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.