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H Street streetcar will carry passengers on February 27

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser just announced the H Street streetcar will officially open to passengers on Saturday, February 27. Of this year. Hallelujah!

Photo by the author.

Mayor Bowser's announcement should mean the DC fire department has certified the streetcar as safe to run and submitted its paperwork to the federal government, thus accomplishing the last step before the streetcar can open. With that done, it's ready to carry passengers.

The opening party and first passenger-carrying run will take place at 10:00 am on Saturday, February 27, at the corner of H Street and 13th Street NE.

After that, streetcars will run between Union Station and Oklahoma Avenue every 15 minutes the rest of the day. Rides will be free for everyone for the first few months.

The streetcar will close again Sunday the 28th; for now it's only scheduled to run six days per week. But passengers will be able to pick it up again on Monday the 29th, and every day thereafter except Sundays.

Many of us will be there to enjoy the festivities, and we'll try to all meet up to make a GGWash contingent. Join us if you can! Or ride the streetcar to our 8th birthday party on March 8. Or both!


DC's first electric streetcar helped build Eckington

DC got its first electric streetcar in 1888 when the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway went into operation. A ban on overhead wires kept it from running downtown, and the company ultimately went out of business because it couldn't find another option.

I recently wrote about the 100-year history of streetcars in the District, from 1862 to 1962 (the span from the first and last times a streetcar carried passengers in DC), in my book, Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, DC. The following story about the Eckington line has been adapted from the book.

Eckington developed alongside the streetcar

Eckington was perhaps the first "true" streetcar suburb in the District in the sense that it was designed from the start as a streetcar destination. It originally had been the estate of Joseph Gales Jr. (1786—1860), publisher of the National Intelligencer newspaper and one of the city's early mayors. He had named it Eckington after his birthplace in England.

Real estate investor Colonel George Truesdell (1842—1921) bought the Eckington tract in 1887 with the idea of building a modern bedroom suburb on it. Truesdell laid out his new subdivision as an idyllic suburban community with large house lots, stunning views of the city and desirable modern amenities—including paved streets, stone sidewalks and electric streetlights—that more established District neighborhoods still didn't have.

In 1888, Truesdell obtained a Congressional charter for a streetcar company specifically to serve his pretty new suburb. The line would include an electric station to power the railway as well as the brilliant streetlights to light up Eckington at night. Poles went into the center of the roadway to carry the overhead wires for the streetcars. It was an ideal arrangement.

The railway's original route started downtown at Mount Vernon Square, at the intersection of Seventh Street (the main commercial corridor of the day) and New York Avenue. It ran northeast from there to Third Street, then turned north, passing through the heart of the new development, and continued into the countryside along Fourth Street until it finally ended at the southern entrance to the Soldiers Home grounds, a popular spot for Sunday outings.

The route of the Eckington line superimposed on a modern map. Map by Matthew B. Gilmore

The Eckington line was not only the first mechanized streetcar line in Washington, but it was also the city's first electric trolley line—the word trolley referring to a streetcar that gathers electric power from overhead lines through a pole on the roof of the car.

Some dreaded "the evil of overhead wires"

For many Washingtonians, the revolutionary new Eckington trolley was a marvel to behold. But for other observers, notably Crosby S. Noyes (1825—1908), editor of the Evening Star, it was the incarnation of evil.

When plans for the Eckington project first became public in August 1888, the Star lashed out with a fierce editorial:

"The reform of abolishing overhead wires in the District seems to be progressing backward," it warned. "[N]ow the Commissioners add a new species of overhead wire to the existing network by permitting the Eckington railway to construct an overhead electric system." They should instead be working to "secure to the city the benefits of rapid transit without aggravating the evil of overhead wires," the Star insisted.

Spurred to action, Congress soon passed a series of laws that required all DC streetcar companies to convert from horsepower to some form of mechanized power by July 1893. But they simultaneously banned the use of overhead wires in the downtown area after that date.

The edict undoubtedly was frustrating for Truesdell. After the successful inauguration of Richmond's trolley system early in 1888, it was universally understood that trolleys using overhead wires were the cheapest and most efficient way to power streetcar systems. Trolley systems were already being planned and built in cities all over the country, but they were now banned in the District.

Still, the streetcar was initially successful, and it even expanded to Brookland

For several days after the new line opened in October 1888, crowds formed along New York Avenue, not only to see the streetcars zipping along without horses but also to see the street lit up at night by the electric lights mounted on the iron poles in the center of the roadway.

Opening day of the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway. Photo from the Historical Society of Washington, DC.

Truesdell soon set about expanding his new railway to serve a wider clientele. Extensions were first built on the northern ends of the lines, one heading north along North Capitol Street and the other extending from the Soldiers Home to the Catholic University of America, which had just been established in 1887, and the adjoining new village of Brookland. With luck, the new destinations would soon fill with streetcar riders.

