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DC Streetcar developments (part two)

Looking down H Street from the Union Station terminus during final testing in late 2015. Image credit: Mario R. Duran Ortiz

(…continued from part one)


A new operating team

Operations and maintenance of the system have been subcontracted to RDMT, a joint venture between RATP Dev and Texas-based McDonald Transit. DDOT signed a five-year contract with RDMT in July 2012, with staff coming on board in the testing and commissioning phase bringing LRT expertise from both RATP Dev’s worldwide subsidiaries and also from its US experience in Tucson, Arizona. Current General Manager Cleve Cleveland has over a decade’s knowledge of high-level light rail operations garnered from both Sound Transit (Seattle) and the the Tucson Sun Link streetcar that opened in July 2014.

A temporary base and storage facility has been set up close to the Oklahoma terminus, on the corner of Benning Road and 26 St NE, prior to permanent facilities being erected on the same site. The 0.8ha (two-acre) site currently houses a canvas car barn and the control room as well as management offices and operating staff facilities. Construction of the new USD28m 1400m2 depot could only begin once a land ownership dispute had been resolved, but is now nearing completion.

Four cars are needed for peak service with a fifth on standby kept on a turnback facility towards the eastern end of the route so it can be slotted in at a moment’s notice if required. There is now a seven-day-a-week service running to 12-minute headways; the end-to-end running time is around 22 minutes. This is slightly faster than the parallel bus routes despite one of these being limited stop. There is a steady demand throughout the day with the peak ridership being at lunchtime periods. Friday and Saturday evenings tend to be particularly busy with people going out to eat seeing the streetcar as a better option than a taxi, particularly as service operates until 02.00 – this is especially relevant as services are currently fare-free.

Whilst there is no specific traffic signal priority there are interfaces within the traffic light control software for the streetcar not to face serious holdups at intersections in normal traffic conditions.

The ‘core network’

Perhaps surprisingly, development of the network is not currently focused around completion of the Anacostia line that was abandoned in 2010 (tracks remain in situ at Firth Stirling Avenue SE and South Capitol Street), but instead extensions at both ends of the existing line.

At the western end, a 5.8km (3.5-mile) projection is planned to take the line through the downtown area and out to Georgetown. Due to the historic nature of parts of this route the DDOT is actively exploring the option of wire-free operation similar to that seen in Dallas and Seattle and for sections of the new line along Woodward Avenue in Detroit that are due to open in 2017. Consideration is also being given to the creation of dedicated transit lanes to accelerate the service; whether such lanes would be restricted to the streetcar, with grade separation, or if buses will also be allowed to use them is unclear at this early stage and no preferred alignment has yet been confirmed. This project was originally costed at USD370m but when prepared the estimate did not envisage off-wire operation or the creation of transit lanes.

The eastern extension will take service 2.7km (1.7 miles) to a direct Metrorail connection at the Benning Road station on the Blue and Silver lines and this is planned as part of the rebuilding of Benning Road and the bridge over Kingman Island and the Anacostia River. Alternatives show both median street-running and gutter-running in the stretch between the rebuilt bridge and the Metrorail station.

In the longer-term, there are plans for a 35km (22-mile) core network as part of a 59.5km (37-mile) aspirational planned network. In addition to the full Benning – Georgetown route, the core network will include service in Anacostia, and a north-south route through the city centre to Takoma Avenue. This could use the existing one-way system to link with the Anacostia route at Southwest Waterfront, before terminating at the Buzzard Point spur overlooking the confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. With large sections of dedicated alignment, this could replace four overcrowded bus routes on which some estimate daily ridership is as high as 60 000.

With that level of anticipated ridership new vehicles will be required, with the possibility of either multiple operation or additional-sectioned cars – either way, longer platforms and larger stops will be needed. At this stage a number of intermediate stations have been identified including stops at Shaw Howard University and at Gallery Place/Chinatown where it may intersect with the Benning – Georgetown line and at L’Enfant Plaza near the waterfront where it will link with the Anacostia line.

The Anacostia line will start at its junction with the North-South line at L’Enfant Plaza near the Southwest Waterfront. From there it will cross the Anacostia River on the 11th Street bridge and turn south-west along Railroad Avenue where there will be a stop to allow direct interchange with Metrorail. It will continue south-west to eventually terminate at the junction of Anacostia and South Capital. Portions of the existing track will be incorporated into this route. A full environmental assessment was undertaken and approved by the Federal Transit Administration in 2014, although there are no costs or timescales for this line or for the remainder of the core network.

‘A block diagram of a system’

In conversation Derek Jones, Associate Director of DDOT’s Transit Delivery division, explained that the delays in opening the new line were deeply regrettable but that the hiring of Dormsjo was the catalyst for change. Describing the initial route as “no more than a block diagram of a system”,
Jones added that while the pre-opening issues were significant and required close attention, he oversaw “the best safety certification team in the USA”. He is also clearly pleased with the success of the system in helping to bring business to the revitalised area along the streetcar corridor, noting that
prior to its arrival pedestrians would “run instead of walking” down H Street, such was its reputation.

On the subject of passenger revenues, Jones explained that the introduction of fares is a long way off in the DDOT’s thinking. However he confirmed that the issue is being studied closely and whatever the outcome the key objective of having a fare system for streetcars, will be integration with Metrorail and local bus services. It would appear that the introduction of fares will be delayed until at least one of the future extensions is opened, although DDOT would not be drawn on this statement.

The extensions will also likely bring wire-free streetcar operation. Many of the new-build streetcar and light rail projects around the world feature an element of battery or supercapacitor application and Jones believes that this is the “future of city centre operation” with intermediate charging stations or overhead wiring to permit charging at the suburban ends of lines as is seen in Dallas.

RDMT’s Cleve Cleveland summed up the present initial line as “a good system doing what it was meant to do”, but he too is looking to the future. However, it will be no more than a ‘toy’ system in starter mode until the extensions at both ends are operational and there is a clear timeline and funding for the full core network. Whilst at present it is having some impact locally, it is not making a significant contribution to removing cars from the core city area – but the extensions should see this partially remedied. It will also be interesting to see what impact on ridership any charging of fares will have.

Washington is a major tourist city as apart from the well-known destinations such as the White House, Capitol Building and the Smithsonian Institute there are many important and impressive museums and memorials. It is recommended that visitors use public transport as much as possible as the city’s traffic congestion is notorious.


TAUT would like to thank Derek Jones and Terry Owens of the DDOT and Cleve Cleveland from operator RDMT for their assistance in the preparation of this feature. Full operational information and further details about the streetcar’s future plans are available at


Feature originally appeared in TAUT January 2017 (949).