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A Birney or Birney Safety Car is a type of streetcar that was manufactured in the United States in the 1910s and 1920s. The design was small and light and was intended to be an economical means of providing frequent service at a lower infrastructure and labor cost than conventional streetcars. Production of Birney cars lasted from 1915 until 1930, and more than 6,000 of the original, single-truck version were built. Several different manufacturers built Birney cars. The design was "the first mass-produced standard streetcar (albeit with minor variations)" in North America.
The Birney car was the joint 1915 invention of Charles O. Birney and Joseph M. Bosenbury (who was issued the patents in 1917 and 1919, and assigned half to Birney; see Brill page 140). Birney was an engineer with the firm of Stone & Webster, an operator of a number of trolley systems in the United States in the early part of the 20th century. The design was named the "Safety Car", and became known as the "Birney Safety Car" and ultimately simply as the "Birney" car.
The vehicle was a return to single-truck (single-bogie) streetcars. Birneys were small and light, about a third the weight of conventional cars of the period; were of rugged, standardized construction; mass-produced and inexpensively built. Twin motors gave them nimble acceleration. Birney cars averaged about 28 feet (8.5 m) in length and typically had seating for about 32 passengers.
The largest producer of Birney Safety Cars was the American Car Company, a subsidiary of J. G. Brill, but several other companies also manufactured Birneys.
The Birney was designed to operate with only a motorman, saving the cost of the conductor. The advent of World War I made single-person operation additionally attractive as it addressed the wartime labor shortage. When labor was available, Birneys could be operated at more frequent intervals, prompting the slogan "A Car in Sight at all Times". This latter attraction was one of the street railway industry's first attempts to deal directly with automobile competition.
The Birney Car also introduced the use of pneumatically balanced and interlocked doors. If a door was stuck open, or a passenger or other object blocked the door, the motors could not be started.
The controls on the Birney Car also included an early application of the "deadman control". This device removed power from the car's motors if the controller handle was released for any reason. The car would then coast to a stop, or could be braked to a stop by the motorman.
A longer, double-truck version of the Birney car was developed in the 1920s, incorporating its most successful features. These were sold to a number of systems, including that of Tampa, Florida, and to the Texas Interurban Railway, which used them exclusively. In addition to 11 double-truck passenger cars, which featured deluxe interior appointments and toilets for interurban service, the Texas Interurban operated 3 unusual Birney-based double-truck express cars without passenger seats or windows– the only cars of this type ever built.
Thousands of the cars were purchased from their inception to a few years after the end of the war. Production peaked in 1920, with 1,699 cars built in that year alone, but then declined rapidly and ended in 1930.
Birney cars began to fall from favor in part because of the features that had originally made them attractive. Their light weight could be a problem in snow that a heavier car could easily plow through. Their short length made their ride quality comparatively poor, and on poorly maintained track they derailed easily. The public began to deride them as flimsy. Their limited passenger capacity rendered them unsuitable for busy routes and rush hour service, causing them to be relegated to minor lines or to be sold mostly to small-town streetcar systems.
The streetcar companies also found that the safety features of the Birney, such as the use of interlocked doors to prevent the car from starting if a door was open or a passenger was stuck, could be incorporated in larger cars and that the public was not as disturbed by the absence of the conductor as the companies had feared.
Its initial rise and fall notwithstanding, the Birney car was useful and durable, and many were shipped to streetcar systems in other countries, especially ones located in smaller cities and towns, where they served for additional decades. For example, the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, bought up Birneys secondhand from other systems across North America to build an "all-Birney fleet" and keep its streetcar system going in the difficult years of the Great Depression and World War II, finally retiring its last car in 1949.
Although the vast majority of the cars built were sold to streetcar operators in North America (including in Mexico and Cuba), a small number went to much more distant places, such as Australia and New Zealand. In the latter, Birney cars were imported for use by the provincial centres of New Plymouth in the North Island and Invercargill in the South Island, reputedly the world's most southerly tramway system. Cities in South America whose streetcar companies purchased Birney cars included Concordia and Paraná, in Argentina, while Guayaquil in Ecuador obtained Birneys secondhand from Trenton, New Jersey. The Colombian cities of Medellín and Pereira both were served by Birney streetcars, the former's fleet being made up entirely of Birney cars – 61 of them – of both single- and double-truck configuration.
A number of Birney cars remain in use today in North America at trolley museums and heritage streetcar operations. Single examples of original Birney cars are in service on heritage streetcar lines in Tampa, FL, Fort Collins, Colorado and Fort Smith, Arkansas, as well as on the McKinney Avenue Transit Authority line in Dallas, Texas. In Canada, the Nelson Electric Tramway (in Nelson, B.C.) has one fully restored Birney car. Additionally, replica Birney cars built by Gomaco are in service in at least four U.S. cities (see below).
In Australia, seven of the eight Birney cars imported there have survived in operating condition: five are at Bendigo Tramways, one at the Australian Electric Transport Museum in St. Kilda, South Australia, and one at the Hawthorn Tram Depot in Melbourne. Thus, Australia has a high proportion of the world's surviving, operable Birney cars. In New Zealand, New Plymouth Birney No. 8 is preserved by the Wanganui Tramways Trust, in Wanganui, and Invercargill Birney car No. 15 is preserved by the Tramway Historical Society at the Ferrymead Heritage Park, located at Ferrymead in Christchurch.
In the United States, the Gomaco Trolley Company has built at least 18 replica Birney cars, in the style of the less-common double-truck Birney car design, since 1999. Gomaco fitted these with trucks from ex-Milan, Italy Peter Witt streetcars. These have been supplied to Tampa, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; Little Rock, Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee. Gomaco also restored an original single-truck Birney car body in 2002–3 for the Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District in Fresno, California; this was intended for static display in a local park.
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