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Powering the streetcars, part 1: The dilemma

In 1962, Washington, D.C. closed the last of its streetcar lines. Today, the District is working to resurrect its streetcar system. A starter line is already under construction in Anacostia, and H Street and Benning Road, NE have rails in the ground in anticipation of a future line. One of the most significant obstacles to planning a new streetcar system is the question of how to power the vehicles.

Streetcar with overhead wires at Glen Echo, Md.

Most streetcar systems use overhead catenary wires for power. However, a very old law prohibits wires of any kind in the L'Enfant City, generally bounded by the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, Rock Creek, and Florida Avenue. The pre-1962 system had a network of vaults under the road. Wires ran in the road, and a device called a "plow" connected to the streetcar reached under the roadbed and contacted the wires. Streetcars switched back and forth between the in-ground system and overhead wires at the edges of the L'Enfant City. This system was prone to breakdowns and difficult to maintain. Also, once DC shut its system down, the specific technology ceased to exist.

Some systems do use similar systems today. Bordeaux, France, has an in-ground system manufactured by Alstom. Unfortunately, they, too, have had many maintenance issues. Any system that's not used widely and only made by one company is inevitably less reliable and more expensive than a more widespread system. Bordeaux also gets much less snow than Washington. Further, Alstom has insisted, at least in the past, that a city using its technology buy all of its vehicles and equipment from them, including the overhead wire portion, removing the opportunity for the city to negotiate for better prices.

Left: Bordeaux tram using in-ground power. Photo by Pictr 30D. Right: Bombardier's PRIMOVE.

Bombardier developed an alternative power systems, called PRIMOVE. It uses magnetic induction to convey power from an underground wire to a streetcar through the roadway without requiring an actual, physical connection. This is the same scientific concept behind electric toothbrushes. Magnetic induction is not very efficient, but it could work over short distances. This technology hasn't yet been deployed anywhere, and being the guinea pig for any new technology invariably means working through bugs, reliability problems, and inevitable cost overruns.

Paris is testing another alternative, Alstom's STEEM. This uses supercapacitors mounted on the vehicles, which charge when the train brakes and when vehicles are stopped in stations. These vehicles can switch back and forth between battery and overhead wires. However, Paris's trams don't run air conditioning, which is a must in muggy DC.

The bottom line: A new streetcar system will almost surely cost far more and break down more often if DDOT has to use a new technology throughout the L'Enfant City instead of the tried-and-true wires. Councilmember Tommy Wells' staff have been researching the legal issues around the ban. As he told us in a recent chat, they believe the DC Council could legally modify or overturn it. However, the National Capital Planning Commission, the federal board that oversees many aspects of planning in and around DC, strongly opposes wires. Even if Wells is right about the law, NCPC could push Congress to overturn it. Therefore, DC faces a much easier road if they can work out a deal with NCPC.

Next: Are wires really that bad?

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Why are traffic signals in downtown DC allowed to be suspended above the roadway? Not only is an overhead wire required to supply the power, but the signal itself and the boom that holds it up are far more of a visual obstruction than a trolley wire.

by tt on Sep 22, 2009 10:24 am • linkreport

In Boston, where I live, the electrical and phone lines are an absolute mess. It's because Boston was Alexander Graham Bell's original playspace, and he had a lot of leeway about wiring up the city, and nobody since has piped up to say wiring should be esthetic.

This actually applies to most of the Commonwealth. And, nobody notices. Also, nobody notices the trolley wires on the Green Line, nor on the trackless trolley lines. Just as in Vienna, nobody notices the tramwires. I cannot believe DC can get so hung up on something so downright silly, let alone incur such a handicap against the trolley system for it.

by Omri on Sep 22, 2009 10:26 am • linkreport

Where do you see the overhead street lights? remember the ban is only in the old city, not the county.

by ms on Sep 22, 2009 10:32 am • linkreport

You know, if they don't want to have wires in the "monumental core" of DC, then do we really need to have streetcars running there? It's not as if there aren't like four underground Metro stations there already.

