New Electric Railway
Journal – Spring
Trolleys in Memphis and Galveston
Various remedies have been proposed to stem the flight of
business and people to the suburbs. In several cities vintage or heritage
trolley operations are viewed as a useful tool to assist in the revitalization
of downtowns. Senior Editor Van Wilkins examines two of the more unusual
Of course, trolleys alone cannot prevent
deterioration and unrest in our urban cores, but they can be significant aids in
attracting visitors and revitalizing downtowns. Most have been reasonably
successful in this role, with Detroit’s effort the only real failure. Most, but
not all, have become more or less integral parts of the local transit system,
exceeding ridership projections and playing roles not possible for other modes.
What exactly is a heritage trolley operation? All
have one characteristic in common: the use of electrically propelled railcars of
designs originating before World War II. There is a perception that only
pre-World War I types qualify, but this eliminates the popular Melbourne W2 and
the PCC. Date of manufacture does not figure here. Two companies have turned out
excellent replicas within the past ten years using turn-of-the-century models,
and are prepared to fill new orders.
Memphis cars 156 and 180 meet at Court Square on the mall. Each single truck car has a different paint scheme.
Gliding along the private right-of-way along one of Galveston's palm-shaded trees is Birney 300.
Memphis car 1978 (ex-Melbourne 353) approaches the Convention Center stop.
Six cars from Porto, Portugal have been extensively refurbished.
Galveston car 503 is on trackage installed in 1995 to reach a restaurant area popular with visitors.
The Main Street Trolley, operated by the Memphis
Area Transit Authority (MATA), is one of the real success stories of heritage
operations. Conceived as a means of resuscitating a failing pedestrian mall in a
fading downtown, it has become an attraction in itself to casual visitors,
convention-goers and Memphis residents. It may also turn out to be the first
instance of a new heritage operation becoming the forerunner of modern light
As built, it stretches 2.5 miles along Main Street
from the historic Pinch district on the north to Central Station and the Civil
Rights Museum on the south. En route it passes the Pyramid Arena, the Convention
Center/Civic Center/hotels complex, Beale Street, Elvis Presley Plaza, and the
South Main Historic District About one third of the route shares the revamped
mall with pedestrians. For the remainder the cars compete with other traffic,
although at the south end there isn’t much competition as drivers seem to prefer
The terminal of the monorail to Mud Island is an
easy two-block walk from a mall station. Mud Island is a major tourist
attraction, including elaborate exhibits on the days of the riverboats, an
outdoor scale model of the Mississippi River, and the World War II bomber
The area at the north end of the line contains the
Convention Center, the Civic Center and hotels and is to all appearances busy
and prosperous. The mall itself is a center for recreational activities. As one
approaches the south end, it is apparent that there is still much work to be
done if the area is to thrive.
The entire line is double track except for a short
extension beyond the northern terminal to the maintenance facility. All
equipment is double-ended; there are no terminal loops. The maintenance facility
does include a loop allowing the cars to be reversed.
Fourteen single-truck cars had been obtained from
Porto, Portugal. With one exception, all were built at Porto between 1927 and
1940 using a Brill design of the early 1900s. The exception dates from 1907 and
may be one of the original Brill cars ex-ported to Portugal. Six single-truck
cars are now in service. Two double-truck cars were also obtained from Porto,
but to date these and the rest of the single-truck cars remain in storage.
Those in service have been completely renovated,
with extensive modifications to allow compliance with the Americans with
Disabilities Act. They are mounted on what appear to be Brill 21-E trucks or
To accommodate wheelchair users, platform floors
were raised and cuts made in frame cross members to allow a ramped aisle from
the platform into the car. A steel plate installed beneath the raised platform
floor is extended by hand to bridge the gap between the car and wayside lifts.
Each car is in a different color scheme. Each carries a single trolley pole,
making Memphis one of the few places in North America where operators must “walk
the pole around” (Yakima and McKinney Avenue in Dallas are others) when changing
As opening day approached, four of the planned six
renovated cars were ready for service. Opening ceremonies were on April 29,
1993. During the first day of operation an astonishing 7000 riders crowded
aboard the four cars—far more than expected. Ridership now averages about 2000
daily, although this varies widely depending on the number attending
conventions, the weather, the season, and the day of the week.
Initially, there was political opposition to the use
of double-truck cars as being too large. The obvious need for more capacity
during periods of peak demand overcame this objection, and Melbourne W2-class
car 353 was obtained from the Gomaco Trolley Company of Ida Grove, Iowa. The
Gomaco shop number, which it carries in Memphis, is 1978; the car had previously
been on loan to the Platte Valley Trolley at Denver.
It has proven satisfactory, although its single
center door has meant that fare collection is essentially an honor system,
supervised by the operator from his cab at the front With riders unfamiliar with
the system, the operator asks that they deposit their fares in the farebox at
the door. Riders seem conscientious in their compliance. From the author’s
observation loss of fares is probably minimal.
