles. And streetcars.

"The streamlined streetcars of the late 1930s improved on their boxy, rigid predecessors: Lighter, faster, smoother, quieter, more comfortable. In 1941, Kansas City got 24 of them. Five years later, 100 more.

"Today out in California the diverse mass-transit options in the city of San Francisco include restored vintage streetcars painted in the colors of other cities' fallen fleets. My favorite is car 1056, a streamliner wearing the cream-and-black of the Kansas City Public Service Company.

"To ride on 1056 is to feel the electric whir of the motor, the metallic grind of the wheels, the brassy ring of the bell, and that je ne sais quoi that is Paris of the Plains. It is public transit with a sort of gritty elegance, a timeless blend of beauty and function, plus something essential that puts a smile on faces."

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Kansas City's new two-mile downtown line – surely a starter line that will expand to other neighborhoods – will make use of the latest in streetcar design and technology, as it should.  I've been wondering why that modern line couldn't also include at least one restored vintage streetcar, a sort of fun and functional homage to this town's gritty, elegant past.  Other cities have done it, including Philadelphia, Dallas and Kenosha, Wisconsin (which bought a few of Ed Metka's Kansas City streetcars for its 2.5 mile line). Why not us?

So I recently put that question in an email to City Councilman Russ Johnson, chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and a strong force behind the starter line. He responded, saying the idea has been kicked around and seems favorable so long as the project is a private venture. The budget does not now include a vintage streetcar. Johnson wrote:

While I am open to, and would be excited about, the possibility, other folks would also have to agree, such as the Streetcar Authority. The idea hasn't been widely discussed, but probably should be. Keep in mind that a vintage streetcar would have to be modified to conform to safety standards, modern electrical propulsion standards and station height standards. If it is possible and as long as it is a private vehicle, sounds good to me!

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If it sounds good to you, here's some food for thought: 

The old streetcars in San Francisco are owned and run by Muni but acquired and maintained by the Market Street Railway, Muni's "nonprofit preservation partner."

Also, there are companies who specialize in preserving and modifying vintage streetcars for use in modern systems, including the Brookville Equipment Corporation in Pennsylvania and Historical Railway Restoration in Washington state (which did the display-quality restoration on the Union Station streetcar).

 Finally, get a sense of being a pedestrian in a streetcar town as No. 1056, in Kansas City colors, glides past like a huge, steel fish:


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