by Aaronius Lives on Sep 22, 2009 10:34 am • linkreport

aaronius lives: they don't want overhead wires in more than just the "monumental core," the NCPC doesn't want overhead wires in the entire original city that l'enfant laid out. H street NE is certainly not part of the monumental core, but it's definitely in the original city, is definitely a commercial zone that is growing stronger by the month, and is definitely a long way from any metro station.

by IMGoph on Sep 22, 2009 10:41 am • linkreport

I've always been curious as to why there are overhead wires over the tracks at Union Station? I understand that there is a ban in the L'Enfant city, which is everything south of Florida Avenue, so how come the tracks are exempt? Was an exception made for them? I live near the NY Avenue Metro Station and can see the overhead wires from my window -- and they're in the L'Enfant city. Any ideas?

by BiLL on Sep 22, 2009 10:45 am • linkreport

Actually, Aaronius, there are some 20+ Metro stations in L'Enfant's city.

I really support the streetcar initiative, but I do not support overturning the wires ban at all. To answer your question, David - yes, wires really are that bad. I doubt DC would have the reputation it does for being a beautiful city if it weren't for that ban. If we look at redevelopment projects across the metro area, we can see a new paradigm of placing wires underground. Suspended traffic signals have been replaced by arched metal supports. Telephone poles have been removed in favor of uninterrupted sidewalks - these are good things. But if DC revokes that ban, what are the odds that the cash-strapped district will choose the higher-cost no-wire alternative? Pretty slim.

My opposition isn't due to the streetcars using the wires - it's because of the other uses of overhead wires that are suddenly legitimized as accetable redevelopment options.

by SDJ on Sep 22, 2009 10:59 am • linkreport

A single wire supported from poles that could double as the street lights would not be a big deal. We could install a much cleaner system than what they have in much of the rest of the world where even that is not a big deal.

by NikolasM on Sep 22, 2009 11:02 am • linkreport

I was in Bordeaux the week before last and the streetcars there are a sight to behold. I asked about the problems and was told that that was an issue which was long ago resolved and that this wireless streetcar system is now serving as an example for cities around the world. Just recently the Japanese came to see the system as they have plans on implementing a similar one.

In any case, while having streetcars could be a nice addition to the city, with all the alternative modes of travel we have (including underground Metro as someone pointed out), it's not worth having them if wired technology is the price to pay. Our city is too beautiful a city for it to be marred by wires for a transportation system that isn't a necessity, but just a 'nice to have' in addition to existing systems. And fortunately the Congress and others whose job it is to protest the District special status as a historic city are in full agreement on this.

by Lance on Sep 22, 2009 11:02 am • linkreport

ms - For traffic lights suspended above the street, take a look at 17th Street, northbound at L Street and southbound at I Street (SE corner of Farragut Square). I imagine there are plenty more if you look.

by tt on Sep 22, 2009 11:04 am • linkreport

Bill - I believe the ban applies only to streets, not all overhead wires.

Wouldn't the current ban be more reasonable if limited to certain major streets For example, wires on Pennsylvania avenue seem more of an imposition than if they were on, say, F street. As a visual matter they don't help views. But if the view is just a cavern between large boxy buildings, who really cares?

by ah on Sep 22, 2009 11:09 am • linkreport

>Wouldn't the current ban be more reasonable if limited to certain major streets For example, wires on Pennsylvania avenue seem more of an imposition than if they were on, say, F street. As a visual matter they don't help views. But if the view is just a cavern between large boxy buildings, who really cares?

Agreed. That is a very reasonable compromise.

>(Streetcars aren't) a necessity, but just a 'nice to have' in addition to existing systems

Streetcars fill a role that neither buses nor Metro fill. Just because it's a role that has gone unfilled for a few decades doesn't mean it's an unnecessary luxury; it means we've had an incomplete and inefficient system.

