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U.S. Streetcar Systems- Tennessee



Began Operation: 1993

Route Miles: 7

Stops: Main St: 12

Organization: Transit Agency

Schedule: Daily

photo: John Smatlak

The Memphis trolley system is operated by the local transit agency and currently transports more than 800,000 passengers a year over three lines radiating from the downtown area. Conceived as part of a plan to resuscitate a failing pedestrian mall in a fading downtown, the trolley has grown into an effective transit circulator system. The 2.5 mile Main St. Line line opened in 1993 and travels the length of Main St., linking the South Main and Pinch historic districts with numerous downtown attractions. The 2 mile Riverfront Trolley Loop connects together the two ends of the Main St. Line, primarily using a railroad right-of-way shared with Amtrak. The 2.5 mile Madison Line opened in 2004 and was intended as the starter line for a future light rail system. Service is offered 7 days a week, and the base fare is One Dollar, with a lunchtime fare of 50 cents. An all-day pass is available for $3.50, or a 3-day pass for $8.00.

Main St. Trolley: This double track line has .8 miles of track on an exclusive trolley/ pedestrian mall, with the remainder sharing the street with traffic. Boarding is at street level, via rather elaborate stations which project out from the sidewalk. Initial cost was $34.9 Million, $3 million of which was vehicle costs. Funding was 77.2% Federal, 7.1% State, 7.1% City and 8.6% private. In 1998, MATA completed its $5.4 Million North End Terminal project, providing parking and transfer facilities between bus and trolley lines.

Riverfront Trolley Loop: In 1997, another 2 miles of parallel line (with 6 stations) was opened, primarily on a double-track railroad right-of-way running along the edge of downtown close to the Mississippi River. One of the tracks is dedicated to MATA use, and the other to Amtrak. Riverfront cars operate in a one-way loop, using the Main St. Line as one leg of the circle. Project cost was $9.4 Million.

The infrastructure for both the Main St. and Riverfront lines is quite impressive. The .8 mile Main St. trolley/pedestrian mall features a track area covered with paving blocks and sidewalks paved with bricks in attractive herringbone patterns. A line of reproduction light poles runs down the middle of the street, also equipped with bracket arms to support the trolley wire. The tops of many of the poles are also equipped with lighting units that provide for night-time illumination of adjacent building facades. The steel and concrete waiting shelters are all built to a common theme, and present an attractive appearance. Benches, planters, information kiosks, and other pedestrian- friendly features line the length of the mall, and there is also a booming horse and buggy business. The “Main Street Trolley” logo appears on all of the stations on the mall as well as on the street signs themselves.

Equally impressive is all of the development going on around the trolley lines. On Main St., a great deal of commercial development is apparent along the tracks. Although there are still many vacant storefronts, there are also plenty of rehabilitated historic buildings as well as significant new construction. Along the Riverfront line there are great number of new homes in evidence as well as a flurry of loft conversions underway in some truly incredible historic industrial buildings. The Memphis Center City Commission values the current building boom at over $2 billion dollars.

Madison Avenue Line: In March 2004, MATA opened a 2.5 mile extension on Madison Avenue, connecting the existing downtown system with the Medical Center complex, thus linking the city’s two largest employment centers by rail. The line operates in mixed traffic along Madison Avenue generally on tracks located in the inside travel lanes. The extension included two major bridge projects. The first was comprised of two new rail-only bridges at Danny Thomas Blvd. (one on each side of the existing street bridge) and the second was a reconstruction of the existing bridge at I-240, with tracks placed on the bridge. The line adds six new stations and a small park-and-ride facility at the eastern terminus. Five of the six stations are located in the center of the street, and all feature platform based lifts to accommodate wheelchairs.

The Gomaco Trolley Company won a contract to refurbish three additional vintage trolleys for use on the line, and to supply one new replica trolley. An upgrade to light rail vehicles is planned when the new LRT system comes on line. The project is proposed as the last segment of the downtown rail circulation system as well as the first segment of a regional light rail line.

Total cost of the Madison Avenue Line was $60 million with eighty percent (80%) of the funding provided by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the remaining 20% split between the City of Memphis (10%) and the Tennessee Department of Transportation (10%).

Equipment: Service is provided with 18 rehabilitated cars imported primarily from Portugal and Australia, as well as two replica cars. There are six single-truck cars from Oporto, Portugal, ten double-truck cars from Melbourne Australia, a single- truck Gomaco replica car, a double-truck Gomaco replica car, and a double-truck car rebuilt by MATA from a former Rio de Janeiro open car. Each of the cars is painted in a unique paint scheme.

