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5 Star Stories: Memphis’ beloved vintage trolley cars a worthy labor of love

Published: Jan. 11, 2022 at 10:28 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - They are one of the most popular ways to get around Memphis for locals and visitors, alike.

Perhaps it’s the clickety-clack of the track or the vintage look and feel that so many love.

The unmistakable sound of the dinging bell and rolling wheels lets you know the trolley is coming and you’re in for a fun ride. You might even learn a little about the city of Memphis in the process, thanks to the knowledgeable trolley drivers who tend to point out the highlights along their routes.

According to Gary Rosenfeld, Memphis Area Transit Authority’s chief executive officer, the Memphis Railway Company as it was called, operated a wide range of trolley services in the community for many years. Electric streetcars or trolleys first appeared in Memphis in 1895. By 1910, there were more than 300 of them traversing nearly 80 miles of track. But by 1947, following the post-World War II booms of the economy, suburbs, and babies, trolleys were phased out.

“And then as the city grew and as the availability of buses became a little bit easier to attain, then they switched over the bus fleets like so many different cities had done,” described Rosenfeld.

By 1993, downtown Memphis was in the middle of another revival and MATA relaunched the trolley service with four restored vintage cars on the Main Street Mall and they were an instant hit!

Rosenfeld said that holds true to this day.

“The Main Street Trolley is one of the best performing lines in the system,” he said. “About 60 to 70% local participation on the trolleys and the other is tourism. So, we’re helping with the tourism in the downtown area. We like to be part of that. But the other 60 to 70% of our ridership is using it to get around the downtown area. And that’s getting to work, getting to play, getting to take care of what they need to do.”

Rosenfeld also believes the vintage trolleys help make Memphis Memphis, giving the community “a sense of identity” while also being “an economic driver.”

While the vintage rides are popular, they’re definitely a labor of love with emphasis on labor and a costly endeavor.

According to Rosenfeld, some of the cars “could be as old as 100 years old and coming up with parts on those things often requires us to manufacture them ourselves when compared to being able to buy them on the street.”

Rosenfeld said when MATA reopened the Main Street Track a couple of years ago, it cost roughly $1 million each for restoration because each one has to be stripped down practically to the wheels and rebuilt in order to provide “at least 30 years of service.”

And then, just finding vintage trolleys and the vendors to work on them often requires a nationwide search. The most recent vintage trolleys came from Charlotte, North Carolina after that city switched over to a 100% modern streetcar system.

“We bought these three cars from them and we ‘ll go through the refurbishment process as soon as we can find a vendor that is viable and within our budget,” Rosenfeld said.

Rosenfeld added that those vendors are also oftentimes backlogged with work at certain times of the year, which adds to MATA’s time frame for getting new cars onto the tracks.

Right now, the hunt is for three more vintage trolleys for the Riverfront line.

“And we’re working on the infrastructure on both Madison and the Riverfront at the same time, so once we get the cars, we’ll be able to start operating and we won’t have to wait for the infrastructure improvements to be completed at the same time,” Rosenfeld explained.

But he said despite all the work involved in solving that scheduling and logistical puzzle, the work to get and keep the trolleys running in Memphis is worth the time and effort.

“Communities that invest heavily in public transportation have a tendency to have better economic outcomes for all of its residents,” Rosenfeld said. “Just about any social issue can be positively impacted by having a good sound transportation system. It certainly is a community love project and the downtown community has loved the trolleys for a long, long time.”

If Rosenfeld had a magic wand and unlimited funds, he said MATA would extend the Madison line out to the fairgrounds and airport. He also said a modern streetcar line from downtown to the airport would be an economic driver for the community.

But for now, he’s focused on getting the heritage trolley system completely operational and testing the potential for modern streets cars on the Madison line.

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