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DC begins removing old streetcar tracks

DC has begun a project to rehab and replace the streetcar tracks on O and P Streets in Georgetown.

DDOT will pull up all the cobblestones (technically Belgian blocks), tracks, and the yokes that support them. They will then reposition the yokes lower to be better aligned with the street grade, which has eroded a lot over the years. Once that's completed, they'll reposition the cobblestones and rails and, hopefully, the streets will look beautiful and be a lot more safe to travel on.

But what won't be riding on the tracks is streetcars themselves. The whole point of this exercise is not to make the tracks usable again but rather to simply preserve in place the last remaining examples of Washington's rare conduit power system.

That's a fancy way of saying the streetcars got their power from a buried power line. The streetcars accessed the powered line through a slot running down the center of the tracks. It looked a lot like a cable car slot, and for good reason because a lot of the streetcars in Washington were originally cable cars that were transitioned over to electric power.

Route 20 of DC Transit ran on Georgetown's O and P Streets until 1960. It wound its way through Georgetown on its way either out to Cabin John (by way of the Glen Echo Amusement Park) or towards downtown, ultimately terminating at Union Station. In Georgetown it came in on M Street, went up Wisconsin to P and headed west to 36th Street, hung a left all the way down to Prospect, where it would turn right and head out on the Cabin John right-of-way (which still exists!).

On the way back in, it would come in on Prospect, head over to 35th and up to O Street where it would turn right and head over to Wisconsin Ave.

Here's a map of the streetcar tracks that once went through Georgetown:


Green is covered tracks; blue is uncovered tracks; red is removed tracks.
Click for interactive version.

Nowadays you can only see the tracks on O and P Streets east of 35th St. But the rest of the loop around to 36th and down to Prospect is still there under the ashpalt. In fact, according to what I've been told, the tracks are still under the M St. and Wisconsin Ave. asphalt as well.

As part of this project, however, DDOT is actually removing the tracks west of the uncovered tracks that have been covered for decades.

And on Wednesday, they are starting that bittersweet removal on 36th St. just south of P. As you can see in the photo above, they've already carved out the tracks from the road. You can see the whole system quite clearly. If you're interested, you ought to stop by tomorrow morning as they remove the tracks. I was informed that the National Park Service will be there today to document the tracks as part of its Historic American Engineer Record.

Cross-posted on the Georgetown Metropolitan.

Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and new daughter in Georgetown.  

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Many of the tracks in DC were simply paved over. You can see evidence at the intersection of Florida Ave NE and 8th St NE. I also recently spotted a rail below a crack in the asphalt on the 600 block of T St NW.

by Eric Fidler on Jun 7, 2011 3:17 pm • linkreport

I love streetcars, but this is a stupid waste of money.

Let's install rails on streets being torn up that are ACTUALLY going to get streetcar service someday, like 18th St in Adams Morgan.

Georgetown does not need this handout.

by andrew on Jun 7, 2011 3:22 pm • linkreport

@ andrew

Those streets are pretty painful to drive/bike down.

by OX4 on Jun 7, 2011 3:32 pm • linkreport

Andrew, I agree that the optics don't look good to spend money on tracks that won't get used. But as OX4 said, it's a safety issue now. And the only thing "Georgetown" as a neighborhood has demanded is that the city make the road safe. It's preservationists that have insisted (an filed lawsuits) on keeping the tracks in place. This has been going on literally for decades. A couple years ago they floated a compromise to remove tracks from one street and keep the others, but a lawsuit threatened from a preservationist stopped that.

I'm not saying that I'm unhappy about the tracks being saved, but it's a lot more complicated than calling it a "handout".

by Topher Mathews on Jun 7, 2011 3:43 pm • linkreport

I'm with Andrew.... holy @#$*! And I suppose I'm helping to pay for this? Better than some idiots Escalade... I guess.

by wd on Jun 7, 2011 3:53 pm • linkreport

those streets aren't a pain to drive down if you can align your car's tires with the tracks. it's smooth sailing

by haskill on Jun 7, 2011 3:58 pm • linkreport

DC's whole problem in older community are preservationists, I really wished they backed off a little, what benifit is there to DC if it cant change the city's looks. People just need to realize things will change, it would feel better to be apart of that change than to have your voice overruled

by Jerome on Jun 7, 2011 4:07 pm • linkreport

To be fair, the overall project is more extensive:

Over many years, the roadway on O and P Streets between 37th Street and Wisconsin Avenue has greatly deteriorated due to vehicle traffic and sinkholes from century-old leaking water mains. To address these conditions, the rehabilitation project will:

* Restore the surface to a uniform level with a solid base and consistent slope for adequate drainage.
* Install new asphalt on 33rd, 34th, 35th 36th and 37th Street between O and P Street.
* Rebuild curbs and gutters, as well as brick and concrete sidewalks, using a mix of refurbished and new materials.

