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‘Safety Day’ provides preview as riders await First Hill Streetcar start of service

Streetcar Safety Day - 13 of 21

(Images: Alex Garland for CHS)

(Images: Alex Garland for CHS)

“I just hope this means it’s finally going to start running soon”

It was wet, windy, and overcast as small groups of Seattle Department of Transportation representatives, marketing folks, and curious passersby huddled under tents pitched adjacent to stationary, shiny new streetcars at several locations along the tracks as part of SDOT’s “First Hill Streetcar Safety Day,” an event Thursday intended to give the public a chance to check out the streetcars themselves and learn “streetcar safety tips.”

With a streetcar sitting idle at stops at Denny and Broadway on Capitol Hill, 14th and Washington in the Central District, and Occidental Avenue and Jackson near Pioneer Square, members of the public were able to walk inside the streetcars and field questions to the available SDOT and reps from PRR, the public relations firm hired to assist in public outreach for the project. Pamphlets featuring streetcar safety tips were handed out, advising cyclists to cross tracks at a right angle (to avoid falling into the track groove) and telling drivers what to do in the event of a fender bender with a streetcar.

Mostly, the event was an opportunity to show off the long anticipated new-to-the-area transit mode and get the public jazzed on a developing project that has dragged on past numerous deadlines.

Violet, a Seattle Central College student and Madison Valley resident who takes the number 12 bus to get to campus, said that she would “absolutely” be taking the streetcar for getting her closer to the number 7 bus she rides to her job in the Rainier Valley. She did have some qualms about the streetcar seating arrangements, saying the spacious interior seems geared towards having more passengers stand than sit. (Northeast Seattle Greenways and Tom Fucoloro at the Seattle Bike Blog also had some criticisms, specifically that the two vertical bike racks included inside the new streetcars can’t accommodate bulky family or cargo laden bikes.)

Beth and Emma, two Capitol Hill residents who were excited about the prospect of the streetcar (and being able to easily get to and from Pioneer Square), seemed fully aware of the its lengthy rollout. “I just hope this means it’s finally going to start running soon,” said Beth.

James Wong, an International District resident, army veteran, and retired Amtrak employee, was giddy with excitement when CHS spoke with him at the Occidental and Jackson streetcar terminal. “I really love it,” Wong said. Wong said that when he immigrated to Seattle from China in the 1950s, the city was shutting down the trackless electric trolley system that attempted to replace the original, expansive streetcar system that had covered most of the city since 1884. “But now they’re [streetcars] coming back. It’s wonderful!”

“I love transportation,” he added with a toothy grin.

The First Hill Streetcar, a Sound Transit funded (via the 2008, voter approved Sound Transit 2 ballot measure) and SDOT managed project that has been hampered with delays and setbacks due to mandatory testing, damaged inverters, and ironing out glitches in the street braking systems and software over the past year since the rail line’s completion in late 2014, is in its final stretch, according to SDOT officials who were onsite at the various locations. Streetcar service was originally slated to be up and running in 2013, then early 2014. All six of the streetcars currently in Seattle have completed “acceptance testing”—the finicky fine-tuning of the software which integrates the streetcars’ braking and propulsion systems—which was what was taking place over much of the summer and holding up the timeline, according to SDOT streetcar project manager Ethan Malone.

“That [acceptance testing] took longer than we were expecting it to over the summer,” Malone told CHS Thursday during the Safety Day at the Occidental and Jackson streetcar terminal.

Now, the streetcars have moved into the final stages of testing, where they must go through 500 kilometers of service with no major failures, the last 100 of which must be squeaky-clean and perfect, according to Malone. Four of the cars have completed that 500 kilometers, with two remaining. “One of the cars has to hit its last 100. The other is just getting started,” Malone said. Malone said that it takes as little as a few days for the cars to hit their 500 kilometers, assuming the last 100 goes smoothly.

