Milwaukee’s Streetcar Service Begins, Here’s How The Hop Works

Nov 1, 2018

Milwaukee's multi-million dollar streetcar — called The Hop — begins operation around 12:45 Friday afternoon. Each streetcar can hold up to 150 passengers and will provide service to about a two-mile loop through the west and east sides of downtown Milwaukee. Rides are free for the first year.   

The new streetcar service, which consists of five different streetcars, is trying to merge old and new technology.

For part of the route, The Hop uses a practice of long ago streetcars — connecting to overhead electrical wires through a rooftop rod called a pantograph. Darryl Simpson, the general manager of Transdev which is the private firm hired to operate The Hop, explains how that works: "WE Energies provides us with 14,000 volts ac. We convert that down to 750 dc. That powers the overhead wires. The train collects that power for its movement."

Overhead streetcar wires on West St. Paul Avenue in Milwaukee.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

There are three electrical substations along the streetcar route that keep the juice flowing, so there's no sapping of power that’s needed for nearby street and traffic lights. 

But in a modern twist, there are no overhead wires for part of the route on the east side. Milwaukee City Engineer Jeff Polenske says that each streetcar has a bank of batteries.

READ: A Look Back At Milwaukee's Original Streetcar System

"[They] recharge themselves when the pantograph is up on the wire. And, so while we do have some segments that are off wire, it's fully operating on those batteries. It also gives us the flexibility, so if there is some kind of a complication with the power source, that we have the ability to move around with the vehicles themselves, “ Polenske said.

So much for powering The Hop. 

But how will The Hop do around today's mix of cars, trucks, bicyclists and pedestrians? There have been a few minor incidents already. Transdev's Darryl Simpson says each car will have an operator who will follow the rules of the road, unlike, for example, the New York subway system.

An operator of The Hop watches traffic ahead of her.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

"The New York City subway is underground, has its own dedicated right of way, has a full, instrumented  SCADA  system, which is just an automated signaling system. We don't. We're above ground. We use the same traffic signals — except at certain locations where we make turns, we do have a protected environment for the train," Simpson said.

More specifically, there are three intersections where The Hop has a separate, white, traffic light, that tells the operator when to turn, without having to wait for oncoming traffic. 

The small white light at the left is for the streetcar operator to follow.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Polenske says an operations center located at near 4th and Clybourn Streets will oversee the streetcars.

"Obviously, the operators themselves have control over what that vehicle is doing on the street. But they're communicating constantly with the dispatcher, who is really kind of that person that is managing where the vehicles are along the route at any one point in time, trying to maintain the headways between vehicles," he said.

The city hopes the headway (the amount of time between streetcars) is no more than 15 minutes — possibly less or potential riders may give up.  

The Hop starts service Friday, Nov. 2, on what's expected to be a dry day with temperatures in the 40's. But soon, winter will bring snow and ice. Engineer Polenske says unlike in some other cities, it'll help that both Milwaukee's streetcar and snow plows are under the Department of Public Works. He says DPW will bring out a new rotating broom when ice might form on the track.

"Within the snow operations group, we have a broom that will be operating on the route to try to keep that clear from water and snow buildup, which potentially could become ice. The vehicles themselves, the operators — depending upon the storm, not every storm is the same — they'll be monitoring the situation very closely," Polenske said.

The Hop's route is shown in blue. A future route is shown in green.
Credit Courtesy of The Hop

So will city leaders, promises Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. In fact, he says they'll monitor all facets of the streetcar operation and fix what needs to be fixed.

"People should understand, the last several weeks, the testing has occurred, and there's going to continue to be issues that arise, and we're going to work out those issues," Barrett said.

If the technology works and enough people use The Hop, a second loop will be built closer to the lakefront in the next couple of years. 

Support is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman for Innovation reporting.

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