Progress on reestablishing trolley service to Memphis has been made over the past two months, but officials still aren't ready to announce a date for their return.
Two fires — both on the Madison Line — caused the still-ongoing shutdown of the Memphis trolley system. Trolley 452 caught fire in November 2013. Trolley 553 caught fire on April 7th. Both trolleys were burned beyond repair, and the entire system was shut down in June.
Industry experts were brought in two months ago to fully assess the trolleys, their tracks, and the maintenance and safety protocols that keep them running.
Nine rail and transportation experts logged more than 1,000 hours in Memphis through October and November, according to the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA). All of those hours have been dedicated to one purpose — bringing the rumble of trolley cars back to Memphis.
Ron Garrison, president and general manager of MATA, has made no promises about when the trolleys would be back. He's said that when the experts finish their assessment of the trolley cars and the system, MATA will publish a report of their findings. That report might include a timeline for resuming service.
So far, some of the experts have worked with MATA staff to develop the scope of work (the size of the entire project), and others have worked to make a list of the parts needed to fix the trolley cars.
Getting some of those parts has been the major hang-up in the process, according to MATA. Some of the trolleys are more than 100 years old. Parts are hard to find and sometimes parts have to be fabricated.
Still, progress is being made, Garrison said, but he's not yet comfortable putting a date on the trolleys' return.
"As we all knew when entering into this vital issue of ensuring the safety and long-term viability of the Downtown trolley, there would likely be steps forward along with scheduling challenges," Garrison said. "Each step forward moves us closer to the ultimate goal of getting trolleys back on the tracks and serving our Downtown."
Bringing the trolleys back is not as simple as fixing a few cars and making sure the tracks are straight. After the second fire in April, MATA brought in the first set of outside experts with the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), a Washington, D.C.-based industry group.
Earlier this year, the group issued a scathing report of the Memphis trolley system. It said the system was governed by "deferred, incomplete, or incorrect practices." This brought an "environment of higher risk ... resulting in an escalation in the number of incidents and accidents."
The system, according the APTA report, made for unreliable trolleys and, therefore, unreliable trolley schedules. MATA's practices, the report says, were below the average of "today's street railway industry."
In short, the report said the trolley system needed a complete overhaul. MATA and the new set of rail experts are now designing that overhaul, that is, what the trolley system should look like and how it should run in the future.
The immediate future of the system, though, will only include the Main Street Loop once the trolleys are back in action. The other lines, the Madison Line and the Riverfront Loop, will be added later as more of MATA's fleet of 17 trolley cars is approved for service.