Galveston’s trolleys haven’t gone much of anywhere since they were severely damaged by Hurricane Ike in 2008.
The trolleys have, since last year, been under the care of a restoration company in Iowa, where they’re undergoing extensive repairs. Because of that extensive work, the trolleys likely won’t roll in Galveston until next year, city officials said.
Three of Galveston’s historic steel-wheel trolleys are undergoing repairs at Gomaco Trolley Co. in Ida Grove, Iowa.
The trolleys have been off the track since Hurricane Ike caused severe flooding in 2008, when Ike’s floodwaters inundated the trolley barn where the city kept the vehicles.
With the help of local advocacy and a $3 million federal grant to cover the cost of repairs, the city sent three trolleys to Iowa in the spring of 2017. The renovations entail restoring the historic elements of the trolley cars, while updating the vehicles for modern use, officials said.
The city’s four steel-wheel trolleys were damaged beyond use when Ike’s storm surge flooded the city’s bus barn. After years of debate and grant money from FEMA, the city voted to restore the trolleys in 2015. The grant was enough to cover the repair of three trolleys; the fourth one is being kept in Galveston and could be restored in the future, officials said.
The Gomaco Trolley Co. is a division of Gomaco Corp., a company that specializes in building massive concrete paving machines. The trolley company has restored streetcars and trolleys for systems in Massachusetts, Oregon, California and other states.
The city awarded its trolley restoration contract to Gomaco in 2015, said Grant Godbersen, the vice president of manufacturing at Gomaco. The first trolley was loaded onto a flatbed truck in May 2017, with the next two coming soon after.
The restoration entails several stages, much the same as designing a house, Godbersen said.
“You kind of need to finish one stage before you can move on,” he said. “We have to do an engineering study before we begin in which we almost reengineer the car. We have not built these cars before, so there’s a little bit more research involved.”
After assessing what must be done, the company acquires the necessary parts for reconstruction.
“Coming up with parts is always a challenging part of the process,” Godbersen said. “We try to restore and rebuild as much of the trolley as we can. The trolleys in Galveston are relatively new, built in the ’80s, so that makes it easier.”
Gomaco imports many of the parts from Milan, Italy, Godbersen said. The city has been restructuring its trolley system, so it’s often selling parts it doesn’t need anymore, he said.
After securing necessary parts, the company moves on to renovating the structural design and interior layout of the trolleys.
“Pretty much anything from the floor down was either majorly repaired or replaced,” Godbersen said. “The wheel units, called trucks, were replaced. Electrical units were replaced. The diesel engines and electric generators all needed to be replaced as well.”
Gomaco tries to maintain historical standards in restoration while also modernizing the trolleys’ equipment, Godbersen said.
“From a rider standpoint, it still maintains the feel of the old trolley,” he said.
Some parts of the process have proved more difficult than others, particularly regarding the replacement of the engine, which is one of the last steps in the restoration, he said.
“The power unit has to go into the same area that it was designed for in the ‘80s, so we had to do a fair amount of engineering work to get a modern engine to fit in an old compartment,” he said.
The city of Galveston hopes to have the first of the trolleys back by the end of 2018, said David Smith, Galveston’s executive director of fleet, mass transit, parks and special events. But it still will be some time after that before people can actually ride on them, Smith said. The city must test the trolleys and make sure they meet Federal Transit Administration standards before they can take on passengers.
Smith praised the trolley work underway in Iowa, and said Gomaco seemed enthusiastic about the restoration work.
“They’re throwing in a lot of extras,” Smith said. “It’s like a hobby to them.”
One of the extra details the company is working on is replacing the steel wheels on the trolley cars, he said. The restored Galveston trolleys will have smaller wheels, which should reduce screeching and help stop the cars from derailing, Smith said.
The trolleys’ return is potentially one of the last projects funded by Hurricane Ike-related grants, Smith said.
“I’m seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “I’ll be happy to get them back in service, and they’ll be better than they’ve ever been.”