Charlotte Trolley Collision

Charlotte replica streetcar No. 91, the one involved in the July 19 accident, when new in 2005. These streetcars operated briefly on a demonstration line before being stored until the new downtown line opened recently. Rick Laubscher photo.

Charlotte replica streetcar No. 91, the one involved in the July 19 accident, when new in 2005. These streetcars operated briefly on a demonstration line before being stored until the new downtown line opened recently. Rick Laubscher photo.

There was a collision July 19 on the new streetcar line in Downtown Charlotte, which just opened. Here is a must-see video taken from the streetcar’s security camera, published by the Charlotte Observer as part of an article on the investigation.  (By the way, Muni’s vintage streetcars now have these cameras, too.)

The Observer story quotes transit agency officials in Charlotte as saying the operator neglected to switch the controls from one end of the car to the other at the terminal. (The cars can be operated from both ends.)  They said he somehow released the brake on the car while the controls were still activated for the opposite end.  The transit agency said that’s why the so-called emergency brake, electromechanical track brakes, wouldn’t activate, nor would the regular brakes.

However, these Charlotte replica streetcars, built by Gomaco Trolley Company and modeled on the double-truck Birney design from the 1920s, also include a third braking system, manually applied brakes not dependent on electricity or control location, activated by the large wheel visible to the operator’s right in the video.  The agency says central control told him over the radio to activate that handbrake (we see the operator talking on his microphone as the video begins), but that the operator never did that.  And indeed, we can see in the video that he never touches the handbrake wheel either before or after the streetcar clips an SUV from behind.  (The car finally stopped when it ran out of downhill.)

The Charlotte handbrake appears very similar to the ones on the Milan and Melbourne cars do Muni. Muni trains its streetcar operators to stop streetcars from speeds of 25 mph with the handbrake alone. They also receive extensive training in all the systems of the historic cars. (The handbrake is a reliable, proven, mechanical mechanism. It remains a mystery why the Charlotte operator didn’t use it, unless he was not trained to do so.)

What’s also unexplained to this point, at least in public, is how it could be possible for an operator to release the brake on a streetcar, whether accidentally or on purpose, before the controls at that end of the car have been fully activated.  If that’s what actually happened, it’s a stunning design flaw.  (To be clear, Muni does not have any replica streetcars or streetcars that allow this kind of thing to happen.)

Fortunately, no one was hurt in the Charlotte accident.  Yet we’re seeing rantings from some folks there that one accident, in which no one was hurt, and whose cause is under investigation, is cause to shut the whole system down.  But many of these ranters were clearly opposed to the new streetcar line on other grounds,  One commenter on the video page linked above wrote that on the new streetcar route,

“you can see a whole lot of ‘ghetto’ and ‘little Mexico’ . None of our rail systems do anything for the middle or upper-class residents that payed [sic] for them (unwillingly) with our taxes.”

(U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, a former mayor of Charlotte, calls opinions like this racist and noted that it was precisely to reach underserved communities that he championed the streetcar as mayor.)

In Atlanta, a new streetcar line using modern streetcars debuted earlier this year and drew terrified comments in various forums from automobile drivers about how dangerous the streetcars were, without saying why.

As kids, native San Franciscans used to be taught to respect the streetcars because of their size but not to be afraid because, unlike a bus or automobile, they followed an exact course — where the rails are.

Any public transit vehicle, like any vehicle on a roadway, will eventually become involved in accidents. You need strong public policy, like the Safer Market Street plan, supported by Market Street Railway, the Bicycle Coalition, and WalkSF, among other advocacy groups, that would have prevented accidents like this one on Market Street the other day. You also need a transit agency that either already deeply understands rail transit, as Muni does, or makes sure it hires people who do.

Most of all, when new streetcar lines start up, you need extensive public education campaigns to teach drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians that steel wheels on steel rails simply cannot stop as fast as rubber tires on asphalt, and that trying to cut off a streetcar in traffic as though it was an automobile isn’t a smart idea — no matter how capable and well trained the streetcar operator is.


Comments: 5

  1. The Gold Line Foothill Extension and our LA Metro system have well-developed “outreach” programs to “put the word in the streets” about railway transit and how to be safe around trains. Metro takes 2 or 3 months of testing to make sure any hidden flaws in their systems reveal themselves, and to insure that the operators know the lines like they know their own back yards.
    I remember when the Houston light rail line opened in 2004, there seemed to be a “wreck of the week”, as Texans took awhile to realize that their big pickup trucks and SUVs were no match for a 50 ton railway car.

  2. I’ll note that it is possible to fail to change ends properly on various Muni streetcars, however, if you release the brakes accidentally, you can reapply them wherever you released them. And the manual handbrakes work regardless of what end is active.

    And the training on historic streetcars is more than 32 hours…lots more than 32 hours (in fact the instructor part is a week longer than Charlotte’s entire dual mode rail training program)…the complete program including line training (working with an experienced operator) is nearly twice as long…and a significant part of that time is learning the equipment well enough to react properly to defects and situations plus roleplaying/practicing failure scenarios.

  3. I first heard of the accident on ABC Evening news and was shocked by how badly the story was reported. The reporter concentrated on the crash but not on how it occurred and suggested that streetcars were unsafe on city streets. After the broadcast I sent an email berating ABC News for the coverage of the accident.

  4. Good Morning over there,
    from Germany.
    As I follow the discussion, I simply can’t stop shaking my head. For me, it is unbelieveable that it’s possible to move a streetcar (from which end ever) without having the possibility to stop it! I’m a motorman for almost twenty years, even on vintage streetcars (european/german style) and I don’t know a model where you can even move the car without having set the controls properly.
    There are differences between the types, of course, but one is common: All mechanical and electric controls are interlocked so an accident like the one in Charlotte is impossible for me to imagine.
    To make it simple: If you don’t have all your “tools” on the end of the car from where you’re about to start, and if they are not in the proper position, you won’t make it.
    Another question:
    Driver training in Germany ( 4 months) involves digging deep into the electrical and mechanical ground of every model you are trained on, even on modern cars. If you get into trouble, it’s YOU first, who is in place to get things running again. THEN, when everything is green again, THEN report to your dispatcher what has happened. Only if you can soon estimate that you need help from “outside” because the failure involves safety devices like door locks or brakes, the other way is common. And even then your dispatcher may order you, that you can proceed “with caution” by yourself, without passengers of course, to the next possible carhouse or spur to get the car out of the way.
    As we say: If the wheels are turning and the car is stoppable, keep it running.
    I had a door-problem this week; the door was closed but not locked, as my onboard-computer told me. And what did I? I used the override-switch for that door and kept on going to the next stop. There I made a complete restart of the computersystem, and after resetting the mentioned override-switch, everything was running fine again. Delay: 1 Minute, no reason to bother anybody from central control. Of course- If I hadn’t get the problem fixed that way, I had to drop my pants and call central control for further advice. 😉

    Have a nice day, and I can’t wait to get back to SF… 🙂

  5. As the passenger in that SUV, I do have injuries and a screwed up back. So please, fact check before publishing your articles.

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