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Fire testing failure hangs up First Hill streetcar — UPDATE

(Image: SDOT)

(Image: SDOT)

The initial floor designs for the future First Hill Streetcar failed to meet a key fire resistance test that caused delays in manufacturing, city officials revealed Tuesday. The floors had to be re-designed and tested after the manufacturer discovered that the floors would not adequately protect passengers should a fire start underneath the streetcars.

In a briefing in front of a Seattle City Council committee Tuesday morning, Seattle Department of Transportation planners outlined the status of the project to create a streetcar line connecting Pioneer Square to Capitol Hill via First Hill — and the impact of a six week delay caused by a manufacturing failure revealed in testing of the trains that will ply the newly installed tracks. The vehicles are currently planned to be completed between June and October, according to Tuesday’s presentation.

UPDATE (2/12): The streetcars were initially due to arrive from the manufacturer sometime between January and April, now they’re not expected until June through October. The impact on the overall project timeline isn’t clear as SDOT will attempt to make up for the extra manufacturing time. According to a SDOT spokesperson, Rail Transit Manager Ethan Melone is “currently evaluating options for streetcar start-up, which could include ramping up service as vehicles are delivered, or beginning service after all six vehicles have been delivered.”

With the track installation slated to be complete by May, the project does not have an official start of service following the revelation of the “Test sample failure” and required “redesign of flooring” for the trains being purchased for the line. In an email to CHS, Melone said the new floors have passed the flammability test:

Streetcars are required to meet stringent safety standards, including for resistance to flammability. Various parts of the cars have to be tested for flammability resistance. This includes the flooring, to ensure that if there were flame beneath the flooring surface, there would be ample time for passengers to get off the car before the floor could burn through. The initial flooring sample tested by the manufacturer failed this test, which required re-design of the flooring and re-testing. The re-designed flooring passed the test, but the re-design and re-test contributed to about six weeks to the schedule delay that the manufacturer is experiencing.

Czech Republic firm Inekon partnered with Seattle-based Pacifica to build the trams that were to be manufactured in the Czech Republic but assembled, painted, tested, and maintained in Seattle, according to a statement released by the mayor’s office in 2011.

Late last month, CHS posted on speculation about a possible September start of operations. The $132 million project is being built by the City of Seattle but paid for by Sound Transit as part of an agreement forged to mitigate the decision to not build a light rail station in the First Hill area.

Thankfully, it seems the initial testing failure won’t mean any further timeline delays for the rollout of the streetcar. Seattle, it seems, has enough major transportation project delays on its hands.

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33 thoughts on “Fire testing failure hangs up First Hill streetcar — UPDATE

    • The physical construction of the line should be complete by 21 MAY … including the track (this week), the stations, etc …

      Currently, the cycle-track infrastructure is being built from Yesler to Jefferson (raised driveway concrete slabs, concrete buffers were req., etc …)

      The real issue is the repaving of the street. That cannot be done below a certain temperature / enviro conditions … I believe that is the big holdup. They also have to meter the intersection closures so that they don’t completely screw up traffic … which spreads out the schedule.

      Not sure about the conditions needed to place the green Methylmethacrylate paint … but that can’t be done in most places until the repaving is complete. Note: Other than the green “safety paint” the cycle track is more or less complete from Howell to James st.

      I have photos posted here:

      • Will the new green paint (and the markings on it) be any more durable than that already installed? Stuff by the East Precinct is all worn off, as are the markings on it. Also seen down near University Bridge(?)

      • Yes, and it is unbelieveable that the green cycle tracks are already looking shabby and worn. They were just installed, for god’s sake! Someone at SDOT really screwed up on this.

  1. Dumb question maybe…. Why aren’t they using the same cars as are now running on the SLUT? If/when they build to Ballard, will we have yet a 3rd different design?

      • @matt, the new cars could work on the SLU line, but due to the battery requirement on the First Hill line, the SLU cars could not go any further than say the Jackson Street portion.

        There are plans to join the lines still down 1st ave, but initially the lines would just overlap on the 1st ave, with people transferring between lines directly at the shared platforms if they wanted to keep going along the rest of the route. (This also would end up giving the 1st ave portion double frequency as both lines run back and forth).

        Eventually they might run cars along the whole route, but only after they purchase more cars for SLU portion (and resell the old ones to someone else).

      • once the Center City Connector line is built, Metro has already said that they would sell the existing SLU fleet and re-equip it with off-wire capable cars like the First Hill Streetcar line. (I could easily see them moving to Tacoma for instance)

        But that is all still a long ways off.

    • New cars were designed the First Hill line to run partially off of battery power (downhill — for part of the route). This was done because the Trolley Buses (electric buses) run on the same route and would make the cable system much more complicated to install and maintain.