ADA Accommodations: The entire system is ADA accessible. The ex-Melbourne cars, with their wide center section doorways, lend themselves very well to ADA access, which is accomplished via high-level island platforms on the Riverfront Loop, and wayside lifts on Main St. and Madison Avenue. In order to accommodate wheelchairs inside the relatively narrow ex-Oporto cars, a substantial rebuild was required. The cars had their platforms modified to achieve a level floor inside the car. All cars are equipped with a steel plate to bridge the gap between the floor and the wayside lift or platform.

Main St.

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photo by John Smatlak 2001, all rights reserved 

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St. Mall, One horsepower meets 200 h.p.
theatre, Main
St. at Beale
St. retains a number of historic storefronts, including the
beautiful Kress building.
decorative paver treatment along the mall
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with the Madison Ave. Line
of the more elaborate station designs along the mall
Main St. Line passes directly in front of the Convention Center
in the Pinch District at the north end of Main St.
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car on South Main

Oporto car
on South Main. The National Civil Rights Museum is located one
block away.

car departing the south terminus. The Arcade restaurant (where a
young Elvis is said to have eaten) in the background

South end of
the Main St. Line. Railroad station in background. Riverfront Loop
curves off to right.

Photos: John Smatlak 

Riverfront Loop

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along the Mississippi River shared with Canadian National and
station on the Riverfront Loop.
freight rolls by alongside the trolley line. Two to four trains
use the line each day. 
truly striking industrial buildings line the south end of the
Riverfront Loop.  
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Station stop, just prior to rejoining Main St.
to swing onto Main St.
through former industrial buildings now adopted for lofts.
sign near Central Station announces yet another condo project.

Photos: John Smatlak 

Madison Ave.

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Madison Ave. from Main St.
Madison in the Downtown area.
Downtown shot.
eastbound car about to climb the bridge over Danny Thomas Blvd.
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to crest the top of the bridge.
at Danny Thomas Blvd.
station in the middle of Madison Ave.
along Madison- note the catenary type overhead construction.
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adjacent to the end of the Madison Line.
car has just turned back at the end of the line and is about to
enter the Cleveland Station.

Photos: John Smatlak 

News and Updates:

12/22/00: MATA has advertised for bids on design and manufacture of special trackwork for the Medical Center Rail Extension Project.

01/01/01: A full funding grant agreement for the 2.5-mile, six-station Medical Center Rail Extension Project was signed by Acting Federal Transit Administrator Nuria I. Fernandez in Memphis on Dec. 12. The project, expected to cost $74.7 million, will run along Madison Street between Main and Cleveland and will serve an expanding commercial, office, and government employment area and a new minor league baseball stadium. described the trolley as a key link between two of the city’s largest employment centers, downtown and the Medical Center neighborhood to the east. The FTA will contribute 80 percent of the cost, or $59.7 million, with the state and city each providing about $7.5 million. Source- Rail transit Online, January 2001

09/01: The contract to rebuild MATA’s recently acquired ex-Melbourne cars has been awarded to the Gomaco Trolley Company, along with an order to build a replica double-truck Birney car. The replica car is being piggybacked onto Gomaco’s order of 8 cars for Tampa. The Memphis version will be very similar to the Tampa cars, except that the air conditioning will be omitted, which will mean the reappearance of the more traditional roof vents. Delivery is anticipated in late 2002 early 2003. This will be the second Gomaco replica car in Memphis, joining a single truck car acquired in 1993. Source: Gomaco Trolley Company

11/01: Hill Brothers Construction Co. of Falkner, Mississippi, was low bidder for the contract to build the new Medical Center extension. Hill Brothers’ bid of $23.7 million, one of only two submitted despite nationwide advertising, was significantly lower than Memphis Area Transit Authority’s estimate of $27.6 million. Once the MATA board affirms the contract, the electrical work will be subcontracted to Haines Electric Co., a Memphis firm that outfitted the original trolley line. The trolley may be the first link in a regional light rail system — a feasibility and route study on a corridor connecting downtown with the southeastern suburbs was approved by MATA’s board last January. Source: Rail Transit On Line

2/7/02: The Gomaco Trolley Company website has been updated with a comprehensive set of photos detailing their current rebuild of three former Melbourne streetcars for Memphis. Well worth a look.

2/13/03: Main Street Trolley Closes for Upgrades and Expansion. The MATA website ran the following press release detailing the temporary closure:

Memphis Area Transit Authority will close the Main Street Trolley™ (Sunday, January 5, through mid-March 2003) in order for special track work to be installed at the intersection of Main Street and Madison Avenue. During this time, a bus shuttle service will operate parallel to Main Street for the convenience of trolley patrons.

Posters will be placed in storefronts and other key points downtown to show the route of the shuttle service, and MATA’ website will offer timely updates about trolley developments ( The special track work is part of MATA’s Medical Center Rail Extension project, which will extend the trolley system 2.5 miles eastward from Main Street to Cleveland Street. The extension will be completed in early 2004.

