Monday, April 28, 2008

Greater DC's Last Tram (And It's Dutch)

Want to ride a tram in America? There are one or two cities that kept a few lines as tourist attractions, but in Washington DC and its suburbs they axed the entire system in the early 1960s. They must have been slowing down too many senators and congressman as they rushed by car from Capitol Hill to capital whorehouse. But there’s still a way to ride the tram if you know where to look – it’s in a field in the middle of nowhere in Montgomery County, Maryland.

That’s where you’ll find the DC trolley museum, and that’s where we went yesterday afternoon. What counts as a cheap and efficient method of getting around town in hundreds of cities across the world is, for DC area residents, a 30-minute drive for a brief, historical trip down recent memory lane. And a painful reminder of the short-sighted ignorance that now makes any journey by car in or around DC a slow, frustrating and climate-wrecking experience.

The only working tram is not actually a DC museum piece, rather it’s a Dutch model (interior shot, left), built in 1972, which was bought by the museum at the start of this century. It takes a clunky ride through some woods running parallel to a busy road, does a quick loop, and comes back again to the little faux station with some exhibits and a souvenir shop filled with sepia-tinted books that document the trains, trams and trolleys of yore. Most heartbreaking of all are the 1930s maps showing that public transport was accessible across the region, and that it reached out to almost every suburb and settlement in and around the city.

The entire infrastructure was in place, and the city destroyed it to make more room for cars at a time when, for most commuters, the privacy of your own space and the pride of owning an automobile presumably made driving to work the more attractive option. But you’d be hard pushed nowadays to see much joy or pride in vehicle ownership in the faces of the thousands of commuters I see stuck on the Beltway every afternoon as I do the school run in the opposite direction. That run, I confess, involves a 15-minute, gas-wasting drive, but if the kids tried to come home by the currently available public transport, it would take them the best part of two hours.

In the meantime, the DC area has lost the sense of community to be gained from seeing and talking to your neighbours on public transport, and from linking one neighbourhood directly to another. The roadways are clogged with loud, dangerous, carbon dioxide-pumping cars that make walking (pedestrian deaths from speeding vehicles are as regular a local news item as drive-by shootings) or cycling either unpleasant or plain impossible.

Although DC has an underground train system, it has nothing like the reach or capacity needed to take cars off the road. But with petrol at almost four dollars a gallon, the talk in recent years about rebuilding the tram system may rise up the transport agenda. We had the technology one hundred years ago, but cheap oil apparently rendered it obsolete. While the city and its suburbs continued to grow, mass transit remained a great, but wholly forgotten, idea.

Never mind Jesus - here’s a second coming that could actually make a difference to millions of lives. America, resurrect the tram.

* To give you an illustration of what mass transit advocates in the US are up against, the Action Committee For Transit is a local body that has sought for decades to build a light rail system that would run close to my house, linking the suburbs of Silver Spring and Bethesda. The disused railway line, now a cycle trail, already exists to build the proposed Purple Line. But house owners adjacent to the line have over the years let their gardens encroach so far back on to the proposed route that they claim there’s no space to build the line and allow the cycle trail to remain. They also say they want to preserve the trail for the sake of nature. Conveniently for them, it also runs through the golf course of Columbia Country Club (induction fee – a non-refundable $70,000), where the wealthy are not keen to have quiet but pleb-carrying trains disturb their concentration at the ninth hole, and have lobbied accordingly. Wish us luck.

** Recommended further reading: The End Of Oil by Paul Roberts
The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler


No Good Boyo said...

Go for it, low-speed guy!

I loved the trams in the Soviet Union when I was a drunk student. The No.20 in Voronezh would take you out to the woods where you could drink Vietnamese rice vodka, fight a wolf, have an involuntary tryst with some lost Armenian conscripts and still get home in time for "Where is Potato?" on Channel Only.

I too was unimpressed with the DC underground, but then being Welsh I have very high expectations of subterranean facilities.

Gadjo Dilo said...

I've heard that trams nowadays can be very cool, moving with a slinky inevitability like something out of a Kraftwerk video. But maybe the ones in the Soviet Union were more like something out of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker ;-)

nathan3e said...

Here in Minneapolis we have the Lake Harriet Streetcar near our home. It is similar to the DC trolley museum but differs in that it is actually an existing remnant of a previously operational Twin Cities streetcar system. This makes it both more interesting and more depressing. As our four year old pleads for another ride my wife and I are left to wonder why the hell anyone ever thought it was a good idea to destroy something that still works well today. The best part is always the operator that stands up during the ride and denounces the folly of reducing this efficient form of transport to the nostalgia cut-out bin. This message meets with a receptive audience only because the trolly is located in the Linden Hills area of Minneapolis, where even the hyper-rich folks drive fuel efficient cars and frequent the solar-powered food co-op. And yet…there are always the daytrippers on board who look visibly upset that anyone would imply that perhaps commuting into the city from Outer Mongolia in a quasi-tank is not an excellent long term strategy.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Ah, Minneapolis, I liked that town, I met some friendly people, and you've got a nice light railway. But maybe any place that elects a WWF wrestler as governor - though you could have done worse - will have trouble convincing it's populace that excess is a bad thing!

nathan3e said...

Electing Ventura seemed to be a chance for people to give the collective finger to the Minnesota legislature. Of course, he soon revealed himself to be a pitiful half-wit. Now we have a different half-wit in charge. As anyone who has visited here knows, Minnesota is an odd place. The two major cities are run by progressive mayors while the state is run by a man who aspires to Republican National Stardom, so everything that comes out of his mouth is, at best, disingenuous. We do have light rail, but Pawlenty just vetoed the funding for the central line into St. Paul because he was pissed at their legislators for some perceived slight.

Reed said...

Since my brother and father are both transit professionals, I've been to many trolley museums here and in Europe.

My brother was also instrumental in helping Charlotte semi-restore its trolley system. They run a trolley up and down through the uptown area, which is good for both tourists and commuters, and are also building a full light rail system.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Great stuff - I'm a fan of these things too. I live in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, where we still have old trams ("streetcars"?) on rails, and what we British call "trolleybuses", which steer freely on the road but have overhead powerlines. I saw only last night that are extending the trolleybus network here :-)