Memphis, Tennessee

From nycsubway.org


Melbourne W2-Class #417 on the MATA Riverfront Line at Beale. Photo by David Pirmann, June 2011.


Memphis, located on the Mississippi River, had streetcars until 1947, and their replacement, the trolley coach, was one of the largest such installations in the South. By 1959, even they succumbed to dieselization.

In the meantime, like many American cities, Memphis' downtown was in steep decline. In an attempt to revitalize downtown, Main Street Mall (also called Mid-America Mall) was created in the early 1970s. This did not stem the decline, but the city realized that lack of public transit on the mall was one reason the mall was underutilized. By the late 1980s, the mall itself needed to be reconstructed anyway due to pavement problems.

Studies showed that installation of a trolley line the length of the Mall would enhance the mall environment and be compatible with pedestrian usage. Accordingly, plans to build a 2.5-mile long, $33 million double-track streetcar route were drawn up, and construction began in May 1991. Nearly two years later, trolleys began operating in Memphis after an absence of over 40 years.

To provide the service, Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) decided on authentic historic trolleys. It purchased a number of ex-Oporto, Portugal 4-wheel cars from a dealer near Portland, OR, which had been built between 1909 and 1929, and six of the best ones were thoroughly rebuilt from top to bottom; four of them were ready for the line's April 26, 1993 opening. In keeping with the street the line operated upon, MATA chose the name Main Street Trolley for the new service and registered the name as a trademark. (After all, nearly every American city at one time had trolleys on its main street, didn't they?). Beale Street at the south end of the mall, with its blues joints, and the Convention Center and Civic Center on the north side, were popular destinations for the line's riders.

The service was an immediate success, and later in 1993, more trolleys were added. The new cars took the form of former Melbourne, Australia W2 trams, which were rebuilt with folding center entrance doors. The first of these came from Gomaco of Ida Grove, IA, and two MATA-owned cars were rebuilt in house.

Not only did the trolleys serve the Mall, but at both ends, they worked into neighborhoods which were in the process of gentrifying. Particularly on the south end, in the South Main Arts District, new development was spurred, providing Main Street Trolley with many residential riders as well as tourists. In the meantime, MATA planned extensions, and went about acquiring more trolleys. By 1997, the Riverfront Loop came on line, using a portion of the Illinois Central's River Line (today used only by local freights and Amtrak), and 4 more Melbourne cars, plus a new Gomaco 4-wheel demonstrator trolley, were added to the fleet. Another trolley, an ex-Rio de Janeiro, Brazil open car, was rebuilt in-house as a closed car, and three more W2s from New Orleans were sent to Gomaco for complete rebuilding.

The most recent major expansion occurred on March 15, 2004, when the Madison Avenue line, serving the Medical Center and the Midtown neighborhood east of downtown, began revenue service. Planning for this route began in the mid-1990s, and by 1999, federal funding was assured for this project. But before construction could begin, Baptist Healthcare announced the closure of its Medical District hospital and subsequent move to the suburbs. Nevertheless, because this was to be the beginning of planning for a modern light rail line, MATA went ahead and built the line out to Cleveland Avenue. The 2.5-mile route was built for $55 million, $20 million under budget.

Before Madison Avenue started up, the system was closed for a time in early 2003 to install the trackwork necessary to connect Madison Avenue to Main Street. This permitted conversion of the cars to pantograph operation, replacing the trolley poles, as well as a cosmetic and mechanical overhaul.

Service Patterns

Trolleys on Main Street and Riverfront operate from 6:00am to 11:30pm Monday-Thursday, 6;00am-1:00am Friday, 9;30am-1:00am Saturday, and 10:00am-6:00pm Sunday, with 10 minute southbound service on each route and 5 minute northbound service on Main Street (cars run on Riverfront southbound only). On Madison Avenue, trolleys operate 6:00am-11:45pm Monday-Friday, 6:00am-1:00am Saturday, and 8:30am-6:30pm. Service on Madison is every 10 minutes weekdays, 15 minutes Saturdays, and 25 minutes Sundays and Monday-Saturday after 6:00pm. Although all cars--single or double-truck--could be seen on Riverfront after the line opened, single truck car 1979 and the Oportos now operate up and down Main Street only, leaving Riverfront for the W2s and the oddball double-truckers, 453 and 1794. Madison Avenue sees Melbourne trams exclusively. Double-truck cars will run southbound on Main Street at times.

