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RyPN Editorials July 25, 2001
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The Power of Doing One Thing Well
The Fort Collins Municipal Railway

In much of modern American life, "bigger is better" seems to be the dominating theme. We trade in our cars for SUVs, swap our old houses for new models with two-car garages and center-isle kitchens, and "super-size" our Big Macs and fries. As in life, so in railroad preservation. Structures get built or acquired, utility bills rise, collections grow, and unrestored rolling stock jams the yard. Super-power 4-8-4s get all dressed up with no place to go. However, there is another way, as I was pleasantly reminded on a recent visit to the green and leafy college town of Fort Collins, CO.

Car 21, pride and joy of the Fort Collins Municipal Railway; Erik Ledbetter photo

There on lazy summer afternoons you will find Birney car No 21, the pride and joy of the Fort Collins Municipal Railway, shuttling up and down Mountain Avenue to the delight of tourists and locals alike. In contrast to some of our more ambitious preservation projects, the Fort Collins trolley line is simplicity itself: one car, No. 21, operating on 1.5 miles of rebuilt right-of-way between the downtown shopping district and the City Park.

Street running with autos make for an authentic streetcar experience; Erik Ledbetter photo

Yet what a miracle of preservation this hearty band of traction enthusiasts have accomplished! Step aboard No. 21 at the line's downtown terminal adjoining the restored Avery House and you are immediately transported to the 1920s and the golden age of traction. Lovingly restored between 1978 and 1984 by a dedicated team of volunteers led by Mr. Roger Smith, the Birney Safety car gleams, its cherry seats and window frames reflecting the glow of the afternoon sun. Motorman Kirk Petty releases his brake and winds up his controller, and you're off. The route takes you down Mountain Avenue, a gracious turn-of-the-century boulevard. Green shade trees line the median, and the Birney bobs and rattles its way past block after block of stately arts-and-crafts style homes. At each intersection, Kirk keeps a wary eye out for crossing traffic: the Birney has the right of way, but better safe than sorry is the order of the day. At Roosevelt Street you swing to the left with a squeal of flanges on steel rails, and another quick block of in-street running brings you to City Park and the end of your ride. Feel free to disembark and take a turn around the park's lawns and pathways; Car 21 will return to whisk you back downtown when you've finished your constitutional.

Patrons queue at City Park; the shelter was relocated from the Colorado and Southern platform at Colorado State University down the street; Erik Ledbetter photo

Everything about this experience is authentic. Car 21 is a Fort Collins original, and completely representative: from its founding in 1919 upon the wreckage of a much larger failed interurban system to its demise in 1954, the Fort Collins Municipal Railway was an all-Birney road. The route is authentic as well, traversing a major portion of the original Mountain Avenue line, one of three routes in Municipal Railway's vest-pocket transit empire. Mountain Avenue itself is timeless, its houses and lawns little altered from when the street and the streetcars were new. And the whole transit experience--taking a streetcar from the bustle of downtown to the cool of a suburban park--is 100% genuine. Put it all together, and you have an urban transportation heritage experience equaled by few other places in North America, and surpassed by none: only San Francisco's famed cable cars and New Orleans' storied St. Charles line are its match in authenticity and vintage ambiance.

Car 21 navigates the turn onto Roosevelt; Erik Ledbetter photo

Simple doesn't mean easy, and the Fort Collins Municipal Railway's success has been dearly bought. To bring their streetcar dreams to fruition, the volunteers had to overcome big-league obstacles. Chief among them were a group of property owners on Mountain Avenue who in the early 1980s banded together as the "Parkway Preservation Society," a NIMBY group which fought the streetcar forces tooth and nail when the time came to relay the rails down the avenue. OSHA complaints, political pressure, and lawsuits were all thrown in the path of the volunteers; $10,000.00 in legal fees alone were expended to hold this vocal minority at bay (for a fuller account of this saga, see the excellent article by the late Al Kilminster in Locomotive and Railway Preservation, Issue 37, September-October 1992, pp. 22-29). More recently the 1999 operating season was threatened when FCMR Master Mechanic Roger Mitchell determined that Car 21's original wheels, last replaced in 1946, were worn past the hardened chill cast layer. As the original wheels were cast iron, they could not be built up and still meet FRA regulations. Since safety is the first priority at FCMR, Car 21 was voluntarily taken out of service until new wheels could be manufactured. Quick fundraising action and a timely sponsorship from brewer Anheiser Busch enabled the fabrication of replacement AAR/FRA certified steel wheels in time to resume operations for the 1999 season.

Nor is simplicity easy to maintain. Over the years, downtown merchants and city planners have proposed various schemes to bring the streetcar line further into the heart of the restored commercial district. Many of these proposals involve terminating the line at the original streetcar barn on North Howes Street, a few blocks north of the present downtown terminal. When I spoke to FCMR veteran member James Sitzel, my conductor for the afternoon, I expected him to unroll for me the usual ambitious roster of future plans. I was unprepared for the response I actually received: "Over my dead body!" James outlined the obstacles: at the line's present length, car 21 can make two round trips per hour between Avery House and City Park; extending the line would throw off the predictability and symmetry of the schedule. Moreover, going even one block further into downtown would expose No. 21 to greater in-street running, increasing the odds of tangling with an inattentive driver--and incurring a potentially ruinous lawsuit. Finally, accepting money from the merchants or the city, however well meant, might bring with it pressures to operate on evenings and weekdays, at considerable strain both to Car 21 and her volunteer operators. No, for now Birney 21 and the Fort Collins Municipal Railway are doing fine just as they are. Expansion might yet happen, but it will occur only after careful consideration of all the pros and cons.

How many of us know how much is enough? How many of us have the courage to turn our backs on an attractive dream, if pursuing that dream means losing focus, or compromising the quality of what we already do well? The Fort Collins Municipal Railway creates magic with one streetcar, and 1.5 miles of track. They have the courage to do one thing well, and to stick to it even in the face of temptation. Something to think about the next time opportunity--or apparent opportunity--comes knocking at your organization's door.