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  • Writer's pictureJohn Woodman

The tram that revolutionised north america

By the early 1930s American operators of 'streetcars' were desperately looking for a more upmarket alternative to retain their ridership as car ownership and more comfortable buses eroded revenue. A cooperative organisation was formed with a core number of major operators known as the Presidents Conference Committee. With a team of engineers, designers and testing laboratory in Brooklyn, New York, the result was a totally new streetcar incorporating silent running (depending on track condition of course), smooth acceleration and braking, one man operation, clean light interiors, comfortable seating and not an ounce of wood anywhere in the construction.

The 'PCC Car' as it became known was launched appropriately in Brooklyn and in Pittsburgh which went on to become one of the largest operators of this design in North America. Its success is underlined by the fact it 'saved' several systems from conversion to buses - at least in the following three decades. Cities in North America with PCC Cars included : Washington DC, San Francisco, Birmingham, Detroit, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles, Dallas, Boston, Philadephia, Baltimore and latterly El Paso and Newark both of which took on fleets of second hand examples from San Diego and Minneapolis respectively. In Canada Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal adopted examples with Toronto snapping up many in second (and third) hand bargain deals from US systems closing in the 50s and 60s. Below : Philadelphia (SEPTA) Den Haag - narrower bodywork for europe

The technology and much of the design of the PCC Car found its way to Europe with classic examples being acquired by The Hague and the Belgian Vicinal system. The latter fleet ending up in Belgrade. Washington DC PCC Cars were exported to Barcelona for a short second life, while others were acquired by Sarajevo in Yugoslavia. Mexico City bought second hand examples from Detroit while others appeared in Costa Rica. Below : Pittsburgh (PAT) and San Francisco Market Street Railway heritage fleet - painted in liveries of US cities which operated PCC Cars making a marvellous tourist addition to that city's transport heritage.

The technology was licensed to overseas manufacturers - in the case of Belgium this was the ACEC and BN groups who used it to develop a design more suited to the more narrow and restricted road conditions in European cities. The city of Brussels took up the new model in the 1950s and purchased several series including articulated versions. Ghent and Antwerp upgraded their antique two axle fleets with the Belgian originated PCC design, whilst other examples went to St Etienne and Marseilles. Of course Blackpool was the beneficiary of all of this technology with the UK VAMBAC derivative (licensed from the PCC patent owning entity by Crompton Parkinson) with Maley & Taunton similarly licensed to utilise the resilient wheel bogies and associated equipment. Blackpool was the only UK tram operator to have a fleet of cars with US originated PCC technology - with 39 examples in all. Of which two examples - Marton Vambac 11 and Coronation 304 are preserved complete with UK derivative PCC technology. Leeds 602 has also fortunately been preserved at the Crich Museum but the sole Glasgow experimental car 1005 was sadly allowed to go for scrap - one of its bogies survives.

San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston continue to operate PCC cars in public service some eighty years after the first prototypes entered service - and they are as popular with the public today as they were at their launch. Quite a remarkable success. All images : John Woodman

(Header - a great lineup at San Francisco in the 1970s)

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