Brake testing underway for new streetcars


Crew tests the braking characteristics aboard one of the District’s three new streetcars. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

If you should happen to be aboard a D.C. streetcar when the operator hits the emergency brakes, it will feel like a Metro train lurching up to the platform — only more so. You will want to be holding onto a railing with both hands for the several seconds it takes to bring the streetcar to an emergency halt.

By contrast, the normal braking is quite smooth and quiet too. May all your braking be normal.

The District Department of Transportation is testing its first three streetcars along a track that runs parallel to South Capitol Street, just east of Bolling Air Force Base in Anacostia. After going through these basic checks, which on Monday morning included the braking characteristics of one car, they will be transferred to their route along H Street/Benning Road NE for a lengthy period of practice runs.

Streetcar test track
Streetcar runs on a test track by South Capitol Street in Anacostia. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

If all goes very well, they could begin carrying passengers around the end of this year.

The emergency braking we experienced in Monday’s test runs occurred at 15 mph. The operator hits a red button on the console, activating an electro-magnetic field that pushes brake plates against the rails and rapidly halts the car. It reminded me of the emergency brake button in a Metrorail cab known as the “mushroom.”

On a test track with operators who have warned the visiting reporters to brace themselves, the emergency stop is kind of a rush.

And it’s good TV. My transportation reporting colleague Adam Tuss of NBC4 had his cameraman record the event several times as Tuss managed to stay on his feet by clinging to a railing.

I hope this will be a very rare occurrence on H Street, and that was part of the idea behind the District Department of Transportation’s show-and-tell with reporters. It’s been half a century since streetcars made their way along the city streets. Getting familiar with their habits will be a learning experience for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.

The streetcars will operate along tracks embedded in concrete along lanes that are open to other traffic. The streetcars can’t maneuver around obstacles. They can only stop and start as the operator manipulates the throttle and brake. While they can stop very quickly, they can’t stop on a dime.

During the late summer and fall, DDOT will continue its community meetings and publicity campaign to encourage the essential street-sharing habits necessary for a safe start of service. The continuation of the testing process on H Street and Benning Road is partly designed to train the streetcar operators and partly to educate neighborhood residents and commuters about their presence, and how to avoid forcing the operators to hit the emergency brakes.

See more about this on Sunday’s Commuter page in the Post’s Metro section.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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