The mayor's electric train

The Seattle Streetcar was unveiled with Greg Nickels at the controls. After some weeks of testing, the streetcar named streetcar, and not named SLUT, will begin carrying regular passengers.
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The Seattle Streetcar was unveiled with Greg Nickels at the controls. After some weeks of testing, the streetcar named streetcar, and not named SLUT, will begin carrying regular passengers.

On the list of legendary railroad events, like Driving the Golden Spike, Wrecking the Old 97, and Hopping the Trolley to the Neighborhood of Make Believe, the rollout of the Seattle Streetcar wasn't much. Perhaps a great moment will come Dec. 14, when the three immaculate new streetcars (red, orange, and purple) begin taking passengers from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center at Fairview Avenue North and Ward Street, around half of the South Lake Union neighborhood, up Westlake Avenue to Westlake Center (and down Terry on the return), with 11 stops along the way. Some 330,000 passengers are predicted to take that journey in the first year, at $1.50 a head.

Monday, Oct. 29, Passenger No. 1 and Driver No. 1 was Seattle's No. 1, Mayor Greg Nickels, who pointed with pride at the streetcar line he first proposed four years, $50.5 million, and 15 months of construction ago. Then he hopped aboard the appropriately labeled Seattle Number One, took his place at the controls, and rolled her down the tracks a hundred yards past the television cameras, reporters, and others. Then he trotted to the other end of the car and drove her back at us, waving like Sir Topham Hatt, without the hat. I suspect from his beaming grin that once little Greg had a whole Lionel setup in his basement, with an engine that puffed real smoke. Seattle Streetcars don't puff smoke (and if they start to, it's time to get off real fast) but they do have an actual bell, not the digitally recorded clanger you might expect these days. The mayor ding-ding-dinged that bell, and obviously zing zing zing went his heartstrings.

After his photo op as a train op, we boarded for our ride, breathing in deeply that wonderful new streetcar smell. (Which was actually kind of a relief. They recently deposited dirt with high manure content around the tracks, so the off-streetcar aroma was distinctly fecal.) In our first-ride group were the 11 Metro transit drivers, chosen from 53 applicants, who will actually operate the train. Or as one of them told me, "You've just seen the last non-union driver you're going to see up there." These drivers have been training in a classroom for two weeks and are eager for hands-on experience. For the next six weeks they'll be training on the real thing, and working with the streetcars' Czechoslovakian designers and engineers on a series of tests, including the "walking speed clearance test" – making sure the streetcar doesn't wipe out traffic signs and foliage along the route – and "dynamic testing," which they say is done to "verify each streetcar's ability to accelerate ... and stop." I'd start with that one.

During and after this testing period, the streetcar folks would like us to: be alert to quiet streetcars approaching; don't walk, play, or park on the tracks; and check for streetcars before opening vehicle car doors. And though they don't say it outright, they beg us to do one more thing. We must call it the Seattle Streetcar, South Lake Union Line, and not the South Lake Union Trolley. First, it's not a trolley, which doesn't have enough gravitas for a system that may eventually stretch all over the city. (If Tennessee Williams had titled his play A Trolley Named Desire, even Brando couldn't have saved it.) Second, and most important, $50.5 million is a lot to pay for a SLUT.


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