Let’s Start Scrapping Streetcars

Good news: Washington DC is thinking of scrapping its streetcars, which have been in service for just two years and whose ridership is still so poor — about 3,000 weekday riders — that the city is afraid to start charging fares.

Bad news: City officials are only thinking of scrapping the streetcars and not the tracks; instead, they wants to replace the streetcars with brand-new ones because it’s so hard to get spare parts for the ones they have. Each new 30-seat streetcar would cost roughly ten times as much as a 40-seat bus, but cost is no object when you are playing with other people’s money.

The modern streetcar craze, which was only partly fueled by federal funding (Portland, Tacoma, and Washington purchased their first streetcars without federal support), provides a lesson for the writers of Trump’s infrastructure plan. They hope that giving local, not federal, politicians the authority of where to spend money would result in better decisions. In fact, local politicians are just as willing to waste money on gleaming new urban monuments as federal ones.

As noted in an op-ed on CNN earlier this week, politicians, whether federal, state, or local, would rather spend money on highly visible projects than on basic needs. Are streets in Portland and Washington DC falling apart? Build a streetcar! Are roads congested because rail transit hasn’t taken any cars off the road? Build another light-rail line! Is your subway line breaking down daily? Build a new branch of the line!

The best thing Washington DC can do is sell its streetcars to some other sucker city, tear out the rails and sell them for scrap, and use the money it wants to spend expanding the streetcar system to fix its streets and coordinate traffic signals. Unfortunately, Washington is run by politicians, not people responding to market demand, so that probably isn’t going to happen.


9 thoughts on “Let’s Start Scrapping Streetcars

  1. C. P. Zilliacus

    Seems that someone in the municipal government of the District of Columbia has changed their mind, according to this tweet from the D.C. Streetcar feed.

    Quoting (emphasis added):
    No, we’re not scrapping our vehicles. Full statement on our vehicle planning effort attached.

    And this is the “full statement:”

    DDOT currently has no plans to discontinue use of the current DC Streetcar fleet. As we make plans to purchase additional vehicles for extensions to Benning Road and Georgetown, we are evaluating the capabilities and cost effectiveness of new vehicle types as well as their compatibility with the current fleet. There’s a long lead time (often five years) to acquire vehicles, so starting now is prudent. This planning effort will consider various options to enhance the performance and limit costs of the fleet, including evaluating the vehicles currently in service, to determine the best fleet management approach to achieve the system’s performance goals.

  2. JOHN1000

    If you didn’t know the facts, this report would sound good. New cars rather than repairing old decrepit ones – maybe save money and improve service?

    But they deliberately don’t mention that the “old” ones are 2 years old and should need no repairs other than normal maintenance after riding back and forth on a one mile stretch of track. The fact that they need major repairs tells you all you need to know about how wasteful this all is.

  3. paul

    Politicians are responding to their voting base in promoting rail systems. Consistently, almost weekly, and for people I have met from all over Canada and the US and even the UK, I have had to explain why new rail transit won’t work in most situations. Most people in N. America will try to explain the myth that General Motors took the streetcars out of service to force people to buy cars. I have to then patiently explain that streetcars were economically obsolete by about 1915 when streets were paved and buses and cars could compete. As a result world wide when the infrastructure wore out they were pulled up, except in a few places where hydro power was cheap, like Switzerland, or oil difficult to get, like Germany. That is why putting in new rail systems is so expensive and useless because it is so cost ineffective. . Asking Los Angeles rail enthusiasts how since half cent sales taxes have resulted in no decrease in traffic or increase in transit use how they expect more half cent sales taxes to reduce traffic and they frequently just say something has to be done. This support of new rail systems is so extensive that it certainly seems that politicians are simply responding on what the voters believe. Presumably construction firms and others who stand to benefit are more than happy to perpetuate the misinformation.

  4. The Antiplanner Post author


    To be fair, half the streetcars are more than ten years old, having been built in 2007 and stored for nine years before being put into service. The others are four years old, but they were built by an Oregon company whose streetcars mostly turned out to be lemons, and it is now out of business.

  5. LazyReader

    There are four ways to spend money:
    1) When you spend your own money spent on yourself – you’re concerned about both cost and quality.
    2) When you spend your own money on somebody else – you’re concerned about cost, but not so much about quality.
    3) Others money on yourself – no concern for cost, but you want quality as high as possible.
    4) Others money on others – no concern for neither cost or quality. This is how most politicians spend your money.

  6. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    To be fair, half the streetcars are more than ten years old, having been built in 2007 and stored for nine years before being put into service. The others are four years old, but they were built by an Oregon company whose streetcars mostly turned out to be lemons, and it is now out of business.

    The three units that were built in 2007 were assembled in a plant in Czechia. Because they were sitting there in a corner of the plant for so long, the manufacturer took them out on runs on the streetcar system of Prague (image).

  7. C. P. Zilliacus

    Regarding the units built by U.S. Streetcar in Oregon, those are apparently especially trouble-prone, at least in Washington, D.C., and that is also where the issue with parts has arisen since the firm ceased operation in 2014 or 2015.

    It is apparently possible to procure parts for the Inekon Trams, a.s. units built in Czechia.

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