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First Hill streetcar cables join Capitol Hill’s complicated web of wiring

With the First Hill streetcar permanently altering Broadway’s streetscape, you should also look up and take note of changes above. The power system required for the new trains has added to the already incredibly complicated web of wires that passes through the area. Intersections like this view at Pine and Broadway from earlier this winter are particularly amazing as infrastructure for the electric Metro trolley buses meshes with the new cables for the streetcar — and an amazing mess of other utilities.

A web of wires, as you can see, has risen above Capitol Hill for a long time (Image: Seattle Municipal Photo Archive)

A web of wires, as you can see, has risen above Capitol Hill for a long time (Image: Seattle Municipal Photo Archive)

An SDOT planner tells us the intersection arrays are a particular challenge because all the transit wires need to share the same plane but can’t come in contact. We’re told, by the way, that the Pine and Broadway is pretty much at capacity for any new wiring. You might also notice some gaps in the new system — the streetcar route is designed to utilize the vehicle’s momentum at certain locations to make it through.

Despite a delay here and there, the streetcar is scheduled to be operating between Pioneer Square and Broadway via First Hill before the end of the year.

You can read more about the wiring work required to operate the streetcar, below, courtesy this SDOT blog post.

Work continues this weekend along the streetcar’s route. SDOT warns of partial intersection closures on E Jefferson and James at Broadway on Saturday, March 15th.

More from SDOT on the streetcar’s wires here:

Construction of the First Hill Streetcar (FHS) is moving ever closer to completion and will begin service later this year.Like virtually every other streetcar system in the world, ours will be electrically powered.  However, it will be the first in the US (and only the second system in the world) to incorporate an advanced hybrid battery system that means considerably less overhead wiring and the associated benefit of significant cost savings!

Trolley buses operate with two overhead wires, one positive and one negative, while our streetcar will use its own tracks for its grounding. Heading from Pioneer Square to Broadway, the FHS will operate on its outbound route on electrical power provided by a single overhead wire which receives electricity provided by four traction power substations strategically located along the 2.5 mile route.  On the return trip, the FHS hybrid batteries will provide the power generated through its regenerative braking along the inbound route, much of it downhill.

Even with the system only requiring the single overhead wire on the outgoing route, integrating it into the existing overhead trolley bus wiring system is a very complicated and time consuming endeavor.  Both Broadway and Jackson serve a number of existing trolley bus routes, many of which make turns on and off of those arterials that require an intricate mesh of wiring (as evidenced in the photo at Pine Street).  The power systems for the trolleys and streetcar are entirely separate from one another, yet both have wiring strung at about the same height.

Because streetcar wiring must be installed when the trolley wires are de-energized, the work can only be done on weekends when Metro has enough available diesel buses to substitute for the trolleys.  The result has been that a number of intersections on both Broadway and Jackson have been closed on weekends this winter. The work on Broadway is nearly finished. The work on Jackson is about half complete, so will require additional weekend closures before the work is finished by April.

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4 thoughts on “First Hill streetcar cables join Capitol Hill’s complicated web of wiring

  1. At the risk of stating the obvious, it would have been much simpler just to have put two arms on the streetcar and used the existing electric bus overhead wiring system. At the very least it would solve the spaghetti problem of having two incompatible overhead electric wire systems coexisting and crossing.

    Of course that might spoil the sexy, desirable streetcar look!

    But it would avoid the inevitable stranded streetcars with dead batteries on the wire-free parts of the route some time in the future (when the batteries are worn out and we can’t afford new ones). Trust me on that one. Remember how certain we were that all the technical and procedural safeguards guaranteed that the two Monorails could never collide at Westlake?

    • The trams and the buses use the wiring differently. The catenary for the buses uses two wires. The tram uses a single connection to the catenary and uses the track for ground.

      As for the monorail the collision would not have been a problem if the Westlake Center had not been built. The re-jiggered the track to allow for the building of the center. Clearance is so tight that two vehicles cannot pass each other without one waiting for the other to pass.

      • Yes, I was aware of _how_ they were different. I was asking _why_ the streetcar could not use the bus two arm system, and hence use the same wires. Streetcars aren’t exactly an off the shelf item: how hard would it be to customize one to use our existing wiring?

  2. Of bigger concern will be the number of occurrences where trolley poles come off the wire, snag any number of supporting cables (think aircraft carrier operations), and render both systems inoperable until the Metro Power Crew can come out to fix the damage.
    Trolleys can be ‘jumped’ around the dead spots, but the streetcars are pretty much stuck to the rails.
    Time will tell how this experiment in mixing modes will work out. I predict it’s not going to be pretty.