Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Streetcars


Budapest runs extra-long streetcars, equal to 3 articulated buses end-to-end

Budapest's gigantic streetcar network is getting some equally gigantic new trams. At about 184 feet long, they're 4.6 times longer than a standard 40' bus, and three times the length of a 60' articulated bus.

The 66 foot long streetcars in DC and Portland are comparatively puny. But extra-long streetcars are common worldwide. Paris, Dublin, and dozens of other cities in Europe use trams around 150 feet long. Toronto runs the longest in North America, a moderate 99 foot long model.

These extra-long streetcars show more clearly how streetcars can be a middle ground between buses and heavy Metro trains. WMATA railcars are 75 feet long each—bigger than a DC streetcar, but less than half a Budapest tram.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


When life gives you buses, make bus-trains

It's very easy to use both buses and trains in Lucerne, Switzerland thanks to a well-planned system that cleverly gets the most out of every line. They've even got "bus-trains," which combine great parts of both modes to make transit available to more people.

Bus-trains on the Schweizerhofquai, a main road in Lucerne. The trailer is unstaffed and pulled by the trolleybus in front. All photos by the author.

Bus-trains are single trolleybuses, which are buses with wires, linked together to make "trains." They're an unusual technology, but the city of Lucerne uses them along busy routes that connect to the old town and the main train station.

Lucerne's lakeside geography forces most cross-town traffic along a single crowded road, the Schweizerhofquai. To meet the demand, the local transit system runs frequent service using high-capacity vehicles, including double-articulated trolleybuses and the bus-trains in addition to the liquid-fuel buses. These bridge the gap between traditional buses and rail, and they both have more capacity and run more smoothly and quietly.

The trailers on bus-trains are detachable, so the front of the train can be a standard, single trolley when there isn't a need for as much capacity.

Double- and single-articulated trolleybuses along the Schweizerhofquai.

But, don't expect bus-trains to appear on H Street NE anytime soon: Lucerne's system is one of only two in the world and may not last much longer, as the aging vehicles are being disassembled and the parts donated to Cuba. Thankfully, a ride on the bus-train has been captured on YouTube.

Transit in Lucerne is great

Whether you need to use bus, bus-train, or the heavy regional rail, the system around Lucerne is seamless, with a single zoned fare system and monitors in train stations showing real-time bus arrivals.

Real-time arrival screen for buses and ferries at Lucerne main station.

The regional rail trains have screens on board that show the final and intermediate stations but switch to show real-time arrivals when pulling into a station with train or bus connections.

Contrast the on-board real-time arrival screen on the left showing departure, destination, and location information for upcoming trains at the Lucerne main station (similar information was shown for buses when arriving at smaller stations) with what's on the new 7000-series Metro train, which only lists the available bus lines by number. Imagine how useful it would be to know whether a connecting bus is about to pull up and you should hurry out of the station, or whether it makes sense to get off the train at all (where a better connection may be available at a later station).

Lucerne regional rail (left) and Metro (right) information screens showing differing amounts of information on connecting services upon entering a station.

As a final illustration of how Lucerne makes transit easy, when visiting a nearby mountain I used a single ticket that included both a funicular ride up the mountain as well as train ticket there and a bus back. These types of combination tickets seem to be common, with the Swiss railways bundling a long distance fare with a day pass for local transit at either the origin or destination (City-ticket) or both the origin and destination (City-city-ticket), further promoting sustainable travel.

Funicular descending from Mt. Pilatus, south of Lucerne


Building the Edinburgh streetcar wasn't easy, but a lot of people ride it now

I recently took a trip to Scotland, where I rode on Edinburgh's new streetcar. Much like DC, Edinburgh struggled to get its first line open, and scaled back initial plans. But now that streetcars are carrying passengers, Scots view it much more favorably.

A streetcar waiting at the Edinburgh airport. All photos by the author.

Edinburgh's streetcar system, known as the Edinburgh Trams, runs for about nine miles from the airport to the city center. It has its own right of way near the airport, then runs along the rail corridor that links Edinburgh to Glasgow.

Before now, the last time streetcars ran in Edinburgh was 1956. Throughout the rest of the 20th century, various plans to bring them back surfaced. Plans for what the city has today started in 2001, and construction started in 2008. Edinburgh's city council had wanted a rail link between the city center and the airport for a long time, and one plan it considered was an underground train station.

As Edinburgh's streetcar nears the city, it runs in the street. Its final section, along Princes Street, is part of a transit mall that's also used by a number of the city's bus lines as well as trains running to the Waverly Place station. The streetcar also stops at a number of other railway stations on Edinburgh's western edges.

The Trams' construction was plagued by delays and cost overruns that nearly doubled the price of the project. Edinburgh's city council even considered cancelling the project midway through. While today's route obviously survived, plans to build a multi-line system were scrapped. Scotland's Parliament is still investigating what went wrong.

