Streetcars Return to DC

Urban Light Rail History

It all began with New York City’s horse-car service in 1832—the first urban light rail system. Horses could pull a heavier box-shaped carload with less effort by running along rails. Early horse-drawn rail tracks were six inches or more above street level until French Inventor Alphonse Loubat developed a “grooved rail that lay flush with the pavement” (Jackson, 1985) and provided a faster, smoother ride. This transit revolution in efficiency and sheltered travel lasted until 1917—12 years longer than the larger, faster, cable car introduced after the Civil War.

Cable cars were not only expensive to operate and maintain but, being propelled at a constant speed by the cable, became dangerous when rounding sharp curves–the last New York City cable line ended its run in 1905. Electric generators and motors led to the first electric streetcar line in Richmond, Virginia in 1888 and throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the streetcar (later called a trolley) became the preferred urban transportation in most American cities; understandable, when only about 1 in 10 Americans owned an automobile.

Horse-drawn to electric, rail transit was a prevalent mode of transportation in DC from 1862 to 1962. As early as the mid-1890s, DC streetcar lines extended into Maryland and Virginia, reaching a streetcar network of more than 200 miles of track. In “U.S. Streetcar Systems—DC,” John Smatlak writes: “Historically, a large portion of the District’s original streetcar system (converted to buses by 1962) was operated with an underground conduit system, the streetcars switching to overhead wire when they reached the outer parts of the District.”

DC Streetcars Make a Comeback

It’s been 50 years since the last DC trolley run, and streetcar service is returning to the Capitol. The Rail Transit Group at GAI Consultants is pleased to participate in the inaugural new DC streetcar line—the first 3-mile line in a 23-mile project. The H Street to Benning Road segment in the NE quadrant of Washington, DC is scheduled to be operational in late 2013. All three of the new US-built streetcars arrived in September, and GAI ‘s Train Control Systems Group is providing conceptual, preliminary, and final signaling design and, when the line is ready, will provide operational testing services.

Signal system design for streetcar lines demands specialized knowledge and operational expertise. For instance, special signals, separated from traffic signals, need distinctive displays.

Signal system design for streetcar lines demands specialized knowledge and operational expertise. For instance, special signals, separated from traffic signals, need distinctive displays. The streetcar signal system is required to detect streetcar approach, arrival at an intersection stop bar, and intersection clearance. A Train-to-Wayside Communication (TWC) system allows the streetcar operator to activate track switches, automatically request traffic signal priority, and be able to use the TWC control panel to select their route from the cab. Signal heads are required at specific locations to confirm powered switch operation and locking.

Concurrently, GAI’s Train Control Systems Group is working on their newest challenge, the Seattle Light Rail Transit (LRT) Extension to the University of Washington on the West Coast.

For more Train Control Systems information, contact Jon Oldfield at 412.476.2000.


Austermuhle, Martin, “D.C. Streetcars Resurrect Bygone Era of Transportation, The Washington Diplomat, Digital file uploaded June 1, 2013.

Brooklyn Historic Railway Association (BHRA) Web Site.  Digital file accessed August 3, 2013

Jackson, Kenneth T., The Grabgrass Frontier, 1985.  Referenced in “The world’s first light rail (1832)—in NYC no less.”  Digital file;wap2 accessed August 19, 2013.

Kukulski, Ray and Bill Gallagher, “Washington’s Trolley System: The forces that shaped it, the benefits that were created and the elements that caused its demise,” March 7, 2009.  Digital file accessed August 10, 2013.

Smatlak, John, DC Streetcar Systems in U.S. Streetcar Systems—DC.  Digital file accessed July 11, 2013.

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