New Electric Buses Stand In for Trolleys 

The neon green buses cruising the downtown and Madison trolley lines weren't intended for use as makeshift trolleys. The new, eco-friendly hybrid-electric buses were intended to be used on the city's bus routes.

But that was before the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) temporarily suspended trolley service three weeks ago after a study into trolley safety recommended a complete renovation of the trolley system.

click to enlarge CHRIS SHAW
  • Chris Shaw

"Originally those bright green buses were going to be introduced in June to regular route and fixed-route schedules," said MATA spokesperson Ralph Berry. "The [green stand-in trolley] buses downtown don't even have the MATA logo yet because they were called into immediate action."

Fifteen green hybrid buses arrived in May, bringing MATA's total fleet of eco-friendly buses to 45. The new buses were supposed to replace 15 regular buses that were more than 10 years old. They're more energy efficient since their fuel ecomony is 25 percent better than that of traditional buses. They also create fewer emissions.

Now, six of those 15 green buses are acting as stand-in trolleys for at least three to six months. The other nine hybrids have replaced old buses. All of the green buses are scheduled for a new logo design to be applied this month.

Not only do the electric buses not provide the excitement of riding in a vintage trolley car, they are also unable to cover some of the exact trolley routes because the geography of the original trolley line isn't suitable for larger buses.  

According to a statement released by MATA, the temporary "trolley line" runs along Main between Central Station and the beginning of the Main Street Mall and then makes a loop on Front and Second to complete the circuit now covered by the Main Street Trolley Route. 

A Riverfront Loop service operates along Front and then down to Riverside and back up to the south end of Main. Much of the original Riverside Loop runs along tracks that cannot be navigated by a bus. 

After two trolleys caught fire in less than six months, MATA opted to have the American Public Transportation Assocation (APTA) do a full review of the trolley system. Their findings recommended a complete overhaul of the trolleys that have been running for the past 21 years.

MATA'S Interim President and General Manager Tom Fox said suspending the trolley system was a difficult decision, but he said it was necessary to ensure public safety.

 "Our first and primary responsibility is public safety," Fox said. "The review of the trolley system makes it clear that an overhaul or replacement of the current vehicles is inevitable, and there is no reason to delay. The report indicated that the system and basic physical infrastructure is strong, but the vehicles themselves have merely reached the natural end of their safe and efficient use without renovation."

The renovation to the trolleys will take three to six months. The APTA review recommended that existing trolleys undergo a complete "renovation overhaul" or be replaced all together. MATA is now examining the possibility of getting some trolleys back into partial service.

"If there are some cars for which it makes long-term financial investment-sense to rectify and get the trolley program up on a limited basis, we will do it," Fox said. "However, it is clear from the APTA independent examination that the only long-term solution is one that overhauls or replaces every trolley vehicle."

Berry insisted the trolleys will return to downtown: "The reaction we were getting from the general public to the announcement was that people thought the trolleys were gone forever, and that's not anywhere near true," Berry said. "MATA feels it's important for people to understand that the trolleys aren't going anywhere. We are just waiting to get enough up and running before we reintroduce them downtown."

Once the trolley system has been overhauled, the electric buses that are now running the trolley routes will be added to MATA's fixed-route bus system.

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