Fact: there is a First Hill Streetcar stop less than a block from my apartment. If it weren't for House of Hong, I'd be able to see it from my third-floor window, could near spit on it. I used to hear it as it pulled through to pick up and drop off passengers, knew its arrival by the vibrating wheels-on-rail whirr and double-clanging bell toll that rang throughout the day, considered those hours between 1 and 5 a.m. when it didn't run as hallowed, because it was the quietest stretch of the night and I got the most uninterrupted zzz's (I'm a very light sleeper). But then it stopped, and though it was nice not to hear it for the first few days, it has now become a major inconvenience and is once again costing the City of Seattle money, as it hasn't re-opened and there don't seem to be plans to get it going anytime soon.
The Seattle Department of Transportation shut down service of the First Hill Streetcar due to an incident that could have been a major accident: car 405 (the gold one) lost power a little after 6:07 am on Wed March 1, rolled backwards at 20 MPH down a stretch of Broadway that's usually pretty busy (and which happened to be dead that early in the morning), and finally came to a stop two-and-a-half blocks later at E Yesler Terrace, in front of the community center.
SDOT's director of transit and mobility Andrew Glass Hastings told Capitol Hill Seattle Blog that it was an "electromechanical malfunction" that shut down the vehicle’s power to its operational system, engaged the system’s parking brake, and stopped the trolley operator from being able to control the vehicle.
“The operator did what he was supposed to, the vehicle operated as it was designed,” Glass Hastings said. “Unfortunately, without power, the parking brake locked the wheels, and, at that speed, on that grade, the vehicle slid two and a half blocks.”
Eight hours later, SDOT made the decision to exercise extreme caution, stopping all service and inspecting the entire fleet. Nearly two weeks later, the First Hill Streetcar still ain't running. And though engineers may have diagnosed the failure, according to the latest report from Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, SDOT's head of rail told a city council committee earlier last week that the "near-term fix—and the paperwork — to get the First Hill Streetcar line back in action could take 'weeks.'"
Now, they're figuring out if the streetcar’s Czech manufacturer should take the heat and assume the costs of lost service; it already cost the city nearly $27 million to get it going in the first place (after some delays), and while it was actively running, served around 3,000 riders a day.
Apparently, even after providing safety officials with documented proof of the identified problem—which won't happen for another few weeks—service won't resume until the state oversight committee is satisfied SDOT has “a correction” for the malfunction.
This stopped service is eating heavily into my travel-to-work fund; despite my ire about the sounds it makes, I depended on the First Hill Streetcar to escort me to The Stranger every day, it being the most direct way into Capitol Hill, which is just far enough not to be walkable (not in all this wet cold weather at least), but just close enough to mean that driving is a big waste of time and money. At least there's a shuttle bus offered during peak hours—weekdays from 5 to 9 am, and 3 to 7 pm. More info on the schedule and stops here.
UPDATE: The First Hill Streetcar resumed service this Monday March 20, beginning at 5 a.m. According to the Transportation Department, an electrical modification—to ensure the track brake continues working even in the event of a power loss—was installed and tested on the entire fleet, then reviewed and approved by safety officials. Plus, SDOT and King County Metro (KCM) have administered an operating speed limit of 7 mph and two safety stops on the section of track where the issue occurred and steep gradient exists.