Power on: The story of NORM’s new substation

By September 6, 2019Features

By Steve Heister, Northern Ohio Railway Museum

Reproduced with permission from the Northern Light newsletter.

The Museum has just completed its single most expensive and complex project in its history. The 20th Century Electric Railway Foundation Substation. A transformative project for this organization. That project was to construct a substation to power our trolleys. A simple statement, but one with a complex story. It has been told incrementally in this Newsletter for the past two years.

This project began during a visit to the Museum on July 7th, 2017 by the 20th Century Electric Railway Foundation. Foundation founders Art Jones and Joseph Brogan, along with Foundation Secretary Sheila Cook and her husband George, were toured around the Museum by President Walt Stoner and Education Director Gloria McIntyre. Operating crew Steve Heister and Jim Rivers took the entourage for a ride on Shaker Heights Rapid Transit Car 12.

It was during this July 2017 visit to the Museum that the substation project was conceived. Walt Stoner, left, talks with Art Jones, right, aboard Car 12. Joe Brogan is seen in the center in the third row of seats.
George Cook photo

Afterwards Walt and Gloria continued meeting with our guests at a local restaurant. Over lunch, the Museum was naturally the focus of discussion. The Foundation was interested specifically in what we considered to be our greatest need. While we have many needs, that answer was easy. We felt that having a reliable electric power source for our streetcar operation was critical. Having started our first public operating season, that need was obvious.

At the time, the Museum generated its own traction power using a gas generator that was almost as old as the streetcars themselves. Relying on a 1950’s vintage engine in the 21st century is risky business. A few years earlier this engine, a big block Chrysler Industrial Hemi, failed during the move of equipment from the former Trolleyville U.S.A.. The timing couldn’t have been worse. Not having it available to power Cleveland Railway 0711 as a switcher was a major handicap. Getting the Hemi repaired took weeks since it is an antique engine with limited support. Fast forward to today, that engine isn’t getting any younger. Also we were placing greater demands for reliability on it. It is one thing to break down when serving your internal needs. It is another matter when operating for the general public. Failure could not be an option. The smart move would be to run off utility power. We wanted to bring in 3 phase power from Ohio Edison, which we would convert to 600 volt DC using the former Trolleyville U.S.A. substation equipment. The Foundation liked that project and its implications for the Museum. They requested further details and budget information.

Walt Stoner was appointed project manager. He immediately began to collect more detailed information. His quest was within the Museum as well as with outside parties.

While this preliminary planning was underway, we began work on the first phase of the project. We did this on speculation that the project would be approved. That work was to clear a Right-of-Way (R.O.W.) through the woods for the Ohio Edison power line to come to the substation site from Kennard Road. We knew this would take time using primarily volunteer labor. We did bring in an arborist to handle the largest trees. Jerry Haumschild became the coordinator with them. But to their credit, our volunteers cut most of the trees. This was not wasted effort should the substation project not happen now. This same R.O.W. would be needed for the Car House loop track.

Some of the trees when felled were cut with another use in mind. In the woods were a few Cherry and other hardwood trees. They were destined to visit an Amish sawmill where they would be cut into long planks to season. In the future that wood would support trolley restoration work. This lead to the standing joke at the Museum that we grow our own streetcars!

We knew we would need an Architect, an Electrical Engineer, and various building contractors. We found a Professional Engineer (P.E.) who could serve the dual roles of Architect and Electrical Engineer. Our P.E. created building and electrical plans. Along the way a general contractor was chosen. Ohio Edison was asked to estimate the cost of bringing in 3 phase power and related on site facilities they would provide. They gave us a preliminary estimate. That word preliminary would have major consequences later.

By late November 2017 a project plan and budget were completed. Walt sent a grant application off to the 20th Century Electric Railway Foundation. Further communications between Walt and foundation principals took place over the next couple months. In February 2018 they approved the project and decided to fund the entire budgeted amount of $110,000. Thank you to the 20th Century Electric Railway Foundation for their generosity. The Museum would be responsible for fundraising any cost over runs, should they occur. They did, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The next few months were spent getting architectural and electrical drawings finalized. It is said nothing happens without the way being paved in paper. Building plans, electrical drawings, and other pertinent paperwork slowly ground their way through the approval process with the township zoning board, the county building department and contractors. By late May 2018 everything was in order and approved.

The contractor had the substation addition at this stage after only a few days’ work. Walt Stoner photo

Our building contractor ordered building materials, which soon appeared on site. When his crew arrived, they hit the ground running. The basic structure, including aconcrete floor was up in a couple days. Then a time out waiting on the framing inspection. Once that was done, additional work was done on the structure to install the substation room interior sheathing. Then work ground to a halt for a month while we waited on a subcontractor to install a large overhead door. By the end of June that was completed. During this phase, Walt Stoner put in some long days fielding contractor questions. Often they started with an early morning phone call and didn’t stop until 13 hours later.

