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Streetcars Run Into Problems As Operator Training Begins On H Street

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Streetcars traveled down H Street NE today on the first day of operator training.
Sam Howells/WAMU
Streetcars traveled down H Street NE today on the first day of operator training.

On a day when the District wanted to show how four streetcars operating together for the first time on H Street Northeast would blend with the usual traffic flow, the system encountered the kinds of problems that have raised questions about whether streetcars will be able to efficiently move people once passenger service begins this year.

Monday marked the first day of operator training, a process that will take four to seven weeks. It's a key prerequisite for the streetcar system to be ready for passenger service, which best-case scenarios place in early November.

Starting at the intersection of H and 3rd Streets Northeast, the first streetcar, piloted by D.C. native Saundra Harrison, lurched into traffic on its fixed track shortly after 10 a.m.

“Today I guess there are just more people watching,” said an excited Harrison, who has been operating the streetcars on the isolated Anacostia test track.

Her excitement was short-lived. She maneuvered the hulking red and gray vehicle just a few blocks before she had to stop. A fire truck and ambulance were blocking the tracks in the heart of the H Street commercial district, tending to an injured pedestrian.

“I guess if someone is hurt, we have to stop,” said Harrison as she sat in the streetcar cab, waiting for the tracks to clear.

The streetcar sat still for about 30 minutes while Metro’s X2 buses, cabs, trucks, cars, and the occasional bicycle kept moving around it. This delay happened in the middle of the day. Imagine if it had happened during rush hour: an immobile mass blocking a lane of traffic, trying up all the streetcars behind it and creating a bottleneck slowing down everyone else.

Such a scenario would prevent the District Department of Transportation from keeping its promise of 10-minute headways.

“When speeds do go slow, we will put more assets on the street to guarantee we meet that 10 minute headway,” said DDOT engineer Ralph Burns, the streetcar system’s operations chief.

Under normal conditions, three streetcars will traverse the 2.5 miles of tracks between Union Station and Benning Road. If traffic slows the streetcars, Burns said the rest of the six-car fleet can be deployed to maintain ten-minute headways.

“It’s a blending that we haven't done in about 40 or 50 years, and it is going to be a transition both for DDOT and the operations, but also Metro bus, the bicyclists, and people just driving their cars,” said Burns.

While medical emergencies that summon ambulances to the streetcar corridor may not occur often, DDOT’s planners are consumed with preventing typical tie-ups: double parked cars, delivery trucks idling on the tracks, or a parallel parked car jutting out into the streetcar’s path.

On Monday a flatbed tow truck was parked within the white lines along the curb, meaning it should have been clear of the streetcar’s right-of-way. However, the truck’s side view mirror jutted out over the lane, forcing Harrison’s streetcar to slow to a crawl. While she inched it forward, engineers inside poked their heads out of the streetcar’s windows to make sure the truck’s mirror would not scrape the side of the streetcar. It was a tight squeeze, but the streetcar made it through.

Because the streetcar program has been delayed for so long — the first tracks were built in 2011 — some residents are not very excited about its unknown arrival, unsure if the streetcar is necessary.

“D.C. has the best Metro system in the country so to be honest and frank, I don't think that we need it here,” said Shante Wynder.

Some bicyclists would rather the streetcar tracks go away. Signs cautioning bike riders to avoid getting their tires stuck explain why.

“I think it is unbelievably dangerous,” said bicyclist Caroline Behringer. “I have seven stitches in my eyebrow from going head over my handlebars.”

Many bike riders have reported getting thrown off their bikes after their front wheel got wedged in the narrow streetcar track.

“I usually bike on K because it goes across town. G and I have really nice bike lanes but they don’t go very far. H is really difficult to bike on,” she said.

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