Quietly and rapidly, one of the first streetcars that will carry passengers in Washington, D.C. in more than 50 years accelerates on a test track adjacent to a highway. Sleek and swift, the narrow red and gray vehicle effortlessly speeds up to 30 miles per hour, its ride smooth and even. Then the engineer at the controls tests the emergency brake, and everyone aboard braces themselves.
On Monday WAMU took a "first look" at the ongoing testing of D.C.'s H Street/Benning Road NE streetcar project, which officials hope to open by the end of the year, pending the federal safety approval process.
Engineers from the Czech Republic, where the streetcars were built, tested the system's brakes and acceleration, as well as a safety feature called "dead man" — if a streetcar operator becomes incapacitated and takes his or her hand off the controls for two seconds, the emergency brake kicks in.
"The vehicle won't be able to recognize where it is along the line, so you won't have a gradual slowdown. It's going to stop the car as soon as it possibly can," said project spokesperson Dara Ward.
Dozens of times the streetcar was conducted up and down the track next to South Capitol Street SW at DDOT's testing and commissioning site, the streetcars' home until they are delivered to H Street this fall for further testing.
Once the federal government signs off on the safety testing, the streetcars can begin carrying fare-paying passengers.
"They have a few more things to do and then the operators that we recently hired will start training," said Ward. "The operators of the vehicles will get used to the traffic patterns along H and the traffic will get used to seeing the vehicles along H before we have passengers on board."
The streetcars' appearance may pleasantly surprise anyone expecting a compact trolley from a bygone era. The new vehicles are about the length of an articulated Metrobus.
"These are not the streetcars of yesteryear," said Ward. "They are very quiet, mostly due to the electric motors. These vehicles will go up to about 30 miles an hour."
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