The W2 is a crowd-swallower, and a second one
(former Melbourne 545) has since been purchased from Gomaco. A third already the
property of MATA (Melbourne 417) is being refurbished in the Trolley’s
maintenance shop. An additional car built new by Gomaco in 1993 and carrying
builder’s number 1979 has also been purchased. It is a shortened version of a
replica of a Bay State Street Railway closed, double-truck car built by Gomaco
for the National Park Service at Lowell, Massachusetts. The single truck is from
a W2, but with an extended wheelbase. The car will enter service following
installation of air-operated doors. It and the W2 cars have been modified to
meet ADA requirements.
Even as the line opened, MATA was working on plans
for expansion. The first is the Riverfront Loop. This involves acquisition of
the east track of the Illinois Central double-track line running along the edge
of downtown close to the river. At the present time the only regular user is
Amtrak, although there is an occasional freight movement Short track connections
to the Main Street line along Auction Avenue at the north and Calhoun Avenue at
the south will form a loop. At this writing, plans call for counter-clockwise
operation, with cars running south on the former IC track and returning to the
North End Terminal via Main Street. Shuttle service in both directions on Main
Street would continue.
The new line will be a key ingredient in a
comprehensive riverfront development project that includes residential,
commercial, recreational, and tourist components. There will be seven
intermediate stations, including the Pyramid, a new Tennessee Visitors Center,
the South Main Historic District, South Bluffs and Central Station. A North End
Intermodal Terminal with parking will be created at Main and Auction. This is a
few blocks from exit ramps from I-40, making it easily accessible for visitors.
At the south end Central Station is to be developed as an intermodal terminal
for Amtrak and buses.
The IC trackage has been purchased and all federal,
state, and city funds committed. Completion of design work is expected by April,
1996, with construction beginning in July, 1996. Work is scheduled for
completion by May, 1997. MATA has advertised for qualified suppliers interested
in providing four additional refurbished Melbourne-type cars to be delivered by
The Beginnings of Light Rail
A second project involves extension of rail service
eastward from Main to the Medical Center in the vicinity of Madison and
Cleveland Avenues. Whether this will also be operated with heritage equipment or
with modern LRVs has not been decided. A specific alignment has not yet been
determined, but Madison Avenue is currently favored. The route would be tied in
with the Main Street Trolley and is visualized as the entry to the CBD of a
light rail line from the eastern sections of the city. Planning is in a
The past several years of operation in Memphis have
demonstrated ably that a well-thought-out and carefully run heritage trolley
operation can be a success. The direct service through the convention center
complex makes visitors a major component of the Main Street Trolley’s ridership,
but it has also drawn local residents into the downtown and serves as a
circulator for visitors and residents alike. It will be instructive to see how
it contributes to the re-development of the Riverfront area.
“Stop the trolleys” was the cry in Galveston by
opponents of a proposed transit facility designed to help restore and revitalize
parts of this tourist-oriented, island city of about 60,000 on the Gulf of
Mexico. What opponents were fighting was a new street railway, complete with
track and turn-of-the-century styled cars.
The protesters were not successful, and something
unique in urban transportation in the United States evolved-a diesel-electric
streetcar system. To avoid the expense and what is to some the “visual
pollution” of overhead wires, power for conventional traction motors is supplied
by an on-board engine-generator set. But “streetcar” does not conjure up the
nostalgia that “trolley” does, so despite the lack of wires, Galveston has
Variations of this power supply are in use
elsewhere. These include a propane-powered short line in Rockford, Illinois, the
Platte Valley Trolley in Denver, and the Willamette Shore Trolley at Portland,
Oregon. At Portland a towed generator is used, and a similar arrangement has
been employed with an ex-Melbourne W2 at Denver. But only in Galveston is the
service operated in an urban environment as an integral part of the city’s
Rails were laid in an irregular loop encircling
eleven blocks in the historic downtown area, a visitor destination on the
Galveston Bay side of the city. From this loop double track was built along 25th
Street across the city to the seawall on the Gulf of Mexico, about a mile
distant The street is lined with attractive, old homes and trees and provides a
pleasant ride. At the beach another large loop was built. In addition to
beaches, there are piers, shops, and other visitor-oriented attractions. A total
of 4.5 miles of track, including a spur to a maintenance facility, was laid with
heavy girder rail. Operations began in 1987. An extension enlarging the downtown
loop by about half a mile was opened in 1995. This new trackage brought service
to tourist-oriented facilities a block north of the existing loop.
Birney cars of the streetcar system that served
Galveston until 1938 had operated in the median of 25th street This was also the
route taken by some Galveston-Houston Electric Railway trains providing direct
service to the beach from Houston. Re-laying tracks in the median would have
required the sacrifice of a large number of trees and was unacceptable. Tracks
were laid in the traffic lanes next to the median as a reasonable alternative.