Additional work includes streetlight and drainage improvements; installation of crosswalks, curb ramps, tree boxes and tree rails, reinstallation of police call and fire alarm boxes; and tree planting.

Replacement of the water mains and local service connections on O and P Street between 37th Street and Wisconsin Avenue will be done in coordination with DC Water.

In other words, a lot of general street rehabilitation work of the sort seen elsewhere.

What does bother me is that it was decided to have the G2 stop running through West Georgetown and service the University for the duration of the work. No attempts made at a reroute. I wouldn't be surprised if, by the time the project winds down, the neighborhood antis petition to have this reduction of service made permanent. They've made no secret of their dislike for buses (and the university that they service).

by Dizzy on Jun 7, 2011 4:11 pm • linkreport

Removing the tracks and repairing the street are 100% okay and a good use of tax dollars. I have zero objections to that, nor do I have any major objections to retaining the historic cobblestone surface as long as it is safe for vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians.

The additional engineering work, installation, and materials necessary to restore and reinstall the rails are what's wasteful.

Mind you, it could very well be a minimal effort to reinstall the rails. However, I've seen very little to indicate that this is actually the case.

by andrew on Jun 7, 2011 4:29 pm • linkreport

Let the preservationists pay for it! Lord knows they can afford it if they live on that street!

by Jack on Jun 7, 2011 4:42 pm • linkreport

I'm not saying that I'm unhappy about the tracks being saved, but it's a lot more complicated than calling it a "handout".

It is a handout to the preservationists who want to maintain the tracks. Sure, they're charming in a retro way, but unless their replacement is costless and does not decrease safety for vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians I am highly troubled by it. Unless of course the city decides to put street cars on those tracks again, to which the neighbors would no doubt object as bringing an "unwanted element" or something.

by ah on Jun 7, 2011 5:01 pm • linkreport

Are my tax dollars paying for this? Why don't they just pull up the paving stones, fill what's eroded with aggregate, and put the stones back. Why remove and reset all the tracks? What's "historic" about it when they go that far?

by Bob See on Jun 7, 2011 5:42 pm • linkreport

an absolute waste of money.

Total project cost is 11M. I have to imagine at least 2 million of it will be wasted on these streetcar lines.

Hmm, that money could have blanked Georgetown with bikeshare -- but then we know how the local ANC feels about outsiders and students.

by charlie on Jun 7, 2011 5:50 pm • linkreport

"Let the preservationists pay for it! Lord knows they can afford it if they live on that street!"

And then let them put gates on either end, so that all of the urbanists have actually have to walk or bike instead of drive (as opposed tojust talking about it)!

by Bob on Jun 7, 2011 6:07 pm • linkreport

I actually remember sitting at lunch at a restaurant (Mr. Smith's, I believe) on M Street in Georgetown in around 1976 or 1977 watching the streetcar tracks on M Street being paved over.

by Mark on Jun 7, 2011 6:21 pm • linkreport

I wonder if it's a legal requirement to keep the tracks considering it is a historic district after all.

by Phil on Jun 7, 2011 6:32 pm • linkreport

I pretty much agree with everything Andrew said on this issue.

by Doug on Jun 7, 2011 6:45 pm • linkreport

Is there anyway for DDOT to incorporate the rails they salvage into future streetcar construction?

by Steve S. on Jun 7, 2011 8:43 pm • linkreport

I remember a friend asking me about the metal sticking up into the sky when they were digging up Georgia Ave NW for the Green Line construction. I had to explain that those were the old streetcar tracks for the number 70 series of streetcars. He was shocked that we just paved over them, and yet mor shocked that they simply tore them out without replacing them with that construction.

by dcseain on Jun 7, 2011 10:06 pm • linkreport

We really should make every effort to cover up the errors of our past, like the removal of mass transit from Georgetown, that's the sentiment of most people on here. You wonder why people don't like "myopic little twits" with no sense of history. The tracks belong in the street and should go back in.

by copperreddc on Jun 7, 2011 11:48 pm • linkreport

The rumour was that the residents there didn't want the tracks (and the Belgian block) removed because it tended to keep traffic off of those 2 streets. (I.e., these streets had speed humps before speed humps ... or even speed bumps, were invented.) Of course, that could just have been a false rumour.