Then it was Ohio Edison’s turn to join the project. There was some further delay due to key contacts being unavailable (pesky vacations!). Once those individuals were available, progress on the project resumed. The cost of Ohio Edison’s work would be shared with the Museum, with the Museum paying about 40% of the total. Remember that preliminary estimate, it was about to be turned upside down. Ohio Edison re-estimated the project at $129,488.64. N.O.R.M’s portion was about $10,000 more than stated just a few months before. This was for bringing in power to the site. Previously they thought they could attach the additional cross arms for 3 phase power to the existing poles on Kennard Road. This time around their engineers decided new larger poles would be needed and we had to share in that expense.

Ohio Edison policy requires that they be paid up front in full before they will authorize their staff to proceed any further. So, Museum Treasurer Steve Heister cut a check on July17th for $58,526.20 to pay for our share. You have to love the 20 cents part! Then more delay while this large check cleared the bank and Ohio Edison’s accounting systems. Finally, the utility gave their engineering staff the approval to begin work on our project. In August the utility had a contractor out trimming trees on Kennard road to make installation of the larger poles possible.

In the substation, Walt began working on adding ventilation vents and an exhaust fan.

Once the tree trimming was done, the Ohio Edison line crew was notified that it was their turn. Obviously they were busy since they did not come until October. When they did arrive, they worked quickly and efficiently. In a couple days they had installed new larger poles and cross arms on Kennard Road. Additional utility crews transferred existing utilities to the new poles. Finally those cross arms received the wires being strung to our property. This portion of the power feed saw approximately a half a mile of new aerial wire strung. When the pole mounted power line reached our property, it would switch to being an underground installation.

While Ohio Edison was working in the air, our electrician Scott Yarnell, was working on getting the R.O.W. on our property prepared. A trench was dug 1,200 feet from Kennard Rd. to the Substation with a large excavator. Then PVC pipes were pieced together and buried deep in the ground. This included going under a small stream and what turned out to be a poorly documented gas line from a well. A well company representative was present when excavating took place to locate the gas line for us. Unfortunately he thought it crossed the R.O.W. in a different location. The gas line was breached, providing a bit of excitement, but no real danger. The well owner shut off the flow of gas and effected repairs to their line. Positive point, we know exactly where the gas line is now!

Our electrician installed a power vault behind the substation that the utility’s transformer would sit on. Ohio Edison returned and pulled their lines through the buried pipe to the vault. The wires for 3 phase power had arrived just outside the substation. By now it was late October. At this same time Chuck Legree pulled the former Trolleyville rectifier and line switch out of storage and moved them to the substation addition. He began cleaning and testing them to ensure proper operation.

Then we received another piece of bad news from Ohio Edison. Also in the preliminary estimate, the utility had told us they could procure the necessary transformer to give us the floating neutral power we needed for a traction substation. When it came time for them to procure that transformer type, the special request was denied by another department in the company. We would get the type of transformer that is standard in their system. We would have to get an isolation transformer at our expense. During this time Dennis Bockus, the electrical engineer for the Pennsylvania Trolley Museum, assisted Chuck Legree on many matters we were dealing with. We thank him for his help.

An isolation transformer is needed in traction substations to be an electrical buffer between the power utilities step down transformers and the DC rectifier. The unique wiring needs of traction substations and their incompatibility with today’s utility standards make this large and expensive piece of hardware necessary. Utility 3 phase systems always use 3 hot AC power feeds and a neutral connection, the latter ultimately going to earth ground. DC traction systems ground to the rails (earth ground) without using the neutral connection on a transformer, hence the need for the isolation transformer.

During November Chuck Legree continued his work on the line switch. Testing found it to be in perfect working order. But it is a relic from the glory days of the trolley. It and its associated equipment is mounted on a slate panel. In the trolley era, having gear like this out in the open was fine. Today it is taboo. To rectify this issue, a large metal cabinet was procured and the line switch panel mounted into it. It now meets current electrical safety standards. Walt Stoner, Dale Rothenberger, Jim Mladonicky and Chuck did the installation of the line switch panel into the cabinet. In the same time frame Chuck Legree completed his work on the rectifier. It and the line switch were now ready for installation and operation.

A rarely seen view inside the rectifier showing the diodes that convert AC current to DC current. Note the circuitry and indicator lamps that would warn of a defective diode. Chuck Legree photo

Over the winter of 2019, hardware for the traction power substation was ordered. This included several electrical cabinets for power routing and control, as well as a stepdown transformer for building electrical service. Chuck Legree inspected and tested everything upon arrival. To solve the Ohio Edison transformer problem, we purchased a 480 volt, 3 phase, 12 pulse (used in a 6 pulse mode to match the rectifier design), 500 kW isolation transformer. This would be about a $10,000 cost overrun. The addition of the isolation transformer also required a total redesign of the placement of equipment and wiring.

L to R, the switch panels and building power stepdown transformer. Steve Heister photo.


It was in March 2019 that an issue arose that no one saw coming. The electrical inspector for the county was concerned that the rectifier had no Underwriters Laboratory (UL) listing or similar certification. Since the rectifier uses AC power, it falls under county inspection.