Truesdell had always wanted to extend the line on its southern end farther into the downtown area, but that meant coming up with an alternate power source because of the ban on overhead trolleys downtown. Truesdell was determined to find a propulsion technology that wouldn't break the bank. He, like other railway directors, was convinced that using underground electrical power was not economical.

Another power option was too dangerous, and batteries didn't work either

One alternative was to set electrical contacts right in the pavement between the tracks on the roadway, which was certainly a much less expensive approach than digging underground conduits lined with continuous power rails. Each streetcar would get power momentarily from one of these contact plates as the car passed over, propelling it on to the next plate.

The company experimented with such a system in late 1890 on a stretch of test track along North Capital Street north of Boundary Street. However, the "surface contact" system they tried was a bust. The contact plates in the street were supposed to be electrified only when a streetcar was directly over them, but there was no practical way to ensure that they did not stay charged when they were in the open. It was soon obvious that the railroad couldn't deploy a system that might randomly electrocute people or horses stepping on the plates, and the experiment had to be abandoned.

An experimental surface contact streetcar. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Next, when in late 1890 the company began building its downtown extension, it tried using battery-powered cars. The extension ran south from New York Avenue along Fifth Street Northwest and then turned east on G Street and continued to the Treasury Department, bringing the Eckington line into the heart of the downtown commercial district. With this southern extension in place, the company could offer a twenty-five-minute ride all the way from Brookland down to the Treasury Department, although it required a transfer at New York Avenue from a trolley-powered to a battery-powered car.

For the new Southern extension, the company bought the latest Robinson electric cars, elegant carriages finished in mahogany with gold trim that had three sets of wheels intended to facilitate going around curves. Pretty as they may have been, the Robinson cars were too pokey, and recharging their batteries was slow and expensive. In 1893, after just two years, the company gave up on batteries.

The struggle over overhead wires continued, but ultimately failed

The railway soldiered on, its fight for overhead wires soon degenerating into a game of chicken with the Star and the DC commissioners. Exasperated that an overhead trolley system could not be installed to replace the failed battery cars, the railway converted its downtown extension to horsecars, ignoring the fact that horsecars were supposed to have been phased out by that time.

More horsecar lines were added in 1894 while the original overhead trolley line along New York Avenue and to the north continued to operate. The company's directors figured that people would be so fed up with these outmoded cars that Congress would give in and allow them to install an overhead trolley system.

The Evening Star editors were doubly upset about this turn of events. Not only were horsecars back, but the Eckington company had also missed a revised July 1, 1895 deadline for taking down the poles and overhead wires on New York Avenue, which the newspaper referred to as "obnoxious obstructions."

After the Star redoubled its public complaints, the company tried a new tack. The overhead wire system on New York Avenue was removed, and that portion of the Eckington line began running…yes, more horsecars!

The Washington Post commented that switching to horses "will mean a considerable increase in the expense to the company, which already has its stables full of horses that are not in condition for use, and it will give the residents on the line a poorer service. But the company is taking a rather grim satisfaction in the matter, as they are already losing money on their horse service, and they think that the additional loss will be a sort of investment as an object lesson to the public on the benefit of rapid transit, trolley or otherwise."

As it turned out, the public was the one giving the lesson. "Eckington is at present a very much disgusted community," the Post reported. Customers stayed away from the balky, outmoded horsecar service, which they found insulting. Ridership plummeted as rapidly as expenses soared. A year later, the overextended company was bankrupt.

A final try didn't work

A last desperate effort went into making the Eckington line viable. In early 1896, the company hosted the demonstration of a streetcar powered by compressed air, which it gambled would be both publicly acceptable and economically viable. The compressed air system used the pressure of air from canisters stored underneath the passenger seats to push pistons that turned the car's wheels. The compressed air was heated with steam to increase its force as it moved out of the canisters.

This double-decker streetcar saw brief service on the Eckington line. Photo courtesy of the National Capital Trolley Museum.

However, the public did not care for the compressed air cars, finding them smoky, dusty and smelly. The cars also tended to be slow on uphill grades. The compressed air experiment, on which the hopes of the company had been pinned, was quickly abandoned.

At this point, the bankrupt line had already been purchased by a group of investors led by financier Oscar T. Crosby (1861—1947). In 1898, the Crosby syndicate also gained control of most of the other street railway lines in the District and began operating them under one holding company, called the Washington Traction and Electric Company. In compliance with the Congressional edict, the new conglomerate finally began installing underground electrical conduit systems on the portions of the former Eckington line that were within the downtown area. The struggle to find an alternative to underground conduits had failed.


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.

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