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DC Streetcar developments (part one)

United Streetcar-built 201 laying over at Union Station looking east down H Street on 30 September 2016. The new development surrounding the line can be seen both on both sides of the street. Image credit: Vic Simons

The morning of 27 February 2016 marked a key milestone in the transit landscape of the US capital, Washington DC, with the opening of the first modern light rail service in the city. The line had been planned for well over a decade but had been through many trials and tribulations in its realisation. This 3.8km (2.4-mile) starter line restored streetcar operation to the seat of US Government after an absence of 54 years.

The opening was met with the usual fanfare granted to second-generation US systems, and overseen by DC Mayor Muriel Bowser – the fourth mayor of the capital with responsibility for the project.

Washington DC is the Federal capital of the United States, designated such in 1790, and sits within the District of Columbia (hence the DC that is the usual shortened version, which avoids confusion with Washington State some 4800km (3000 miles) to the west). As such it is not part of any of the 50 states, although it was created with land around the Potomac River donated from neighbouring Maryland and Virginia.

Streetcar heritage

The built-up urban area of Washington has spread way beyond the original square of its formation and the metropolitan area is now home to around six million people, although the city proper houses only roughly one tenth of that total. Originally the city included an area south of the Potomac River in what is now the State of Virginia; the southern boundary is now formed by the Potomac.

Although horse-drawn streetcar operation began in 1862, electrification did not arrive in DC until 1888 and services reached their peak shortly after World War One. At its zenith, the system had almost 320km (200 miles) of track under the administration and management of the consolidated Capital Transit organisation with services also running into both Maryland and Virginia. As with other US cities, the streetcars gradually succumbed to automobile and motor bus competition allied to a shift towards suburban living. Historian Zachary M. Schrag notes that in 1948, Washington area residents owned 203 000 automobiles but just seven years later this figure had risen to 418 000. Alongside major strikes over pay also affecting service schedules in the post-war years, the number of bus and streetcar trips declined by 39 000 a day.

In fact, the wildcat strikes of 1945 disrupted Capital Transit streetcar services in the city – and effective government employee operation – so severely that then President Truman forced a seizure of assets on 21 November that year. He stated that the cessation of services “strikes at the very roots of orderly government”, vowing that “the federal government will not permit this kind of action to interfere with its processes either in the capital or any part of the nation.”

Further substantial disruptions with striking workers in 1955 affected ridership severely and the system never fully recovered as many preferred their strike-born alternative forms of travel around the city. Abandonment began in 1958 and the last PCC entered the Navy Yard Car Barn on
M St SE in the south-east of the city on 8 January 1962. As a farewell gesture to the city, the previous day saw free rides for children accompanied by a fare-paying adult and so many took advantage of this offer that 27 additional cars had to be brought into service to accommodate the demand.

When the system closed there were a large number of surplus PCC cars. While some were sent for scrap, 15 were sold to the Tandy Corporation for a short private transit line connecting a parking lot to Tandy’s Department Store in Fort Worth, Texas, and more than 200 saw further life in Europe.

Birth (and decline) of Metrorail

It was soon clear that the dismantling of the capital’s streetcar network was not in the best interests of either DC or its surrounding conurbation, with traffic congestion growing significantly over the following decade.

The first plans for a rapid transit system were drawn up by the newly-formed Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) in 1968. The first 7.4km (4.6 miles) opened in March 1976, with the Red line route between Rhode Island Avenue and Farragut North, all located in the District of Columbia.

Known as Metrorail, expansion soon followed as per the original 1968 plan and there are now six lines, serving 91 stations, over 188km (117 miles) of track; with over 215m passengers each year, it is the second-busiest rapid transit system in the US after the New York Subway. Constructed to the unusual track gauge of 1429mm, rolling stock comes from five different manufacturers. The system is designed for automatic operation although an operator is always on board for manual override if required and to open and close the doors. Trains draw power at 750V dc using third rail current collection and are formed into married pairs with services operating with up to eight cars.

Claims of under-investment and deferred maintenance have dogged the Metro for many years, with increasing failures, safety concerns and breakdowns in recent times. The Metro also saw one of the worst rail disasters in recent US history when, on 22 June 2009, two southbound Red line trains collided outside Fort Totten station, killing nine and injuring 70 more.

Shortly after his confirmation as General Manager and Chief Executive in November, 30-year transit veteran Paul J. Wiedefeld announced sweeping changes. His aggressive plan for renewals was confirmed in May 2016 and includes service reductions and rolling shutdowns of various sections of the network; these issues even drew comment from President Barack Obama: “This is just one more example of the under-investments that have been made. The DC Metro has historically been a great strength of this region, but over time we have under-invested in maintenance and repairs.”

As well as major upgrades and enhancements, further extensions are in the pipeline, the most noteworthy being the Silver line extension to Dulles Airport, the main international airport for DC. Opening in two phases, this USD5.6bn project will add a total of 37km (23 miles) to the system in one of the biggest urban rail projects currently underway across the US. Following delays due to design changes to account for changing state legislation, the full link to the airport is expected to open by the end of the decade.