      The streetcars require a different (higher?) voltage than the buses and so it would be impossible to share the same lines (at least not without expensive changes to all of the buses).

      • The South Lake Union and Tacoma streetcars use exactly the same voltage as the trolleybuses (750v DC)

        The old waterfront streetcars were slightly lower at 600v DC … and Link (Light Rail) uses 1500v DC

        As for why the use of Battery power … I think it was more a combination of cost as well as the downhill route is literally all downhill (except from Union to Columbia) which would make the off-wire system useable (even in summer) … but complications with the trolleybus OCS system sounds better (it actually IS complicated to mesh the two systems … but not impossible (done all over the world))

    • The line being studied for Ballard will not be a streetcar, but would be car-traffic separated light rail (at-grade, elevated, or subway). Theoretically, the cars would be the same as Link.

      • Not quite right — the studies to connect downtown to Ballard are still considering multiple options at this point including a “rapid streetcar” alternate. The rapid streetcar would run at grade in an exclusive right of way using streetcar train sets, but the issue with this option is crossing the ship canal. A grade separated (be it elevated or tunneled) light rail line is an option that is up for consideration by Sound Transit as part of their regional transit long range plan. All these options are still being considered as far as what has been made readily available to the public and still a long ways from being narrowed much less implemented. Check out the Transit Master Plan for the various routes and options under consideration or Sound Transit’s Ballard transit study for more info including public meetings.

    • They are using the same cars as on the SLUT … even by the same manufacturer.

      The only difference this time is that the First Hill cars will use battery power on the downhill leg. This required some redesign to house all the batteries needed. The safety testing for this redesign is what failed. (We are the manufacturer’s first client to request battery power).

      As for Ballard … if the decision is to go with a surface streetcar, then they’ll get more of the design being built for First Hill.

      More likely though, and much better for the city and its future, would be that they make the Ballard (and future West Seattle extension) part of Link using the same (or similar) vehicles that Link uses.

      • Actually, the floor fire test has nothing to do with the battery drive capability. The batteries will be located on the roof of the streetcars. These tests would have been required for any new streetcar procurement.

  2. More brilliant engineering! From the above, it sounds like we’ll have several different types of cars on Seattle’s (hopefully) fire-resistant train system, some with strong batteries, some without batteries, some for light rail, with the systems kind of scrambled together.

    Of course, no one has every been able to answer why putting rails up and down Broadway for tens of millions of dollars is better than putting more (and possible nicer) buses up and down Broadway without the rails, except to say absurd things like, rails avoid traffic or people ride rails more (but check out the sparse ridership on the SLUT). Hopefully, at least our planners have the routes down 100% perfect because once you build the rails, well, you can’t much adjust the route anymore.

    Meanwhile, more bus cuts coming, for sure. We’re spending so incredibly much money on rail of all sorts we don’t have money for a very good bus system anymore — too bad, we could have had the greatest bus system in the world for a fraction of what we’re spending on rail, but too late for that. So as we see more snafus with our rail system, and starve the rest of our public works, expect it to get much harder to get around. Or, expect, much, much higher taxes, whether on the state or local level. Fixing Bertha sounds like it’s not coming cheap!

    • I don’t think it’s true that the SLUT has “sparse ridership.” From what I understand, ridership has steadily increased since it opened…and of course a lot of that is because of all the Amazon employees in the area.

      Since Sound Transit is paying for the streetcar line currently under construction, you can’t blame this project for the Metro cutbacks.

    • I would suggest taking a look at the work they’ve done over at the Seattle Transit Blog digging into all of the issues you’ve asked about above.

      The bottom line is that investing in rail is a long term solution to transit issues–which does sometimes make it feel counter-intuitive when dealing with things like Metro’s current budget and funding problems.

    • I like how you spent all that time sharing your complaints and fears with us, le.gai.savant. After all, a complaint and $1 will probably get you a can of soda.

      Are you proposing any solutions? If not, why is it such a problem that people are trying solutions that might not be yours?

      • Oh yes, god forbid anyone share their opinions on a blog. Heavens no! I wish Seattle would pull this stick out its ass where no one is ever allowed to say anything bad about anything happening here. This public transportation system is a clusterfuck and anyone who is not delusional can see that. Do I have any solutions? No because I am not a fucking urban planner. I do appreciate that in the long term, this may be the best thing for the city. But I agree with the OP: right now, this seems like a mess and with Metro cuts, it is going to be a painful transitional period.

  3. Will the new green paint (and the markings on it) be any more durable than that already installed? Stuff by the East Precinct is all worn off, as are the markings on it. Also seen down near University Bridge(?)

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