Despite the mishaps, first-year ridership on The Trams has exceeded predictions with nearly five million riders in its first year, or about 13,000 riders per day. With ridership strong and operation running smoothly, officials in Edinburgh have warmed up to the idea of another line or extension that would run from Edinburgh to the neighboring waterfront town of Leith.

Edinburgh has a lot of transit overall. There's an extensive network of bus lanes that extend far out into the city's edges as well as along its older streets in the medieval section of Old Town, and bus ridership is among the highest in the UK. Also, the transit mall on Princes Street is both one of the city's major shopping areas and within site of the city's famous castle.

There are certainly similarities between Edinburgh's and DC's streetcar plans. Both were ambitious at the start but wound up getting curtailed as construction issues cropped up and costs rose. Some other issues are similar as well, like complaints from local businesses who had to deal with long bouts of construction work and dangers for cyclists who try to ride over the streetcar tracks.

Props to Edinburgh for getting its streetcar running and carrying passengers before DC's. Still, from our region's perspective, it's encouraging to see a similar project where ridership is so brisk.


Twelve out of 33 DC Streetcar fixes are complete

Earlier this year, outside experts identified 33 issues for DDOT to address before the H Street streetcar can open. According to DDOT spokespeople, 12 of those 33 have since been completely fixed. The remaining 21 are in progress.

Workers modify 19th Street station following an APTA review of the DC Streetcar. Photo by the author.

According to new DC Streetcar Launch Manager Timothy Borchers, workers are making significant progress towards satisfying the 33 recommendations from this spring's APTA review.

Borchers himself is one of the solutions. DDOT hired him this spring, following an APTA recommendation that DDOT bring on more experienced project managers. Borchers worked for years on the world's largest streetcar network in Melbourne, Australia, and helped launch the new Atlanta Streetcar in 2014.

Progress report

During an interview with reporters last week, Borchers didn't supply a specific list of exactly which 12 of the 33 total items are complete. But he did outline DDOT's recent progress.

Among the items that are complete: Crews have repaired the three cracked tracks, several new staff people have been hired (including Borchers himself), DDOT has finalized its pre-revenue operations plan, and crews now track all streetcar work using a single master matrix.

As for the rest, all 21 remaining items "are in some stage of completion," says Borchers.

Platform modifications

The most visible work in progress now is retrofitting the 19th Street station to meet disability accessibility standards. The slope of the concrete in the original platform was a few degrees off from federal requirements. Therefore, crews are now re-leveling the platform.

Workers may soon begin modifying other platforms, to prevent streetcar doors from scraping against the platform edge. Although Borchers was careful to note that DDOT is still in the process of determining its exact solution to the scraping problem, he says it's being caused by the streetcars' self-leveling system, hydraulics that keep streetcars level with the platforms at stations.

Workers may only need to fine-tune the streetcars's self-leveling system, but it may also be necessary to adjust some of the platforms.

Meanwhile, engineers are working on a new design for a set of stairs near the streetcar railyard, where the narrow landing between the bottom of the stairs and the edge of the streetcar tracks is potentially dangerous. The new design will add a "pivot," so the stairs empty onto a landing parallel to the tracks rather than leading directly into them.

Existing stairs leading straight to the streetcar tracks. Photo from DDOT.

Streetcar vehicle fixes

Inside the car barn, changes are underway to the streetcar vehicles themselves.

After one of DC's streetcars caught fire in February, analysis determined the cause was inadequate insulation on the pantographthe electrical mechanism connecting the streetcars to the overhead power wires.

Although it was a DC streetcar that caught fire, the problem was with the railcar's design. Thanks to lessons learned from the DC fire, all streetcars nationwide manufactured by United Streetcar are now being retrofitted with improved insulation.

If you spot a United Streetcar on Benning Road, its retrofit is complete and its pantograph is safe.

A retrofitted United Streetcar (left), with a Czech-built streetcar (right) on Benning Road, on Thursday, July 16 . Photo by the author.

Another change coming to the railcars is rear-view cameras. The APTA review recommended replacing rear-view mirrors with cameras in order to narrow the profile of the railcars, to help avoid side collisions with parked cars.

As of Thursday, the cameras have been installed but the mirrors have not yet been removed.

The white attachment at upper right is the new rear-view camera. Photo by the author.

No fences for Benning Road

One APTA recommendation that DDOT has decided to only partially implement is the suggestion to add fences to H Street and Benning Road, in order to cut down on jaywalking.

Borchers explained that while fencing can be appropriate for rail lines in other types of environments, it's inherently incompatible with a busy main street where there are lots of pedestrians. DDOT will install a short segment of fencing on the Hopscotch Bridge, but otherwise H Street and Benning Road will remain fence-free.

