Trains have been a part of Carl Jackson’s life since he was a kid growing up in the suburbs of Brooklyn.
He remembers getting his allowance and planning adventures from his neighborhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant to the many destinations in New York City.
It’s in his blood.
His grandfather immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic and was a subway car mechanic for 47 years. His uncle was a subway car operator and, ultimately, became a superintendent and yardmaster of one of the largest rail complexes in the world.
“When you grow up around that stuff you just get used to it,” Jackson said. “I didn’t even buy a car until I was in my 20’s. There just was no need.”
The 68-year-old was recruited to El Paso to help oversee the construction of the streetcar system. He’s helped establish streetcar systems in three other cities.
The first streetcar is slated to arrive in El Paso this week. Brookville Equipment Corporation is transporting streetcar 1506 on a special truck from it’s facility in Pennsylvania to El Paso.
Once it gets here, it will be tested in a new $9.5 million Streetcar Maintenance and Storage Facility by Sun Metro’s bus transfer center. Jackson will be the first to operate the streetcar. He has the most experience and helped the Brookville engineers make some modifications to the streetcar’s controls.
“Obviously my main interest is to make sure everything works as it’s supposed to,” he said. “When I am done, my entire staff will be trained on it.”
He said 20 operators will be chosen to drive the streetcars. But, before they can drive, they’ll have to memorize a 40-page rulebook. After that, they’ll practice driving the streetcars without passengers “a lot.”
“We are not going to be stopping to pick anybody up. We will be testing, testing, testing, and if I didn’t say so, testing continuously,” he said. “Our desire is to make this perfect or as perfect as you can make something be.”
The streetcar system is expected to open to the public just before Thanksgiving. When it opens, Jackson said El Pasoans will be able to ride the streetcars for $1.50.
And how fast can the newly refurbished streetcars go?
Jackson said they can go up to 50 miles per hour. But they’ll operate between 30 mph and 35 mph.
The streetcars have also been refurbished to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Each will have three bike racks and Wi-Fi.
Jackson and five members of his staff sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about his upbringing, how they’ll test the streetcars and why Jackson plans to retire in El Paso.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Aaron Montes at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 105. Twitter: @aaronmontes91.
Q: What’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks?
We are expecting the first streetcar to be here in that period. That’s our understanding. The company that’s restoring the streetcar has become a victim of its own success, and everyone is looking at it. The city of Boston for example is getting ready to do their PCC streetcars. They’ve had their originals since the 1940s.
Q: Has that delayed anything?
Yeah, there’s been a couple of delays. But if you’re taking a product as old as ours, which is 80 years old, and doing what we’re asking them to do, which is not only restore it but incorporate modern amenities, there’s been some engineering challenges. These are the original vehicles that ran here up until the 1970s.
Q: How will the streetcars be transported to El Paso?
They’ll be coming on a flatbed truck. After the first car gets here, they’re scheduled to arrive one every month.
What we’re going to do, especially for the first one, is we’re going to block off Father Rahm, and I am not going to say where. And the truck will arrive with the orientation so we don’t have to worry about turning the streetcar around.
These are specialized delivery vehicles. What these trailers do is they can drop down on one end of it and create a ramp. The streetcar is hooked up to a wench that is built onto the trailer and it’ll release the brakes on the streetcar and it’ll roll off onto the street. We block the wheels so it doesn’t roll. We hook up the tow vehicle and tow it into our facility here.
Q: What’s the first thing you’ll do with it?
We have to put it together. The vendor will have people on site. It’s called post-delivery setup. There’s parts of it they have to take off to reduce the height for when they go under overpasses as they drive down. Once they put the pieces back together, they’ll power it up and test it and make sure everything works as it’s supposed to under those conditions before we actually take it out on the track and run it.
Q: When you start testing the streetcars, are there any areas El Pasoans should avoid?
Not really avoid per se, but they will see the streetcars going down the street. We are not going to be stopping to pick anybody up. We will be testing, testing, testing, and if I didn’t say so, testing continuously. Our desire is to make this perfect or as perfect as you can make something be. Our level of dedication is to test it, review it, test it and make sure we get it right.
Q: What hours of the day will you test them?
You’ll see us out there any time of the day or night, including Sundays. We’ll be there after dark, maybe up to 2 o’clock in the morning.
Q: Who will be the first to operate one?
I will. The main reason is only because I’ve had the most experience operating rail vehicles. I worked with Brookville in modifying some of the initial designs. So, obviously, my main interest is to make sure everything works as it’s supposed to. When I am done, my entire staff will be trained on it.
Q: Do you have any idea how many people are interested in becoming streetcar operators?
Well, verbally talking to a lot of the staff, it seems like everybody has quite a bit of interest to get involved in this. There’s going to be a commitment. Operators I have talked to at random seem to really want to get involved and find out what it’s all about.
Q: Have you asked for applications?
Not yet. That’s in the next phase.
Q: How many operators will there be?
Right now, 20. After we get the first cars tested and ready for additional testing out on the main track, we will enter a period known as “pre-revenue operations.” It’s like a big dress rehearsal. We do everything except pick up people.
