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Memphis and Galveston

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New Electric Railway Journal – Spring 1996

Heritage Trolleys in Memphis and Galveston

Van Wilkins

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 properties.

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 rail.

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 other streets.

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 Memphis Belle.

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.

Rolling Stock

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 Porto copies.

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 ends.

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 March, 1997.

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 preliminary stage.

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 trolleys.

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 transit system.

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 used.

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.

Rolling Stock

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 operators.

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 inflation.

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 Washington. 

Figure 1: Memphis Roster

Fleet Number

Year Built


















1940 (?)




M&MTB (Melbourne)










Notes:       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 Van WIlkins is also a regular contributor to Passenger Train Journal, Bus World and other transportation-oriented publications


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