DC to Put the Old Streetcars Back on the Streets

by Elias Shams

DC is about to become more awesome and super cute. The D.C. Department of Transportation is going to put the old streetcars that was popular in DC from 40s through 60s back on the street of Washington, DC by 2012. They last rolled through 200 miles of tracks in the streets of D.C. in 1962.

If you live in DC metro, you have the opportunity to examine one of the $3 million streetcars. The Czech-made car is on display at the old Convention Center site (9th and H Streets, NW) from now through Saturday (5/8).

Tracks have already been laid along a few roads in N.E. DC, and construction along H Street, N.E. is well underway. The lines are expected to begin operations in 2012. And that’s just the beginning. City planners hope to open six more streetcar lines in the future.

On the first two lines, trolleys will run every ten minutes. The fare will be the same as the city-sponsored bus service, the Circulator. Currently, Circulator fares are a bargain: just a dollar.

The streetcar has about 30 seats aboard, there is a large amount of floor space for standing passengers. City officials estimate, at peak capacity, the streetcars can carry 162 passengers.

A Congressional law passed in late 1800 barred overhead wires for streetcars in the monumental part of D.C. and in Georgetown. Many of the city’s lines used an underground power source accessed through a slot in the ground. Two rails flanked the slot. Abandoned streetcar tracks that remain in Georgetown on “O” and “P” Streets used that old design.

City officials are searching for proposals to build self-propelled streetcars or hybrid vehicles that can run both with overhead wires and under their own power.

What I am more excited about the project is to get on these streetcars with my two boys. When they were little, I used to take them to the streets of Georgetown every weekend and drive over the tracks with my Rover Discovery.

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About Elias Shams
I have been a serial entrepreneur in telecom and social media space for past 12 years or so. I hold a M.S. degree in Telecommunication Engineering from the George Washington University and a B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Maryland. I’ve lived and worked in many countries and cities including London England, Tehran Iran, Bonn Germany, Paris France, Alicante Spain, Delhi India, and my favorite of all Washington, DC of great US of A. Two of the greatest Washington, DC based companies I worked for and very proud of are Yurie Systems which was sold to Lucent in 1998 for $1.23 B and telezoo.com that I founded in 1999. I am currently the founder and awesomizer @ awesomize.me

18 Responses to DC to Put the Old Streetcars Back on the Streets

  1. Ash says:

    Interesting thing about the demise of street cars and trolleys in the early 20th century in US cities is this: the manufacturers of buses, cars, tires and gasoline literally bribed city officials in cities across this country to tear up the tracks and scrap the cars. It wasn’t “progress” that led to our current mass transportation mess – it was greed and corruption.

    • Elias Shams says:

      Having lived and worked in the US since 1985, I believe you Ash

    • Rob Van Laun says:

      Ash, more like mid twentieth century.

    • Rob Van Laun says:

      Ash, streetcar and trolley both refer to the same type of vehicle.The word trolley in American English is a colloquialism for streetcar and comes from the vehicle’s trolley pole which makes contact with the underside of the overhead “trolley” wire. The word trolley comes from “to troll”; as in the fishing technique wherein one pulls a fishline through the water from a moving boat. The pole mounted on the roof of a streetcar “trolls” the overhead wire as the car travels along its route.

      The use of the word trolley was very regional, in Chicago, Washington DC and San Francisco* the use of the word streetcar was quite common, and in Philadelphia the use of the word trolley was almost always the norm.

      *modern electric urban light rail vehicles almost universally use a device called a pantograph for current collection, in San Diego the LRVs are equiped with pantographs and are referred to as “trolleys” which, technically speaking, is incorrect. Another very technical misuse of the colloquialism is to refer to a San Francisco cable car as a trolley.

  2. This is an expensive, wasted effort with obsolete technology. Right now at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, Shanghai Aowei Technology Development Ltd. Corp. is showing off its 3rd. generation Ultracapacitor powered electric bus which Foton America Bus Company will be selling here in September. The buses have a proven track record and are more efficient, cheaper, and more environmentally clean than streetcars. They also do not need continuous overhead electric wires. Nor do they need trolley tracks; so routes can be changed and a stalled vehicle will not block the entire route.
    built into the streets.

    • Rob Van Laun says:

      Jonathan, you miss the point. Electrically proplelled vehicles are far cleaner and far more efficient than any bus, except an electric trolley bus. The modern PCC streetcars operated by D.C. Transit were forced off of the streets of Washington by hostile government fiat in January 1962. D.C. Transit’s CEO, O. Roy Chalk tried in vain to retain D.C.’s streetcar system simply because he found they were more efficient and profitable than D.C. Transit’s far more numerous bus routes. The streetcars retired that winter were considered in many quarters to be finest American urban transit vehicles designed, and as of 2010 has yet to be surpassed.

