Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

January 23, 2009


Richard Layman, Urban Places & Spaces - Transport Politic reports that Bombardier, the Canadian rail vehicle and airplane manufacturer, has introduced reliable underground third rail powering for outside use for streetcar and light rail systems. (The Alstom system used in Bordeaux hasn't proved to be reliable or easily used in snowy climates.)

In the old days, underground powering of streetcars was not uncommon. However, "modern" safety standards would not allow the installation and use of similar systems today. DC has a law banning overhead wires in the original "City of Washington" which we commonly call the "L'Enfant City" as well as Georgetown. This has been one of the many holdups over moving forward with streetcar planning in DC.:

The PRIMOVE system’s outstanding feature is its safe and contactless power transfer. Its electric supply components are invisible, hidden under the vehicle and beneath the track. This is a key benefit in historic or environmentally protected areas of cities. . .

Sam Smith's Memoir - Washington had streetcars, noisy double-enders and the streamlined Presidential Conference Cars the heads of the nation' trolley lines had adopted as a new standard the year I was born. Streetcars, Griffith Stadium, and the Library of Congress were about the only places in Washington that were not segregated. In an early successful civil rights protest, Sojourner Truth and other black leaders had successfully petitioned against plans to separate blacks and whites on horse-drawn trolleys.

The segregation of the rest of DC, unlike elsewhere in the south, was one of custom rather than law, but it was just as effective. And when one of the city's streetcars crossed the line into Virginia, blacks were required to move to the rear.

The streetcars stopped traffic as they turned corners, clanged bells and generally displayed admirable supremacy over everything in their way. To me as a boy, power in Washington was represented not by politicians or lobbyists but by the streetcars.

Local regulation prohibited overhead wires in the downtown section. This rule, as far as I was concerned, produced two major benefits. Downtown there was a third rail and in snow and ice the streetcars' connectors rubbing against the third rail would produce a gorgeous bluish plume of sparks. Even better, the 30 line ran up Wisconsin Avenue and switched from third rail to overhead lines just a few blocks from my house. There a man sat in a hole in the street. A streetcar would stop over the hole, and the man would raise or lower the trolley and change the third rail connector. To a young boy, observing this border crossing was second only to eating ice cream from Stohlman's.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree that the entire nation needs more rapid transit and fewer trucks. Money would be saved, in the long run, on fuel expenses, road repairs and time.
Unrelated to this subject, I also agree that tax cuts will not bring more money into our commerce, but will have a long range effect on our children's tax burden.

February 4, 2009 12:24 PM  

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