Old operators happy to take controls of new streetcars

Jacques kelly

February 07, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

For the first passengers on the Howard Street section of the light-rail line, it was deja vu.

Years ago, these veteran Mass Transit Administration employees, most in their 50s and 60s, operated the city's fleet of streetcars and trackless trolleys. Today, they are training as light-rail motormen.

They clearly enjoy their new jobs. When their big white streetcar coasted through the longtime retail district yesterday, awed pedestrians waved their hands. The streetcar's operator rang its bell in response.

Car No. 5004, a $1.5 million state-of-the-art light-rail vehicle, made trips this week along the line. Limited service will begin in April. The official start-up of the line that runs from Camden Station (at Oriole Park) to Timonium is set for May.

The eighth light-rail vehicle was just delivered. Some 35 eventually will be in service.

MTA employees Robert Shanks, William A. Lewis, James C. Johnson Sr., Phil Schwarzenberg, Franklin Thompson, Joseph Garrett, Joe Fitzgerald, Festus Reynolds, Reginald Johnson and William Randall all took turns yesterday at the controls of the LTC training car, which made several practice runs from its home at the Reservoir Hill car barn to Camden Station.

"This is excellent equipment, the best in this country," said Mr. Randall, an instructor. He said his vehicle holds 261 people when packed to "pressure level."

At Lexington Street, a small crowd of noontime shoppers waved and smiled. One man rapped on the car's accordionlike doors and asked for a ride. The pedestrians, who seemed so amazed by the car's arrival, wouldn't get off the tracks.

"This will move 'em," said Mr. Shanks, as he first sounded a loud horn to get pedestrians off the tracks then hit the bell.

It worked. The pedestrians moved.

No. 5004 continued south toward Fayette Street.

The motormen obeyed a special set of traffic lights now installed along Howard Street. A horizontal white line means stop; vertical means go and a diagonal means proceed with caution.

Even though some MTA operators had experience on streetcars, they had to be trained to run the new light-rail cars. The instructors and supervisors went to school in California -- Sacramento, San Francisco and San Jose -- then returned here to begin test runs.

Union seniority determines who will operate the new cars. Many of the older employees left other MTA jobs -- subway and bus operators, drivers on the "money" (fare collection) truck -- for the chance to get back into a streetcar.

The car's operator-trainees said they were delighted with the streetcar's aircraft-style control panel and upholstered motorman chair. But they fell in love with the streetcar itself. "The [old] streetcars were nothing like this," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "This engineering is terrific."

One device that seemed to please him was the button marked "sand." The cars can drop sand directly on wet or slippery rails for added traction. "On the old cars, the sand would only drop straight down on straight track," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "It wouldn't work right on a curve.

"Take that Catonsville loop. The kids would get out there with chicken grease or axle grease or even Vaseline. They'd grease the rails and you'd come in there and go flying -- you couldn't stop."

Mr. Schwarzenberg, who grew up alongside the old Heath Street car barn in South Baltimore, also liked the new light-rail cars. "These are luxury liners compared to what we used to have," he said.

Mr. Schwarzenberg goes back a long way with streetcars. After a stint in the Marines, he joined the old Baltimore Transit Co. on March 24, 1958, and drove a trackless trolley on Howard Street (No. 10 line) until it was replaced by a bus.

The operator-trainees have christened a spot on the line the "Rebel Yell," named for the roller coaster at King's Dominion amusement park in Virginia. The inspiration for the Baltimore version came from a steep grade where the car tracks twist and climb through the underside of the Howard Street Bridge and Jones Falls Expressway.

"The day when we brought the first car through there, we all gave a loud rebel yell," Mr. Randall said. "Now that place will be Rebel Yell once and forever."

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