Photos and thoughts from a preview ride on the QLine

The QLine streetcar I rode. Note the colorful city-themed wrap. | via A Healthier Michigan

The QLine, Detroit’s new streetcar system, opens to the public on Friday, May 12. The streetcars have been conducting test runs for months now, and recently they’ve been offering rides to organizations that have sponsored stations. I nabbed an invitation from my employer.

Construction on the project began way back in July 2014 and involved not just laying tracks and constructing stations, but resurfacing the entire 3.3-mile stretch of Woodward Avenue.

That led to a lot of disruptions for businesses along the route and snarled traffic for years. But the results have been impressive far beyond the more pleasant driving surface. The stations are sleek and modern, with colored Pewabic tile and raised platforms for level boarding, and several areas where pedestrian crossings have resulted as a bonus from the project.

It’s also pretty cool to spot one of the streetcars heading downtown ahead of me as I make my way to work each morning. Combined with the sight of the construction activity at the new Little Caesars Arena and some of the new buildings that have added considerable density along Woodward, they add to a sense that Detroit is once again becoming a “real” and vibrant city.

So how was the ride?

Smooth and comfortable — but not exactly fast.

With 20 stations on its 3.3-mile route, and having to stop at every traffic light (signal timing in the city is abysmal), it took just under 30 minutes to travel from the southern terminus at Congress Street to the Penske Technical Center.

That lack of speed seems to be the primary criticism among the chattering classes, and it certainly was among some of the people I rode with. The A/C was also not operating, for whatever reason, which made for a hot and stuffy ride, so hopefully that doesn’t become an issue.

Expectations have ranged from horror stories about other cities’ struggles with streetcars to more cautious and tempered optimism, like this from John Gallagher at the Freep:

So, for now, the QLINE is about economic development — bringing potential customers to the many shops, restaurants and other destinations on its 3.3-mile route along Woodward from Congress to Grand Boulevard. A few people who live in Midtown may catch it to commute a mile or so downtown, and vice versa. But at this point, it doesn’t pretend to be an essential part of metro Detroit’s daily commute.

But when and if new lines are added throughout the region, either as bus rapid transit or some other mode of operation, then the fully connected network could grow into an essential part of our lives.

The QLine will also doubtless benefit from Red Wings game-day traffic, much the way People Mover ridership peaked when there were games at the Joe.

Paul Childs, the CFO of parent company M-1 Rail, said the streetcars and stations will be equipped with free public WiFi, with a mesh overlay system so users don’t lose the signal when boarding or exiting the car.

Photo via Per Verdonk

Fares will cost $1.50 (or 75 cents for seniors) and be good for three hours, meaning you could catch the QLine uptown for lunch and ride it back down for the price of a single admission. You’ll also be able to buy $3 daily, $30 monthly and $285 annual passes. A mobile app is also forthcoming.

Transfers from the SMART or DDOT bus will cost 25 cents.

Each streetcar comes equipped with four hooks for hanging bicycles.

Childs said he’d consider a successful first year of operation to be 1.8 million riders (about 5,000 a day), “very few accidents, good safety record and good customer feedback.”

Hours of operation are as follows:

  • 6 a.m.–11 p.m. Monday – Thursday
  • 6 a.m.–midnight on Fridays
  • 8 a.m.–midnight on Saturdays
  • 8 a.m.–8 p.m. on Sundays


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