And — brace yourself — there’s one additional phase of testing: mainline operational testing, which is essentially a comprehensive simulation of what final passenger service will be. But Malone says that mainline operational testing can happen on cars that have already completed their 500 kilometer test, in parallel with the two remaining stragglers.

But despite being in the last rounds of testing, SDOT is holding firm on not announcing a launch date just yet. Malone told CHS that they won’t be doing any “forecasting,” saying it all depends on how the final rounds of testing go. Sorry, readers.

Another issue with the streetcar that has arisen recently is sloppy parking car parking along the track route that could immobilize the streetcars. SDOT’s safety tips pamphlets did hint towards this issue, telling drivers to avoid parking in a streetcar’s path or protected bike lanes. Art Brochet, a SDOT communications lead, told CHS that the white lines that mark the edges of the streetcar tracks are sufficient indicators of where drivers can and can’t park. “People who aren’t within that line [designated parking areas] when the streetcar comes, they will be towed, and that will be an expensive lesson for them,” he said. “We have not had a lot of problems with it [bad parking], curiously enough,” Brochet added.

CHS doesn’t have any hard numbers on the problem yet — but it continues including this prolonged incident Tuesday night on Broadway at Marion:

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12 thoughts on “‘Safety Day’ provides preview as riders await First Hill Streetcar start of service

  1. I heard from one of the people at Seattle Streetcar today during the safety event that it would open by the end of the year and by the sound of this article, with the final testing underway and many of the cars having completed their required hours, maybe it isn’t too far away.

  2. haha, ok SDOT. Just remember: no complaints from you about WSDOT being cagey about schedule and generally non-communicative re: the tunnel. Beyond the delays and bureaucratic nonsense from SDOT, I’m excited about the streetcar (ding! ding!).

  3. The street car needs less PR firms and who ha’s and more action. Lets get these darn things going already. Plenty of tow trucks troll for illegally parked cars, have them scan the routes and lets get things moving along, please :)

    • Maybe next time around, more $$ for engineering instead of marketing. There seems like a lot of issues happened on this go round.

  4. This event sounds like a PR stunt. SDOT’s performance building this streetcar was completely unacceptable. It is unacceptable to waste years before opening something as basic as a streetcar. During the 1890’s Seattle streetcars were completed in weeks. Should it take several years today when it took several weeks in the 1890s? Something stinks…

    • How thick were the law books in the 1890s? And how developed was Seattle then?

      Manifest Destiny is over… I’m not surprised by how long such things take these days. Disappointed, yes. Surprised, no.

      • People probably got run over and such in those days too, and I’m sure there were fewer lawyers. I seriously doubt everything ran safely and flawlessly in those days.

  5. Shoulda held a “safety day” for SDOT engineers before they designed the awful bike interaction on westbound Jackson at 14th… and before they completely failed to consider the 2nd Ave Extension at Jackson, where official city bike markings directed cyclists to turn right into the streetcar tracks months after the tracks were installed. It’s pretty shocking they screwed up that badly after being sued for the same sort of stuff on Westlake.

  6. Not enough bike rack space? Sorry Tom, why don’t you ride your bike down that nice lightly used bike lane that took up an entire traffic lane down Broadway. Eish – cyclists are never happy.

  7. Bike Racks on those overly complicated streetcars; probably better carry a few complimentary bikes on those cars, maybe those clever Italian ones which fold up so nicely because those tinkered with streetcars are a symbol of why so many projects, those that involve transportation issues, seem to end up screwed up–expensive doodles of a mass transit system which appear as though these projects were the engineering equivalent of a thesis for someone’s Ph.D. dissertation. The Federal government interested with funding an extension of this service to Aloha Street? Not after they take a look at the books of SDOT–the fits and starts of mass transit for the Emerald City…a little of this, not much of that.

  8. SDOT, incompetent as always, loses my ridership forever as soon as a subway opens from my home to my work. We’ll see if they get a single day from me – the clock is ticking.

    And if you need a streetcar to carry your bike from Capitol Hill to Pioneer Square, you are a part of the problem.