Monday, February 5, 2007

Washington DC and Wires

Apparently when they ran the streetcars in Washington DC laws had been written that would require that no overhead wires in the District West of the Anacostia River be used to power anything. While this law keeps out unsightly wires it also discourages bringing back the streetcars that once ran down the streets of Washington. The pilot Anacostia Streetcar project on an abandoned right of way is not subject to these restrictions however anything West of this new project is affected.

The only possible fix is the third rail technology that has been used in Bordeaux France. This system, pioneered and owned by Alstom is rumored to not be available and the word on the street is that it won't be available in the United States any time soon. According to Werner Uttinger, the safety certification process in the United States is too much to overcome to bring this technology to the United States so for now it seems that DC will have to invent its own power system or keep dreaming.

UPDATE: In the comments Christof has this to say...

The "no overhead wire" law predated DC's streetcars. As a result, the city used conduit streetcars, with the electrical supply buried in a slot in the street (resembling a cable car slot). As proved by more than 70 years of operation, it was a workable system, but expensive to build and labor-intensive to maintain. Pictures here. If you ever wondered what streamliner cable cars might have looked like: Click Here

Apparently also, since it was so expensive to have the underground conduit, there were pits on the outskirts of town to switch to overhead wires. This is a similar situation to Bordeaux where the Alstom trainsets change to overhead wires outside the historic downtown. Thanks for the Links Christof.

3 comments:

Christof Spieler said...

The "no overhead wire" law predated DC's streetcars. As a result, the city used conduit streetcars, with the electrical supply buried in a slot in the street (resembling a cable car slot). As proved by more than 70 years of operation, it was a workable systsme, but expensive to build and labor-intensive to maintain. Pictures here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington_streetcars

If you ever wondered what streamliner cable cars might have looked like:
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/3/39/Thomas_circle_December_1943.JPG

Anonymous said...

Overhead law notwithstanding, the Washington system was primarily a cable car system in the decade prior to 1899 and the old cable car slots were modified for underground power. Many cities had cable car systems before more flexible electric systems went into operation. New York and London each had lins with similar converations.

I don't recall off hand from the local history how much was converted and how much was built.

However, the cost factors are not quite what they seem. The system was already built and the private operator, O. Roy Chalk, was extremely resistant to Congressional pressure to remove the streetcars in favor of more buses. For Chalk, the primary capital cost was already in the ground and maintenance and other costs did not approach those of capitalizing and operating a more extensive bus system.

DC was at the mercy of a few people in Congress and bus proponents used the sight of street cars getting backed up in heavy snow to help sell the system. (The "plows" or power connectors would sometimes collect enough ice and snow to cause problems). It was not a popular move when Chalk was forced to eliminate streetcars. The assumption of many was that the GM/Firestone lobby got what it wanted. (The Metro subway system also failed in severe winter storms until it finally fully winterized above ground third rails). Local boosterism has somewhat rewritten history.

There were a variety of motives for exaggerating costs, but the operating cost of the DC system was probably not significantly greater than a system with overhead lines. It would hard to find a bigger capital and operating cost disaster than the
DC Metro systems initial foray into purchasing nearly a thousand AM general buses in the 70s that required nearly total rebuilding and still had short operating lives.

I grew up in medium sized cities wih extensive street car and trolley bus lines. No one wanted to see the switch occur and it probably contributed to decline of public transit in those cities. People complained bitterly about the added journey time with buses, compared to his experience from 1920 through the mid 50s when streetcars were eliminated and the partially dedicated trackway abandoned. DC did much the same thing just as it began the growth that required the abandoned facilities -- not unlike LA which cannot cheaply reconstitute what it gave up when it abandoned its LR system.

There were, believe it or not, the complaints that those streetcars with overhead lines were too expensive to operate and and maintain. But no one could ever demonstrate that.

Anonymous said...

The issue of "unsightliness" weas not the main reason to do with the banning of overhead wire in New York and Washington. The reason was the widespread use of gas and the fact that overhead wire and track returns caused rapid deterioration of the gas pipes.