I do not believe "visual obstruction" is as bad people think it is. Wires are a part of the urban landscape. I love seeing the wire criss-cross my neighbourhood. It's an aspect that makes the urban landscape appealing compared to the blandness of the suburbs.
Batteries tend to be heavy and/or expensive. And I bet you can't just add the Steem system to any old streetcar, meaning all new equipment.
And overhead wires really aren't that expensive. If you can re-use the existing street light poles or anchor cross-spans directly into buildings, then really it's just the cost of the wire itself plus hanging it up, and it takes almost no maintenance. All together overhead electrification can be done for less than a million dollars per track mile, which is what, 5% of the total construction cost?
Batteries, by the way, are not just heavy and expensive, they also take a considerable amount of maintenance and have to be replaced every few years. And if they're lithium-ion batteries, there's always the risk of fire.
Arcady: Exactly. Many American LRT systems make the mistake of building the system to handle high speeds that never materialize. I have seen many cases, where a simple trolley system would suffice, but instead the agency built OCS instead. Nuts. Here in Toronto, the TTC is building a streetcar ROW. Instead of utilizing the existing poles, the TTC is building totally new centre poles to hold the wire. A total waste.
This bullshit about "visual pollution" from overhead wires (hence the name of this blog) :) is bad, but we can apparently tolerate billboards every day? Ridiculous.
Arcady hit the nail on the head: use as much existing "infrastructure" as possible. Unfortunately, some rail system designers seem to ignore the fact that buildings are very sturdy and can support overhead with no trouble, and insist on new overhead supports that are "strong enough to support the Pennsylvania RR overhead system" and bulky enough to cause complaints about "overbuilt overhead". If you look at photos from "the old days" downtown trolley wire is often barely visible. Nowadays, it's like some of the engineers get a percentage of the cost of their structures, making it in their interest to "gold plate" their installations.To lay on a few cliche's: It's not rocket science, and you don't have to reinvent the wheel.(posted by an occasional member of the Orange Empire Ry. Museum Overhead Line crew)
On justification for modern overhead is the fact that it's designed for running 300 foot long trains (which significantly increases the peak current), and those trains generally have air conditioning, which tends to be very power-hungry. I think to some extent it's also just a matter of the old engineers who used to design these systems being gone, and the new ones deciding to err on the side of caution since they're not as experienced.
Wires are part of today's urban landscape in the same way that smokestacks were part of the urban landscape during the industrial revolution. Just because they're necessary with current technology doesn't mean they're not polluting.
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