As more people take surface transit, we need higher capacity solutions to move them. As more people come to live in the city, we need tools to direct where and how development happens. As more people consider transit as a potential mode of travel, we can draw more of them with a more comfortable ride. As fiscal situations tighten, we need less expensive trains. As fossil fuels get more expensive, we need more electric-based transport. I could go on... And while individually one might argue with any of those points, taken together (and with others) they are a convincing argument for why an intermediate mode between bus and Metro can be extremely beneficial.

by BeyondDC on Sep 22, 2009 11:18 am • linkreport

What I've always wondered is how the current overhead lines along H are allowed. There are a few lines hanging across the street for traffic control (older reversible lane signs, etc), but there are a few stretches along 4th to 8th that have above ground lines that don't appear to support traffic. Can this be used as a justification for above ground lines along H?

by Michael on Sep 22, 2009 11:27 am • linkreport

michael: those overhead lines are temporary due to the construction of the street. they weren't there a few years ago, and have just been there while they're ripping up the street.

by IMGoph on Sep 22, 2009 11:29 am • linkreport

I agree that some compromise can be found. Personally, I would like to see a system without overhead wires. I agree with SDJ that overhead wiring seems to be a step backwards at a time when municipalities are doing everything they can to bury overhead line. Having said that, there are several beautiful historic cities around the world that have streetcars and overhead lines (Amsterdam, I'm looking at you).

But again, just like the building heights limit, we don't have to have an "all or nothing" approach. At the end of the day, the building height limit is arbitrary, as is (for all practical purposes) the restriction on overhead wires. Adjusting building heights to allow a few additional floors (and thus adding millions of square feet of usable space) does not mean that DC will be home to the next 100-floor tower. Likewise, I think that the NCPC couldn't care less about overhead wires on H Street NE. As it is, DDOT has already laid track on H Street NE as part of the Great Streets reconstruction. I don't see how we could justify the expense to retrofit that track for an alternate power system. If DC determines that we must use overhead lines, as I expect we will, then I'm confident the city can work out a deal with the NCPC and get a one-time exemption for H Street; leaving the restriction in place for the rest of the city.

Discussing overhead lines anywhere else in the city is just hypothetical. The only other streetcar line under serious consideration is the K Street corridor; though, whether that will end up being a bus line, streetcar line, or even happen at all is still up in the air. And, by the time the city is prepared to install any additional streetcar lines, the technology may have improved to a point where the issue becomes moot anyway.

by Adam L on Sep 22, 2009 11:39 am • linkreport

I went to Prague several years ago. A truly gorgeous city, filled with lots of great old architecture. Very walkable. The streetcar (tram) system made a great part of the urban fabric. The wires didn't detract from the beauty of it. You wouldn't want to go stringing wires across Old Town Square, just like you probably wouldn't want to have wires across the Mall. The blanket ban, though, seems excessive. Why not just make an exception 'No overhead wires except for those to power municipal streetcars'.

Another great feature in Prague and elsewhere are tram-only streets. Certain blocks in high-traffic areas were pedestrianized, except for the tram running through it. Somehow that seems appealing for certain very high traffic areas, like 18th street in Adams Morgan.

by Distantantennas on Sep 22, 2009 11:42 am • linkreport

And, by the time the city is prepared to install any additional streetcar lines, the technology may have improved to a point where the issue becomes moot anyway.

Yes, by the time DC is prepared we will have already moved past maglev to the point where we have little hover-cars like George Jetson.

by ah on Sep 22, 2009 11:54 am • linkreport

> I doubt DC would have the reputation it does for being a beautiful city if it weren't for that ban.

Of course it would. San Francisco is filled with streetcar wires (even some of its buses run on wires!). So are Amsterdam, Prague, Vienna, Brussels, Lyon, Paris, Milan, Naples, Rome, Lisbon, Saint Petersburg, Zurich... all among the world's most famously beautiful cities.

I can see why we might not want to clutter up the Pennsylvania Avenue vista with wires, or criss-cross the National Mall with them, but aside from a handful of key locations like that, I honestly do not think streetcar wires (which are not as substantial as some others) would distract from the beauty of the city one iota.

by BeyondDC on Sep 22, 2009 12:00 pm • linkreport

ah: Yes, by the time DC is prepared we will have already moved past maglev to the point where we have little hover-cars like George Jetson.

