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Sunday, 20 September 2009

Riding with the Presidents’ Conference Committee

Summer Sundays in Amsterdam bring the opportunity to take the leisurely ride out to the Amsterdamse Bos, with the chance of a peek at the back gardens of Amstelveen, thanks to the volunteers of the Tramway Museum. They run a service from the Haarlemmermeerstation out to Bovenkerk. Today the journey could have been made on historic trams from Vienna, Amsterdam and Prague, but I rode in some comfort on den Haag 1024.

And there’s one reason that 1024 is as comfortable as any modern tram: she may be 57 years old, but this car is a PCC. What that? Back in the interwar years, the Presidents of many tramway (or streetcar) lines across the USA met to find a way to counter the challenge of bus and car competition. The subsequent Presidents’ Conference Committee gave its initials to the cars built to the standards they laid down.

In mainland Europe, PCCs were built under licence by La Brugeoise in Belgium, for Brussels and also, from 1948 through into the 1970s, for den Haag. The replacements for the den Haag cars used similar bogie trucks – so similar that the second batch of them re-used trucks from withdrawn PCCs. The ride of these trams is still of demonstration standard: indeed, modern trams that don’t use articulation, or trucks at the very ends of the car, for me do not ride nearly as well (Herr Siemens and Monsieur Alstom please note).

The PCCs built in the USA totalled around 1650, and it was a success in at least prolonging the lives of many operations. But the ultimate success of the PCC came far, far away from its home turf: the rights holders sold a licence to CKD Tatra – near Prague – whose iconic T3 tram alone had a build run of over 14,000, but only behind the Iron Curtain. Many of the trams are still in service today.

All this passed the UK by, as by the end of the 30s, most cities had determined to switch to buses. One operation, in Blackpool, ordered modern trams and the heads of other operators were invited to come and sample the product. All were impressed, but one of their number summed up the sad truth:

“There’s only one thing wrong – you’re twenty years too late”.

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