L to R, Isolation Transformer, Rectifier, Line Switch.
Steve Heister photo

This could have become an expensive and frustrating issue to resolve. Our P.E. addressed the issue quite skillfully. He argued that the rectifier is from an era when electrical equipment for trolley systems was not UL listed. He stated that the rectifier is safe, well designed, well built and has reliably provided power to operate trolleys for many years and is expected to do so for many years into the future. In essence, its years of reliable service was its certification. The county accepted his arguments.

During March and April our electrician installed several conduits under the floor due to the redesign of the substation to accommodate the isolation transformer. Also installed were multiple wall mounted circuit breaker boxes. He ran the necessary lines from these boxes to the Ohio Edison meter cabinet and underground vault. The building stepdown transformer was also moved into place.

Ohio Edison returned and installed their pad mounted transformer outdoors on top of the vault. They also installed the metering and switched on the power to our main breakers. Ohio Edison’s part of the project was now complete. Then another time out for various county inspections.

The county approved of the work to date and our electrician returned in May to do the necessary wiring to activate the traction substation portion of the facility. During this time he worked in concert with Chuck Legree to connect the line switch to our track and overhead wire. This involved running underground wiring conduits from the building to the center of the track and up the closest line pole. Then our electrician worked indoors terminating those wires to their proper connections. At the same time Chuck, Walt Stoner and Dale Rothenberger worked outside connecting the other ends of those wires to the rails and the trolley wire.

Finally on June 4th, with the electrician present, the trolley wire was energized for the first time. The isolation transformer, rectifier, and trolley line switch were all tested and found to be working properly. The voltage was measured at about 550 V DC.

Even though we commonly refer to street car power as 600 volts, it can actually range from 500 to 750 volts. We are using 550 volts as it puts less stress on our equipment. On Thursday, June 6th, Chuck and Dale put the equipment covers in place on the isolation transformer, rectifier and trolley line switch. Walt put the finishing touches on the ventilation system in the substation room.

At about 9 am on Saturday June 8th, Walt Stoner switched on the substation to power Cars 12 and 0711 for the first time off of this facility. Several test runs were made before the public rode on Car 12 at 11 am. Wefound that Car 12 drew a maximum DC current of about 120 AMPS at start up and quickly decreased to about 80 AMPS when the car was moving. With both Cars 12 and 0711 moving up hill, the maximum DC current drawn from the substation was less than 200 AMPS.

While the traction portion of the substation was completed, there was still some code dictated electrical work to complete as well room lighting and 120 volt outlets. The electrician returned in July to complete this work. On July 23rd and 24th the final electrical and building inspections were done and signed off by the county. A few days later the Medina County Building Department issued us a Certificate of Occupancy. The substation project was completed.

The substation floor contains this piece of traction history donated by Ohio Edison; a Northern Ohio Power and Light manhole cover. Steve Heister photo

While the project was progressing, it was thought that the substation should be named to honor the major benefactor of the project, the 20th Century Electric Railway Foundation. At the Museum’s August Board of Directors (BOD) meeting, Walt Stoner proposed just that. He had discussed this with the foundation and they were amenable to that. So with a unanimous vote on August 17th by the BOD, the Museum now is the proud operator of the 20th Century Electric Railway Foundation Substation.

The estimated budget for the substation project was $110,000 and costs actually came in at $153,926, for a cost overrun of $43,926. To date we have raised $22,795 of the additional $43,926 spent. Now we spent more than we raised. How did we do that? Simple, we robbed Peter to pay Paul! It was felt that this project was so crucial to the Museum’s development that it had to be completed as soon as possible. The funds were borrowed from other projects and need to be paid back. So I ask you to please be generous.

In my opening paragraph I said this project was transformative, it is. The 20th Century Electric Railway Foundation Substation gives us a reliable traction power source for years to come. It opens the door to multiple car operation. It will allow cars to operate that we could only previously dream about using the old gas generator. Shaker Heights OX, CTS 109, and the CTS Airporters were all serviceable when they left the RTA. These are cars we can think about returning to service. The CTS cars will need high platforms to operate for the public. But with high platforms, and ramps serving them, we get another plus. We get the ability to provide a ride to those with mobility issues; people that use wheelchairs,

In today’s society, this is a very positive plus for the Museum.

Our thanks to the 20th Century Electric Railway Foundation for providing their grant. Our thanks to our members and other contributors who have also donated.

Sub-Station Project Budget Actual
-Professional services—architect/electrical/Engineer/permits  $3,860
-Land clearing and trenching $12,384
-Building addition $23,766
-Ohio Edison—Install power line down Kennard Road and across the Museum property to sub-station building. The estimated cost for this is $113.345, of which the museum will pay 40%, or $49,957 58,526
-Transformer pad, conduit, meter socket and other items related to installing the power line $26,165
-Electrician and electrical gear $29,225

Total Project Cost $153,926

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