Commuter rail services feed into Washington Union Station from both Maryland and West Virginia to the north, marketed as MARC (Maryland Area Regional Commuter); and Virginia in the south, under the VRE (Virginia Railway Express) brand. Some MARC services on the Penn line from Baltimore operate during the off-peak and over weekends, otherwise these services are generally inbound to Washington in the morning and outbound in the evening. The two-line VRE is largely a peak-hour Monday-Friday operation with very limited service in the reverse direction and none at weekends.

Streetcar plans take shape

Back at street level, the return of the streetcar had long been an aspiration of the city authorities, with planning beginning in the late 1990s. A variety of alignments were proposed by the District of Columbia, with the first to be implemented chosen as a line in Anacostia, in the south of the city, using an abandoned railway right of way. Initial plans recommended the use of Diesel Multiple Units, but these were subsequently changed to an electrified system taking traction power from overhead lines at 750V dc.

Following a ground-breaking in 2004, construction was halted shortly afterwards due to a land ownership dispute with railroad operator CSX and other landowners which has still not been resolved. Indeed, the city took the decision to build the line on the streets which also upset local residents. Despite the purchase of new streetcars, the whole project has been mothballed with the streetcars being put into storage in 2009 awaiting a decision on future plans.

The first three of the second-generation streetcars were built in Ostrava, Czech Republic, by Inekon (also a supplier to both Portland and Seattle) and were completed in 2007, but the lack of storage facilities within DC meant that they had to be stored locally before finally being shipped to the US in 2009. As the ongoing infrastructure was not in place, these Inekon 12 Trio cars were stored at the Greenbelt Metrorail facility. The system’s other three streetcars were built by United Streetcar in Oregon, based on a design originally developed jointly by Inekon and Škoda that explains the similarity of design, with delivery in 2014. The Inekon cars are numbered 101-103 with United Streetcar 100 vehicles numbered 201-203.

The USD229m H Street/Benning Road route was conceived in the early part of this century and some track had been laid by 2012. Various efforts were made to complete the scheme for the original 2014 projected opening but these stalled due to opposition within the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) – the agency responsible for administration and management of public transport infrastructure in the District of Columbia – and self-confessed ‘inept project management’. This meant that construction proceeded at a snail’s pace leading to the perception that the project could not be delivered.

In 2014 the DDOT resolved its internal problems and established a new team which identified, with help from an independent APTA audit, 33 issues to be resolved before service began. These included elements such as rolling stock and infrastructure modifications, and safety and disabled access improvements, but mainly focused on staff training, documentation and operations and maintenance procedures. The APTA report confirmed that none of these issues would be fatal to the project, but strongly recommended the appointment of a dedicated project manager with the authority to make decisions and speed up the process.

In early 2015 the DDOT engaged Leif Dormsjo, an experienced and highly-respected engineer, to revitalise the project. Mr Dormsjo’s experience included work on the Maryland Department of Transportation Purple line LRT project (see TAUT 948 for more detail on urban rail developments in Maryland), and he quickly resolved the remaining issues.

With remedial action taken, by late 2015 the line was ready for testing, although limited trials using the United Streetcar vehicles had begun as early as December 2013; indeed, it was some of these early trials that helped identify many of the deficiencies in both the vehicle specification and infrastructure.

The opening date of February 2016 was determined largely by delays in obtaining the fire safety certificate from DC Fire Department; the process took 18 months. However, before the line could open to passengers, the stored Inekon streetcars needed some refurbishment and upgrades after five years in storage before testing and commissioning could begin.

Both vehicle types are bi-directional, air-conditioned, 70% low-floor cars, which have different front end designs albeit within the same overall dimensions: they are 2.45m wide, 20.3m long and with a total passenger capacity of 157; 29 seated. Operating on standard-gauge track, traction power is drawn from overhead line fed by three substations, with a fourth under construction. TAUT was informed that the demise of United Streetcar had caused no problems for the operator as many parts for the two designs are interchangeable.

The new eight-station line runs from the point where H Street crosses the railway immediately to the north of Union Station on the Hopscotch Bridge, to Benning Road close to its intersection with Oklahoma Avenue. The western terminal station has been constructed on top of the bridge, which required reinforcement before track construction could commence; despite being advertised as a connection to Union Station this is via a five to ten-minute walk that lacks cover. The route at the western end goes through a district being gentrified and redeveloped with modern apartment blocks and many restaurants and bars, although the eastern end is not quite as salubrious.

Mainly street-running, there is a short section of segregated alignment on the Hopscotch Bridge; otherwise the double-track route is very straight with only a slight curve as the line moves from H Street to Benning Road. The initial modest ridership forecasts have been significantly exceeded with daily passenger figures of around 2500/day compared with the projected 1500; Saturday figures are higher still, rising to more than 3000 per day.


Part two to follow…


Feature originally appeared in TAUT January 2017 (949).