With no plan for return of service, First Hill Streetcar slide latest problem in $27M batch

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.

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37 thoughts on “With no plan for return of service, First Hill Streetcar slide latest problem in $27M batch

  1. This is absurd. And we are planning more street cars? How about we just run low deck trolly buses and use off board payment and boarding through all doors! We can skip the construction hassle, re-route when necessary, use existing fleet maintenance facilities…

  2. This is really sad because I feel like the street car usage was finally taking off. I use it from time to time and I’ve started noticing fuller trains. This is really going to hurt that momentum that they’ve gained.

    • Better still, into the 23rd Avenue RR+, and building trolley wire on Yesler to get the 3/4 out of the I-5 clog on James. We need off-board payment and buses in their own lanes more than we need a streetcrawler stuck in traffic.

    • I agree, I thought it was a waste of money in the first place. Plus all the time digging up the street, taking away more parking on Broadway, and the danger to cyclists. I tried taking it once from P Square, it was so slow! I got out and walked to a light rail station. A bus line on that route would be more efficient — and cheaper.

    • It might be faster, but only because it doesn’t serve all of the stops. For one thing, buses can’t travel through the streetcar-only section of 14th Ave, so it skips that entire segment, using Boren and 12th to get from Yesler to Jackson.

  3. How much expanded bus service does $132 million buy? Streetcars are a stupid waste of money. Seattle seems to be good at that though (I’m looking at you monorail)

    • The Madison bus rapid transit project is estimated to cost $120m. If you need to tear up the street to build a proper transitway, then the cost difference between rail and bus is minor.

      Let’s not judge all surface rail projects based on the two poorly planned streetcars we have. If we build surface rail with the quality of Link on MLK then it would serve the public well.

    • I doubt that is what is happening. They probably are working to find out the root cause of the issue and then how to fix it but it might not be easy to replicate on demand especially with the vehicles being made in Europe in a country where they speak another language.

  4. This is a bummer because I’ve become so dependent on the streetcar and it is packed whenever I ride it at any time of day.

    The streetcar planning and implementation has been a mess. Do the people making decisions have any experience with transportation?

  5. At age 87 and in a wheelchair, it opened up wonderful possibilities for me.
    All other transit is very difficult for a chair.
    Back to being a shut in.

    • To quote the metro website “Access Transportation

      Access takes you anywhere a Metro bus, Seattle streetcar or Sound Transit light rail goes at that time and on that day of the week. Access customers go grocery shopping, to work and school, to get their hair cut, to check in with their doctor, meet up with friends, or to enjoy a local park.

      You can go any place – as long as the bus, streetcar or light rail goes there.”

    • The problem with the Access system is that, understandably since they take several people at once, it is terribly inefficient. A person usually needs to be picked up way ahead of, say, their appointment time with a doctor. Then the van wanders around, picking up other people, until finally dropping them off at the destination. There is often a long wait to be taken home, too, especially if the client is a little late getting to the pickup spot.

    • I want to add to what Bob said, as I’ve dealt with seniors having this issue, they’ll use access to get to the doctor, but if you’re not ready at the pick up time, the van leaves w/o you. A couple times seniors I was with were delayed at the doc, and missed their return ride.

  6. It is sad that we do not make streetcars here in America where they could have purchased them and at least not have to fly to Europe to meet with the company face to face to work out the issues.

    • It’s not sad, because they do make streetcars in America. Right down I-5 in Oregon. A version of this very streetcar actually. But no, we had to spec out some customized trams with regenerative breaking/battery/offline bullshit which increased the expense and forces the City to get parts and technical expertise from the Czech Republic. Could have bought them from an American company built by American workers.

    • Well said Max. The City Council needs to wake up and make a decision:

      Option A) Close down the Streetcar Project and use electric bus trolleys instead to serve the same purpose.

      Option B) Try to fix these faulty cars and carry on

      Option C) Buy United Streetcar vehicles

      Option D) “Shut It Down” completely.

      Obviously my list is made in order of what I’d do.

    • United Streetcar sells the same outdated design we bought from Inekon. We are much better off buying a proper modern streetcar from Siemens, Bombardier or CAF.

      It would cost more but work better. You get what you pay for as you see.

    • Sure that’s probably the option that’ll have to happen. I’d prefer at that rate just get Siemens S70s like what Atlanta Streetcar and some sexy light rail is going to get…

    • And in addition – a huge personal pet peeve of mine – reopen southbound 14th to vehicular traffic. There is absolutely no technical or engineering reason why vehicle and the streetcar can’t share that small section of roadway. Closing it off has caused backups on 12th from Yesler to Cherry. Portland would never have done this…we really should be emulating them on how to build a good streetcar network.

  7. This outage is really harshing my buzz. For trips between Capitol Hill and my house in the CD, the streetcar is so much better and faster than taking the bus, which goes out of the way and usually has some combination of being late, stinky and crowded, with less standing room than the streetcar. Because the temporary replacement bus doesn’t serve my stop on 14th or come anywhere near it, it ends up being no faster than taking the 8.

  8. I’ve been really loving the streetcar so it’s been a huge bummer not having it anymore. It’s fast and easy for things like groceries or getting to and from work/school/home during terrible weather. I never found it to be excessively slow (honestly even in peak hours it’s faster than walking) and it was way more consistent and reliable than buses I’ve taken in the past. The streetcar has been a really nice alternative to the bus; the ride is much more pleasant IMO

  9. It is interesting to read the several comments above in praise of the streetcar. This would seem to argue against those who are constantly complaining here that it is a waste of money. Obviously it is a very useful system, at least for some.

  10. Perhaps we should also consider ‘loss of capacity’ as associated with streetcars. The proposed 1st ave connector will ELIMINATE TWO more N/S traffic lanes in the downtown core. Broadway also eliminated two lanes with the addition of streetcar. By the way SCars cannot ‘negotiate’ through traffic like trolley buses as they cannot ‘drive around’ stopped or slow cars/trucks. For the SCar users, besides the wheelchair access (which is great!) what does a SCar do that Trolley Bus will not?

  11. The opening on the SCar is wide enough to easily get on and off, the turn getting on and off the bus is very difficult, often getting stuck, annoying the hell out of the other passengers, often coming to my assistance to lift it around the turn.
    BTW, the care for we elderly here in Seattle is amazing.
    The Polyclinic is wonderful. Also I use the Access bus, but is not always reliable for an appointment. I’ve lived in Manhattan, Hawaii, Long Beach, Ca and Paris. Nothing like the great Seattle.

  12. Sorry for the belated comment but it puzzles me quite a bit on how the trolley wires for streetcars conflict with trolley wires for trolleybuses because in San Francisco, there are many intersections where “Muni Metro” LRV wires and trolleybus wires criss-cross each other and even some running side-by-side on their own wires in both directions for decades without conflicts. I personally don’t see any power-related problems with building streetcar and trolleybus wires in both directions on Broadway, Yester and S. Jackson unless the streetcars and trolleybuses have different voltage requirements in Seattle.

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