Combined ridership on Main Street, Riverfront and Madison Avenue is approximately 3300 weekday riders. Saturday ridership is often higher. A high of 16,282 riders was achieved on Saturday, May 8, 1999, the second day of the Beale Street Blues Festival.

The Future

Opening of Madison Avenue was the first step toward construction of a light rail line from downtown through southeast Memphis to the Airport. Already, a right-of-way has been purchased from CSX for this purpose, and the locally-preferred alternative route has basically been selected. Opening of LRT will release the five Melbourne cars used there for expansion of Main Street Trolley services.


MATA's Main Street Trolley is comprised principally of cars from Oporto, Portugal and Melbourne, Australia. The single-truck Oportos operate on Main Street exclusively, although they did operate on Riverfront initially. MATA numbers its cars according to the last number the trolley wore. In Oporto, the car numbers were 156, 164, 180, 187, 194 and 204, aged between 1909 and 1929. Each trolley carries a different paint scheme. 164 and 187, for example, are green and cream, but patterned differently. The Oportos had their vestibules lengthened to accomodate wheelchair users. Other Oporto cars, including two arch roof double-truck cars, were in the process of being rebuilt or awaiting renovation, but the project was halted in 1998.

The Melbourne cars, dating from 1925 to 1931, likewise carry their most recent numbers, which are 234, 1978 (ex-353), 417, 452 (ex-New Orleans 452, nee 626), 454 (ex-N. O. 454, Melb 478), 455 (ex-N. O. 455, orig. Melb 331), 539, 540, 545, 553. Melbourne 503, which came from Green Bay, WI, is undergoing renovation by MATA. All of the W2s except 417 were overhauled by Gomaco.

Rounding out the fleet are former Gomaco single-truck demonstrator 1979, ex-Rio De Janeiro open car 1794, converted to a closed car by MATA, and brand-new Gomaco double-truck Birney replica 453, built at the same time that the 3 ex-New Orleans W2s were overhauled.

Station By Station

Main Street Route

Main Street Trolley begins at the converted Greyhound garage north of downtown at Main Street and Mill Avenue. A single track runs down past the connection to the Riverfront line and crosses Auction Avenue and passing the MATA North End bus terminal before becoming double track just north of Overton Station (or "Landing", in MATA parlance) in the Pinch Historic District. The Pyramid is only two blocks away. Double track continues under the Marriott Hotel and past the Convention Center. From Poplar Avenue, trolleys have the street to themselves and foot traffic as they enter the Main Street Mall (or Mid-America Mall). At Civic Center Station, a Clock Tower has been erected and dancing fountains dazzle the passersby. Next, the line passes through some hotels and Court Square.

At Madison Avenue, tracks lead to and from the Madison Avenue line. For several more blocks, the trolley passes a number of stores, most of them bargain stores, until Peabody Place is reached at the south end of the Mall. Here, several old buildings have been renovated as upscale condo developments, and the new Peabody Place shopping center is nearby. After Peabody Place, the trolleys again mingle with motor traffic, and a stop at Beale Street is made, where riders can disembark and head over to the Beale Street blues joints and other entertainment venues, such as FedExForum. The beautifully-restored Orpheum Theater is located at Main and Beale. Following Beale, the trolley travels through the South Main Arts District and terminates at Butler Street, a block away from the Civil Rights Museum and the reconstructed Main Central Station, where Amtrak's City of New Orleans calls. The trolley reverses on single track. The trackage on the Mall is lined with shade trees. Strategically-placed crossovers permit short turns.

Riverfront Route

The Riverfront line curves off Main Street just north of Auction Avenue, and a signal guards the crossing of the Illinois Central Railroad's River Line (used by local freights and Amtrak). Trolleys run southbound only. Stops are made at the Pyramid, Monroe/Welcome Center, where people can take the Mud Island Monorail over to Mud Island, Union Avenue, Beale Street Landing, Huling Street, and finally, Central Station. The line is quite scenic, and serves many trendy restaurants enroute. North of Huling, the railroad curves away from the trolley line and the trolley route continues to Tennessee and Calhoun, where a number of old factories have been converted to lofts, apartments and condominiums. After the stop under the railroad at Central Station, the line reaches Main Street and the Riverfront cars will then run northbound on Main Street.

