Grounded Eagle

The carriage of one of the Mount Roberts Tramway cars lies, surrounded by caution tape, on the sidewalk in front of the tram hangar. Inside the hangar, the Eagle car sits detached from the cable above it.

Though it may look alarming to passers-by, this tram dissection is all part of routine maintenance.

“This is a car-rebuild year, so when you see all those pieces laying around, that’s OK; that’s a good thing,” said Joann Flora, manager of tourism marketing for Goldbelt Inc., which owns the tramway.

Every four years, a crew of four tram maintenance workers takes apart each of the cars — Eagle and Raven — for a safety inspection. The cars are on alternating four-year cycles, which means Raven will be rebuilt next year.

After taking the cars apart, an out-of-town inspector comes to make sure that everything is working as it should. The tram maintenance team, led by Director of Maintenance Joe Puliafico, then replaces any parts that need to be swapped out and puts the cars back together.

“We’re just double checking to make sure nothing is cracked, nothing is worn out,” Puliafico said.

It’s not quite as easy as taking things apart and putting them back together, though. Rebuilding the tram cars, which were built by a French company, requires ordering a lot of parts from France, which Puliafico said can get “spendy.”

For instance, the carriage from which the tram car hangs contains four “safety bolts,” which are custom made in France. Each of these bolts — about five inches in length and unassuming in appearance — costs $1,200.

All told, Puliafico estimates that he spends about $20,000 on parts from France every time he and his crew have to rebuild one of the cars. They also spend about $500 dollars on less-specialized bolts and other hardware, and they have to repaint the cars, which Puliafico said he does at SS Auto Body and Paint here in town.

This year, he put the Eagle car on a boat trailer and pulled it to the auto repair shop, which he said he chose because it was the only place he could find with garage large enough to fit the tram car.

Tim Boynton, the tram’s maintenance supervisor, has been taking care of the tram cars for 12 years. During that time, he said he’s learned to become a more detail-oriented person in the name of safety, which is the reason for the rebuilds.

“It’s a little easier this time than the first time around,” Boynton said.

This is at least in part because Boynton has picked up some French while on the job. This is important because the tram schematics are written in French, and Google isn’t great at translating mechanical jargon, he said jokingly.

“The only French I know has to do with mechanics,” he said. “We’ve translated the schematics to a sense, but that’s probably the most abstract thing we’ve had to overcome. Learning the metric system was easy.”

Puliafico said that he hopes to have the car back on its cable by Tuesday. The tram season opens when the first cruise ship arrives in town, which is scheduled for the end of April.

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