Engineers may have pinpointed what failed on car 405 but the near-term fix — and the paperwork — to get the First Hill Streetcar line back in action could take “weeks,” the Seattle Department of Transportation’s head of rail told a city council committee earlier this week. In the meantime, Seattle officials are beginning to look into whether the streetcar’s manufacturer should be on the hook for the cost of lost service on the line which serves around 3,000 riders a day between Pioneer Square, the International District, First Hill, and Broadway.
“If we find out it’s a manufactured error, what sort of recourse do we have about asking for them to compensate the city for this loss of service?” Seattle City Council transportation committee member Rob Johnson asked.
The answer from SDOT officials will come in two weeks at another update to the committee.
Any penalties or fines won’t be exactly new for Czech manufacturer Inekon. In 2014, the company racked up around $1.5 million in penalties after it incurred a backlog of orders and a short supply of parts, holding up production of the Seattle streetcars under its $26.7 million contract with SDOT. That came after earlier delays caused by a fire resistance issue with the streetcar floors.
In the meantime, SDOT’s Michael James told the transportation committee Tuesday that his department is working on a near-term fix for car 405 but must also provide safety officials with documentation of the identified problem and can’t resume service until the state oversight committee is satisfied SDOT has “a correction” for the malfunction.
A longer term solution will address the safety concern across 405’s sister streetcars, James said.
“We don’t have the path forward yet,” James said.
As of Thursday, there was still no information from SDOT on when service might resume. Meanwhile, critics of the transit line can remark on how much smoother traffic flow is on Broadway during the outage while others can rejoice — or miss — the trolley’s clanging crossing bell.
For now, Metro is operating a shuttle (PDF) to partially cover some of the streetcar’s route but only at peak hours.
The First Hill line has been out of service since last week when the gold trolley slid two blocks down its Broadway tracks in an incident that forced the department to ground a fleet of seven trams purchased from Inekon.
There were no collisions and no injuries to the driver or two unlucky passengers aboard in the just after 6 AM, March 1st incident believed to have been caused by a circuit breaker-like load contactor that shut down the vehicle’s power to its operational system, engaging the system’s parking brake. The southbound streetcar then skidded down the tracks some two and a half blocks at its “operational speed of 20 MPH” before coming to a stop thanks to the flat curve on E Yesler in front of the community center.
The vehicle was towed back to the system’s service facility at 7th and Charles in the International District where it and five other siblings from the 2014 delivery remain in the streetcar barn. A seventh streetcar from that order also remains out of commission in South Lake Union where it serves the infamous SLUT line.
Sound Transit footed the bill for the $132 million First Hill route’s construction and was on the hook for beginning operation costs as part of mitigation for the authority’s decision to not build a light rail station serving the First Hill neighborhood. The streetcar is managed by SDOT but operated by King County Metro.
The First Hill Streetcar began service in January in 2016 after months of delay. The start of service on the line was bogged down, in part, by longer-than-expected testing on the propulsion system designed specifically for the First Hill line. The system uses regenerative braking during downhill sections in order to power special batteries allowing streetcars to periodically detach from their overhead wires so they can travel alongside city busses. The system was developed for the First Hill Streetcar to reduce overhead wire conflicts with the Metro trolley buses.
The line shares lanes of traffic and is notoriously slow — especially at peak hours. SDOT said last week its announcement of changes to Broadway to help speed up service on the slow-paced streetcar route was premature and that planned changes to the street won’t happen until after more “analysis and outreach.” A department spokesperson told CHS that SDOT plans to begin that outreach this summer.
A planned $24 million half-mile extension of the First Hill Streetcar north on Broadway beyond its current Denny terminus remains in limbo. Around $10 million of the budget to construct the three-stop extension would be raised with a local improvement district that included a tax on properties within it bounds. Seattle is moving forward, instead, on the Center City Connector streetcar line, which will run along 1st Ave with stops at Cherry, Madison, and Pike, and one more at 3rd and Stewart before connecting with the South Lake Union line on Westlake Ave.