I am waiting in giddy anticipation. But where, pray tell, are we going to park all those hover cars? Vertical performance parking, your time has come!

by Adam L on Sep 22, 2009 12:11 pm • linkreport

If it's all about beauty, why the heck are cars allowed?

by sanly bowitz on Sep 22, 2009 12:12 pm • linkreport

I agree, in general, that DC is a beautiful city. Most of it. But there's nothing beautiful about the Southwest Freeway. I'll happily give up overhead wires if we can take that thing down.

by TimK on Sep 22, 2009 12:16 pm • linkreport

Seattle has already solved this problem. IIRC, their streetcars are electric buses that are fed from overhead in some parts of the area. Their feed arms retract and they can run on either battery or diesel when serving areas not covered by overhead feeds.

by jflo on Sep 22, 2009 12:24 pm • linkreport

Each city of those cities you mentioned is known as "beautiful" for different reasons because each has a unique aesthetic. Most of them, though, are known for their particular brand of quaint streets or thousand-year history. If we had to identify what makes DC unique, I would say it's the broad avenues and surprising amount of greenry for a city this large. And, honestly, I do think those impressions would suffer if we had overhead lines. Would the broad avenues seem so broad with drooping wires overhead? Would our tree-lined side streets be so appealing if they were interrupted with sagging lines, and trimmed by the power company? It's hypothetical, but I would offer a resounding "no" on both counts.

by SDJ on Sep 22, 2009 12:33 pm • linkreport

The pilot streetcar line in Anacostia will have overhead wires, correct? And since it will go along part of South Capitol street, it will also have views of the Capitol dome. I'm therefore hoping that the Anacostia line can serve as an example that the wires truly do not spoil any views, and that the NCPC is getting hung up on a incredibly minor detail.

Honestly, even if the wires were massive and DID spoil the view, it still strikes me as silly to let an aesthetic argument get in the way of a transportation project that stands to greatly increase mobility in the region and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Its like those people that fight wind farm projects tooth and nail because it will "spoil their view", despite being pro-alternative energy.

by Chris Loos on Sep 22, 2009 12:34 pm • linkreport

I made a map of the area that I think should be free of wires. Beyond that, I think the needs of a city where people work and live outweigh aesthetic concerns related to the nation's capital. The entire city can't be a theme park.

by PeakVT on Sep 22, 2009 12:46 pm • linkreport

To me, streetcars just call out for catenaries and pantographs.

by ksu499 on Sep 22, 2009 12:48 pm • linkreport

I always wondered why DC gov didn't just ignore this rule. Actually, I wonder why DC doesn't just ignore a lot of bogus laws passed by congress that only impact DC, but this seems like a good placed to start. Put up the overhead lines, start the tram and see how many people flock to it. Is the congressional subcommittee on screwing DC going to come and personally take down the lines? Why not just put up the lines? Would congress really withhold important federal funding of DC over something as mundane as streetcars that basically everyone is in favor of?

by DAJ on Sep 22, 2009 12:55 pm • linkreport

DAJ: Would congress really withhold important federal funding of DC over something as mundane as streetcars that basically everyone is in favor of?


by Adam L on Sep 22, 2009 12:57 pm • linkreport

Personally, I do not like cars on he broad DC avenues. Is that a reason to ban cars?

This whole thing about the aesthetics of DC is just crap. Has anybody ever complained about the streetcar wiring in Amsterdam, Brussels, Dublin, Bordeaux, Berlin, Prague, Oslo, Barcelona, Rome, etc? Ever heard anybody complain that they couldn't find their coffeeshop in Amsterdam, beer in Brussels, Guiness in Dublin, wine in Bordeaux, the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin, the castles of Prague and Oslo, the Parc Guell in Barcelona or the Colloseum in Rome, due to tram wires? Have you ever even met someone that said their picture from a city was ugly because of a tram wire?

No. But you have seen pictures from the cute trams in all of those cities. And you have met people that were happy with transit in those cities.

