Thursday, August 7, 2014

D.C. streetcars: Rollin' again as operator training begins

Encountering a streetcar coming toward me on H Street NE was astonishing. I knew they had begun operator training the day before (August 4, 2014), but actually seeing one in motion was still quite a surprise--and thrill. It had been (2014 - 1962 =) 52 years since D.C.'s last streetcar rolled.

Operation of this new system was assigned by DDOT to a French company called RDMT, which stands for "RATP Dev McDonald Transit." (I am not making that up. It's literal.) DDOT hired them to "handle the day-to-day operations of the 2.2 miles of track along H Street and Benning Road NE for the next five years. The company also will oversee training and maintenance facilities." A platoon of new hires sporting international-yellow vests emblazoned "RDMT" were all over the west end the day I was there (August 5), awaiting their turn to take the controls.

Join me now as we go in search of moving streetcars, from the west end (3rd and H Street NE) to the east end of the initial line segment (Benning Road and about two blocks beyond Oklahoma Avenue NE)

We begin, however, by backing up a few days before operator training began, to July 25. That day I visited the site where a car barn is being erected in the front yard of the now permanently-closed Springarn High School (corner of Benning Road and 26th St NE):

 Five days later, on July 30, I returned for another look.

 At the east end of the line (Benning Road) I found two streetcars--and nothing moving.

In the above photo we're standing in front of those streetcars and facing east, staring at the current end of the line.To change tracks before running in the opposite direction, a streetcar moves to the end near the bumper, changes the switch, then reverses and moves west onto the other track.

Refreshing, huh? While the original three D.C. streetcars were built in the Czech Republic, the fourth was assembled by United Streetcar of Clackamas, Oregon, adjacent to parent company Oregon Iron Works. On their Website, they assert they're "the first manufacturer of modern streetcars in the United States."

With such good light this day, I grabbed a wide shot of the car barn construction site in front of old Springarn High School.

 These promotional pylons have popped up all along the route.

 Back at the west end of the line (on the Hopscotch Bridge at H Street and 3rd NE), the other three streetcars sit quietly, protected by a security service.

And now for those moving streetcars I saw Tuesday, August 5.

As I head east across the top of the Hopscotch Bridge, this was my view through the Jeep's window. One of the streetcars was parked at the top.
Two more were parked near the bottom. Note the RDMT employees with their bright yellow vests.

And here's that moving streetcar! It has come all the way from the east end of Benning Road. I am intercepting it near H and 4th Streets NE, breathing hard. Time: 1208.

And there it goes westward, disappearing behind me as I continue east, toward its parking spot on the bridge. I shot this through the side-view mirror, then flopped the image. (Thank you, Photoshop!)

Thinking the operator may reverse and return to Benning Road, I continued to the east end of the line, parked, and stood around for an hour without success. Having arrived at noon, I concluded they'd broken for lunch. I headed back to the Hopscotch Bridge, arriving at 1312.

After hanging around here for 20 minutes or so--it was now 1322--I sighed and assumed they were done for the day, so I headed back down the side street where I'd parked the Jeep and prepared to go home.
And then, as soon as I pulled out onto H Street at 1334, here came a streetcar! To heck with going home; I reversed and gave chase.
I'm following that streetcar east along H Street to get ahead of it hoping to grab shots when it arrives at Benning Road . . .

Yes! Here it comes down the hill on Benning Road, approaching the Oklahoma Avenue intersection across from the car barn construction site, along with a gaggle of young people hanging out at the Exxon station.

One day sights like this--traffic with a streetcar in the mix--will become common again.

After reaching the east end of the line, just below the sweeping, overhead Metro bridge, the streetcar operator moves to the other end of the car, changes the track switch, and heads back west.

So long for now, D.C. streetcar! It was 1400, stomach was growling, time to head home for a late lunch. My next post will likely come when DDOT launches full service to the public, currently predicted for November 2014.


  1. Glad to see progress unfolding before our eyes even if it has been a long time in arriving. Streetcars always seem to be so efficient in carrying out whatever you wish to do in an urban setting. Maybe we can forgive the foreign company for building the trio of cars that is now about to be in active service. The photos are superb. Well done Mr. Fuller!
    Reg Lynchburg, Virginia

  2. Thank you, Reg. It's a start. One hopes it will succeed and inspire government agencies to loosen their purse strings for the full 22-mile build-out across the District. Incidentally, there was an article in today's Washington Post (August 10, 2014) on training the streetcar operators, with a couple of photos. Search on the author's name, Michael Laris, and you'll find it.