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Before Passengers Grace D.C. Streetcar, Rails Already Under Repair

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Repairs are underway on a broken rail on the eastern end of Benning Road.
Martin Di Caro/WAMU
Repairs are underway on a broken rail on the eastern end of Benning Road.

The first streetcar purchased by the District — from Czech Republic-based Inekon — arrived in 2009. It and the rest of the fleet of six vehicles now rest inside a temporary car barn on Benning Road Northeast, undergoing repairs.

The tracks along the 2.2-mile line were laid in 2008. Work crews are out on the line fixing sections of rail after two minor breaks last year and two this year.

You can see photos and videos of those repairs on Storify.

All along H Street and Benning Road in Northeast Washington business owners and passers-by can see activity that is supposed to get the city’s first streetcar line since 1962 ready for the public. Widespread repairs are underway to fix a $160 million project that has been around for years even though it has yet to carry a single passenger.

The timing of lights at major intersections is being tweaked; new signs to guide pedestrians and motorists are going up. The seemingly endless test runs that began last summer are on hold for now; the streetcars are all in the barn. Project managers say when the streetcars re-emerge the line could be ready for one last test phase.

But first the District Department of Transportation is dealing with 18 recommendations made by a team of transit experts assembled by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). The team was brought in to determine if the D.C. streetcar program had any fatal flaws. It found none, but did find much else that needed improvement.

Starburst intersection

The most complex intersection on the line is commonly referred to as the starburst: five busy streets crisscrossing where H Street meets Benning Road at about the halfway point of the 2.2-mile line.

Work crews are working on three projects there, said Ralph Burns, DDOT’s deputy associate director and streetcar project manager. Crews are making changes to the streetcar’s dynamic envelope, erecting safety signage, and extending the special streetcar traffic signal.

On Tuesday men in hard hats, surrounded by dozens of orange traffic cones that closed lanes at the convergence of the five streets, were laying down thick red striping to delineate the streetcars’ permanent dynamic envelope. Anything – person, bicycle, or car – that crosses the red stripes would obstruct safe operation as the streetcar traverses the enormous intersection.

“It allows the operator to know where the safe zone to operate is,” Burns said. “If the operator is trying to get the [streetcar] through the intersection and cars are sitting in the road, he or she will be able to see if they are touching the [red] lines.”

New caution signs alert motorists and pedestrians crossing the widest part of the intersection to look out for streetcars.

“We need to talk to the community better and talk to the traveling public,” Burns said. “When a streetcar is approaching, are we messaging correctly to all the automobiles?”

Lastly, DDOT is extending the streetcar signal to give the long, 35-ton vehicles a few extra seconds to traverse the intersection.

“Its timing cycle was a little bit short,” Burns said. “You just can’t make the change without understanding what it does to pedestrians and automobiles or you can cause conflicts, so it is a very sophisticated analysis when it is tweaked by a couple seconds.”

Broken rails

Project managers are blaming the extremely cold winter — specifically, dramatic changes in temperatures — for broken rails.

At the eastern terminus of the line, near the intersection of Benning Road and Oklahoma Avenue, construction crews on Tuesday had ripped up part of the median to weld in place a new section of rail. The old rail has suffered a vertical break, a relatively minor event unlikely to cause a derailment, Burns said.

“Rail breaks can be minor in their effect, but we take each one very seriously,” said Burns, who said vertical breaks are easily repaired. Horizontal breaks, however, can compromise longer stretches of rail, causing it to pop above and separate from the track bed.

There have been four minor rail breaks over the past two years, Burns said, all spotted by DDOT and scheduled for replacement.

“We do a walking inspection once a week. We have a [person] that walks the entire alignment identifying any kind of hazards we might want to mitigate,” Burns said.

Streetcars resting

The District’s six streetcars, three built by Inekon and three by United Streetcar in Oregon, are undergoing maintenance and repairs inside the temporary maintenance barn along Benning Road.

While streetcar service will be a novelty for residents and tourists alike, the vehicles themselves are not new. The first streetcar was purchased from Inekon in 2008 and arrived the following year.

The APTA review identified two items dealing directly with the streetcars: ensure all six vehicles are operational and repair onboard radios. That work is well underway, Burns said. After making hundreds of test runs the streetcars are getting new brakes.

“The braking systems on these were hitting a life cycle, and so we have taken the opportunity to change out the whole system for a mid-life overhaul. We won't have to do another major overhaul for ten years,” Burns said.

Passenger service in 2015?

Project leaders are not willing to publicly estimate when the streetcars will be ready for passengers, but Burns said once the 18 APTA recommendations are fulfilled a three-week pre-revenue operations phase will begin.

“We are working with the state safety oversight office to finalize that plan. It is a complicated activity. We will have all the cars up and operational, and there are other elements to prepare for, like a traffic accident, or what happens if the power goes out,” said Burns, who said standard operating procedures must be refined and approved.

DDOT continues to work with state safety oversight (SSO) officials housed within the D.C. Fire Department to certify the streetcar line, a process slowed down by disputes between the agencies dating to last fall. However, the new DDOT director, Leif Dormsjo, has refused to pressure the SSO into approving the line, a departure from the previous administration that repeatedly promised and failed to deliver streetcar service in 2013 and 2014.


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