And please do not come up with safety issues. Most of these cities have survived plenty of violence in the past, both from terrorism and war. Most also house Kings, Queens, Presidents and striking archeological, architectural and artisan treasures. If they can do it, why can't DC?

by Jasper on Sep 22, 2009 1:02 pm • linkreport

Yeah, Chris Loos, aesthetics shouldn't matter at all. So to hell with it. Let's save the money and not paint the street cars, either.

by SDJ on Sep 22, 2009 1:04 pm • linkreport

While I'm a strong supporter of transit in the District, I've also lived all my life in this area and love the unique character of the city with its low skyline, broad avenues, plentiful trees (that suffered badly in the 1990s) and lack of overhead wires in the core. I understand the argument against experimental technologies, but I think we'd all be better served by finding an alternative power source and keeping the overhead wire ban in the original L'Enfant design. There's so much of the city's character that's been lost through freeways and non-descript buildings. Let's not add to that loss. Let's remember that the H Street streetcars may eventually run down K Street to Georgetown. Once you go down that road....

by kreeggo on Sep 22, 2009 1:07 pm • linkreport

SDJ: That's why I think it is reasonable to say no wires at certain key locations, like PA Ave and the Nat'l Mall. But do you honestly think wires on H Street and 7th Street would ruin the city? We're not talking about particularly broad or monumentally tree-lined avenues here. Those arguments do not apply. Let's agree that not all streets are created equal, k?

Also, for the record, though I have no problem with a compromise that limits wires on the most monumental avenues, both San Francisco and New Orleans have wired streetcars on what is by far each city's most famous wide tree-lined boulevard (Market Street and Canal Street, respectively).

by BeyondDC on Sep 22, 2009 1:07 pm • linkreport

"Has anybody ever complained about the streetcar wiring in Amsterdam, Brussels, Dublin, Bordeaux,"

hmmmm ... Bordeaux has banned overhead wires from its streetcars for the same reasons DC has ... They spoil the monumentality of the city streetscape. Not every city is monumental (e.g., Amsterdam, San Francisco), and as such not every city requires this solution. DC is, and does.

by Lance on Sep 22, 2009 1:09 pm • linkreport

>Let's remember that the H Street streetcars may eventually run down K Street to Georgetown. Once you go down that road...

First of all, I think there would be some disagreement about whether or not K Street should be one of those protected streets. But assuming it should be and we don't want wires on K, many of the wire-less technologies are only good for short distances. It would very likely save a lot of money to only do the wireless technology on K, but have wires on H. There is nothing that says the same technology has to operate along the entire length of a route.

If we're talking about H Street, then K Street and Pennsvylania Avenue are really non-issues. We should decide whether or not we want wires on H Street specifically, and then go from there.

by BeyondDC on Sep 22, 2009 1:12 pm • linkreport

Not every city street is monumental, and as such not every city street requires this solution.

H Street is not a monumental street. It's as different from Pennsylvania Avenue as Denver is from Bordeaux. Why apply the same rules to them both, when something that might be bad for one is perfectly good for the other?

by BeyondDC on Sep 22, 2009 1:16 pm • linkreport

No, obviously, you can't reasonably just point to an overhead wire along some street and then suddenly cry "Holy sh*t is this city ugly!" But when was the last time you saw an iconic picture of those landmarks that didn't try to avoid those tram lines? There's a reason why when developers make project renderings they'll show street cars without overhead lines. It's quite simply far more attractive.

That said, my worry isn't so much that these lines are going to ruin the DC aesthetic in of themselves. I'm naturally skeptical, but they probably wouldn't. I am mostly worried, though, that a change in the law about overhead lines in general will allow a slippery slope to allow more overhead lines as a cost-cutting measure. "If street cars can do it for the public good, why shouldn't our power/cable/telephone/other utility also have a right to that since we're also for public good. Clearly, the cost savings would enable more efficient access to more people of this highfalutin techno service, which everyone wants so badly." In my opinion, succombing to that argument would be a travesty.

by SDJ on Sep 22, 2009 1:17 pm • linkreport

I don't think aesthetic concerns should trump economic ones and I don't think the overhead wires would spoil the city. But I do think we should move forward with some alternative to overhead wires. I've also heard about the Bordeaux system's maintenance issues being improved. And I don't know if snow is that big a concern either. I agree with those who think in 2009, it doesn't make much sense to put up more wires, which we may want to get rid of in the future, even if it is less expensive.

