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DART Has Something Many Other Cities Want: A Hybrid Streetcar

Bill Zeeble
Dallas streetcar departs from the stop across from Union Station after the pantograph has detached from live wires overhead. Batteries charged, the car's rolling to Oak Cliff, no wires attached.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit is running the country’s first hybrid streetcar without the signature overhead cable from start-to-finish. Batteries power the car over the Houston Viaduct, where the bridge’s historic designation prohibits visible electric cables. Other cities want what Dallas has.

The Dallas Streetcar starts just outside Union Station, rolls across the Houston Street Viaduct over the Trinity River, and on to Oak Cliff.

Unlike almost every street car in the world – from San Francisco to Strasbourg, France - this one lacks a pole constantly connected to a live wire overhead.

“That bridge is approximately a mile long," says Mark Ball, a DART spokesperson. “And obviously we could not build a street car system with overhead wire on a historic structure. So we had to come up with a way to self-propel or push something across that bridge.”

Ball says streetcar builder Brookville of Pennsylvania came up with a hybrid power plan.

At Union Station, as passengers board, the car gets charged. There’s a folding pantograph on top --  think the arms of a mechanical praying mantis – and they unfold toward the wires above.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
At its Union Station stop, the Dallas streetcar charges two batteries under the floor. The pantograph will detach from the overhead wire when the car's ready to roll.

“See it started right there?” Ball explains, after hearing the click. “It just went up right now. Now it’s charging. When he takes off, he’ll lower it,” Ball says of the car’s operator.

With the prey of electricity in hand, those mechanical arms send the power down to two batteries beneath the car. After a few minutes charge, off it goes over the bridge - no wires attached.

NPR recently reported on anotherstreetcar - in Guangzhou, China - that recharges overhead supercapacitors in 20 seconds at stops. A line in Bordeaux, France, powered underground, also shows no visible wires. Dallas still boasts the first hybrid streetcar in the U.S.

It's free for riders and has been running since April, and it's convenient for Symatrus Roland, a teacher heading to her doctor at Methodist Hospital. That’s the last stop on the 1.6-mile line. 

“Well, it runs like every 30 minutes. I have to be at my doctor right now at 3:30 but I don’t have to rush because I’m already on the train and on my way,” Roland says.

She has noticed the power-grabbing arms that seem to disappear.

“On my way walking, I just saw that. And I was wondering what that was about. So, kudos to DART,” Roland says.  

Credit Bill Zeeble
Symatrus Roland's a happy DART user pleased to discover the free streetcar, with its direct route to her destination - Methodist Hospital.

Art Guzzetti echoes the sentiment. He’s vice president for policy with the American Public Transportation Association, based in Washington, D.C. Guzzetti was in Dallas recently at an international rail conference.

“People have been talking about it but haven’t been able to figure it out,” Guzzetti says. “Washington, D.C., for example. We want the streetcar but don’t want overhead wires. And here I come out to Dallas and there it is, right here, in front of the Union Station.”

Guzzetti calls this a pretty big deal.

“The wires sometimes interfere with the city," he says. "They interfere with the vistas. They interfere with historic preservation issues. They’re not a problem in some places but in some certain parts of the city, you don’t want wires overhead.”

Detroit wants a hybrid streetcar. So do other cities. Mark Ball says $26 million in TIGER dollars helped. That’s federal funding from a pool called Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery. The Bishop Arts District and the convention center are future stops for the Dallas Streetcar -- and its praying mantis arms. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.