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A visit to the National Capital Trolley Museum

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Just 13 miles north from my house here in Washington, DC is the National Capital Trolley Museum. Readers outside the USA may prefer tram instead of trolley but what’s in a name? It’s the vehicles that matter.

A few Sundays ago, two of our friends from Perth in Australia were in town and had expressed a wish to take a look at this museum. It had been some years since my last visit to the NCTM (I seem to remember in the company of Macfilos editor Mike), so I was quite happy to be chauffeur and tour guide for the day.

Volunteers

The museum is open Saturday and Sundays from noon to 5 pm. Regular admission is $10 per person. As with many of this type of location, it is run by volunteers. And again, as with all such attractions, they are having a very difficult time recruiting and retaining volunteers.

So much was obvious during our visit. Just three gentlemen were running the entire show that day. One was stationed in the gift shop and ticket office, one was keeping an eye on the inside of the museum, while the third volunteer drove the trolley for its 25-minute run and consequently also managed the short tour of the “Street Car Hall”.

The museum had been at another location and was moved to its current place due to the construction of the Intercounty Connector Highway. Here is an a real video of the museum’s current location. In 2003 a fire destroyed one of the car barns and more than a third of the museum’s trolleys were lost.

The museum entrance.

Our ride

As mentioned previously, the museum does have a stretch of track on which it runs its working vehicles. On our visit, the running museum piece was a Presidents’ Conference Committee streetcar from the Toronto Transit Commission. These streetcars were usually referred to simply as “PCCs”. In short, the PCCs were designed to standardise streetcars and streamline their production, thus reducing costs for the individual transit. More than 5000 of these units were built.

More information on PCCs here.

Our ride: a Toronto Transit Commission’s PCC at the National Capital Trolley Museum.

The Street Car Hall has a few units in various states of repair on view. Among them some trams from Brussels and Berlin, as well as a set from the Rheinische Verkehrsbetriebe in Germany. There is also a Capital Traction vehicle.

A “Capital Traction Company” vehicle on the left and a unit from the “Rheinische Verkehrsbetriebe” on the right

Alas, my favourite of the bunch was not running during the day of our visit: A former Blackpool Transport Services “boat tram”, No.606. This is an open-air tram shaped like a boat, of which the north-west England resort of Blackpool had and still has a few in service.

A “Boat Tram” in service “on the prom” in the north-west England seaside resort of Blackpool. Photo by David Ingham

Apparently the boat tram owned by the National Capital Trolley Museum had developed a leak in the air brake system and was in the shop for repairs. Pity!

The “boat tram” at the National Capital Trolley Museum (Photo: NCTM)
A “boat tram” ride on a previous visit (Photo: Ralf Meier)

There are a few extra tram-related exhibits at the museum. One of those is a preserved cross-section of a Washington DC conduit current-collection rail system. This system was used in cities which, generally for aesthetic reasons, did not allow overhead wiring for the tram’s current collection. Among those places were south London, New York City, Berlin and Brussels.

Current technology

Unfortunately, the volunteer was not totally up to par regarding this technology, insisting that DC was the only place it had ever been used and that this method of current collection is obsolete. Well, tell that to the good people in, among others, Dubai and Bordeaux. They seem to be quite happy with their new, in-ground current-collection system.

Dubai “wireless” tram
Bordeaux ground-contact tram in blooming health, contrary to rumours at the National Trolley Museum
The central conduit system still on display at the northern exit of the defunct Kingsway tram tunnel in London. This tunnel represented the only connection between the south London system (which used surface conduit) and the north London system which employed the more traditional overhead catenary system of power collection. The tunnel was last used By trams in 1952 but now enjoys listed status and cannot be demolished (Photo Mike Evans, Sony RX100 VI)

The museum’s entrance hall also has a nice O-scale trolley lay out. This can be activated by the visitor.

Detail of the layout.

From my experience, this museum doesn’t receive as many visitors as it should. There was only a handful of keen types walking around during our time there. That’s really a shame. It is, after all, a piece of the capital’s history and I would hate to see it disappear. So, if on another nice weekend there seems to be nothing to do, grab the kids, husbands, wives, friends or whoever and pay this place a visit. You won’t regret it.

All photographs by Ralf Meier unless otherwise noted. (iPhone X and Sony RX-100M7)

Visit Ralf’s Trainphilos website for more insight into trains and trams, ancient and modern

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17 COMMENTS

  1. Very interesting article and images, Ralf, which have taken me straight down memory lane: to the “toast rack” trams which used to run between Colwyn Bay and Llandudno on the North Welsh coast in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I have the happiest memories of travelling on these in both directions. Wind in the hair, sunshine on the face and getting wet all over when it rained!
    Thanks for the memory!

  2. An excellent article and photographs. I recall the old trolley buses that used to run in Ipswich, Suffolk when I was young. Remembered primarily for their extremely uncomfortable wooden slatted seats.

    • I had to travel to work on a trolley bus every day. The trolley poles were always coming off the wires and the conductor – yes they still had one – would dismount, pull out a long hook from the underside of the bus and fish for the errant pole. Still, these buses were the forerunner of today’s almost-there battery-powered buses. They fell out of favour largely because of the infrastructure, all those poles and wires festooning the streets. Trams, too, fell foul of the road planners in the UK and at one stage, only Blackpool retained its trams. Now they have made a comeback in many British cities. It’s a pity they were every discontinued because they would have been a major tourist attraction, if a bit creaky around the seams.

