American-made streetcars: Portland company rebuilds lost industry

(Apollo News Service) United Streetcar, a union company in Portland, Ore., and wholly owned subsidiary of Oregon Iron Works, has built the first American-made streetcar in over half a century. United Streetcar already has a deal in place to build thirteen of its streetcars for the cities of Portland and Tucson, Ariz.

The initial streetcar was unveiled in July 2009 in a ceremony attended by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who called Portland the transportation, streetcar and livable community capital of the United States. “I believe this is the dawn of a new era for public transportation in the United States,” said LaHood. “A new opportunity to claim ‘Made in America.’ It’s a chance to generate good-paying union jobs right here in the region.”

United Streetcar, LLC was formed in 2005 after Chandra Brown, the company’s president and a vice president at parent company Oregon Iron Works, made the startling discovery while talking to friends that modern streetcars were not manufactured in the United States – or at least not by American companies – and hadn’t been for 58 years. Given the variety of complex products that Oregon Iron Works has manufactured since 1944, Brown was sure that the company could handle streetcars as well.

United Streetcar’s ultimate goal is to provide modern streetcars to cities nationwide – Portland and Tucson are just the start. “Knowing the huge success of the Portland streetcar line, we were positive that streetcars were on the brink of exploding into a large and extremely viable market,” said Brown, a 15-year veteran of Oregon Iron Works. “We thought that a separate website and company specific to streetcars would be the best way of reaching out around the country in this new marketplace.”

Brown added that more than 65 U.S. cities are currently looking into implementing streetcars. Portland, though, is leading the way in public transportation.

United Steetcar’s product is truly American-made. To meet “Buy America” requirements, at least 60 percent of the components had to be domestically produced by American companies. Brown says that United Streetcar’s product is approximately 70-percent U.S.-made, with components coming from vendors in more than 20 states. The steel streetcar shell was fabricated in Portland; a company in Pennsylvania finished the trucks; a company just down the freeway from Portland provided the fiberglass; and the seats came from Michigan.

One part of the streetcar that is not American-made is the propulsion system, because currently there is no domestic manufacturer of streetcar propulsion systems. But this will soon change. In April, United Streetcar and the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon received a $2.4 million Federal Transit Administration grant to work with Rockwell Automation to develop a domestically produced streetcar propulsion system. Once an American propulsion system is ready for order, the content of United Streetcars vehicles will be 90 percent U.S.-made.

“Instead of outsourcing jobs, we are ‘insourcing’ jobs, bringing them back to the States,” Brown said. “This is key to keeping Portland’s manufacturing industry thriving, as well as promoting American-made products.”