Home > History > District Streetcars
Streetcars in Washington, DC?Not too long ago, the streets of Washington, DC were lined with tracks. For a century, streetcars glided along the Capital's streets, transporting residents and commuters. The District's first streetcar arrived in the midst of the Civil War; a century later, this public transportation infrastructure disappeared. Washington, DC's present transportation infrastructure is once again being reevaluated to accommodate both a growing population and constant congestion. One of the technologies being considered is Light Rail Transit (LRT), the modern day streetcar, trolley, or tramway. LRT implementation would return street rails to Washington, DC, first seen during the Civil War in 1862.
The Civil War brought an influx of thousands of people to Washington, DC, propelling the creation of the District's streetcar industry. The development of military depots, hospitals, public works, housing, and the general congestion of military equipment, soldiers, and government and residential activity, made a sound argument for the installation of a streetcar system. Howard K. Smith, former CBS and ABC newscaster, author of Washington, DC The Story of Our Nation's Capital, describes the pre-streetcar transit infrastructure. It, "could not adapt itself to the flash flood of humanity. The traffic of heavily laden army wagons and of troops with heavy equipment broke the backs of the thinly paved avenues, turning them into trenches of mud or channels of smoking dust." Even with war permeating the atmosphere of DC, streetcar operation began three decades after the technology of running horse-drawn cars along street rails had been introduced.
In the 1860s, Congress awarded a charter for three horse-drawn streetcar routes in Washington, DC -- Georgetown-Navy Yard, 7th Street, and 14th Street. The Washington & Georgetown Railroad Company was created and went to work fulfilling the charter. On July 29, 1862, the first horse-drawn streetcar departed from the Capitol to the State Department via Pennsylvania Avenue. Prosperity and urban development soon appeared along the routes of the streetcars. With approval from Congress, many private companies soon formed to build and operate their own horse-drawn streetcar lines. Residential areas were now easily connected to business, commercial, and shopping districts. The population boom, industrialization, and urbanization of the late 19th century, along with the evolution of streetcar technology, began the demise of the horse-drawn streetcar.
In San Francisco, Andrew Hallidie introduced cable car traction in 1873-- propulsion by underground moving cables. In 1888, Frank Sprague installed the first successful electric traction streetcar system in Richmond, Virginia. Sprague’s system utilized a pole on top of the streetcar with a small wheel, or trolley (thus the association of the streetcar as a trolley) that connected with and fed electricity to the streetcar motor via an overhead electric wire. Both systems were experimented with, but electricity was ultimately adopted in Washington, DC. Congress presented a few challenges on this new path to modernization, however.
Congress called for the eventual demise of the horse-drawn streetcar and prohibited the use of overhead cables within District lines. These restrictions were an attempt to preserve both the aesthetics and image of the Nation's Capital. This meant that Sprague's system of the overhead trolley could not be utilized. Experimentation with and conversion to cable and electric traction followed. In 1894, Congress called for the gradual conversion to electric propulsion utilizing an underground conduit system. This method ran electricity to the streetcar from the ground up without the use of overhead wires. In 1895, the Metropolitan Railroad was the first streetcar company to successfully convert and implement the underground conduit system in Washington, DC. All DC streetcar routes ran on this electric traction system by 1899, and they continued as the major form of city transit for decades to come.
More mobile and versatile forms of transportation such as the bus, automobile, and subway soon brought the streetcar industry of Washington, DC to an end. The suburban trend, along with rising automobile ownership, a developing highway network, and the flexibility of the bus, placed the system in peril. In 1962, with new goals of modernizing the transportation network, the 100-year-old Washington, DC streetcar operation ended. The diesel bus of the 1960s, resembling the late model streetcars, was the new modern face of the Washington, DC transportation network. The street tracks lingered as buses and cars took advantage of the new space. Most of the tracks were soon covered and then later removed.
In 1965, President Johnson authorized a 25-mile, $431 million rapid transit/heavy rail system, what we in DC call the 'Metro'. In 1967, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) was officially born, operating public transportation and planning for the whole metropolitan area. Today, WMATA continues to provide transit service through Metrobus and Metrorail. Like area governments, WMATA is searching for the most cost effective and efficient transportation technologies to modernize the existing transit network and help alleviate the congestion of the DC Metropolitan area. The introduction of light rail transit is one of the proposed strategies.
DC is expected to grow by both 130,000 residents and 150,000 jobs over the next 25 years (according to the Joint Public Oversight Hearing, District of Columbia Transit Development Study on September 18, 2002). To accommodate this influx of people, the existing transportation infrastructure must expand in terms of passenger capacity and, hopefully, reduction of congestion. Part of the Washington, DC, Department of Transportation vision and strategy is to, "develop non-traditional, signature transportation for the District, including water-taxi system, light rail, and a world-class bicycle transportation network." What will this vision bring to Washington, DC?
The American Public Transportation Association defines LRT as, "lightweight passenger rail cars operating singly (or in short, two-car, trains) on fixed rails in right-of-way that is not separated from other traffic for much of the way. Light rail vehicles are driven electrically, with power being drawn from an overhead electric line via a trolley or a pantograph." Solving the gridlock puzzle of the Metropolitan area will take superb planning. The Departments of Transportation of Washington, DC, Virginia, and Maryland, together with WMATA, are studying the potential effectiveness of Light Rail Transit.
The following Internet links provide information on current transportation plans and studies. They present projections, results, proposals, and data on future LRT routes and general transit plans for the DC Metropolitan area: