In D.C. And China, Two Approaches To A Streetcar Unconstrained By Wires D.C. has struggled to roll out a streetcar line that uses both overheard wires and off-wire, battery power. In southern China, though, a new supercapacitor-powered tramline is already up and running.

In D.C. And China, Two Approaches To A Streetcar Unconstrained By Wires

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


We're taking a look at the transportation of the future in the NPR Cities Project.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Becoming a world-class city.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Keep the transit running.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We have to move people a lot more efficiently.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Come. Take a ride of the future.

GREENE: An industry is emerging around an old kind of urban transportation with a new source of power. Streetcars usually rely on electric wires overhead, but some people think those wires are really ugly. They cost money to put up and maintain. And they can get in the way of firetrucks. The cutting edge of streetcar technology runs without those wires. And we begin with NPR's Franklyn Cater in the nation's capital.

FRANKLYN CATER, BYLINE: Here on H Street Northeast in Washington, D.C., the area is full of new restaurants and bars that occupy brightly painted brick row houses. And there's also a new streetcar line and about 15 feet overhead, a loose web of wires. They're power for the streetcars.

DORIAN JONES: It's not an eyesore per se, but now it's, like, really noticeable that you mentioned it.

CATER: Do you mind if I ask your name?

JONES: Dorian Jones.

LETICIA SMITH: Leticia Smith.

CATER: What do you think of the overhead wires?

SMITH: That's OK. It's just a waste of money.

CATER: Years in the making, this line is still being tested. The public can't ride yet, so many people are more worried about the millions spent than they are about wires and aesthetics. But back in 1888, aesthetics were very important to Congress. They saw wires as a threat to the beauty of the nation's capital, and they passed a law, no overhead wires for telegraph, telephone, electric lighting or anything else. So when the city wanted to reintroduce streetcars a few years ago, they started looking at wireless technology. They didn't like what they found, so City Council allowed wires on H Street. A plan to extend this line across town would still require an off-wire solution. But streetcars ran all over this city without wires until 1962. How? To find out, I went to the National Capital Trolley Museum. It's a streetcar geek's dream.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Watch your step when leaving the car.

CATER: You can ride old streetcars, and inside...

KEN RUCKER: And now we're in Conduit Hall.

CATER: Conduit Hall, where museum director Ken Rucker explains how things used to work. They had a conduit, a stick dropped from the car through a slot in the street, picking up power underground.

RUCKER: So the 14th streetcar line was powered by the underground conduit.

CATER: You would have had to dig a trench to put all of this in.

RUCKER: Yes, and that way, we're not upsetting Washington's pristine skies with trolley wire overhead.

CATER: Setting that up again would be colossally expensive and, these days, unnecessary. Thanks to the changing automotive industry, there's another option, battery power. To learn about that, we're now a couple hundred miles north of Washington, in the Pennsylvania mountains.

MARION VAN FOSSON: Where we're standing right now, we've got overhead cranes and catenary systems to support...

CATER: I'm with Marion Van Fosson, president of Brookville Equipment Corporation and Joel McNeil, vice president for business development.

JOEL MCNEIL: Over here, you'll see the streetcars that we're working on.

CATER: Business in off-wire streetcars is good for Brookville. They built cars for a line in Dallas that opened just this year, the first modern-day, off-wire line in the United States. And they're making more.

MCNEIL: Two for Dallas and six for Detroit.

CATER: Brookville's car is really a hybrid.

VAN FOSSON: Prius of the modern streetcar market, right?

CATER: (Laughter).

Part of the time, it runs on wire. Where wires end, it keeps going, powered by a lithium ion battery. There's hot competition to make streetcars like this. More than a dozen cities have expressed interest in buying them. And though it's a hybrid right now, McNeil says...

MCNEIL: In five years, it's definitely a possibility to go completely wire-free.

CATER: Now, if you want to see an off-wire streetcar with a really fast charging time in action, you can go halfway around the world to China. And while I head back to Washington, here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn to pick up this part of the story.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: These new streetcars glide along the Pearl River in southern Guangzhou city. The first tram line in operation is five miles long in a new up-and-coming urban district. You can't see where the power for these trams comes from unless you know where to look. I'm at a station with Fan Xiaoyun, assistant chief engineer with the Guangzhou Metro. He points to some thin strips of metal up above the streetcars.

FAN XIAOYUN: (Through interpreter) You can see that as the train enters the station, it just lightly touches those contact strips. And in 20 seconds, it's fully charged and ready to go to the next station.

KUHN: Instead of batteries, the trams have Chinese-made super capacitors. They're charged in the time that it takes passengers to get on and off. Then the streetcars can move at nearly 45 miles an hour. Fan Xiaoyun says that not having to lay cables or electrified rails between stations saves money.

XIAOYUN: (Through interpreter) The cost of building this system is between a quarter and a seventh of the cost of building a subway. There's no need to dig tunnels. We just have to modify the street service a bit.

KUHN: And they're cheap to run. Fan says that a streetcar carrying more than 300 people can go a kilometer, or six-tenths of a mile, for the equivalent of about 44 cents. Guangzhou city planners are designing an entire new business district around the new tram line.

XIAOYUN: (Through interpreter) Right now, you can see that there are no tall buildings here. But this area is now a focus of development. And in about three years, the buildings will be even more dense here than across the river.

KUHN: Fan points out that in large cities like Guangzhou, streetcars don't replace subways; they supplement them. They're to get you that last leg of the journey, ideally to take you door-to-door. Fan says that not only can streetcars improve urban transport; they can make cities more clean, livable and fun. The train I'm riding in has a kid-friendly theme with pictures of clowns and circus animals.



KUHN: Passenger Xu Xuejun says taking the streetcars sure beats sitting in traffic or walking through clouds of car exhaust downtown.

XU XUEJUN: (Foreign language spoken).

KUHN: "Of course I would like to see these streetcars in my neighborhood, too," she says. "But the city center is too crowded, and I'm afraid it's just not feasible." Fan Xiaoyun says the city is exploring the feasibility of extending tram lines into downtown areas. For now, he's got his hands full hosting delegations, from cities around China and the world, lining up to learn more about his city's super capacitor-powered streetcars. Anthony Kuhn, in Guangzhou for the NPR Cities Project.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.