During the shutdown of the trolley system, MATA will be busy enhancing the existing trolley line. The Authority will retention the existing system’s catenary wires (the overhead power lines) and will retrofit the trolleys for pantographs (devices that will ease reversing the power when the trolley comes to the end of the line). That work will take about 60 days during the period when work on the rail extension is underway. For more information, please call Alison Burton at 901-722-7100.

The MATA website is also running a series of items detailing their efforts to mitigate the impact on local businesses from all the construction activity.

7/17/03 Medical Center Extension Update- The following post on the Light Rail Transit Memphis discussion group provides a nice update on the progress towards completing the Medical Center Line:

Construction work should be finished in October, 2003. Remaining work includes :
1) track construction between Dunlap St. and Pauline St., and around the Danny Thomas Blvd. bridge
2) overhead wire installation throughout the length of the project
3) station construction at six locations
4) construction of the park-and-ride lot near Cleveland St.
5) installation of signal equipment for the Main/Madison intersection
6) re-paving and re-striping of the street between Main St. and Pauline St. (Pauline to Watkins has already been repaved).

Except for track construction, the remaining work should not be very disruptive to the traveling public or businesses on Madison Avenue. In November, MATA will begin testing the system. In early 2004, training of operators will occur. Service will begin on March 16, 2004.

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11/03/03 Medical Center Extension Update- The November issue of Rail Transit Online carried the following report:

The Medical Center trolley extension is being completed substantially under budget, according to new figures just released by Memphis Area Transit Authority General Manager William Hudson. The original budget for construction and acquisition of five vintage streetcars was $74.6 million but Hudson now says he expects to finish the project for just $55 million. When asked by The Commercial Appeal what led to the lower costs, Hudson replied, “Good contracts. Good bridge contracts. Good rail contracts. Equipment contracts.” He said MATA’s experience with contractor Hill Brothers Construction of Falkner, Mississippi, was very positive. “A lot of good contract negotiations and good people to do business with,” Hudson told The Commercial Appeal. The 2.5-mi. (4 km), six-station segment from the existing Main Street line to just beyond Cleveland Avenue was 90-percent completed by mid-October, and Hudson is forecasting a March opening. On Oct. 15, a ceremony was held marking completion of track installation as the last two sections of rail were welded together. The trolley may be the first link in a regional light rail system — MATA is working on plans for a line to Memphis International Airport — and any money saved during construction of the Medical Center extension could be applied to future construction (Source: Rail Transit Online).

In other Memphis trolley news, production is well along at the Gomaco Trolley Company on the new replica trolley car ordered by Memphis. Work is also nearing completion on all three of the Melbourne W-2 type trolleys that Gomaco is rebuilding for Memphis, with the first car already shipped to Memphis. Plenty of pictures are available on Gomaco’s website of the whole process.

Medical Center Extension Opens- The April issue of Rail Transit Online carried the following report:

A two-mile (3.2 km) extension of the Memphis Area Transit Authority’s five-mile (8 km) downtown trolley loop opened on Mar. 15. The new link, which cost $56 million, runs along Madison Avenue to the city’s medical center and also serves the new FedEx Forum. The project was completed on time and $19 million under budget. Despite a light rain, several hundred people were on hand for the ceremonial first run of car No. 453, which broke through a banner and carried elected officials and other VIPs from Cleveland Station to downtown. “We’re not building this just for tourists,” said MATA president William Hudson. “We’re building it for all of us.” The celebration also included a week of free rides on the entire trolley network. MATA expects weekday ridership on the extension to increase from 2,100 this year to 4,200 by 2020. Source: Rail Transit On Line April 2004

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December 2004 Updates- The APTA Vintage Trolley & Streetcar Task Force concluded its year-end meeting with a visit to Memphis on December 5. MATA staff gave a presentation which included a system history and a review of the construction of the Madison Avenue extension. The presentation was followed by a tour of the system on board MATA’s new Gomaco replica car.

In addition to the new trolley line, it was obvious that major development work has also come to fruition around the trolley line over the last few years. The area around the southern end of the Main St. / Riverfront Lines continues to sprout new housing and loft conversions.The Beale Street entertainment district now features a new baseball stadium (AutoZone Park), a major new sporting arena (the Fed Ex Forum, the new home of Memphis’ NBA team), and a major new entertainment complex in the form of Peabody Place.

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Northern end
of the Main St. line

to turn off of Main and onto the Riverfront Loop

Interlocking, where the Riverfront Loop crosses Amtrak.

Along the
Riverfront Loop

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Loop, the Memphis Pyramid in the background.

the southern end of the Riverfront Loop, the trolleys pass the
driveways of many new homes

Danny Thomas
Blvd. Station on the new Madison Ave. line.

Photos: John Smatlak 

December 2010 Update- The Madison Ave. line has been closed since September 13, with buses substituted for the streetcars.