In fits and starts, D.C. streetcar operators roll down H Street and Benning Road

The D.C. Department of Transportation is training streetcar operators in traffic for the first time. The next stop? Passenger service. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Driving a streetcar through 21st-century Washington takes patience — and quick hands.

Davinia Reid has both.

Among the obstructions and incoming threats along H Street and Benning Road NE during a series of passenger-free practice trips this past week were what Reid calls the “cut-in cars.”

“I just had one cut from the left side of me to make a right turn,” Reid said. “I would’ve gotten a little bit of him if I hadn’t slammed on the brake.”

Earlier that morning, the crew of trained drivers trying to complete some of their “stick time” — the required hours at the controls in live traffic — was delayed by a fatal single-car crash that knocked a streetlight into one of the streetcar’s power poles. The day before, paramedics blocked a stretch of the 2.2-mile line while they tended to a patient they ended up hospitalizing.


Antoinette Washington, left, and Davinia Reid give each other a high-five during their training as streetcar operators in the District. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

“It’s real life,” said Reggie Sanders, spokesman for the District’s Department of Transportation.

But it often felt like a video game — albeit a low-speed one, where, amid the lines of traffic and smog-belching long-haul buses, the player or her operator buddy had to keep getting out of the cab of the hulking red streetcar to firmly but politely tell people to move out of the way.

With Lou Brusati, manager of the District’s streetcar operations contractor, at the controls and moving gingerly past the cars parked along H Street, colleague Antoinette Washington stepped off to nudge the driver of a white Cadillac Escalade to clear out of the streetcar’s path.

“How do you acclimate people that we’re putting a streetcar back in? . . . We can’t move off the track. We can’t turn right or left,” said Brusati, of RATP Dev McDonald Transit. “That’s what we’re going for, that learning curve.”

City tow trucks prowled the route. But Brusati said it’s also about getting it in people’s heads — getting “the guy running into 7-Eleven to pull all the way in. There’s 130 people on the streetcar. Do I really want to delay them? We need to build that respect. We always have to put our best foot forward on our end.”

Washington was the first person in more than a half-century to guide a streetcar down H Street on its own power, a milestone moment in December that leaves her emotional these many months later. She brought along her boys, ages 8 and 6.

“They followed us, walking all the way down, ‘Mommy! Mommy!’ I was just overwhelmed with emotion. It was awesome,” Washington said. “They were really excited, kind of like, ‘That’s my mom!’ ”


Saundra Harrison, left, and Antoinette Washington stop at a platform on H Street NE. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

By last week, things had become more routine.

Sitting in a Czech-made streetcar before one of her runs from east of Union Station to Oklahoma Avenue and back, Washington sounded like an old streetcar hand.

The first thing she wants you to know about streetcar drivers is that they are not streetcar drivers. They are streetcar operators, she said. And they use a master controller, which they hold with their left hand.

“There’s no steering wheel. It’s basically a handle. Forward to accelerate, back to stop,” said Washington, a former bus driver. There’s also a setting in the middle for coasting. “The streetcar, it runs on the rail. If there’s no rail, there’s no streetcar. So we can’t change lanes like we can on a bus.”

And they can’t swerve to avoid darting drivers. To shift from one set of tracks to another is a more deliberate process. The operator rolls the car over part of a switch control system, which lights up a button in the cab. Pressing the button lets the railcar shift to other tracks.

Stopping also is not instant. When drivers dart in front, Reid added, they’re missing the fact that “our stop times are not as quick as a regular car might be, because we have a heavier load” — about 70,000 pounds vs. less than 3,000 pounds for a Honda Civic. When a car made a right-hand turn in front of her Wednesday, Reid had just begun to accelerate at the corner of H and Eighth streets, so she hadn’t picked up much speed and was able to stop in time.

Staying smooth is one of the challenges.

“Most people have never dealt with 750 volts before. It’s the same thing that’s on the third rail [of Metro], but it’s overhead,” Brusati said.

Even with decades of experience in many types of rail, he said the goal he sets for himself — and the few dozen operators, supervisors, mechanics and others training to operate the streetcars — is to make each stop smoother than the last.

“It’s almost like that perfectionist idea,” Brusati said. “Even at eight or 10 miles per hour, or 12 miles per hour, it’s hard to make a smooth stop. The slower you go, you don’t have that momentum to the car. The goal is the same: to not have that roughshod ride.”

While the excitement was genuine among those trying to get streetcars rolling after years of delays and other problems, there was some wariness about the project on the streets themselves. A pair of officials who were helping oversee the streetcar project have left DDOT this year, and officials announced Thursday that a top streetcar official, Carl Jackson, will also leave the agency by the end of the month.

“I think it’s a waste of time. There’s really no use for it,” said Bryant Strange, a resident of the Trinidad neighborhood who was walking along H Street as the cars made their way back and forth one day last week. The streetcar’s route overlaps existing bus service, he said, and it doesn’t go far enough to make trips worthwhile.

“The short little distance that is, it’s not a development one way or another. Very few people are planning to travel from here to here,” he said.

Although officials have pushed ahead in recent weeks with plans to extend the line from Union Station to Georgetown as part of a broader, 22-mile system crisscrossing the city, several major financing and other questions remain unresolved.

Sharon Wright, though, is ready to ride. She plans to hop on a bus near her home off Benning Road SE, then get off and transfer to the streetcar when it finally opens — officials say by year’s end — and step into her job in a supermarket produce department.

“I want to be on it for the first day,” Wright said. “I can get off right here and go into Giant. I won’t have to walk a block.”

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Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
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