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VOL. 133 | NO. 78 | Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Trolley Restoration Meant Rebuilding the System

By Bill Dries

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Nearly four years after two trolleys caught fire in the span of six months in late 2013, Memphis Area Transit Authority officials announced that three restored trolley cars would go into service on April 30.

Memphis Area Transit Authority CEO Gary Rosenfeld, left, and COO Alvin Pearson announced Monday that the trolleys will return to Main Street April 30 after a nearly four-year absence. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

MATA stopped all trolley service on all three lines – Main, Riverfront and Madison – following two separate fires on trolleys while they were carrying passengers. No one was injured in either fire. But the fire exposed a system of little to no maintenance, training and record keeping.

MATA’s review also showed that old trolleys restored in the early 1990s for the debut of the trolley system had reached the end of their use.

“We took the approach that everything needed to be reviewed,” said MATA CEO Gary Rosenfeld. “Nothing could be left untouched or unchecked. We had the basics. But we also understood that the basics of the past were not enough to keep us in good graces with our regulator partners for the future and for the public.”

The trolley cars, some a century old, are refurbished for another 25 years of service with the system overhaul and restart.

“Basically we reverse engineered trolley cars that in some cases are 100 years old,” Rosenfeld said. “So identifying how they were put together back then compared to how they needed to be put together today in order to meet those safety standards was what the effort was.”

In that time, safety standards have changed as well and so has technology – not all of it about the trolleys even though they run much quieter.

“The trolleys are much quieter than they used to be,” he said. “That’s a good thing. But at the same time people’s habits have changed. We now have way more people running around with earbuds in their ears and their attention isn’t necessarily focused on the trolley coming up behind them or the trolley in front of them.”

When service stopped in the summer of 2014, the redevelopment of South Main was still on the drawing board. But the area now bustles with activity with Central Station the most noticeable indication of work underway as well as apartments under construction in all directions in the area.

The trolley had an estimated 1.5 million riders a year in 2014 and half of them were visitors to the city, which Rosenfeld says makes the trolley restoration worth undertaking.

He estimated complete restoration of the trolleys and the purchase of some new vintage trolley cars along with creating a new infrastructure for the operation and care of the trolleys cost “in the neighborhood” of $10 million.

“It’s been worth the wait,” Rosenfeld said. “We spent a lot of time and effort trying to figure out what happened to the trolleys. Then we spent a lot of money figuring out what can we do to get them back on line and then we spent the money to actually do it.”

That’s about $6 million on car refurbishment and another $4 million on engineering and development.

“There’s been approximately 2,500 pages of documentation submitted to regulators, including all new policies, procedures and operating rules,” Rosenfeld said. “We’ve established a spare parts inventory including new trucks, traction motors, pantograph controllers, air compressors, brake valves, control switches and line breakers just to name a few of the items. Some of these items range in cost from $2 each to $25,000 each.”

The trolleys will run with three cars initially, on a half-hour schedule Sunday through Thursday and a 20-minute schedule Fridays and Saturdays.

The trolleys will operate for free until May 14 and then the fare will be $1. Three more trolley cars will be added to service during May. Service to the Riverfront Loop and on Madison Avenue will be restored in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

PROPERTY SALES 61 61 6,453
MORTGAGES 46 46 4,081
BUILDING PERMITS 113 113 15,474
BANKRUPTCIES 19 19 3,289