Thanks to nearly $300,000 in SAFETEA-LU funding, the Johnstown Traction  Co. #355 trolley car will soon ride the rails again, more than 80 years  after its original launch.
Photo: Matt Nawn Thanks to nearly $300,000 in SAFETEA-LU funding, the Johnstown Traction Co. #355 trolley car will soon ride the rails again, more than 80 years after its original launch.

It might have been the end of the line for a retired trolley car, had a group of dedicated railway enthusiasts not stepped up to revive it. As a result, the car is nearly restored to its former glory, and the people behind its rejuvenation got a valuable lesson in how to use federal transportation funding to make things happen.

The trolley car—formally known as Johnstown Traction Co. #355—traversed the Pennsylvania rails for years after its debut in 1926. However, decades of wear, then neglect after it stopped running, left it in disrepair. In 2000, Railways to Yesterday Inc., an educational non-profit organization, took up #355's cause and set out to rehabilitate the car.

“We didn't fully realize what the requirements for this type of project would be,” says Matthew Nawn, P.E., Railways to Yesterday's first vice president, project manager for the #355 restoration project, and mechanical engineer with the National Institutes of Health. “We'd never contracted services for such a large and comprehensive project.”

The effort would require replacing half of the trolley's wood-and-steel structure, fabricating and installing new exterior steel body sheets, complete rewiring, and more—at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Railways to Yesterday used a significant amount of internal resources to begin the effort—including $25,000 in professional construction management and administration services—but eventually looked outside to secure funding in 2004. The complex effort required the work of a lot of knowledgeable and dedicated volunteers.

“When we decided to apply for funding, individuals both outside and within the organization voiced their doubts,” says Nawn. “We're fortunate that our dedicated corps of volunteers provided the necessary leadership, a vast array of skills, and a remarkable level of dedication.”

The initial specifications were prepared by a volunteer from the Rockhill Trolley Museum (operated by Railways to Yesterday) in Rockhill Furnace, Pa., then approved by a professional engineer. Nawn credits thousands of volunteer hours, expertise lent by engineers and other experts, and a meticulously detailed plan as the reasons behind their successful push for SAFETEA-LU funds.

“Never underestimate what your organization could do with the right combination of leadership, skills, and a commitment to succeed,” he says.

Railways to Yesterday, via SAFETEA-LU, ultimately received $270,000 in funding to restore #355, and the contracted portion of the project was finished on June 23, 2006. In addition to restoring a transportation treasure, the project will provide the city with additional revenue.

“The Rockhill Trolley Museum and neighboring East Broad Top Railroad are major tourist attractions,” says Nawn. “The car itself will help increase museum visitation, and it will operate reliably and safely for many years to come, enabling the museum to give visitors a firsthand experience of what riding a trolley car was like.”

And according to Nawn, hard work and selfless effort kept the restoration effort from getting derailed.

“It didn't take heroism,” he says. “It simply took a passion for historic preservation, and a proper balance of the talents we already possessed.”