Thursday, October 6, 2016

Streetcars in the Valley of the Sun

Frank writes...

A family wedding took my wife and me to Phoenix, Arizona this past weekend and while there I (of course) had to do some railfanning. I rode the still-kinda-new light rail line and even got a chance to visit the Arizona Street Railway Museum, also known as the Phoenix Trolley Museum.

You can be excused for not being familiar with ASRM. It is, or at least was, one of the smallest operating trolley museums in the country, with about 200' of track, one switch, a two-stall barn, and three pieces of equipment. The photo above shows John Drury, an ASRM volunteer who was kind enough to show me around, in front of the barn. The museum was open but it's been a few years since they operated anything. The museum sits on city property behind a historic house museum, which John offered to show me through, but I have to admit I declined. I mean, it's a house, I have one at home.
Here's the pride of the fleet: Phoenix Street Railway 116, built by American in 1928. It's a double-truck, double-ended safety car, basically a Birney but with bigger end windows. It also has doors at all four corners similar to the Milwaukee 900s.
Car 116 was retired in 1948 when streetcar service in Phoenix ended and the body was acquired by the museum in 1977. The restoration work that went into the car is pretty impressive given that the volunteers who did the work had limited resources, virtually no spare parts, and none of the institutional knowledge that we sometimes take for granted. Overall the interior of the car looks rather nice and, overall, appears pretty authentic give or take some details.
That brings us to the car's mechanical state. Remember that "no spare parts" thing? Well when ASRM was restoring the car body they had no trucks, motors, controllers, etc to actually make the body into a complete car. What they did have was a whole bunch of stuff from Phelps-Dodge, which had just shut down a 250-volt rail operation at its smelter in Douglas. So car 116 was made operational - sorta - using 250v equipment from Phelps-Dodge. The resulting motorman's position is shown above. It doesn't look bad.
The last time I was in this car was maybe 20 years ago and it was running, after a fashion. This photo, which was printed and hung along the wall of the barn together with some other shots from the restoration of car 116, shows one of the trucks that it sat on. The Douglas smelter didn't have any equipment with normal streetcar trucks so ASRM built a pair of arch-bar trucks using some parts from Bettendorf freight car trucks and put car 116 on them. One truck carried the brake rigging and the other truck was connected by chain to a traction motor mounted to the frame of the car. Curves aren't a problem on this route.
As bizarre as this arrangement was, it worked and the car was made operational and ran back and forth for some years. But I suspect the ASRM folks always wanted to improve on this setup and in 2008 they were able to do just that. The car now sits on Brill streetcar trucks, as seen above, which are correct Brill 177E1X's or something extremely close. Unfortunately it still needs more work to be made operational; it lacks correct controllers, grids, brake rigging, air tanks, and compressor. But one of these days it should make a really nice operating car.
In additional to car 116 there are two other pieces of equipment at ASRM. One is car 504 (originally 108), shown above, which is from the same series as car 116. This car is probably unique among preserved streetcars in that it was a monkey house at the zoo for a time, but in 2001 the body was acquired in fairly complete condition. For better or worse it was then stripped down to the condition shown above, but the components are in storage and the template is sitting on the next track over.
And then out in front, at the east end of the 200' main line next to the house museum, is Phelps-Dodge locomotive 17 from the Douglas smelter operation. This locomotive was operational as recently as about five years ago, John said, and is still presumably fully functional. It may be low-slung but it is standard gauge. According to the builder's info cast into its frame it was built at the works in Douglas, A.T. in December 1906.
I thought this was kind of interesting: a chronological display of different types of track, starting with some really lightweight old stuff and moving forwards to the end of the Phoenix streetcar era.

The Bad News

The bad news is that ASRM has lost its lease, and after a few decades here in the city park it is being evicted in September 2017. They are looking at options but they have few financial resources and a small volunteer base. Ideally the museum would like to co-locate with some other attraction, to increase foot traffic, but at the moment it's not certain where exactly that would be. Hopefully ASRM is able to find a good home - they're certainly working hard on that now - but this is yet another lesson in why a museum must own its own land. Too many railway museums are on the precipice because they're on leased land. It's another thing we at IRM take for granted - that our entire museum cannot be snatched away from us at someone else's whim - but that scenario is the current reality for ASRM.

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