Personally, I'm happy to see the Belgian block stay ... and if also keeping the old tracks in there doesn't involve much extra cost, then I think that's a good thing too. Ultimately, the best thing would have been for DDOT to have properly maintained these streets all along. The way they allowed these streets to deteriorate to the state they are in is awful.

by Lance on Jun 8, 2011 1:11 am • linkreport

I don't have a dog in this race, as I live in MD and don't have to pay for the renovations. I would say, however, that the willingness of a community to preserve it's past speaks volumes about that community and I am generally for this work. I should add that 1969-1973 I was a Metropolitan Police officer at the old 7th. Pct. at 3218 Volta Pl. NW (Now a condo. with a slightly different address) and used to direct traffic at Wisconsin Ave. & M St. NW and can verify that indeed there was a complicated set of tracks in the middle of the intersection during that time. Evening rush hour I would often have to direct traffic and some of the tracks were tightly curved and it was difficult to steer one's car with the result that I had to be extra careful to "preserve" my life while standing in the middle of all that during rush hour. I returned to the DC area in 1978 and was surprised to see that they were all paved over. These tracks, strangely, didn't have the center third rail that the tracks on O and P streets have. The 1969 Ford Patty Wagon (Wagon 21) would "lock" itself on the tracks on O and P streets and you could proceed with the red lights on at a high rate of speed, having to use two hands to "break loose" to turn off of those tracks before the tracks ran out. Lots of memories in this story.

by Claude1 on Jun 8, 2011 5:51 am • linkreport

@Steve S: Not likely, they're probably worn out/fatigued and don't meet the standards in place today.

by Michael Perkins on Jun 8, 2011 8:00 am • linkreport

What exactly IS the difference between a streetcar and a trolley?

by Matt Glazewski on Jun 8, 2011 8:11 am • linkreport

It's too bad that some way could not be included here as a remembrance of the monumental stupidity of those who forced the removal of DC's streetcars only 11 years before the first gas crisis and 14 years before the first Metro train rolled. We might also pause to curse the cosmically stupid Georgetownites who prevented Metro from serving the area and that it would cause "traffic and undesirables" there. Well there are no streetcars, no Metro; there's sure choking traffic. I'll alllow others to deem just who was "undesirable" here.

by Jim Churchill on Jun 8, 2011 8:31 am • linkreport

When DDOT milled the old pavement prior to resurfacing C Street NE and D Street NE on Capitol Hill a few years ago, the old streetcar tracks were exposed for about a week. Also, a pothole on 8th Street SE in front of the Marine Barracks has recently exposed part of the old streetcar track there.

by rg on Jun 8, 2011 9:26 am • linkreport

Wait, I thought that street cars were "permanent investments in transportation infrastructure."

by MDE on Jun 8, 2011 10:20 am • linkreport

@Haskill - you are so right! The width of my car is just perfect to ride the rails. I loved driving down that street behind or in front of bigger/smaller cars and watching them bump over the cobblestones while I had the smoothest ride possible. If I went the right speed (about 15mph), I didn't even have to steer as the rails kept the wheels straight. for some reason faster/slower than that and the car would drift off the rails.

by Smoothie on Jun 8, 2011 10:35 am • linkreport

Matt: "What exactly IS the difference between a streetcar and a trolley?"

Generally, a streetcar is any public conveyance vehicle that operates on rail laid in the streets, although there can also be (and usually is) some reserve or separate right-of-way operations. Propulsion can include internal combustion engine, cable (e.g., San Francisco) and, formerly in DC, below grade third rail electric. The first streetcars were horse drawn so one can quickly "sense" the benefit of the other means of propulsion. A trolley is an electrically powered streetcar (or even bus) that receives it energy from an overhead wire (two for buses) where contact is made from a trolley wheel at the end of a pole. Modern light rail vehicles, however, typically use a pantograph (similar to that used by NEC locomotives), rather than trolley poles, for greater contact reliability.

by Auld Sodger on Jun 8, 2011 10:37 am • linkreport

@Matt G.: A trolley or trolley pole is a roof-mounted rod for conveying electricity to a vehicle from overhead wire. This was once so ubiquitous that in many places the vehicles themselves became known as trolley cars or just trolleys, even some that use pantographs (diamond- or half-diamond-shaped frames) rather than trolley poles for power pickup. Electrically-powered buses using trolley poles are sometimes called trolley buses or even trackless trolleys.

