New-generation streetcar, with a European high-tech design, is a real attention grabber

Jacques Kelly

September 19, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

Its body is Danish. The brains are Swedish. And the motor is out of Finland.

Each night No. 5001 sleeps in a cavernous blue and yellow barn that looks like the first cousin of an IKEA home furnishings store.

The state's first light-rail car looks like a boxy, arctic-white enamel appliance. At first glance, you wonder if it's a product of Volvo or Saab, but then think it hails from the design staff of Braun coffee makers and toasters.

What does not come to mind is old-fashioned streetcar, the parent of this state-of-the-art rail car. But then its bell dings and it shoots off, at 55 mph, from North Avenue to Woodberry in the Jones Falls Valley.

The shakedown ride is smooth, quiet and unexpectedly fast. There are few, if any, of the clicks and clacks associated with streetcar systems. Pacing along the old Northern Central Railroad's path, the car moves through a leafy green channel alongside the Jones Falls stream.

The 95-foot-long vehicle, actually a double car with a center turning table, has attracted considerable attention since it began fine-tuning operations a few weeks ago. Two or three pedestrians often watch the testing operations from the western end of the North Avenue Bridge adjacent to the Reservoir Hill neighborhood. It travels an abbreviated stretch of a planned 27.5-mile line (Hunt Valley to Ferndale) more than a dozen times a day. But it's not ready for riders yet.

The tuning operation is serious and involved. Swedish engineers Bjorn Wiklander and Mats Svantesson signal an MTA motorman to run the car. On a plywood panel dropped over the tops of the seats, they've assembled a lap-top computer and printer. They test for acceleration and torque. The printer feeds out an eight-foot-long column of paper that looks like the results from a lie-detector test. The results tell the electrical engineers what needs adjusting before the rest of the 30-odd car fleet arrives.

"We take notes in Swedish for security reasons," Wiklander says with a grin.

"People don't begin to realize what's in store here," says Ronald J. Hartman, chief of the Mass Transit Administration. "We still expect to carry people for the first stadium game. It's going to be an experience. People will be able to look out the windows and see what's going on -- the best of a bus and subway. I'm excited."

The car was constructed by ABB (Asea Brown Boveri), a large overseas electrical engineering firm. Its engineers had the car body made in Denmark, the motors in Finland and the operating computer in Sweden. Other parts were made in Timonium.

The inside of the car is roomy, with traditional two-person seats (blue upholstery pad insets) along each side of the aisle. About 40 feet along the first car is a circular panel in the flooring which allows the car to swing around corners and curves. Hidden from view is the computer which assists in the car's operation.

"The car has attracted so much attention I'm afraid it's going to cause a driving accident on the Jones Falls Expressway," Hartman says of the test vehicle's numerous curious onlookers.

Construction crews are working on the line, which is designed when completed fully, to run from Anne Arundel County through Baltimore to Hunt Valley. The cost is estimated at $450 million and a series of bridges had to be constructed near the Howard Street Bridge and in South Baltimore, at Hamburg Street and across the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

While there is heavy construction under way at Howard and Read Streets and at Dolphin Street and Mount Royal Avenue, parts of the system are in an advanced state of completion. The overhead electric wires, which feed power to the cars via a pickup shoe, are "hot" from North Avenue to Woodberry, the test track section. Utility work began this summer on the south end of line in Anne Arundel County.

Next month, if all goes as planned, the light-rail car will be pushed or towed along Howard Street to test for clearance. The Howard Street section, from Camden Station to Mount Royal Avenue, is the lone section of track that runs in city streets. The principal portions of the line operate on the old Northern Central (Pennsylvania) and Baltimore and Annapolis railroad rights of way. Rail links to Pennsylvania Station, BWI Airport and Hunt Valley also are on the drawing board.

Over the past two years, workers have constructed a light-rail staging area at a former fruit and produce unloading yard just south of Druid Hill Park and the 28th Street Bridge. Rail switches, storage tracks and a large car shop building now bustle in this area. The main building, with its gray walls and blue, yellow and red trim has reminded more than one person of the White Marsh IKEA store.

"The car shop is a little better than your typical gray industrial building," Hartman says. "We wanted it that way."

Workers also have constructed three large boarding platforms at North Avenue for riders who may transfer to the busy No. 13 crosstown bus.

The first car, Hartman says, has been successful. Nevertheless, the state has handed a "punch list" of 500 items to be checked out.

4 "We're pleased but not surprised," Hartman says.

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