This means a somewhat slower operation, but speed was not an objective.
The line was built and operated by the Park Board of
Trustees of Galveston, which has greater responsibilities than its name implies.
It oversees tourist-oriented facilities for the city, including the Convention
and Visitors Bureau, the Moody Civic Center, and the beach parks. The trolley
was conceived as an additional tourist attraction and an aid in moving visitors
around the tourist areas. It was built using Federal grant funds, with the local
match coming from two local, private foundations and the State. Funding for the
1995 expansion was entirely from one of the local foundations.
As much as 90 percent of the trolley’s ridership
consists of visitors to the island. Ridership is about 110,000 a year,
consider-ably below initial projections. Over the past several years it has
dropped somewhat, perhaps as a result of the novelty wearing off. As would be
expected, most riding is during the peak season between May and September,
spread fairly evenly through the week. For the rest of the year riding is much
heavier on weekends.
Two routes can be operated. One is the counter-clockwise
Downtown Loop. The other runs along 25th Street, making use of the loop through
downtown and the clockwise loop at the seawall. Depending on demand, both can be
operated at the same time, or the route 10 using only the Downtown Loop can be
eliminated. During the peak season two cars operate between downtown and the
seawall and one in the downtown area. For special occasions all four cars are
Responsibility for the trolley was turned over to
Island Transit, the local bus system, on September 1, 1995, and the trolley now
runs as an integral part of the system. Owned by the City of Galveston, Island
Transit is operated by Brazos Transit System, headquartered at Bryan, Texas.
Brazos also provides rural bus services in 14 East Texas counties and contracts
for commuter bus service into Houston.
The trolleys became part of Island Transit as a
result of action by the Texas Legislature. The Park Board operates parking
facilities for the beaches. Some trolley operating support had come from the
Federal government, but the trolley and other activities were also subsidized in
part by parking profits. The Legislature prohibited this, and to keep the
trolleys in operation, they were transferred to Island Transit Under the Park
Board, the fare had been $1.00, with discounts for seniors and children. Hours
of operation were based on visitor demand, with greatly shortened hours during
the off season. A single car sufficed at these times. Today, in common with the
buses, fare is 60 cents for adults and 30 cents for seniors and children. Hours
of operation are the same as for the buses—6AM to 8PM.
The four cars used in the service are perhaps the
most unusual aspect of the line. The cars were built by Miner Railcar of New
Castle, Pennsylvania. The company has since changed hands and is now Kasgro Rail
Corporation. The firm manufactures a number of rail products, including service
equipment for rapid transit lines. The complete plans for the Galveston cars
were included in the transfer of ownership. According to Kasgro president Gabe
Kassab, who was Miner’s project manager for the Galveston order, the company is
prepared to build similar cars, either electric or diesel-electric, for other
In overall appearance, the cars are excellent
replicas of the 1903 Brills used on the Council Crest line at Portland, Oregon.
There is one window more per side than the Council Crest cars, but otherwise
they follow the design closely. The bodies, including sides and roofs, are built
of steel. The interior trim and seats are of wood and present an authentic
appearance. There are seats for 40, and a maximum of 40 standing passengers can
also be accommodated.
The propulsion system was provided by Maverick
Technical Systems of Longview, Texas. It includes a Caterpillar 3208 diesel
engine providing 192 hp at 1800 rpm. (This is somewhat below the rating of the
engine in a typical 40-foot transit bus.) The engine drives a generator capable
of furnishing 240 to 480 volts AC and 300 to 600 volts DC for four 40-hp DC
Reliance Electric, series-wound traction motors and AC and DC auxiliary
equipment. The cars ride on conventional Bettendorf-design freight car trucks.
Motors are carried in special mountings at each end of each truck. Each motor
drives one axle through gearing designed to provide an operating speed of 25
mph, although the cars are capable of somewhat higher speeds.
Each car weighs 63,000 pounds. This is 8000 pounds
heavier than the Gomaco replicas of the same cars now operating in Portland. The
more extensive use of steel and the weight of the engine-generator set probably
accounts for the difference. Cost of each car in 1987 was $600,000. A version
omitting the engine-generator set and operating from overhead wire would have
been about $15,000 less. Today the cost would be considerably higher because of
Galveston is economically depressed, and the trolley
is a unique asset in attracting visitors. Like other transit facilities, it
operates at a loss, and how it fares in the future depends on the success of the
city as a destination for tourists and on the future of operating subsidies from
Figure 1: Memphis Roster
Car 1978 is
ex-M&MTB 353. Cars 1978 and 545 rebuilt by Gomaco. Car 417 being refurbished by
MA TA; completion expected May t 1996. Roster information from Steve Morgan,
Billy Russell of MATA, and John Kallin of Gomaco.
Senior Contributing Editor
is also a regular contributor to
Journal, Bus World
and other transportation-oriented publications