Swapping streetcar parts can be a profitable trade

Exchange: A small, underground network of traders keeps streetcars -- on city's streets and in museums like Baltimore's -- on track.

September 26, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Dave Lathrop was keen on Hank Jaeger's three sets of trucks -- swiveling wheel frames that would perfectly fit both the Stone & Webster and Birney streetcars under restoration at the Historic Railroad Shops in Savannah, Ga.

Jaeger was taken by Lathrop's wheels, axles and motors, extra parts that would help complete several streetcars and a crane at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum on Falls Road.

Theirs was a simple, two-way swap, not nearly as convoluted as some exchanges among antique streetcar enthusiasts that can involve as many as five parties.

With every trade, another streetcar comes closer to getting back on track at museums and tourist railroads and in towns discovering the appeal and efficiency of vintage mass transit.

In the museum world, bartering for recyclable artifacts is a practice unique to mechanical historical preservation, Jaeger says. For a nonprofit with a modest operating budget such as the street car museum, it's the main way to go.

"We'd rather not sell something. We'd rather trade something," says Jaeger, the museum's director of development, who is currently looking to barter for a snow sweeper streetcar and parts to restore a handicap-accessible centerdoor car.

It's "cheaper to trade away something we don't need for something we could use," says Jaeger, a Verizon systems engineer involved with the museum since 1968. Most streetcar parts are no longer manufactured, and for small museums, replication costs can be prohibitive. Don't even think about new streetcars; they cost more than $800,000.

"A lot of us barter because we have no money and big junk yards," Lathrop says. A Charlotte, N.C.-based historic preservation consultant working at the Savannah museum, Lathrop calls the lively bartering network that extends from coast to coast among streetcar enthusiasts a "sub economy" where need, not value, is the driving force. Often, a museum would rather swap for a desired part, even if it means trading away something more valuable for something less valuable. Having the part in hand, activating the streetcars, is the ultimate goal.

It's a small network, dependent on a few central players who seem to know everybody and every streetcar out of commission. When explaining the used trolley parts market to Savannah financial officers, Lathrop inevitably calls the network "a couple of dozen guys with telephones."

This is Lathrop's first visit to Baltimore. Jaeger met him in Savannah last summer when he stopped by that city's railroad museum. There, they initiated their first swap. For Jaeger, the bargain was more than a good deal; it meant playing a role in a project he strongly believes in.

At the Historic Railroad Shops, Lathrop and museum staff are rehabbing a used streetcar for a demonstration run along Savannah's waterfront in a state- and city-funded program geared toward commuters, tourists and convention goers.

In 1995, Jaeger was part of a local coalition that proposed restoring trolleys and running them along the Inner Harbor as a tourist attraction and convention center shuttle. Their plan, which predicted 600,000 riders annually, went nowhere in City Hall.

Jaeger admires Savannah's gumption. "I want to see him succeed, OK? It's sort of like, I don't know how to put it without sounding really bad -- Baltimore couldn't do it, now Savannah's going to. We can point to their waterfront and say, `See what we could have had.' "

Having faith in the integrity of a form of transit once thought to be obsolete and rescuing abandoned streetcar bodies doubling as chicken coops, homes and diners takes grit -- and tons and tons of parts. Many dead streetcars are now mechanical organ donors. Their parts are scattered across the country in the service of resuscitated kin trundling along born-again city streets from Seattle to Tampa.

More and more municipalities are trying to "solve rubber tire vehicle problems" by reintroducing streetcars, Lathrop says. "They're clean, they're quiet, they're really cute," he says.

Before attending the annual Association of Railway Museums conference in Scranton, Pa., Lathrop came to Baltimore last week to poke through the Streetcar museum's warehouse where he examines lathes, wheels and any number of dusty spare parts with Jaeger and Ed Amrhein, vice president of engineering for the museum. Two streetcar controllers on a shelf catch Lathrop's attention. The mechanisms, which control the speed of the car, are "just what I need for one of our little Birney car bodies," Lathrop says. He and Amrhein, who appears to devote as much time to the museum as his family plumbing business, will talk trade possibilities later.

It's always like this when Lathrop visits other museums. Take the tour, hit the gift shop, then "spend three hours with another guy in greasy overalls crawling over everything in the junkyard."

Even when not trading, streetcar and rail buffs are scavenging. Several years ago, the Baltimore Streetcar Museum bought 10 trolleys from Boston for a nominal sum, plus shipping costs. Some of those parts, if unusable in Baltimore, may become critical in a future swap for something the museum can use.

Technology is gradually filling spare parts needs, Lathrop says. One company is adapting motors and wheels made for electric mine cars for streetcar use, for example.

But for now, most streetcars would grind to a halt without the parts underground. And so would efforts to incorporate them into plans for urban revitalization. Bartering, on line, by phone, in person is a pivotal piece of the effort. "Networking is what it is all about," Lathrop says. "None of us could do anything without knowing anybody else."

When the Railway Museum conference draws to a close, he'll sit down with compatriots over a beer in the hospitality room. And the horse trading will begin.

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