      • No Ron, I did not miss the point. Ultracapacitor buses are 100% electric. A UC bus uses no direct fossil fuel for power, emits no pollution, is eco friendly, quiet, and the technology is proven. A UC bus uses only 2 kWh/mile of electricity, or 18.25 cents per mile. A UC bus also recaptures its own breaking energy, which electric trolleys do not. UC buses have been used for over four years and gone over 1,000,000 kilometers with no problems and low maintenance costs. These buses cost one-sixth the cost of the electric trolleys, do not have continuous overhead wires, nor do they have expensive infrastructure tracks. Should one vehicle break down the whole trolley line is blocked until the trolley is removed or put back into service. A UC bus can just go around any obstruction; and future bus routes can be easily adjusted or changed by city officials. UC technology is constantly improving and the next generation of UC buses will be able to go up to ten miles per 30 second re-change, which are conveniently done with a catenary at passenger stops while people enter and exit the bus.

      • Rob Van Laun says:

        Jonathan, to refute urban rail as obsolete indicates how indeed you do miss the point. The point is that “modern” fast accelerating streetcars operating on noise proofed trucks (the undercarriage wheel assemblies) over well maintained rail as was common in the district from 1936 to 1962, provided a ride more reliable and comfortable ride than any bus could provide. I know first hand, I rode the D.C. Transit streetcars whose routes provided service on the most heavily used truck line routes in the city and suburban areas, the streetcars where the backbone of the entire D.C. Transit system. This is not a bus versus streetcar argument as you would have it, but rather which vehicle is more suited to heavy ridership demands. The bus obviously has its place on short lines and more lightly patronised routes, indeed, even in the days of Washington streetcar service, the system had more bus routes by far than rail routes. You miss the point because a bus is a bus is a bus which requires all of its routes be well paved and maintained to provide anything close to a consistantly comfortable ride. What’s more these breakdowns and blockages you seem to like to point out were extremely uncommon.

      • Rob Van Laun says:

        ” A UC bus also recaptures its own breaking energy, which electric trolleys do not. UC buses have been used for over four years and gone over 1,000,000 kilometers with no problems and low maintenance costs. ”

        Modern electric streetcars as used in the district until 1962 did in fact utilise their own breaking energy in their regenerative breaking systems. RVL

    • Rob Van Laun says:

      Jonathan what’s the price tag on this UC system ? I bet it’s far from inexpensive to build charge points every 5 to 10 miles along the length of every route..

      • Rob Van Laun says:

        one flaw in this UC bus concept is that buses unlike subways do not necessarily stop at literally every bus stop if no one is getting off of or waiting curbside to get on the bus. Early morning and late night buses and streetcars can travel literally several miles before passengers may get on or off the vehicle. It seems to me the UC bus would be required to make designated requisite charging station stops no matter how brief they might be whether anyone intended boarding or alighting from the bus.

    • Rob Van Laun says:

      Jonathan, whether or not re-introducing streetcars to the district is a good idea for the amount of money that will be spent is anyone’s guess at best. If it’s done properly and in crosstown corridors wherein the routes would be heavily patronised it should be successful if the new rail routes become well traveled trunk lines which will serve as the backbone for the surface routes as the D.C. Transit streetcar routes once served the district.

      Where you miss the point is in completely rejecting urban rail as technologically obsolete. I suspect you are not too familiar with the advantages modern electric urban rail transportation that utilise fast accelerating and braking high performance urban rail vehicles. They are of course capitive to their rails, however they can be operated in restricted rail only street lanes as well as in medians of wide streets such as in Boston and until the early 60s on the medians of Pennsylvania Avenue S.E. to Barney Circle.
      The central point you miss is that urban rail provides a smooth and comfortable ride regardless of the condition of the street pavement that “ALL” buses are subject to. They can easily be operated in trains of 2 to 3 cars to quickly move large numbers of commuters.

  3. Phil Quimby says:

    It depends on the routes. I currently am a regular Red Line commuter. If they have “spokes” in directions I want to go from different stations, I will ride them. I lived in Germany and have ridden plenty of street cars. No big deal.

  4. Elias Shams says:

    They will certainly adds characters to the city

  5. I would ride them when in town. There are few parkings, they have gone up and those meters people seem to be at those of us from the outskirts of DC the minute we park the car. $100 to $150 for a ticket is a big thing. Besides that, I thought the ones they showed yesterday are beautiful (don’t know the inside though). Added bonuses: somebody else driving and maybe less congestion.

  6. Ted Pippin says:

    Absolutely. Great idea and hopefully much less expensive to operate versus the Metro trains.

  7. Any alternative means of transportation is a great idea. I’m hoping the Street Cars will free up a little more space while driving in DC. I wonder what it would take to make Metro to earn normal profits? Would it be more efficient by extending it to more suburbs?

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