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Metamorphosis on Main Street

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The New Electric Railway Journal – Summer 1993

Metamorphosis on Main Street

Don Scott

Memphis:  Beale Street, W. C. Handy, the blues, Elvis. A tourist attraction in its own right, the cotton capital of the South is the latest recruit to the ranks of the heritage trolley.

Green and cream Porto DE ST car 164 leaves the north end of the Mill Avenue car barn.


The long-awaited main street trolleys of Memphis made their debut this past April 29 and April 30, with numerous speeches, a banner-breaking, a show of bands and street performers and other festivities.

Free rides were offered to the public the first few days. The Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA), the provider of local bus service, placed four beautifully restored, single-truck, double-end trolleys from Porto, Portugal, into service and carried some 7,000 riders the very first day.

Even on Saturday, May 1, when this reporter came into town to ride and photograph the new service, crowds were waiting at every stop, and the tiny trolleys (just thirty feet long, less than eight feet wide, and with two-and-one seating) were jammed with standees. Ridership was high even on this first day of fifty-cent fares (a two-dollar all-day pass is in the offing).

The craftsmanship of the fleet’s restoration was admired by many. Decorative wooden scrollwork, shiny brass fittings, new leather straps for standees, and a gleaming handbrake wheel complemented the cars’ attractive exteriors.

Cars 164 and 187 are livened in green and cream, though each in a different style. Car 194 is in basic maroon (and difficult to photograph properly in the weekend's gloomy weather), while car 204 sported a bright yellow finish.

Most of the 2.5-mile-long line is in the middle of Main Street, but in some places the tracks are separated and run along the curb. The elaborate green trolley stations (“landings” in local parlance) project out from the sidewalk so that waiting passengers can step directly into the trolleys without danger from auto traffic. The line has ten of them, every few blocks in each direction. “Main Street Trolley” signs and banners were in abundance.

Various textured surfaces line the tracks, sidewalks and the ten-block Main Street Mall, which is dosed to auto traffic. It was evident that much planning and construction had gone into the trolley line infrastructure. The $33 million investment was heralded as the long-needed link for connecting many of Memphis’ downtown attractions. Further expansion of the trolley system is planned, eventually to blossom into a full-fledged light rail empire.

The operable, refurbished trolleys are housed in an attractively renovated building at North Main and Mill Avenue; a single track leads into the carbarn, with two pit tracks inside. Another eight cars yet to be renovated (including two ex-Melbourne double-truck W2-class units, 1234 and 417) are at the MATA garage, 1370 Levee Road at Watkins. Two double-truck Porto cars, 266 and 208—the latter barely a shell—are across the street. Some cannibalization and replication of parts will probably be necessary if plans for a total fleet of twelve operable cars for a future loop through downtown are to be realized.

Following the completion of the proposed loop returning back along the riverfront, MATA has plans for a new line down Madison to the medical center area. After that, the Authority has a long-range proposal for a $400 million light rail system from downtown to eastern Shelby County.

Included in the expansion plans is the renovation of Central Station, at the south end of the present trolley line at Main and Calhoun. Presently Amtrak’s local facility; the complex would be transformed into a multi-modal transportation structure for the trolley, local and intercity buses, Amtrak and taxis. The $18 million project is scheduled for completion in the fiscal year beginning July 1,1994.

Don Scott is a retired newspaper writer (for the Pulitzer organization) who is active in Citizens for Modern Transit, the St. Louis light rail advocacy group. He has studied mass transit since 1940, and has ridden and photographed virtually every light rail system in North America. This is his second feature article for TNERJ; his MetroLink construction photos have graced several previous issues.


Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) Main Street Trolley

Service Hours:

Monday - Thursday


8:00 p.m.














Regular fare:

50 cents



Lunch hour:

25 cents*



All-day pass:




Monthly pass:




Six-month pass:



*one-way 11a.m. - 1:30p.m., Monday through Friday

Route:  2.5 miles along Main Street from Auction Avenue on the north end to Calhoun Avenue on the south end.

Power substations:   600-volt DC overhead, supplied from two MLGW rectifiers

Equipment:  Average speed is 8 miles per hour. Cars are double-ended for two-way operation








Melbourne W-2


8/6 under const.

2 (future)

2 (future)


30 ft. 6 in.

38 ft. 6 in.

47 ft. 10 in.


7 ft. 10 in.

8 ft. 2 in.

8 ft. 4 in.


12 ft. 2 in.

11 ft. 6  in.

10 ft. 6.5 in.

Empty Weight

25,820 lb.

34,650 lb.

39,580 lb.






23; 15 standing



Year Built

1912-40 (r/b)



System Design:   Hnedak Bobo Group; Allen & Hoshall Engineers

Construction:    FLINTCO (Memphis); Hensel Phelps (Little Rock); Sanders & Harvell/Bailey

Contractors:   Construction Company J/V (Memphis)

Substations:   TAM Electric (Memphis)

Trolley Restoratian: Mid-America Trolley Company

Capital Budget:  System construction cost is $30 million; vehicle cost (10 units) is $3 million

Funding: Federal 77.2%; Tennessee 7.1%; Memphis 7.1%; private 8.6%


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