MATA Understands Significance of Trolleys, but Says Safety Comes First

Posted on July 1, 2014

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By Crystal Welch

trolley1When the Memphis Area Transit Authority announced a temporary suspension of the MATA Trolley lines, some local residents immediately decried the suspension citing the historical significance and tourism related charm of the streetcars. Others also reminded each other of the early 1990’s multi-million dollar restorative project the city completed to bring the system to the three-rail routes we know today. The last of the three lines, the Madison Avenue line, was opened as recently as 2004 at a cost of $56 million.

What isn’t being as readily discussed is the safety of the trolleys. The cars installed during the 1990’s overhaul have been in use since that time. Most of the vehicles in use prior to this suspension were built during the 20th century, and were imported from other countries.

The closing of the lines follows an independent review done by the American Public Transportation Association, who recommended a complete overhaul or replacement of the vehicles. The study was done at the request of MATA, and follows a set of accidents involving more than one vehicle – a trolley fire on the Madison Avenue line in April and the loss of a streetcar after it burst into flames in winter 2013.

“Our first and primary responsibility is public safety,” said Tom Fox, MATA’s interim president and general manager. “The review of the trolley system makes it clear that an overhaul or replacement of the current vehicles is inevitable, and there is no reason to delay.”

While the study is being conducted to determine the next steps for overhauling the trolleys and restoring service as soon as possible, MATA has introduced energy efficient, hybrid buses for the Riverfront Loop and Main Street lines. Its regular buses will continue to service the Madison Avenue line. The trolley suspension is expected to last three to six months. Options include replacing all of the vehicles through a major overhaul or to replace them with a more modern style vehicle. MATA says that increased ridership over the years has made it difficult to perform any major overhauls before now.

“I am not sure that the trolley system is likely to be completely abandoned,” said Mia Madison, a geospatial analyst with the City of Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development. “I believe that MATA is testing the electric buses while they determine if the trolleys will need upgrades. The electric bus is one that has been discussed for a long time and if MATA can reduce costs to improve services, I say try it.”

trolleygreenThe MATA trolley system is often named as one of Memphis’ top tourist attractions. Travel websites highlighting the system point out the intricately designed vintage streetcars that take visitors and locals alike through the streets of downtown Memphis allowing for a temporary sense of being taken back in time. The trolley lines take riders past historic downtown destinations, such as Beale Street, the South Main Arts District and the Mississippi River.

Local attractions that incorporated the trolleys, such as the South Main Trolley Night understand the closure.
“We [still] will have a full night of music, entertainment and galleries to enjoy —might even have a trolley on hand for photo ops,” the group stated. “This is just a service issue.”

The original Memphis streetcar network closed operation on June 15, 1947. Between 1876-1895, several rail companies operated street cars in Memphis. For the first part of the 20th century, the Memphis Railway Co. operated the streetcars with nearly 300 open, semi-convertible, and closed cars in its fleet. The original miles of track took residents to such destinations as the Memphis Zoo, Overton Park and the Fairgrounds. The system became publicly owned in the early 1960s when MATA took over.

Fox understands that the trolleys have historical significance to the downtown Memphis scene, but says that the safety of the system takes precedence at this time.


Crystal Welch is a Journalism & Public Relations student at The University of Memphis. Check out her blog here.

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IMAGE 1:

Richard Andrews Photo. Collection of Phil Gosney.
MSR car 616 is on route “2 Fairgrounds” westbound on Madison Ave., passing (General Nathan Bedford) Forrest Park. Baptist Hospital is located directly behind the car. 1947. In 2003 tracks were completed down Madison Ave. and “new” trolleys occupy this scene again.

Caption comes from the source website. http://condrenrails.com/MRP/Memphis-Street-Railway/Memphis-Street-Cars.htm. There are many other vintage photos there.

IMAGE 2:

Modern day Madison Ave line

IMAGE 3:

New hybrid bus. Photo Credit: Alex Flores

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