The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor is a famous example of early transit-oriented development because of the Orange Line, but the area was home to an innovative transit experiment long before Metro. From 1936 through 1939, a streetcar-bus hybrid provided service from the City of Fairfax to Rosslyn and into DC.

Video by Prelinger Archives on

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, a number of companies operated interurban electric streetcar service in Arlington and Fairfax Counties, which were still mainly rural. By 1930, these lines had merged into two companies: the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad and the Washington-Virginia Railway. Although the W&OD lasted longer and is better known, the W-V Railway had an interesting history as well.

These two companies provided competing service along similar routes, which put them at a particular disadvantage in the 1920s as increasing automobile ownership led to reduced streetcar ridership nationwide. In 1927, the Washington-Virginia Railway went bankrupt and its tracks and cars were sold at auction.

At the time of its bankruptcy, the Washington-Virginia provided service in two separate divisions. The Mount Vernon division consisted of a line south from a terminal in DC at 12th and D Streets NW, across the Potomac at the current site of the 14th Street Bridge, to Alexandria and Mount Vernon. The Falls Church division provided service along several lines in northern Arlington County, but in particular from Fairfax City to Rosslyn along a private right-of-way that eventually became Fairfax Drive and Clarendon Boulevard.

The two divisions were joined at a station called Arlington Junction, located roughly where the approach ramps to the George Mason bridge are today.

The solid line is the route owned by the A&F and the dashed line is the route it followed into DC before service into DC was abandoned, Map by the author, using a background map from OpenStreetMap.

The community rallied to keep a to-be-abandoned line in service

At the 1927 auction, the two divisions went to separate groups of Philadelphia investors. The owners of the Mount Vernon division continued to operate it, but the new owners of the Falls Church division announced that they intended to end service and sell the line for scrap. However, a number of citizens and community groups from along the route quickly organized a new company, the Arlington & Fairfax Railway, and put up their own money to purchase the Falls Church division.

Initially, the Arlington & Fairfax operated streetcars to Arlington Junction and and then on Mount Vernon division tracks over the bridge to the terminal at 12th and D. However, in January 1932, the terminal was demolished for the construction of Federal Triangle, and Arlington & Fairfax passengers riding to DC began to have to transfer to buses at Arlington Junction. Since it was simpler and faster for passengers to take trains to Rosslyn and transfer to buses across the Key Bridge, the Arlington & Fairfax abandoned its tracks to Arlington Junction by July.

Image by Prelinger Archives used with permission.

Although it no longer had a one-seat ride into the District, the Arlington & Fairfax managed to continue operating for several more years, despite making a loss for its local backers. The line, which advertised itself as “community owned and community operated” continued a regular schedule but had to sell off some of its equipment and defer maintenance on the rest. By spring 1936, the line was near the breaking point, as neither the tracks nor the streetcars had been properly maintained in years.

Later, a Detroit auto maker got into the mix

In 1936, the Arlington & Fairfax Railway was rescued by an unexpected buyer: an automotive company from Detroit. At the start of the 1930's, several bus manufacturers were trying to break into the streetcar market with buses that could drive on streetcar and rail tracks, lowering flanged guidewheels to to provide steering while driving on tracks.

Image by Prelinger Archives used with permission.

The hope was that these vehicles would be able to take advantage of the private rights-of-way that many suburban streetcars used while also being able to operate on downtown streets without tracks. The first such system used three dual-mode bus-streetcars to provide service between New Brunswick and Trenton, New Jersey in 1934.

One of the companies that developed these dual-mode bus-streetcars was the Evans Products Corporation of Detroit, Michigan. Their “Evans Auto-Railers” are described in some detail here, and can be seen in a Chevrolet promotional newsreel here. Evans Products was apparently interested in purchasing a defunct interurban streetcar line in the DC area to convert to Auto-Railer operation for promotional purposes.

In June 1935, the company displayed an Auto-Railer demonstrator in Washington and attempted to purchase part or all of the Washington, Baltimore, & Annapolis Electric Railway, which had just gone bankrupt and been sold at auction. It failed to purchase the railway, though, and it is unclear what the service plans were: since the WB&A had a private right-of-way from Baltimore and Annapolis to Seat Pleasant on the District border, but operated on Capital Transit—the District's sole streetcar company— streetcar tracks from Seat Pleasant to its downtown terminal, it is likely that the plan was to use Auto-Railers to replace the Capital Transit section of the route with bus service.

In any case, in June 1936, Evans Products reached an agreement with the Arlington & Fairfax. In exchange for 51% of the streetcar line's stock, the auto manufacturer would spend $30,000 to rehabilitate the line's track and buildings and lend Evans Auto-Railers without charge to replace the line's streetcars.

It's unclear whether Evans ever ran any service into DC

In December 1936 and January 1937, the Arlington & Fairfax phased in Auto-Railers to replace all of their streetcars. A month later, the company was re-chartered as the “Arlington & Fairfax Auto Railway” and announced plans to operate twenty hours a day, providing service into the District across the Key Bridge.

However, the District's Public Utilities Commission did not authorize service into the District until November 1938. It's unclear whether through service into the District was ever provided, as Capital Transit obtained an injunction two months later, prohibiting service across the Key Bridge because the merger agreement between the District's two major streetcar companies that had formed Capital Transit had guaranteed the company a monopoly on service in the District of Columbia.

Capital Transit's injunction was never overturned, and in September 1939, the Arlington & Fairfax Auto Railway ended service. Evans Products sold the Auto-Railers that had operated on the line as maintenance vehicles to a number of railroads around the country, including the Washington & Old Dominion, which provided interurban streetcar service in Northern Virginia until 1968.

This kind of technology isn't totally dead

Although a number of companies in the US attempted to operate road-rail vehicles for passenger transport in the 1930s, these services were all abandoned or replaced by buses within a decade. Road-rail vehicles are still used for track and right-of-way maintenance by railroads today, though.

More recently, in the 1980s, there were attempts to build guided busways that use guide wheels or electronic guidance systems to allow buses to navigate part of their routes without steering. These systems generally require specially constructed guideways for the guided part of their routes, so they can't make use of already-existing rail or streetcar tracks, as the Evans Auto-Railers could. However, they are often used when tunnels or narrow rights-of-way would make it difficult to provide wide enough lanes for a conventionally-steered buses.

Thumbnail: Image by Prelinger Archives used with permission.

DW Rowlands is an adjunct chemistry professor and Prince George’s County native, currently living in College Park. More of their writing on transportation-related and other topics can be found on their website.  They also write on DC transportation and demographic issues for the DC Policy Center, where they are a Fellow. In their spare time, they volunteer for Prince George’s Advocates for Community-Based Transit. However, the views expressed here are their own.