MATA trolleys off the tracks for expensive safety overhaul

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — MATA said it will be costly to make safety overhauls to its fleet of trolleys, but replacing them could bring an even heftier price tag.

It could be as long as six months to perform the overhauls, an action MATA is taking after two trolleys were destroyed by fire.

One fire happened in November 2013, the other in April 2014.

The entire fleet of trolleys was shut down after MATA requested a system review by a panel of experts.

Those experts told MATA the systems trolleys don’t “have a lot of life left in them.”

People we talked with Thursday agreed they want the trolleys to be safe, but they miss being able to ride them.

At the Memphis Railroad and Trolley Museum at 545 South Main Street, toy trolleys clickety-clack on tiny rails.

“The only place that you’re going to be able to see a moving trolley in the next several months will be here at the Memphis Railroad and Trolley Museum, ” said Mike Fleming, President of the Memphis Railroad and Trolley Museum.

Fleming has a passion for trolley cars and the role they’ve played in the history of Memphis.

Thursday, he said he understands why MATA pulled them off the tracks after fire destroyed two re-built trolleys from Melbourne, Australia.

“There are some things I think that MATA can do to make these trolleys safer and keep them in operation for years to come. Because they are a great asset to the city,” said Fleming.

MATA said this week it’s taking the action out of safety concerns for passengers.

It could cost around $6 million to overhaul the trolleys and that process could take six months.

The option is replacing them at a cost of $40 million.

Some of the trolleys have been in service since 1993 and were re-built in Memphis after being purchased from places like New Orleans and Rio De Janero.

But Mike Fleming said the wood bodied construction that makes them so unique, also makes them vulnerable to fire.

“And they’re painted on the inside with polyurethane varnish and on the outside with enamel paint. And so if you have an ignition source that get’s them started, they’re going to burn pretty good,” said Fleming.

Fleming said he’s disappointed over the trolley shutdown because this weekend there are 250 out-of-towners in Memphis for The National Model Railroad Association regional convention.

Fleming said the convention goers were looking forward to riding the downtown trolley.

In the meantime MATA has put several bright green hybrid buses on the streets to run the trolley routes.

But some visitors to Memphis say it’s just not the same experience.

“We miss the trolley…it’s great for tourists,” said a couple boarding a MATA bus.

Outside The Majestic Grill, it’s a little quieter than normal since the trolleys stopped running.

James Huff, manager of The Majestic Grill, said he misses customers the trolley would drop off here, but he also misses how trolley operators would point out his

“As they were driving by they would say, ‘Oh, this is The Majestic, it used to be a movie theatre back in the 1900s’ and so on and so forth. And they would do that for all the buildings as they come up and down. So it was a good source of information for people who don’t come downtown a lot,” said Huff.

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