We can't have it both ways, given the law, the options are to change the law, put in a below-ground propulsion system, or come up with some kind of compromise. The NCPC and council have to understand this and have a decision to make. I don't think anyone wants nothing to happen. Honestly, I'd prefer that we just bury everything into the ground rather than put up wires.

by Vik on Sep 22, 2009 1:19 pm • linkreport

SDJ - We're already on the slippery slope because we allow overhead wires and fixtures for street lighting and traffic control. The question is where to draw the line, not whether to go out on the slope. If you want to avoid the slope, you have to block off auto traffic at intersections where cars can't move safely without overhead lights.

by tt on Sep 22, 2009 1:47 pm • linkreport

I'm sure somebody has thought of this... Diesel-electric streetcars? Where there couldn't be overhead wires, a diesel engine would generate electricity for the motors? My first thought is that a streetcar would be too heavy to power with a diesel engine, but some quick Googling seems to show that vehicles like a fully-loaded semi weigh significantly more. Not being an engineer, maybe they're still too heavy to power with a diesel engine. Obviously, this wouldn't work with the vehicles DC already owns, but neither will underground power or anything like that.

by Eric O on Sep 22, 2009 2:03 pm • linkreport

There are ways to design overhead contact systems to reduce visual impact. Items like branches and turns are typically more complex, visually and physically, than straight track.

Based on reading the document below, I would recommend that DDOT look into trams that have onboard battery systems capable of propelling the cars a few hundred yards up to a half-mile. Overhead wire should be used on straight portions of mainline service. Because the visual impact is so much higher, turns, junctions and maintenance/emergency lines should be traveled using the onboard battery. Also, crossings of major monumental avenues could be done on battery power alone.

This is a reasonable compromise between no wires anywhere, which would require new technologies along the longer routes, and wires everywhere, which does have unappealing visual impact. The use of battery technology does not lock in a particular vendor or technology and does not require highly specialized infrastructure. The Bombardier and Bordeaux systems require changes to the track design.

Basically, there's a right way and a wrong way to do overhead wires, and if we allow them, we should require that DDOT implement steps to reduce their impact.

The document below is available for free but does require registration. It's a very good primer on minimizing the impact of overhead wires.

by Michael Perkins on Sep 22, 2009 2:21 pm • linkreport

tt: I wouldn't say that we use overhead wires for lighting, at least within the L'Enfant city. Similarly, the examples of overhead traffic lights at 17th and L NW pointed out earlier isn't exactly a large mast that spans the whole street; It's simply a short arm that barely reaches over the width of the curb lane.

Placing the propulsion system underground is going to require more effort than stringing up overhead wires, yes, but frankly, it's the law. Besides, we had a whole system of streetcars in this city that operated reasonably efficiently under this law for around 80 years prior to 1962.

Also, it's not that Europeans consider wires benign, either. For example, one of the reasons cited by opponents to a streetcar in Florence were overhead wires. The wires take away from the aesthetics of the streetscape, both in Florence and DC, and there are existing propulsion systems that don't require wires. Given that, and our 80 yr history of underground streetcar wires here, I don't think the law will be changed by Congress to allow overhead streetcar wires.

also to BiLL: I think the railroad catenary is allowed because it's on private right of way. Also, the electrification system was/is extensive, running from Queens, NY to Potomac Yard, VA by the 1930's. A 3rd rail type system for the railroad in just the L'Enfant city would be extremely inefficient for train movements.

by merarch on Sep 22, 2009 3:25 pm • linkreport

SJD: "Yeah, Chris Loos, aesthetics shouldn't matter at all. So to hell with it. Let's save the money and not paint the street cars, either."

Where in my post did I say aesthetics shouldn't matter at all? Did you even read my comment before coming back with a snarky reply? Aesthetics should matter. Should they trump economic concerns or prevent a good system with countless benefits from being built? Hell no.

by Chris Loos on Sep 22, 2009 3:42 pm • linkreport

I'm proud to see that Alstom's STEEM is basically what Chuck and me were talking about last time this discussion came up.

I think the reason air conditioning is avoided is not because of costs, but because of benefits.

by Squalish on Sep 22, 2009 10:53 pm • linkreport

There is a much better way to move people, and it is in operation already: taxibus. Look it up. Read it all.

by Ormond Otvos on Sep 23, 2009 3:00 am • linkreport

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