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Vintage Memphis

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The New Electric Railway Journal – Winter 1993

Vintage Memphis

Don Hutchinson

The latest city to jump on the vintage trolley bandwagon is Memphis, home of Beale Street and the Blues. Correspondent Don Hutchinson files this report on a new Main Street and some old technology.

Minus its trucks, Melbourne 417 awaits reconstruction at MATA’s garage facility.


In the early 1970s, the City of Memphis converted portions of Main Street in the downtown area into the Mid-America pedestrian mall, hoping that the change might solve the problems of a declining central area. The ensuing development was to be the largest mall of its land in the United States.

Fifteen years later, the pavement had deteriorated due to an unstable sub-base, and the entire mall needed a facelift. It had never been as successful as planned because of the lack of parking and the public perception that it was too long to walk for convenient shopping or dining.

Following a number of studies and public hearings, it was decided that a trolley line would enhance the mall by providing transportation for trips too far for walking but too short for driving. Such an electric trolley system, it was believed, could co-exist with pedestrians on the mall with little conflict.

Construction began in May 1991; total cost will be $33 million, a portion of which will be paid by federal funds. Concurrent plans call for the erection of a clock tower and a Victorian-style Central Station in Civic Center Plaza, and adding shade trees and more than fifty fountains shooting water into the air along the mall. Funding is also being sought for renovation of the classic railway station at which Amtrak trains call into an intermodal facility.

The Route

The first phase of the trolley line, which will be operated by the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA, the local bus carrier), is along Main Street and the Mid-America Mall between Auction and Calhoun Streets. The railway will be double-tracked for the length of this segment, stubbing into single tracks at either end, where cars can reverse direction. The single track will continue northward on Main from Auction to Mill, where the maintenance facility is located. Tracks in the Mall itself will be in the center of the street; away from the Mall they will be near the curb.

The Riverfront Extension

A later extension of about the same length is planned to extend along the Mississippi river front, using in part the present Illinois Central tracks. The extension would bring the total mileage to 4.9, forming a loop north and south through the central business district, linking the Pyramid, Mud Island, and the Memphis Cook Convention Center with downtown hotels and businesses, the Civic Center, Historic Beale Street, the National Civil Rights Museum and Central Station.

The Fleet

Ten former Oporto, Portugal double-end Brill cars are presently at the maintenance facility across the street from MATA’s main garage; eight are single-truck, two double-truck (one of the latter was purchased for spare parts). The cars are numbered 187, 204, 156, 164, 194, 180, 157, 266, 268, and 197, built by Brill in Philadelphia in the ‘Teens. All are similar to cars now in service in Detroit, Yakima, and Dallas. Work is proceeding at present on the first two units, 187 and 204, by a subcontractor; four more are to follow, with the remaining units to be rehabbed as funds permit. During renovation, each car will be totally disassembled, reworked with replacement parts where necessary and put back together again. During the rehab process, front platforms will have to be extended to provide wheelchair accessibility. Electrical gear is being rebuilt by another contractor. One car is close to completion as these words are written in September, and three more will be needed for the planned January 1, 1993 inauguration of service. In addition, two Melbourne cars are on MATA property minus their trucks.

By late summer, off-mall construction was nearly complete except for the stringing of trolley wire, though a few hangers and cross spans were in place. Some track is being laid in a concrete trench and most trackwork is complete; two separate firms were responsible for tracklaying. Construction is also proceeding quickly on the maintenance facility at Main and Mill.

The Outlook

The Memphis Downtown Trolley is shaping up to be a first-class project. It will be primarily tourist-oriented, but also serve as a functional transit system, serving an attractively renovated Mail. The many traffic generators on the line should provide the patronage that will be necessary for the service to be a success.

Future Prospects

MATA notes that the Riverfront extension is scheduled for construction in Fiscal Year 1994, which begins on July 1, 1993. Phase III, an extension that runs eastward to the Medical Center Complex, is also scheduled for construction in FY94. Phases IV–VII are proposed for each fiscal year through FY98, which will extend the rail system to the Fairgrounds, Fast Memphis, Germantown and Collierville, respectively. All of these extensions are pending the availability of federal funds.

The author would like to thank Maury Miles Memphis Area Transit Authority's Senior Grants and Contract Administrator, for help in the preparation of this article.

Don Hutchinson, a native of Missouri, is a Birmingham-based free-lance writer and transit activist. This is his first piece for The New Electric Railway Journal.


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