Operators will be dressed in their uniforms, following the rules, etc. During that period, we test our operational profiles. Should we have two cars here? Four cars here? Should we start at this time? That is probably the second most important series of events because we have to figure out the best way to deliver the service to the public.
Q: How many people can a streetcar hold?
That’s a good question. I just don’t remember off the top of my head, because there’s been some modification to the seating. The modifications are we can now load wheel chairs onto the streetcar. We have an ADA compliant lift.
The seats that would normally be in that area to accommodate passengers, now they’re fold-up seats. To add to that, there was a specialized car that used to go over the bridge to Juárez called the Cisneros car – car number 1511. We’re actually duplicating the same seating arrangement that it had right in the beginning.
Instead of having perimeter seating in the back, what is known as lounge seating, the seating will resemble a half-moon through the back of the streetcar. We will have bike racks on board as well. There’ll be three bike racks. We want everyone to be able to ride.
Q: How far away should a car stay away from them?
If you’re following, I would recommend people stay at least two car lengths. You should never tailgate anyway. Part of that is it gives you some time to respond. The streetcar will be stopping in places that maybe you don’t expect it to stop.
If you’re next to it, there’s basically a white line that will be painted in the street. Stay on the outside of that white line. That white line denotes what we call our dynamic envelope, which is the space the streetcar takes up as it goes down the street.
Q: When did you get into transportation?
I’ve always been a train junkie, if you will. Living in Washington State after I left the Navy, I went to work for Honeywell. In the 1980s, the bottom fell out of aerospace so I started looking for another job.
A friend of mine suggested I go work for King County Metro Transit in Seattle. My thought initially was, wow, they don’t have trains here. So, I was with the county for 25 years and worked in communications, operations, fleet engineering, procurement and ultimately we started the rail section in 2000.
We started up the first Seattle streetcar, the first modern system in Seattle. We put that in service in 2007.
Q: So you got to see the beginnings of Seattle’s public transportation projects. What was it like?
It was exciting. They’re at a point where ridership has advanced far more than thought.
Q: Where else have you worked in transportation?
I left Seattle and went to Atlanta and started up the Atlanta streetcar. After that got going, I was brought in to provide technical support as a consultant for the Kansas City streetcar, which is how I met one of my compadres here. From there, I was brought into to start El Paso’s streetcar.
Any of these startups take two to three years, so we moved into El Paso in June 2016.
Q: When did El Paso representatives reach out to you and how?
Jay Banasiak, the director of mass transit here in El Paso, was in Kansas City when two industry summits were going on. A mutual friend introduced us and we went out and had a great Italian dinner and lots of vino. He asked me, “Would I be interested in coming to El Paso to start the streetcar line?”
Now, I didn’t know anything El Paso other than some things that the wife and I had seen on TV. We used to watch this show called “The Bridge.” In watching that and seeing Juárez having all this crime, when I posed the idea of coming here to the wife she kind of shot me that look – like I was nuts. I said there has to be some level of intellectualism at the time because they’re building the streetcar. They’re not gonna build it so people can shoot at it as it goes down the street.
It was the best move we ever made. I’ve met the absolute best people here.
Q: How do you like El Paso?
I love it here. As I said, I met the nicest people here. We are happy enough here to retire.
We like to go shopping. We’ll go to the Fountains at Farah. We like to get out and walk. Where we live on the far Eastside, everything is in walking distance, from the grocery store to the gym. We like going to the farmers market on Saturday mornings and the farmers market in Las Cruces. It just varies.
I want to say, my staff are an absolute blessing. I picked all these people. Some I’ve worked with before but also some others that have not been involved in rail before. They’re soaking it up like a sponge. Everybody here brings something special to the project.
Q: Where do you call home?
I grew up in Bed-Stuy initially, and when I turned 13, we moved to East New York. If you’re a train junkie like I am, that’s it. There’s a ton of deals to go ahead and ride on.
Q: Some Brooklynites I’ve met said they’d never leave their borough. Did you leave the borough a lot?
I travelled a lot. I went everywhere. As a kid, I’d get my allowance and I would have these little field trips. I’d get on the subway and go to Manhattan, the Bronx or what used to be the Pennsylvania Railroad and then go to New Jersey and just ride and explore.
Q: What got you into trains and transportation?
I am a third generation transit guy. My grandfather came to this country from Santo Domingo, which is now in the Dominican Republic. He worked on the subway. He was a subway car mechanic for 47 years. His son, my uncle, came back from World War II and became an operator and then he ultimately became a superintendent and yardmaster at the Coney Island Complex, which is the largest complex of its kind in the world.
They used to take me on the subway everywhere. When you grow up around that stuff you just get used to it. I didn’t even buy a car until I was in my 20’s. There just was no need.
Q: Do you remember your first ride?
I was seven years old and they took me on what we know as the old BMT – the Brighton Beach Line to Coney Island. The one thing I remember to this day, always, always, always, is that as the train gets close to Brighton Beach, you can smell the saltwater from the ocean.
You just hop on the subway and go to the beach. Go swimming. Ride on a roller coaster. Get something to eat. You don’t forget something like that.