What is a streetcar?
It is a box, about eight feet wide, more or less weatherproof, able to be kept at a reasonable temperature, with plenty of transparent areas, ventilation, seating for about fifty to one hundred people, wheels that work on rails, brakes, motive means, internal lights, a suspension system, doors, usually though not always a fare collection system, somewhere for an operator to sit or stand.
So, if you had to build two or three of these, had a few years to get parts as surplus (say, starting with a standard surplus shipping container), how many hours of planning and execution would it take to build each one and how much would they cost?
Let's run a very rough estimation. All amounts are given in U.S. dollars and light to medium duty materials are assumed. We'll assume that this will be a typical small town streetcar, puttering back and forth along a fifty block or shorter route less than twelve hours a day and choosing ease of repair over durability. For what it's worth, a lot of these parts (like the doors and benches) could be scavenged off a school bus and old school buses cost about $2,000.
Box : $4,000
Doors (automatic, operator controlled) : $2,000 x 4 = $8,000
Acrylic windows (partially openable, made of sheet acrylic in aluminum picture frames on delrin pins to be able to open.) : 20 x $50 = $1,000
Acrylic skylights (2) : $600
Windshield wiper system, front and back : $500
Lights, including internal, headlamp, and indicator, all LED : $3,000
Sandblasting, paint, decoration, and waterproofing, includes some donated materials - $4,000
Climate control : $2,000
Insulation and soundproofing (obtained surplus) : $1,000
Seating - 20 padded benches, bought surplus from a church or other venue and/or scavenged from the schoolbus, repainted and reupholstered, at least two extra kept at the barn to be swapped in when needed.
20 x $130 : $2,600
Trucks, i.e. the unit of four wheels and a motor with gearing, all on a turnable frame including suspension and mounted underneath on heavy duty bearing ring.
2 trucks, each involving:
- frame (welded steel) : $500
- wheels 4 x $300 : $1,200 (note these are light duty wheels as vehicle weight and speed will be low)
- suspension : $4,000
- assorted truck mechanism components, including sensors for state of railbed and track : $1,000
- bearing ring : $500
- brakes : $3,000
So each truck is about $10,000, there are two, so trucks add about $20,000.
Motive means - 2 electrical motors, one in each truck : $5,000
Fare collection system - operator controlled : $2,000
Operator station : $2,000
Then let's add $10,000 for barn costs during assembly, $4,000 for engineering and design advice, $2,000 for fireproofing of some sort, and another $10,000 for something or other I forgot.
Now this gives us a sweet little trolley, light duty, assembled with some surplus parts and quite a bit of donated or low-cost labor. It can be run on weekends up and down Main Street, and perhaps have an extension off to the town school. It is by no means going to serve as a full replacement for anybody's private car but it can greatly reduce traffic jams at busy times and serve as an excellent and potentially revenue positive means to provide rudimentary public transit and build community support for establishing an upgradable right of way and eventual contruction of a more heavy duty but still non-polluting and locally run transit system.
All of this, assuming such usage, takes us to $80,000 per vehicle, give or take. Personally, If I were running such a project I would add as much as $6,000, eventually, to add aerodynamic cowlings. Even at those speeds and with that much stop and go, such things do matter. And I also think that the right combination of car enthusiasts, scroungers, engineering students, and a set designer or two could do better on most or all of the prices.
Whem in doubt, these prices include spares for some parts. If such a part fails or otherwise becomes unacceptable while in service (if, say, a seat gets slashed or a window knocked out), the maintenance person (people?) get a call then and there, drive over and meet the trolley, the part gets popped out (having been installed with slots and quick-releases) and a spare popped in, while the damaged unit is brought back to the barn to be repaired at leisure. You can do that when your whole operating range is less than two miles in diameter, at most and you rarely have passengers who need to get there right this minute.
So assuming that my numbers are valid, this gives us the three cars needed to get a small town trolley system running for about $250,000. Far less than the cost of a typical modern streetcar.
So now let's move on to track.
Trolley and rail tracks out there in the world are built as better materials variants on mid-eighteen hundreds' designs. A railbed or rail from the Victorian era is pretty similar to ones in use today. Let's start fresh. How about a right of way of cast cement with "rails" of L-bracket steel laid flat on top of the cement on synthetic rubber. If we can find L brackets with a slightly greater than ninety degree angle to maximize wheel contact or, in fact, run them through a pressure jig to make them so, all the better. As to how to attach them to the underlying rubber, I've long since been convinced that modern civil engineering gives very different and very specific answers re fasteners, adhesive, or whatever for varying degrees of temperature stresses, vibration, and load, so I'm leaving that for them to figure out.
The whole cement bed is poured over a gravel base, just to keep it simple. Or perhaps laid into the existing roadbed. Again, local conditions vary an awful lot. Maybe the lengths of cement are cast in a barn, then delivered and laid in by truck. Or, as the transcontinental railroad did it with many components, brought pre-built on the very tracks themselves as each segment goes in. We can even get fancy and have the cement pigmented to make the rail right of way more visible. What would all this cost per mile of roadway? Concrete is cheap. Angle steel is cheap. Casting and assembly would be cheap. Repair would be cheap. And, again, potentially all bought and assembled locally.
We can get to things like switches another day. (Especially since a system like this might not need any.) Not to mention the actual "troller" (i.e. pantograph), the thing that gets the electricity from the power lines to the trolley and the system that would carry the electricity, including towers, tension lines, substation, etc. I agree that all of those are essential (more or less) but I haven't seen anything any less subject to the same sort of reevaluation about those than about the aspects discussed above. The only points I think are worth making is that such a light duty system could well take advantage of three options, to some degree or other:
One, mount some or all of the power lines on buildings along the route
Two, have a small capacity battery pack within the vehicle so as to allow breaks in the available current
Three, use "plastic lumber" for some of the parts typically built of steel and/or pressure treated wood, thereby obviating the maintenance needs of both, the short replacement cycle of the latter, and the high capital cost of the former. And, being non-conductive, it could require less in the way of insulators, thereby further reducing complexity, weight, and cost.
Where does this leave us?
For about a million bucks and use of two middlin' large buildings, a town could have a pretty effective trolley system. One that can be upgraded and extended as time goes by, just as they did it in the old days. One that would be cheap to run, cheap, simple, and fast to set up, wouldn't require, though it would certainly gain from, a dedicated right of way. One that would provide local jobs (especially with all that work being done right there in the area), cut down on traffic and pollution, reduce drunk driving, build community, and generally do happy things for everybody but the local car dealer and gas station.
And the whole damn thing would cost less than many a high school football stadium.
But these are just my back of the envelope calculations. It would make me very happy indeed to see some of you out there in the world take this on.
What are your estimates? Am I massively off in my pricing? Did I forget some crucial system?
And regulations aren't discussed here at all. Clearly I have not addressed, most obviously, ADA compliance. There is typically resistance to using means such as paratransit to provide transit means for the disabled when the mainstream vehicles can be adapted. Note that in this case we're talking a system barely a mile or two long where a valid case can be made that given the vast difference in price between a conventional rail system or even bus system and this kind of trolley system and the budget and operational limits of a small town, this is not asking a choice between a compliant system and a non-compliant system but between a non-compliant system, perhaps with some supplementary paratransit service, and no system at all.
But, again, I'm done talking and now I want to see what you think.
Please, tell me.