A Streetcar Named Wireless?

What are the prospects for the return of streetcars to our nation’s capital? Lisa Rein has a piece up at today’s Post, D.C. streetcar project may get hung up on overhead wires, explaining one complication: the objection by some to the visual clutter occasioned by the overhead wires used to power most streetcars. Opponents raise concerns about maintaining the open view lanes through the city and they point to laws restricting wired streetcars:

On their side is an 1889 federal law banning overhead electrification in Georgetown and the original center city design by Pierre L’Enfant in 1791, bounded by the Potomac and Anacostia waterfronts north to Florida Avenue. Streetcars would run through much of the core, including H Street NE, where the city is now laying tracks.

“We have, in this city, an unusual number of clear views and vistas and broad boulevards,” said Meg Maguire, a leader of Committee of 100 on the Federal City, which opposes overhead wires anywhere in the city. “They’re not to be tampered with.”

Proponents of streetcars point out that getting more cars off the streets would do more to  reduce visual clutter  and open up the vistas of the city. The fixed travel path of streetcars are also likely to encourage a different kind of neighborhood development than, say, buses, which would bring other aesthetic and quality of life enhancements. While  there are such things as wireless streetcars, DC’s transportation chief, Gabe Klein, notes some of the problems:

Klein said today’s wireless technology is costly and untested in cities with rain and snowy winters, like the District. Just a few companies make wireless streetcars, and they’ve had growing pains where they’ve been introduced, mostly in Europe. It could be fiscally irresponsible for the city to limit its options, he said.

He is floating a compromise to preservationists: a hybrid system that would run on wires outside the federal city and switch to battery power inside. United Streetcar, a Portland-based company looking at wireless cars to expand that city’s streetcar line, is designing a prototype that would recharge batteries every mile, possibly with a braking mechanism at stations.

But the battery could take several minutes to charge, and city planners want more flexibility.

Whose vision of the capital city might prevail? Can there be a workable technical compromise of a hybrid wireless streetcar? And what visual qualities of the city’s streetscapes are the most important? For whom?

–Jeff Prudhomme

3 responses to “A Streetcar Named Wireless?

  1. Jeff,

    The unmentioned elephant in the parlor re overhead wires is their enormous cost. In the case of Charlotte, back around 2002 when the Lynx Light Rail was begun, the per-mile cost was still less than $2 million per track mile. By the time their proposed streetcar was first priced-out circa 2008 it was over $6 million!

    It would be surprising if, by “shovel time,” catenary is not up around $8 million a mile for a 120-year-old technology that the industry and those of the public who have heard of the coming alternatives want to phase-out.

    This doesn’t even reflect the service-life reduction of adjacent buried utilities due to corrosion accelerated by stray grounding currents under ground.

    Some variation (I prefer Proterra’s hydrogen fuel cell and lithium titanate battery with regenerative braking) of onboard–rather than external–power is clearly the future. Hydrogen allows off-peak nuclear and/or renewably sourced electricity (or chemical byproduct H2) to be used in lieu of peak-load, coal-fired electricity.

    Transit propulsion choice should also consider tecdhnology trends. 1960s muscle-car technology worked great, but it’s never coming back. Neither is the overhead wire–even if if weren’t breathtakingly expensive and of doubtful captital recovery life-span, unrelated to its unquestioned physical durability.

  2. Jeff Prudhomme

    Stan, thanks for the info–and for the broader point about looking to next generation technologies. The hydrogen fuel cell hybrid streetcar you describe made my day.

  3. And thank you, Jeff!

    Here’s further info that may please you:

    Goggle: savannah + wireless + streetcar They have a wireless streetcar in place that runs (if I understand it correctly) on an efficient biodiesel genset continuously charging supercapacitors, which both power traction and reclaim stopping energy. Perhaps DC, a nearly level city like Savannah, could start with this design and morph the cars to fuel cells at the proper time.

    If the CH4 “Bloom Box” fuel cells are robust enough for moving applications, that too might be an option.

    From a planning engineering perspective, early unproven or not entirely carbon-free rolling stock can almost certain be upfitted repeatedly as the state-of-the-art greens-up. But hang that wire and for years the only option is to be like the team in Britain that designed a whole new steam locomotive in 1960 (really!). It’s been in the York Rail Museum since 1965.

    Pick an onboard technology–any onboard technology–and you have better and better options for decades to come. Go with overhead and it will be like building the last steam railway system.

    The world expert on hydrolley design is Dale Hill, founder and Chairman of Proterra LLC, who just announced a new transit vehicle plant to be build in Greenville, SC (Goggle it). At my invitation Dale graciously spoke on the hydrolley at the National Hydrogen Association Conference and Expo last year and at the Fifth International Hydrail Conference at the U of NC in Charlotte last June.

    See him on Charlotte’s WBTV (short TV commercial precedes) at:


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