Madison Avenue Route

This line begins at Main Street, where a single track acts as both layover point and connection to Main Street. Trolleys can go either north or south at Madison and Main. Past the terminal, the line splits into double track. The line heads east, passing AutoZone Park (minor league baseball). At this point, the line swings across the Danny Thomas Expressway on trestles hugging the roadway. After stopping at Danny Thomas "Landing", the tracks re-enter the street and run along a non-descript neighborhood of small industries and businesses struggling to cope with the Medical Center situation. At Manassas, the street widens, and trolleys pass Forrest Park, where the original City Hall was located, and plunge (literally--the roadway dips here!) into the Medical District. The buildings on the north side of the street are mostly thriving institutions (the University of Tennessee Medical Center, for one), but on the south side of the street, Baptist Healthcare moved out of the city, leaving several large buildings sitting abandoned. Apparently, Baptist Healthcare made its decision to uproot just as final engineering for the Madison Avenue line was in process. In any event, these closures have sapped potential ridership for the line. Indeed, ridership is very low. Following the line's plunge through the Medical Center, it crosses Martin Luther King, Jr. Expressway (I-240) and passes the Southern College of Optometry before reaching Cleveland Avenue in the Midtown District. East of Cleveland, trolleys enter a stub end terminal flanked by double track for the proposed light rail route to the Memphis International Airport. In anticipation of LRT, catenary has been strung along the entire route.

Photo Gallery

Five Random Images

Image 35061

(180k, 720x478)
Photo by: Peter Ehrlich
Location: Madison & Main

Image 35064

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Photo by: Peter Ehrlich
Location: Union

Image 35074

(200k, 720x478)
Photo by: Peter Ehrlich
Location: Peabody Place & Main

Image 35092

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Photo by: Peter Ehrlich
Location: Marshall & Madison

Image 122136

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Photo by: David Pirmann
Location: Gayoso & Main

More Images: 1-50 51-100 101-150 151-183

Photo locations: Auction & Main, Overton & Main, Commerce & Main, Exchange & Main, Poplar & Main, Civic Ctr. & Main, Jefferson & Main, Court Square & Main, Madison & Main, Monroe & Main, Union & Main, Gayoso & Main, Peabody Place & Main, Beale & Main, Linden & Main, Vance & Main, Huling & Main, Butler & Main, G.E. Patterson & Main, Main & Madison, Fourth & Madison, Danny Thomas & Madison, Marshall & Madison, Orleans & Madison, Manassas & Madison, Forrest Park & Madison, Dunlap & Madison, Pauline & Madison, I-240 & Madison, Bellvue & Madison, Montgomery & Madison, Cleveland & Madison, Auction, I-40, Exchange, Jefferson, Court, Monroe, Union, Gayoso, Beale, Vance, Huling, Nettleton, Butler, G.E. Patterson/Calhoun

Memphis Suspension Railway / Mud Island Monorail

In addition to the heritage tramway operation, Memphis has a suspended monorail line which connects the downtown area at Front Street, to Mud Island, home of an entertainment complex, museum, and some residential units. The monorail consists of two cable-hauled, suspended cars underneath a pedestrian footbridge. The two cars shuttle back and forth at 7mph. The monorail begain operation in July 1982, but ceased operation "indefinitely" in July 2018.

Five Random Images

Image 160492

(236k, 1200x800)
Collection of: David Pirmann

Image 160493

(250k, 1200x800)
Collection of: David Pirmann

Image 160494

(233k, 1200x800)
Collection of: David Pirmann

Image 160495

(263k, 1200x800)
Collection of: David Pirmann

Image 160498

(224k, 1200x800)
Collection of: David Pirmann

More Images: 1-7


Official Site - MATA Transit. The official site of the Memphis Area Transit Authority, including schedules, fares, and more.

MATA (Wikipedia)

Memphis Suspension Railway (Wikipedia)

Page Credits

By Peter Ehrlich.

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