Instead, more signs and pavement markings will warn pedestrians to watch out for streetcars.

Next steps

According to Borchers, DDOT workers will continue to power through the remaining 21 items this summer, working towards final certification from DC's safety oversight office.

When everything is finally ready to go, the streetcar will enter a final pre-revenue operations phase, simulating the exact operations of passenger service.

Since DDOT already performed significant pre-revenue operations in the waning days of the Gray administration, they'll be able to follow a reduced timeline on this second go around. Once it begins, that will likely take two to three weeks, if everything goes well.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


33 things for DDOT to fix to open the DC Streetcar

The long-delayed H Street Streetcar has been shrouded in secrecy for months. But now DDOT has released a report detailing the exact causes of the delays, and how to fix them.

Red stripes next to streetcar tracks indicate where it's unsafe to pass stopped cars. They're installed wherever the tracks cross traffic lanes. Photo by Sean Emerson.

The complete list of 33 fixes is detailed below.

The list comes via an independent report from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). The recommendations are a mix of back-end organizational issues and physical problems with the line's construction.

The final report confirms the APTA's preliminary finding from this spring, that none of the problems are fatal flaws. All 33 items on the list are fixable.

DDOT has been working on fixes for months

DDOT has yet to comment on the status of fixes, but it's clear the agency has been working on them.

For example, one item on the list notes that streetcar doors scrape against some station platforms when they open. Last month, DDOT began modifying platforms to correct this problem.

Another example is the thick lines of red paint that DDOT added at key locations along H Street this spring. The paint is a visual warning for when the streetcar tracks swerve across travel lanes (like when they shift from the left lane to the right lane at Benning Road and Maryland Ave). If a car is inside the painted area at the track crossing, the streetcar doesn't have room to pass safely.

The complete list

The full 33-item list comes in two parts: The first 18 items are from the preliminary findings that came out in March. Following that, there are 15 new items.

Here they all are:

18-item preliminary list

  1. In conducting safety certification, the DC State Safety Oversight office should allow flexibility in resolving problem issues. Workarounds that adequately resolve safety issues may be considered acceptable as temporary fixes, provided DDOT identify a plan for permanent solutions.
  2. Hire a qualified chief safety officer.
  3. Hire additional technical staff with more experience in light rail / streetcar construction and operating.
  4. Repair breaks in the streetcar rails at three locations.
  5. Ensure the six railcars are all in a state of good repair, including railcar #202 which caught fire in February, 2015.
  6. Investigate why streetcar doors scrape at stations, and fix the problem.
  7. Add more prominent pavement graphics indicating where streetcars stop at stations, and add pavement graphics at switch points and passing locations to indicate to streetcar operators when it's safe to pass another streetcar.
  8. Ensure all on-board radios are working.
  9. Add additional lighting at streetcar stations.
  10. Complete a new safety assessment.
  11. Hire an independent expert to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Specifically, have this expert review and if necessary correct the design of the rumble strips at station platforms.
  12. Train maintenance staff more thoroughly, so they'll catch problems such as rail cracks sooner.
  13. Develop a pre-revenue operations plan, and do additional streetcar testing after all right-of-way and vehicle issues are resolved.
  14. Add heaters to rail switches, so they can melt snow pack.
  15. Resolve items from the previous safety & security reports.
  16. Develop a centralized tracking system for managing and resolving problems. DDOT's current system is decentralized and results in oversights.
  17. Review documents describing operating & maintenance procedures, and correct inconsistencies and incomplete sections.
  18. Develop an opening day operating schedule.
15-item followup list

Items 19-26 all deal with recommendations for back-end reorganization of DDOT's streetcar office. Most notably, APTA recommends DDOT appoint a single dedicated project manager with authority to make decisions, and delegate additional specific decision-making authorities to other designated staff. Currently all decisions are being elevated to the DDOT director, causing delays and leading to a lack of clarity regarding who is responsible for fixing problems.

  1. Conduct team building exercises to help streetcar staff work together better.
  2. Replace streetcar side mirrors with rear-facing cameras, reducing the width of the streetcars and thus reducing the risk of scraping parked cars.
  3. Ensure pedestrians on the south side of the Hopscotch Bridge have a safe and clearly-marked path. At the time of the APTA review, construction of Station House DC was blocking the sidewalk and stranding pedestrians.
  4. Add additional protection for pedestrians at the foot of the stairway at the Benning Road entrance to the streetcar carbarn, where a stairway terminates directly into the streetcar tracks.

    Photo from DDOT.
  5. Install a fence or landscaping along the street to prevent jaywalking.
  6. Add larger signs and additional on-street stencils warning car drivers to park inside the white line.
  7. Add bigger streetcar speed and signal signs. Current signs are too small for streetcar operators to see.
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