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Taking the trolley uptown

robert~ Urban renaissance so sweet ~

By Tom Burnett

Trolley, tram, or street car? Whatever you want to call those electric vehicles that roll around urban areas on tracks, they are making a comeback in many cities, perhaps most surprisingly in Dallas, Texas.

They say everything's bigger in Texas, and the city of Dallas has the biggest image in the state. Dallas is known for big men with big voices wearing big hats accompanied by women with big hairdos and driving big pick-up trucks or SUVs. Then there's the Dallas Cowboys, the DFW Airport and the four-lane highways that crisscross in huge "spaghetti-bowls" of concrete. In fact, the only thing the urban expanse they call "Big D" is definitely not known for its mass transit system. But on a recent trip, my wife and I discovered the uptown scene is pushing back against the trend to go big, the neighbourhood of McKinney has free trolleys to take you all around the Dallas Arts District.

The M line Trolley is operated by the McKinney Avenue Transit Authority. It is both a nostalgic tourist attraction and a public service to the residence of Dallas. The city considers it to be a moving museum of sorts. Restoration of the trolley system began in 1983 and the first cars started rolling in 1989.

THE TROLLEYS connect the arts district to the uptown shops and restaurants. Originally, the trolleys covered 4.5 miles with 12 stops and a one way trip took about 40 minutes. Work continues on restoring more trolley cars and extending the service. This year the M line has almost doubled its area of coverage. The trolley service feeds into the city's existing Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) bus and train service.

Trolleys, trams, street cars and cable cars have served urban areas for decades. The passenger service started as horse drawn carts on wooden rails. In 1827 San Francisco began to use an underground cable to move the cars along, hence name Cable Cars.

IRON RAILS STARTED appearing in cities around that same time. The rails made the ride more comfortable and a single horse could pull a much heavier load. The street cars were still drawn by horses in some cities as late as1905.

The era of electric trolleys began in Richmond, Virginia, in 1857. Other cities took note of the success of the smoke-free vehicles. The word trolley refers to the single stick like pole that reaches up from the top of the car to the overhead power lines. The electric pulses travel down that pole to the car.

IN DALLAS, the M Line Cars start their run from the 3153 Oak Grove Street station, where workers are happy to give you a free tour of the restoration works in progress. There we found a variety of cars, some dating back to the old Dallas system that was abandoned in the 1956 and others from as far away as Europe and Australia. In the 1980s when road work on McKinney Street uncovered tracks, a movement began to restore trolley service to the area.

We peered into the station house wondering if we would be chased out and one worker spotted us and said, "Hello there, come on in!" Thus began our unofficial tour by our unofficial tour guide named Robert. He is an artist by trade but volunteers his time at the M Line restoring the cars. He assured us that people wander up all the time, wanting to see the cars being fixed up and find out more about the trolleys.

ROBERT'S PRIMARY mission, he told us, is to paint the ornate names on the cars and keep them looking sharp. Robert showed us around the cars, the office and even introduced us to the M-Line mascot, a sleeping ginger-coloured kitty-cat. The tradition of keeping a cat in the station dates back to when a cat was necessary for pest control. Robert assured us the Trolley station does not have rats, but they liked the idea of keeping the old time traditions alive, besides she's a nice cat.

From the McKinney street station, we took a ride around the area. On that day, repairs were being made to the turntable at the end of the line. Normally, the trolley would roll onto the table to be swung 180 degrees and then move off in a new direction. Without the turntable, the operator had to perform a flip-around manoeuvre. He climbed off the trolley, loosened the wire at the front of the car and tightened the wire back on at the rear. This pulled the electric pick-up to the new front of the car.

handle He climbed back on, took his brass control knob from one end of the car, and walked to the other and was ready to continue the run. benchesHe asked all the passengers to stand up. The back of the wood benches was then pulled forward so to now face the new front. Everyone sat back down and the journey continued.

IN THE MODERN era, the street cars, the cable cars and trolleys were generally replaced by the bus. In Dallas, the trolleys stopped rolling in 1956 for several reasons. First, most of the cars were 30 years old. Second, urban planners were trying to establish a one way street system to help reduce traffic congestion, and more importantly local merchants wanted the trolleys removed from the centre of the road way so the newly claimed space could be turned into parking. Surprisingly, many cities reported the buses actually took longer to complete the routes than the trolleys had done.

renovationThe M-Line has many cars on the tracks or in restoration. Robert enthusiastically told us stories about each of the cars being restored in the workhouse.

Petunia

Number 636, Petunia was retired, put on blocks, and was used as a home, before being refurbished and put back on the track.

Emma

Number 7169, aka Emma, currently sports a green exterior. She was built in Brussels, Belgium, and is unique in that, instead of the traditional brass hand throttle to start stop and control speed, she has foot pedals just like a car. When Emma was first acquired, there was a standing joke she should be named Sprout. Yes, the green car would have then been known as the Brussels' Sprout!

Rosie

Number 122, Rosie is more than 100 years old. She was built in 1909 and featured two 600-volt 35-horsepower traction motors. Rosie was sent to Portugal. The 28-foot long car carried passenger there until 1978.

Green Dragon

The Green Dragon, Car 186, was built in 1913 and was run in Dallas for 43 years.

Car 186 is 42 feet long, 8 feet wide, weighs 21 tons and uses four 40-horsepower 600-volt DC motors. The Dragon spent her retirement as a hay barn in North Dallas.

matildaMatilda

Matilda, Car 369, is a big girl. At 48 feet 10 inches, she is one of the largest cars on the M-line. She was built in 1925 for the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramway Board in Melbourne, Australia. She carried passengers down under for sixty years before being purchased by the M-line in 1986. Matilda has a unique interior. She is divided into three sitting areas. The seats run longitudinal at each end of the car and transverse seating in the middle.

Betty

Car 754, or Betty, was manufactured in 1926 for Dallas Railway and Terminal Company. She is unique in that her doors are in the centre of the car. Most trolleys had one door at each end of the vehicle and they were placed on each side so passengers always exited to safety. Betty carried passengers for 30 years. The 48-foot long 54 seater was then retired and spent her golden years on a ranch of Ben Carpenter in Irving, Texas, as a child's playhouse. Carpenter, son of the president of Dallas Railway and Terminal, saved the trolley car from the scrap heap by donating it to the M Line. Betty would get a facelift that started in 2009, and was back on the tracks by 2014.

The M Line has many more cars with interesting stories behind them. Visit http://www.mata.org/ for more information about the Trolleys, route maps and schedules.

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