Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Guest Post: Remove the Wire Noose

George Barsky is a frequent commenter on one of my transit listserves. In a recent email, he asked that Washington D.C. be freed from its wire noose, ie the prohibition of wires in the federal city. Here are his comments he gave me permission to post and some photos of what he believes wires would look like in the district:

It's high time Congress allowed the District of Columbia to operate clean, green, efficient, electric surface mass transit on any of its streets.

Streetcars and light rail are making a strong comeback in cities all across the USA. Obviously, that form of mass transit is being recognized more and more as a worthwhile public investment to move lots of people. And there is a new transportation infrastructure recognition by the Obama Administration.

Until more reliable forms of power become available, the best system for more than 100 years to power streetcars is from a simple almost invisible overhead wire. This is how more than 400 other electric surface transit systems operate around the world and within other US cities. However, Congress banned overhead wires in parts of D.C. more than 100 years ago stifling electric surface transit progress and ultimately killing it almost 50 years ago.

It's time for Congress to take a leadership role and change that law to allow streetcars to use single simple, non-polluting almost invisible wire above their tracks and return to all of D.C. When the law was passed more than 100 years ago it was well intended to remove masses of utility wire from city streets. Utilities can bury their wires but transit cannot. The old underground conduit system used by the now abandoned D.C. streetcar network is too expensive and difficult to maintain or reinstall and not at all desirable.

I am not recommending a sky full of wires. A small single simple nearly invisible overhead wire supported by decorative lampposts or nearby buildings can be extremely architecturally effective and easy to maintain without destroying the visual landscape of D.C. There are thousands of examples worldwide in cities just as beautiful or more so than D.C. They are not harmed or defaced by them and their beauty is enhanced by modern healthful environmentally friendly electric surface transit.

Discussions abound about clean energy, CO2 reductions and global warming, but Congress has turned a blind eye in their own backyard by continuing to impose the antiquarian overhead wire ban for surface transit. Everyday Al Gore and other officials call for change and reform in terms of energy and environment but Congress does nothing to encourage D.C. to modernize its surface transport making it green and more inviting to use. The beauty of D.C. will not be marred by this minute change and will enable it to eliminate many noxious and polluting buses from its streets. It's time to CHANGE how D.C. does surface transit.

Congress has to get this message and take reasonable action by eliminating the overhead wire ban for surface transit within all of D.C and let D.C. decide where and how to institute its transit needs.

By comparison to other recent problems this may seem trivial. Basically it is, except that a change in the law requires an act of Congress. I doubt that many Congressmen and staffs today are even aware that giving D.C. this benefit lies within their jurisdiction. Many of them now have modern light rail in their own districts. It's one of those niche items buried in ancient D.C. history but is quite important to the District of Columbia and all who use or want to benefit from good surface transit therein. Allowing D.C. to resurrect electric streetcar service in all parts of D.C. by means of a simple almost invisible overhead wire will showcase an example to the nation and the world that Congress gets it. All that is required is a single simple nearly invisible overhead wire.

Best of all, no funds are required for this enabling act.

It is time for new outside the box thinking regarding green electric surface transit within all of D.C. and remove the ancient wire noose from around the District's neck. If an overhead wire is OK for the new Anacostia streetcar line than it should be OK in all parts of D.C. The residents will applaud such new vital action.

Conduit at Union Station

With Overhead Wires

George Barsky
Germantown, MD


Gordon Werner said...

umm ... Both Alstom and Bombardier now offer systems that use in-ground power supplies

Alstom's APS: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alimentation_par_Sol

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

Alstom has said they are not bringing APS to the United States and Bombardier doesn't seem to be offering theirs up anytime soon. These systems are also going to cost more, why not just use the system you can build now instead of hoping for a technology fix that probably isn't coming in the next decade.

Michael said...

I've already talked to the staff of Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA), he's ready to start helping, but wants to know that DC's government actually wants the change. I recommend writing to Jim Graham, chairman of the committee on public works and transportation for DC, as well as the Mayor and the director of DDOT to encourage them to ask congress for the change.

Michael Perkins
Greater Greater Washington

monkeyrotica said...

I thought the problem with underground power was that all the road salt corrodes the electrical systems.

John said...

I agree that the wires should be allowed, but I have yet to see an "almost invisible" one.

Chris Carney said...

As a former DC resident now living in San Francisco, I can say that even our new home city's fairly visible overheard wires are much more welcome than the exhaust of a city bus. I bike all over San Francisco, just as I biked all over DC when I lived there. The best thing about biking in San Francisco (aside from the scenery) is the fact that I'm no longer inhaling soot from diesel buses, and I know the streetcar beside me isn't going to suddenly veer into my lane.

arcady said...

Hm, I do suspect snow and salt would be problems for the APS system. Potentially fatal ones, once you realize that salty snow is actually quite conductive. As for wires, a streetcar could probably get away with much lighter gauge wire than interurban-style light rail, because there's no need to support three-car trains. Lighter wire also means fewer and lighter support spans, and thus the visual impact can be kept fairly low. Using a pantograph also means that you need less precise positioning of the wire on curves, so you can have fewer support wires there too.

david vartanoff said...

DC born/raised I can attest the conduit system was a disaster in snow/salt times. Basicly streetcar service came to a halt.

Michael said...

For those interested in overhead wire contact systems, TCRP has an excellent report about designing them for low visual impact here.

I like an idea I've seen floating around where the wires are only put up on straight street lengths without intersections. On-board batteries can propel the cars in between overhead wire segments. This helps reduce the visual impact because intersections and curves are much "bulkier" than straight segments.

The folks most involved with advocating for DC streetcars blog at Streetcars4DC.

Matt Fisher said...

This prohibition that happened didn't even allow trolleybuses. While it's possible APS could work elsewhere, it's only been half a decade in use, and I don't know how APS can work regarding ice, snow, and rain.

Furthermore, the overhead wires that rail/bus electrification opponents are always complaining about that they consider to be "visual pollution" aren't that terrifying.

Here's a simple difference in terms of wires: A trolleybus has two overhead wires; electrified rail using an overhead wire has only one.

Anonymous said...

Bombardier has a catenary-free system (PRIMOVE Catenary-Free Technology) where it electric supply components are invisible, hidden under the vehicle and beneath the track. See http://www.bombardier.com/en/transportation/sustainability/technology/primove-catenary-free-operation?docID=0901260d800486ab for better information. There are data sheets and a video at that site.

njh said...

Higher voltage can solve the wire thickness problem to a point, but cable wear is a problem, as is supporting the required tension. Existing magnetic inductive coupling systems are inherently less efficient and tend to require much tighter tolerances. Personally I find a potholey uncrossably wide street filled with cars far more ugly than a piece of wire, but I'm not American so I'm weird.

Stan said...

The appearance of the wire is not the biggest problem (although it is a big enough one that Alstom, Bombardier, Kawasaki, Shanghai Sunwin Bus and TIG/m have all developed wireless streetcars.

The big problem is the $4.5 million (per LTK Engineering) to $6 million (Charlotte Area Transit System) per mile of track to build.

Embarking on a new overhead electrification project when hydrogen buses are in use around the world and wireless hydrolleys have only 1/7 of the buses' rolling friction is not a reasonable risk to accept.