  3. A fascinating article Ralf, many thanks! The tram service around Croydon and Wimbledon in South London is relatively new and very popular.

  4. Oh, those “boat trams” at Blackpool! ..I fondly remember travelling on the Blackpool trams when I were a lad ..up to about age 11, and after that we went all the way down south to Brighton!

    I see that the blue-topped tram in your photo, Ralf, still shows the destination “PLEASURE BEACH”! ..That was at the end of Blackpool which had the eye-popping, frighten-you-out-of-your-life huge rollercoaster ride, dodgem rides, Blackpool rock (a sticky sugar stick with the words ‘Blackpool Rock’ all the way through, from one end to the other) and hundreds of penny-in-the-slot ‘attractions’, just like on the pier, but more dazzling.

    When the tram got to the end of its route, the conductor (usually) walked along the aisle between the slatted seats (which Mike B mentions above) pushing the seat-backs through their slots to face the other way, ready for the return journey; bang-bang-bang-bang-bang.

    Blackpool also had – I think still has – double-decker trams ..so twice the noise as the seat-backs were smashed back to the other direction!

    All the Blackpool trams were – and are – lit up with a zillion lightbulbs during the winter, to extend the visitor season right through the year. ‘Blackpool Illuminations’ used up each night – so I was told at some youth club when I was about fourteen or fifteen – as much electricity as the average house then used in ten years! ..And they used specially made ‘shake proof’ light bulbs, otherwise one trip on one of those ‘rattletraps’ would have broken half the filaments.

    (..Oooh, makes me want to drive straight up to Blackpool and take you some photos of the ‘Illuminations’..!)

    • Ah, Blackpool to Brighton. That’s south and left.

      I haven’t been to Blackpool for a few years, but they do have double-decker trams. Although the system is a tourist attraction, it is also a regular form of public transport. This is what Wikipedia says:

      >The Blackpool Tramway runs from Blackpool to Fleetwood on the Fylde Coast in Lancashire, England. The line dates back to 1885 and is one of the oldest electric tramways in the world. It is operated by Blackpool Transport and runs for 11 miles. It carried 5.2 million passengers in the 2018/19 financial year. Wikipedia

  5. Thanks for all the kind comments.
    Whatever one wants to call them: trams, streetcars or trolleys, it was my mode of transportation during my years as a student, all the way through Gymnasium in Germany. And I do remember the aforementioned, dreaded slatted wood seats. I also remember on occasion doing some of my homework on the trams while en route to school, because I had forgotten or was just plain too lazy to do it the day before. Of course my teachers were never fooled: the jerky ride of those old trams
    directly translated into quite jerky writing in my composition notebook.

  6. I remember my father talking about taking trolley when he was younger and said it was fun. All that was gone before I was born , seriously and hinkthe powers tone down there should be getting petitions going to have Smithsonian step up and assist.

  7. Sydney stopped using trams the year I left school 1959,
    The state government has decided to re-introduce them in the city
    but has closed the Department of Public Works, so all historic maps
    of pipes and cables under George Street have disappeared. This means the
    building is taking years longer than expected and strangely enough is more expensive.
    Who’d a thunk it?
    Philip

  8. A nice article. Trolleys still exist across the channel in Lyon although many are being replaced by streetcars. Thanks for sharing.
    Jean

  9. Interesting nugget on that slope at the end of Kingsway Mike….

    I had always thought that it was something to do with the tunnel system that our glorious leaders had developed for escape purposes, should power ever go to their collective heads to such an extent that they needed to escape.

    And all along it was merely an abandoned tramline.

    In a funny sort of way, I prefer my previous view.

    As for trams in general, we have a great system in my neck of the woods, I use it all the time.

    • The original tram tunnel ran from an entrance immediately under Waterloo Bridge. The bridge end is now a night club. Trams used to come over Westminster Bridge and turn right down the embankment and then left into the tunnel. Where was an underground tram station near Holborn. The trams emerged at the top of Kingsway into Southampton Row and there, I presume, changed from conduit to overhead in order to join the north London system.

      After the last trams in 1952 part of the tunnel, including the tram station, was used as a store depot for street furniture. I also believe (and here I think you are right) some parts of the tunnel were used as a secret emergency bunker. A big chunk of the tunnel is now taken up by the road tunnel from Waterloo bridge (surface) through to Holborn. It emerges a few hundred yards south of the tram tunnel.

      I was actually surprised to find that the tunnel infrastructure above ground is now Grade II (I think) listed. It must be one of the few places in London where you can now view the old conduit tram tracks. Sadly, it seems to be the repository for all sorts of litter and junk.

      I am envious that you have trams around Croydon. If I ever have occasion to visit Croydon I always go first to Wimbledon and then take the tram. My last such visit was to visit Reg’s wonderful Leica store and radio shop.

      • Correction, the tunnel emerges in Southampton Row because, I think, Kingsway ends at Holborn station and the road continues north as Southampton Row (which was the address of R.G.Lewis’s shop which is almost next to the entrance to the tunnel.

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