A streetcar is a vehicle that operates on rails laid in street lanes that other traffic is permitted to use. Many streetcars have used motors powered by electricity picked up via trolleys, but Washington's old streetcars used "plows" with a buried third rail and its new ones will use pantographs with overhead wire and, in some places, batteries. Streetcars were once commonly pulled by horses, some still are pulled by cables, and some have on-board engines. And some that no longer operate in mixed traffic, or never did, still are called streetcars.

by davidj on Jun 8, 2011 10:42 am • linkreport

We really should make every effort to cover up the errors of our past, like the removal of mass transit from Georgetown, that's the sentiment of most people on here..... The tracks belong in the street and should go back in.

That's all well and good, if there were any plans at all to ever run streetcars on these tracks. If Georgetown gets a new streetcar, it will not run on O Street. For all I know the new tracks may actually be purely decorative, and not engineered to bear the weight of a streetcar.

by andrew on Jun 8, 2011 10:45 am • linkreport

There are actually many miles of the old track in DC, just not visible. When the streetcars were discontinued, on most streets the tracks were simply paved over. When PA Ave in front of the White House was rebuilt a few years ago, the old tracks between 15th and 17th were torn out.

by Dan Gamber on Jun 8, 2011 11:59 am • linkreport

Following on @Dan Gamber's post:
With the street construction at the base of Adams Morgan, you can see the old tracks that the old street car used on 18th as well as U Street. In fact, one local bar, The Blaguard, asked for and received a piece of a rail to use as a foot rest at the bar.

by 7r3y3r on Jun 8, 2011 1:09 pm • linkreport

After reading this interesting article, I grabbed the camera and drove into Georgetown for a look. The results can be seen at http://fullertography.blogspot.com/

For those who thought these old tracks could be salvaged for use with the new streetcar system, I think the closeups will disabuse you of that idea!

by John Fuller on Jun 8, 2011 5:30 pm • linkreport

Dumb, dumb, dumb. Fix the street. keep the cobblestones, but Judas Priest, don't put the rails back.

by beatbox on Jun 9, 2011 12:56 pm • linkreport

Matt Glazewki
Auld Sodger

In the USA "trolley" is a regional colloquialism or sobriquet for streetcar (Brit: tram). The term trolley comes from the "trolley pole" which is the spring-loaded pole atop the streetcar which is pressed upwards against the under-side of the overhead wire, thereby allowing the 600v direct current to be delivered into the streetcar's electrical systemn and traction motors, the electric circuit is then completed through the steel wheels to the steel "running rails".

In the US the unique conduit system was used only Manhattan (NYC) and Washington DC.

A bit a clarification on the conduit system; it is often referred to as an underground third-rail system which is not correct, as there was an "underground" 3rd and 4th rail. Two special conductor "rails" of special "T" cross section were mounted on insulators below the street in the conduit (vault) flanking either side of the conduit slot.

by robspost on Jul 13, 2011 7:15 pm • linkreport

The tracks should go back in by all means, these rails are the last vestages of still exposed (not covered with asphalt) conduit trackage in the USA - the conduit systems were rare in themselves, in the United States they were to be found only on Manhattan island and in the District of Columbia.

There is another reason they should be restored, as testament that one of the finest streetcar systems in the USA once operated in Washington's streets.

by robspost on Jul 14, 2011 3:11 pm • linkreport

It is just as reasonable and responsible for government to build a new streetcar system; let's say a new streetcar route 20, 30, 40/42, 50/54,60, 70/72, 80/82 and 90/92. It was an unreasonable and irresponsible government mandate that foced the discontinuance of these DC Transit streetcar routes in 1962. While the CEO of DC Transit, O. Roy Chalk was championing the retention of the rail system!

by robspost on Jul 15, 2011 12:03 pm • linkreport

What a waste of money that could be used to re activate this rail system, but oh no this is the brainchild of some idiot ..... get real people want to see and use streetcars not to look what once was.

by Karl Mack on Feb 9, 2012 9:49 pm • linkreport

A waste of money why not re activate the buried trolley trackage and incorporate them into the new streetcar system
instead of this stupid idea, people want to ride streetcars not look at what was.

by Karl Mack on Feb 9, 2012 10:45 pm • linkreport

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