As streetcars return, a look at trolley-era technology

New generation streetcars will be running soon; the technology in the bygone trolley era didn\'t change much. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

COLESVILLE, Md. — The technology hasn’t changed much since the last streetcar ran through the District of Columbia in 1962, as the next edition of rail travel along the H Street Corridor in Northeast nears.

Looking at the streetcars that carried Washington commuters between 1862 and 1962, Ken Rucker, director of the National Capital Trolley Museum, says technology changes were incremental.

“The basics of 600-volt direct current motors propelling the vehicles remain true through the entire trolley era,” says Rucker.

He says some technology changes were driven by necessity.

For example, an 1899 snow-sweeping vehicle that ran between Northeast D.C. and Laurel, Md., left the operator’s position exposed to the elements.

As large brooms rotated under the car, “The snow that was blown off the track blew back into his face,” says Rucker.

Soon after, cars were designed to enclose the operator.

At the time, the D.C. Public Utilities Commission decided it was unsafe for a conductor to walk from car to car collecting fares. Reluctant to hire more staff, Rucker says the streetcar companies had larger cars built.

While many rode streetcars to and from work, Rucker says early vehicles were difficult for women in dresses to navigate, with high steps to climb on-board and wood-slat floors were prone to catching and breaking a shoe’s heel.

Shorter steps and linoleum floors were the fix.

In years past, a ban on overhead wires meant streetcars in the District got power from an underground conduit.

In the new streetcars, the D.C. Council passed legislation to allow the overhead wires along Benning Road and H Street, but banned wires near the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue, between Capitol Hill and the White House.

Streetcar tracks are in place in the H Street corridor, but it’s still not clear when people will be able to ride the rails.

Take a ride at the National Capital Trolley Museum:

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