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City of Detroit, Department of Transportation

1301 East Warren Ave,

Detroit, MI  48207

Robert Vandevort, Superintendent of Vehicle Maintenance

(313) 833 7676


The Detroit Citizens railway was the first urban vintage trolley project in the country, commencing operations on September 20, 1976. The line was implemented as a Bi-Centennial project, and was intended to help revitalize the downtown. Unfortunately, the area through which the line operated continued to decline, causing tourists to avoid the area. The 1987 opening of an elevated automated people-mover further hurt traffic. After a period of deferred maintenance, an effort was made in 1996 to rehabilitate the system, and restore operation to a daily basis. Today, the city has plans to add two stadiums, three casinos, office buildings and lofts to the downtown area and city officials are studying how the trolley may fit into this new development.


The original route was about one mile in length, later extended an additional 1/2-mile. It runs from Washington Boulevard and Grand Circus via Cobo Center to a point near the Renaissance Center Originally intended to be standard railroad gauge, it was decided to make the line narrow gauge in order to take advantage of the Lisbon streetcars that were available at the time (1976). Although seven cars were originally obtained, by 1996 only two remained operable. The 1999 roster lists nine cars, but it is not known how many are operable. The system does not appear to be accessible.


Originally running on a 10-minute frequency, it now runs on a 20-minute headway from about 8:00 AM to 5:30 PM seven days a week, using one car. Ridership is extremely low, with only 3350 passengers for the entire year of 1997. Unfortunately, as one official says: "The reason so few people ride the trolley or the people mover is because there are so few people downtown."

Operating Costs and Funding:

The 50cent fare covers only a small part of the $320,000 annual operating cost (1997). Motormen and conductors (a two-person crew is needed to run the open car most commonly used in the summer) are employees of the Department of Transportation, which runs the bus system. The Department’s Director believes the trolley is worth the cost.

Capital Costs and Funding:

The trolley was built as a Bi-Centennial project.

System Benefits:

Most people interviewed for a Detroit News article on September 3, 1998, article expressed the feeling that the trolley was potentially a positive addition for tourists and visitors to downtown

System Problems and Issues:

The major problem with the system is that it exists in a downtown that is largely bereft of people to use it. This is compounded by competition from a parallel $500,000,000 elevated automated People Mover (whose ridership has fallen 25% over the past ten years). A second issue appears to be that because the line was built hastily in order to be ready for the Bi-Centennial, it was built as a narrow gauge line in order to handle the available Lisbon cars, Subsequent proposals have been made to make the line standard gauge.


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